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The Best Starter Houseplants & How to Care for Them

August 19, 2015

Life-long plant whisperer Caroline Lange shares her love for houseplants—and which are easiest to care for.  

BK plants
Some of my plants at home in Brooklyn

Part of my affair with houseplants comes, I’m sure, from my mother, a landscape designer whose own houseplants trail their leafy arms along two thirds of the surfaces of the house I grew up in. She nurtures a wide range: herbs in neat pots, fuzzy African violets, amaryllis, Christmas cacti, philodendrons drippy with fat leaves. 

Just a few of mother's plants

My own collection began as a way to remedy the starkness of my college dorm rooms. Plants are mostly cheap, widely accessible, and very, very green—which is a refreshing contrast to dingy linoleum tiles, standard-issue pine dorm furniture, and college in New York. Plants are a happy reminder of the outside when your daily world is the intersection of the very gray Venn Diagram of college and New York. 

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My plants are from all over—some gifts, but mostly collected one by one from IKEA, plant stores, street fairs, the farmers market, or even the grocery store. I’ve never spent more than $10 on one, and yet they’re the things that most make my home feel like home, whether in a dorm or in the apartment where I live now. Smaller plants fill up empty shelves and windowsills, while larger ones will make an empty corner lush. They also soften sharp corners, and make a space feel lived in and loved. All you need is a little bit of light.

More: These five no-kill houseplants are great for first-timers. 

dorm plants
Most of my plants crammed onto the one windowsill in my dorm room

Work on your green thumb with these inexpensive starter plants:

  • Succulents, aloe, and cacti: Keep them in a sunny spot and water them thoroughly—but only when the soil is completely dry, every week and a half or so.
  • Philodendrons: These only need partial sun (and are even happy in a room without a lot of light, like my current bedroom), and are very forgiving if you forget to water them for a while. But try to water weekly—they’ll perk right back up.  
  • Snake plants: Similarly forgiving, snake plants (also called mother-in-law’s tongue plant) only need a little water. Let them dry out between waterings and keep them in the sun.
  • Ferns: These like partial sun and a lot of moisture, so the bathroom is a good place for these guys if it has a window. Water often—at least once a week.
  • Spider plants: Spider plants grow quickly and very happily in partial or full sunlight, watered once a week. Like philodendrons, the plants will go limp when thirsty but will spring back with water.
  • Bamboo: It is nearly impossible to kill them. Happy in shade or sun, all they really need is a lot of water—keep their roots wet at all times. 

What houseplants have you had success with? How do you keep them happy? 

Photos by author

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • lori benet
    lori benet
  • jay
  • Emily Qualey
    Emily Qualey
  • Abhilasha Singh
    Abhilasha Singh
  • Smaug
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


lori B. August 29, 2015
Thank you for your valued information. My kids call me the Green Thumb lady because I love any type of plant and have them scattered all over my home and my outdoor balcony & they all seem to be thriving. So. Calif is having a heat wave with temps in triple digits so I have been keeping a very careful eye on all of the outdoor planters ~ Snake Plants ~ Mother-in-Law Tongues ~ I would like to comment on this because I have been growing my plants for years without ever placing in direct sun ~ Since moving several times over the years and repotting, dividing into individual planters, my plants are thriving ~ indoors and outdoor patio/balcony ~ I have never used fertilizer on them and water only when the soil feels very dry ~ at present, they are indoors, right next to the patio window in filtered sun and are lush green and gigantic. Your comment advised to "keep them in the sun" ~ I "lost" several by placing in "direct" sun years ago, and went through trial and error before I learned what these plants prefer.
jay August 28, 2015
Your plant suggestions are great! PLEASE, if you have pets, especially cats, who love to nibble greenery,, CHECH FOR TOXICITY. Some house plants, even in small nibble bits, can make your curious pet very ill, or even dead!
Caroline L. August 28, 2015
SO important. thank you for this reminder!
Emily Q. August 21, 2015
A few years ago, after moving into a new apartment, I asked for plant cuttings as house warming gifts. My favorite, which has now moved with me three times, is a purple shamrock, which is a delightful plant that is incredibly forgiving.
Abhilasha S. August 20, 2015
Araucaria or fake Christmas tree is ideal. Doesn't need too much looking after. Ixora is another one very sturdy with cute cluster of flowers.
Smaug August 19, 2015
Succulents is a descriptive term for a huge variety of plants, including among them aloes, cacti and sansevieria (snake plant). Many of them, including the largely crassulaceous plants common in general nurseries, plant exchanges etc. can survive poor conditions, even as houseplants, but good growth habit and coloration can often only be achieved by very bright light including UV (largely blocked by glass), and flowering may require all sorts of things, including very specific dormancy requirements. There are also a lot of succulents that are quite difficult to grow, but you usually have to search those out. Much the same can be said of ferns, a large group of plants that can be very tricky, though those common as house plants aren't- that's how you get to be a common house plant. I have found bamboo growing in crawl spaces where the sun has never shone- they are mostly pretty difficult to kill, though I can't say I've ever thought of them as house plants- most are way too big, for one thing.
Sarah J. August 19, 2015
Thank you for inspiring me to invest more in plant care and collecting!