Welcome to Your Home Outdoors, our summertime series on tips and tricks that'll help you live your best life outside―no matter the size of your space! So pull up a chair, grab a glass of something icy-cold, and join us.
Some people find tranquility through meditation or stretching or unplugging. Others cook or sharpen knives or knit for inner peace. And then there are those who look at pictures of plants on Instagram to achieve those elusive moments of calm.
Luckily for plant people, we’ve got options: There’s The Sill, of course, and there’s House of Plants and House Plant Club, sharing gorgeous, plant-filled interiors. For cacti there’s Hot Cactus and Succulent City and Earth Wind and Cactus. There’s the Amsterdam-based Mama Botanica and the Cairo-based Behind the Seeds and the Montreal-based Jonathan Lefrançois and the Australian Wet My Plants.
But it was through the beautiful The Potted Jungle that I came across the die-hard plant care account of That One Plant Guy, who shares his vast knowledge of plants to help everyone grow their best and leafiest houseplants...and realized that this world of Insta plants is much more serious than my casual self-soothing scrolling revealed.
“That One Plant Guy” is Nick Benscoter, a Spokane, Washington, horticulturist who has been obsessed with plants since he was young. “My mom had lots of houseplants when I was a little kid, and my stepdad was really big into gardening so he always had me and my brothers out in the garden,” he says. “My grandpa had a really big garden and an orchard down in Pullman, Washington, and that was always a lot of fun—I was outside most of the time at grandma and grandpa’s house.” When Nick got out of the Navy, he went back to school to study horticulture, and now he shares his obsession with his clients and his thousands of followers. Nick’s posts may not be as stylized as his fellow plant ‘grammers, but each one is a wealth of detailed information about caring for houseplants, whatever you’re growing.
I spoke to Nick to get the dirt on caring for houseplants, from how to choose a plant to watering and sunlight to, well, dirt itself.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin: When you’re at a nursery looking to acquire a new plant, what are the characteristics you’re looking for?
Nick Benscoter: A healthy-looking plant! You walk into a nursery and you don’t really see too many unhealthy-looking plants because they’re not going to sell unhealthy-looking plants, right? If I’m looking to buy a plant I’m going to inspect it all up and down for insects, for spider mites and thrips and aphids and mealybugs and scale. You can tap on the pot a little bit and see if any fungus gnats come out of the soil and fly away. You have to ask, “Are there any insects on the plant that I don’t want to take home with me?”
SWS: When you’re choosing pots for your plants, there are so many options. What are qualities to look for in a pot that will make it a hospitable condition for a houseplant?
NB: One of the things I like to look for is a pot that’s got lots of drainage holes. You think of a terracotta pot, it’s just got one hole on the bottom and that one little hole doesn’t expose very much soil to air, just the little circle of soil directly above the hole. I like pots that have between 15 and 20 drainage holes at the bottom. That allows for the atmosphere to touch all those different parts of the soil so air can flow easily into the root zone from the top of the soil and the bottom of the soil. The fewer holes the pot has, the more restricted the airflow is going to be through the soil.
SWS: Speaking of soil, what do you recommend that people keep in mind when looking for houseplant soil?
NB: It’s gotta have a really chunky, grainy texture. If the soil particles are too tiny then oxygen has a hard time passing through the soil and reaching the roots, especially when it’s really wet. You can always ask a person at a store to touch the soil; I shop at a local organic hydroponic store and they’re really nice people and every time I’ve ever wanted to touch and feel and examine the potting soil I’m interested in, they’ll cut the bag open and let me dip my hand in there so I can feel it. People should ask for that. I always recommend getting an organic potting mix, preferably one that’s got larger chunks of perlite, some larger pieces of tree bark, a chunky, fluffy mix.
SWS: When repotting plants, is there one major mistake that you think most people make?
NB: Uh huh! That would be repotting your plants into a pot that’s too big. It’s important when you repot a plant to get an idea of how big its root system is and then put it into a pot that gives the roots about two inches of soil in all direction around the roots—so two inches of soil below the roots and 2 inches of soil around the root ball. Let’s say your plant has a 6-inch pot size root ball on it and you were to pot it in a 15-inch pot and then wet the soil really well so that every square inch of the soil is wet. It’s going to take forever for that soil to dry out, and the longer soil stays wet and soggy the higher the chance of bacteria and fungus growing in the soil. Always try and repot a plant into a pot that’s a suitable size that leaves approximately 2 inches of soil around the roots in all directions.
SWS: In terms of watering, what are your best tips for keeping houseplants happy?
NB: It’s always important when you water to make sure that you’ve got all the soil in the pot wet. Let’s say when you’re watering you skimmed over one part and you didn’t notice, you thought you got the whole pot wet. Well if that soil ends up drying out it starts to become hydrophobic, so the next time you go to water the plant that really dry spot in the soil won’t absorb water very fast. It takes a long time for soil that’s extremely dry to rehydrate again. A lot of people send me pictures saying, “What’s wrong with my plant?” and I’ll ask them, “When was the last time that you inspected its roots?” I’ll have them take the plant out of the pot and a lot of times people find that even though they just watered it the other day there’s a big chunk of the soil that’s bone dry.
So it’s important to make sure that you water the plant well every time that you water. Each plant likes to dry out to a certain point before it gets watered again. It’s always easier for a plant to recover from being too dry for too long than staying wet for too long and developing a bacterial infection because that’s harder to reverse than wilting.
SWS: There was a story in Architectural Digest about how everyone wants to put their plants on their windowsills but that’s really the wrong thing to do. What do you think about that advice and where do you think plants should live in a home, generally speaking?
NB: I have to frequently remind people that plants live outside. We’re the ones that brought them inside and they would prefer living outside if they had the choice. Some people will hear that a plant is a low-light plant, and think they can put it 15 feet away from the window where the sunlight never touches its leaves, not even for a second. Plants need the sun. A lot of people on Instagram promote indirect light and to me, indirect light is the absolute minimum amount of light a plant will tolerate. Most low-light plants are short plants and they grow underneath a canopy of taller plants, so it makes sense that they’re going to get speckled sunlight all day.
When it comes to putting a plant in a windowsill I don’t see anything wrong with it, as long as the plant can tolerate full sun. It all depends how they’re biologically inclined to grow. If you’re going to move a plant towards a window or in a window, start with an east-facing window so the plant can get that gentle light early in the morning. That way you can acclimate a plant to brighter light slowly over time. It’s all about knowing what your plant can tolerate.
What’s your best tip for keeping houseplants happy? Let us know in the comments!