First Base: Houseplant Care Guide

Most of the plants that have become popular houseplant choices became so ubiquitous because of their minimal care requirements.

From succulents, to cacti, to tropicals, plants in the houseplant section have been selected because of their adaptability to a typical indoor environment.

Often, people have the false belief that plant care requires a special kind of attention or person: a so-called “green thumb.” However, most common houseplants require little more than occasional water and fertilizer inputs.

1. Plants crave an approximation of their native environments

An example: many species of orchid—like the “moth” Phalaenopsis orchids that are often sold in supermarkets—are epiphytes. “Epi-” means “upon,” and “-phyte” means “plant.” in their native environments of Southeast Asia, these plants grow on tree branches under the canopy in humid forests.

Knowing this, it is easy to intuit how to care for an orchid: mist the plant to create humidity, never leave it in standing water (as it wouldn’t encounter those conditions on a tree branch), plant it on bark instead of soil, and don’t put it in direct sunlight.

Thus, while orchids have a reputation of being difficult to care for, most of this reputation comes from indoor gardeners who don’t know what an orchid’s native environment looks like. An orchid won’t grow in a sunny window in rich black potting soil like a basil plant would, though this environment may superficially seem like the best choice.

Learning the basics about where in the world your plant is from goes a long way towards keeping it healthy and beautiful.

2. Too much love is as bad as too little

A common houseplant care mistake is in being a little too conscientious. Out of fear of parching their plants, new houseplant owners sometimes drown them instead. Or out of fear of starving them, they overfeed them to the point of burning or scalding them with an acidic high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Conditions that are too moist or too nutrient-rich can facilitate the growth of fungal and bacterial pathogens, and damage plants in a way that allows these pathogens entry into plant tissues.

So remember, all good things in moderation.

3. That cute container? Drill holes in it

With all the online tutorials about terrariums, mason jar gardens, and succulents-in-a-mug, if would seem that you can just pop a plant in any old container and it will thrive. To make matters worse, many cute containers sold in garden and hardware stores aren’t equipped with drainage holes.

In an anaerobic or non-oxygenated environment, bacterial pathogens are much more likely to thrive, causing the bane of every container-gardener: root rot.

The best way to avoid this is to let roots breathe. Repot plants occasionally, and never pot them in a container without drainage holes.

4. Bugs aren’t inherently bad, but they multiply without predators

In an outdoor environment, plants live in an ecosystem of insects, gastropods (snails and slugs) and arachnids (spiders). Some of these are harmful, some neutral, and some beneficial. Inside, however, the only insects that tend to flock to plants are pests, and in the absence of predators, they thrive.

So with any houseplant, take action early on in any infestation with simple preparations like soapy water. Further, when bringing home a new houseplant, keep it quarantined from your other plants for a few days until you are sure it isn’t hosting a potential population bomb of harmful critters.

5. Don’t be afraid to prune

Everyone wants a big, bushy, healthy-looking houseplant, and it would seem counter-intuitive that pruning would be a way to accomplish that goal. However, everything from pruning out old leaves and stems to occasionally clipping away old roots while repotting can stimulate vigorous, healthy new growth.

So if your plants start looking a little tired, give them a haircut and watch them grow back with a vengeance.