How Not to Kill Your Houseplants

Growing tips and plant suggestions for the horticulturally challenged.

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August 18, 2017
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Choose Good Plants From the Start

Inspect all new plants before you adopt. Look for bushy plants with good color. Avoid plants with browning or yellowing leaves, plants with exposed roots and check for any signs of pests. Remember that even advanced gardeners may fall prey to this in an attempt to save a lonely, wilted plant; however, the odds are if it doesn't look good in the store, it probably hasn't been taken care of properly.

Know Your Potting Soil

Though most plants will do just fine in a potted plant soil mix, others — like succulents and orchids — require a special potting mix. At the store, look for cactai and succlent mix and orchid bark. Don't use garden soil, which is intended to be mixed into existing soil in gardens outdoors.

Put Plants in the Right Place

Bigger plants, like this palm, need plenty of room to grow while smaller plants, like the diffenbachia and alstroemeria, will do fine in smaller pots. Planting in the wrong size pot or overcrowding can quickly lead to rootbound plants with a short shelf-life.

Drainage Is Key

Always make sure your pots have drainage. For ornamental pots without drainage holes, repot the plant in a slightly smaller plastic container, then set it inside the ornamental pot. Use a saucer or other dish (clear plastic serving plates are great for large pots) to prevent water from spilling out onto surfaces.

Know Your Lighting Needs

Most houseplants will be happy in indirect sunlight, but note that some houseplants need more light than others. This philodendron grows best in medium to bright light, but also tolerates low-light conditions. Always read the plant tag, or do research on your plant to learn its lighting needs.

Plants Get Chilly, Too!

window can quickly lead to the demise of your beloved plant. "Consider your plant's natural habitat," says Veronica Peerless. "Plants native to the rainforest floor won't enjoy a sunbaked windowsill."

Don't Overwater

"Incorrect waterings is the main reason that houseplants die," says Veronica. "Particularly overwatering." For most plants, the soil should be moist but not soggy, which could lead to plant death, pests and disease. The easiest way to tell if your plant needs water is to stick a finger an inch into the soil — if the soil feels dry, it's time to water. When watering, keep this phrase in mind: "the leaves aren't thristy, the soil is." When water splashes the leaves, it can lead to marks and rotting. Try using a long-spouted watering can (like the one pictured above) to give the water a direct route into the soil.

More Tips: The Proper Way to Water Your Garden

Don't Underwater, Either

If you notice your plant's leaves are drooping, or if the plant has completely wilted, it may be due to a lack of water. Also note that some planter materials are more prone to drying out than others — terra cotta, for example, is more porous than plastic and dries out quicker.

Feed Your Plants

Most potted plants require some type of fertilizer. Read up on how and when to fertilize your plant, and feed it with a balanced plant food or a specialized plant food, if necessary. Peace lily, for example, will thrive if fertilized monthly from spring to late summer.

Groom Your Plants

Keep your plants looking their best by removing spent flowers and any yellowed leaves. Deadheading flowering houseplants, like this African violet, will encourage more blooms and prevent dead petals from falling onto the foliage and rotting. Many plants, especially those with big, waxy leaves, are prone to collecting dust — gently wipe them down with a large, soft cloth. For plants with fuzzy leaves, use a paintbrush to dust.

Check for Pests

Different plants attract different types of pests. The dracaena above is prone to spider mites; they're hard to see with the naked eye, but you'll probably be able to see small webs on the plants. Knock the mites off with a gentle spray of water from the kitchen sink, or put big plants in the shower. If the pests keep coming back, use an insecticidal soap or neem oil. Pests are more likely to attack unhealthy plants. Make sure your growing conditions are ideal, and the pest problem might resolve itself.

Check for Disease

If you see spots, mold or rotting, your plant might be in trouble. Like with pests, many houseplant diseases are due to improper care. Mold and rot are often caused by overwatering or splashing leaves during water; while powdery mildew on plants is likely caused by overcrowding or underwatering.

Repot It

Congratulations, your houseplant is going places! It's time for a larger pot if you see roots curling around the edge of the potting mix. Don't go overboard — a pot that is an extra 2 inches in diameter should be big enough.

See More Photos: How to Repot a Houseplant

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