Common Houseplant Questions, Answered

Common Houseplant Questions, Answered

Growing houseplants has been a hobby of mine for the last few years; I've amassed quite a collection with over 85 different species and well over 100 individual plants. It's a peaceful hobby that brings me a lot of joy. When I'm not tending to my plants, I'm reading about them or swapping cuttings with fellow plant lovers.

Whenever I share a plant tour it prompts a lot of curious questions. I'm often asked about my plants, how I care for them, what plants I recommend, where do I buy them and how do I keep them healthy and happy. In this post I'm answering the most frequently asked questions about houseplants from beginner tips to useful tools.

Beginner Tips

Don't buy a bunch of plants all at once. I know it's tempting to fill a cart with plants from IKEA but it's a really terrible idea, here's why: it's overwhelming trying to care for a dozen plants adequately when they all require different things to thrive–particularly if you're new to the hobby. It's better to add plants into your home gradually so you can care for them properly. Also: don't buy plants in winter.

Choose your plants wisely. Learn about the plant you want before buying it. I know it's difficult to pass up a cute plant when you see one but at least Google care instructions before you buy it. You can't expect a plant thrive in an inadequate environment; if you don't know what it needs, you're taking a big risk bringing it home.

Stop mothering your plants. Killing plants with kindness is the most common reason for them dying. As much as you want your plants to feel loved and cared for, it's best to admire them from afar and be cautious about over-watering. It's better to under water than over water, which requires stepping back and leaving them alone.

Learn about growing conditions. Knowing what light conditions are and understanding signs of plant distress is half the battle of keeping your plants alive. Learn about your plants, what conditions your home offers, and how to treat common problems.

Learn about plant pests; how to identify them and what to do to get rid of them. Pest attacks are less common indoors but let's not get complacent about them. Any infestation that gets overlooked or out of hand can result in the death of multiple plants.

Some plants are temporary, deal with it. Knowing this will help with the heartbreak when your favourite plant dies. Tropical plants weren't meant to be grown in our homes; you might be able to keep them alive for a few years but the chances are they'll succumb eventually. Other plants, such as painted sansevieria and cacti with googly eyes, are novelties rather than long-term houseplants.

What plants are good for beginners?

Cacti and succulents are the obvious choice as are spider plants and snake plants, but if you're asking me I think they're quite boring and not at all exciting to care for. My suggestion would be to opt for a more interesting looking plant that's just as easy-going. Here are my favourite plants for beginners:

  • Aegagropila Linnaei (Marimo Moss Ball)
  • Fittonia (Nerve Plant)
  • Tradescantia (Spiderwort)
  • Zamioculcas Zamiifolia (ZZ Plant)
  • Epipremnum aureum (Golden Pothos)
  • Pilea peperomioides
  • Monstera deliciosa
  • Yucca

What plants are good for low light?

If you're thinking of putting any plant in a windowless room and expecting these to survive, think again. Quite a few plants can handle neglect and even low light conditions but any room that gets no light at all will always kill off the plants in it eventually. These plants are hardy things and won't might dim corners:

  • Aegagropila Linnaei (Marimo Moss Ball)
  • Zamioculcas Zamiifolia (ZZ Plant)
  • Aspidistra elatior (Cast Iron Plant)
  • Chlorophytum comosum (Spider Plant)
  • Sansevieria trifasciata (Snake Plant)
  • Chamaedorea elegans (Parlour Palm)
  • Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreen)
  • Epipremnum aureum (Golden Pothos)
  • Dracaena
  • Yucca

What plants are good for an office?

If you have little control over the conditions your plants are going to be living in, stick to hardy plants like the ones listed above for beginners and low light conditions. If you have a bit more control over temperature and lighting, try your hand at some of the more interesting pothos and philodendron varieties. If you really want some plant life in your office and you have virtually no light at all, marimo moss balls are curious little things that are low maintenance and nice look at.

Common Houseplant Questions, Answered

I always kill plants, why?

The most likely reason is you're over-watering them. Other reasons include: you haven't picked the right plant for the right spot, there's too much or too little light, it's too hot/cold or there's not enough humidity, or you live in an area with hard water, which is slowly killing your plants. Unless you have several dozen, you don't need to tend to your plants every day. In fact, there's more chance you'll kill them with kindness that way. It's important to know what each plant wants in terms of light, temperature, and humidity, and make sure you're meeting those requirements.

Did you buy your plant from a big box store? Maybe IKEA or Homebase? If so it's likely your plant is actually two or three or possibly even four plants in one pot–lucky you! Mature plants cost more money and take longer to grow so many large retailers pot up more than one plant in a pot to make them look bushier. This doesn't tend to happen with independent sellers who grow and sell healthy mature plants for more money. The trouble comes when, after a few months have passed, the plants are overcrowded and start competing for room in and outside of the soil. This most noticeable example of this is with monstera deliciosas. If you're wondering why your plant grows straggly and hasn't developed any of the large beautiful split leaves that are their trademark, check the pot and you'll most likely see more than one plant competing for room, keeping the leaves small.

The solution is easy. If you want your plants to thrive, after bringing them home let the plants settle in and adjust to their surroundings. After a week or so, split the plants up and pot them up separately; only do this in spring though. The result will be smaller, less impressive specimens but you'll have healthier plants in the long run–and more of them.

How do I know when to water my plants and how much?

It all depends on the plant and the conditions in your home, which is why it's important to know what your plant needs and how your home environment affects that. The temperature in your home, air flow, sunlight, season and even the soil type can influence when you need to water your houseplants. To avoid over-watering and killing your plant with kindness, always follow the rule of watering only when your plant is dry (unless it's a plant that loves wet soil, of course).

Never water your plants on a schedule; always check the soil before watering. I recommend reading about the specific houseplants you own (or any you’re considering buying) and remember what they like in terms of watering. Some plants prefer smaller more frequent waterings while others prefer a big drink every week. Most common houseplants are fine with tap water and others need distilled water. It's beneficial to water all plants with lukewarm water as cold water can shock the plant.

If you're terrible at over- or under-watering your plants, a useful tool for you would be a Moisture Meter. It's a probe you stick in the soil to see how wet or dry the plant is. It can be a real plant-saver!

My plant is drooping / has yellowing leaves, why?

Are the older leaves yellowing and are fresh leaves still growing? If so, it could be the natural aging process. Plants will drop older leaves as they produce new ones, it's nothing to worry about.

If the older leaves are drooping or browning and new growth has slowed or stopped completely, it’s likely you’re over-watering. Other signs of over-watering limp, soft leaves with poor growth and brown leaf tips. Check the soil, is it soggy or damp? Let it dry out and keep an eye on the plant. Signs of under-watering are limp and wilted leaves, little or no growth, flowers and older leaves die and fall off.

If you’re certain over-watering isn't the problem, it could be that the plant is sat in a spot that's too sunny or too dark. If the older leaves are growing in smaller or losing their variegation, the stems are elongated, and blooms are non-existent, your plant needs more light. If the leaves are brown or scorched, have a washed out appearance, and the plant looks shriveled, the problem is too much light. Check the light and humidity requirements for your plant and find a better spot for it.

Check the leaves, stem, and soil for any pests that may be causing your plant to struggle. Mealy bugs and fungus gnats are the most common problems but you plant might also be suffering from scale, red spider mites, or thrips. All of these pests can cause your plant to show signs of distress on their leaves.

How do you prevent/deal with flies and fungus gnats?

You'll never prevent them completely although there are a couple of tricks to deal with them effectively. I've heard covering the top layer of soil with gravel helps prevent flies laying their eggs, I've never tried it though as I don't like the look of gravel in plant pots. I've found regularly raking the top level of the soil–perhaps once or twice a week–with a fork is rather effective. If you notice you have an infestation, fly traps containing apple cider vinegar and a drop or two of washing up liquid (to break the surface tension) works well. Alternatively you can use paper traps. I cut these into smaller strips and discreetly hide them in the pots. An odd trick I've found to work remarkably well is lighting a Tesco White Linen and Orchid Candle as a trap for the flies. Peculiarly this is the only candle I've found to work in this way, it's also made from glass, so low waste, and vegan-friendly!

How do I get plants to trail along a wall?

Hooks and tape. You can use sticky removable hooks–these from IKEA don’t pull the paint off when you remove them–so even in a rented apartment you can trail your plants. Washi tape works well; plastic tape works better and if you have a few rolls lying around it's a good way to use them, which is what I've been doing.

What soil do you recommend?

It really depends on the plant! I've found potting soil, coir (coconut fibre), and sphagnum moss have been sufficient for caring for the majority of my plants including the more uncommon and rarer species.

Common Houseplant Questions, Answered

What books, blogs, or YouTube channels do you recommend?

If you only buy one book make it The House Plant Expert by D.G. Hessayon. It's a fantastic reference guide that covers everything you need to know about caring for plants and troubleshooting problems you'll encounter. On The Ledge podcast is fantastic for learning about houseplants.

What tools do you recommend?

If you own a few plants, you need nothing more than a method for watering your plants and the appropriate soil to repot them with. If you're keen to make houseplants your hobby, a few tools will come in handy. My essentials are in italics.

  • Watering Can (large watering can)
  • Thin Spout Watering Can
  • Spray mister
  • Weather Station
  • Moisture/Light/PH Meter
  • Humidifier
  • Garden scissors
  • Mini pruners
  • Heat mats
  • Grow lights

Where are the best places to buy plants?

I prefer to buy plants from private and specialist sellers. You'll pay a more reasonable price and get a better plant for your money, although perhaps that's a most suitable option for collectors rather than the average plant-admirer. Supermarkets and home improvement stores have cheap plants just be prepared for them to be weaker specimens that need a little more TLC to thrive. Independent stores, online and offline, will have healthy plants with a mix of common and uncommon specimens. Expect to pay more for better quality plants and the knowledge of the sellers who will be able to give you as more information as you need about your new purchases. They'll also be keen to help source plants for you if you're struggling to find a specific variety. Other places to buy plants include botanical gardens and specialist plant shows.

I'm happy to answer any plant questions you might have,
let me know in the comments!

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Common Houseplant Questions, Answered