Home Decor

My Mom Says You’re Taking Care of Your Indoor House Plants All Wrong

There isn’t one right way, either.

July 11, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

I call my mom’s house the “plant hospital.”

Like many millennials, I love nothing more than a trendy houseplant—yes, I’m looking at you, fiddle leaf fig trees. However, I often get in over my head, purchasing hard-to-look-after plants that quickly decline into critical condition under my care. On the brink of death, these poor plants are rushed to the “plant hospital” for revival and rehabilitation.

I’ve always been in awe of my mom’s seemingly supernatural ability to nurture plants. When I bring it up, she says she has decades of experience with them—first as a plant science major in college, then as a florist, and eventually owning her own business—but she definitely has somewhat of a magic touch.

The best part is she makes caring for plants look so easy—and she swears it is easy. However, she warns that a lot of the plant tips you find online are far too generalized and idealistic to be immediately successful. So, what should you follow? Here is her guide to having a more realistic approach to plant care—it could end with you killing fewer plants this year.

Not All Plants Will Love Your Home

Have you ever bought a beautiful new plant and treated it like a queen, only to have it wither and die? My mom says you have to accept that not all plants are going to thrive in your home—and it often has little to do with you. It depends a lot more on the environmental conditions like light, temperature, and humidity.

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Top Comment:
“And this poor plant is horribly neglected - I water it pretty much once every month or 2, forget to fertilize it (I only just bought fertilizer after having it for well over a year and half - it definitely perked up a bit afterwards), have it in a spot that gets pretty much zero sunlight. And it always looks fantastic.”
— Reed K.

“Most green plants are tropical or subtropical, so they come from warm, humid weather,” she says. “To bring them into our houses and put them in air-conditioned or heated conditions is a traumatic transition.”

She says that, in particular, people assume they’re bad with plants because they can’t keep “easy” succulents alive. What they don’t realize is there often isn’t enough light indoors for succulents to thrive, especially in the Northeast. She prefers to put her succulents outside in the summer—and they’re happy as can be. In the winter, they come back in, and always look the unhappier for it.

The good news here is that you’re not necessarily the reason your plant dies! The bad news is that not every plant species you fall in love with is going to return the affection.

Put Your Plants Where You Can See Them

To give your plants the best chance of survival, you need to think carefully about where you place them. A good place to start would be to follow the lighting recommendations on the plant tag (assuming it has one).

My mom also recommends putting it somewhere where you’ll see it daily. “Don’t put it someplace that falls in your blind spot, or you’ll forget to water it,” she recommends. Putting plants up high up on shelves or in the guest bedroom, for instance, isn’t the best idea—they’re too easily forgotten.“ Instead, place them some place you’ll see every day, like on the back of the toilet tank. No, seriously!”

She also doesn’t subscribe to the idea of putting plants on window sills with direct sun: “It just gets too hot, and most plants will end up cooking.” In fact, she says that very few plants will thrive in direct sunlight—most are happy with several hours of indirect light.

Take the Guesswork Out of Watering

When I get a new plant, my first question is always, “How often should I water it?” Pretty much every time, my mom will reply, “When it needs it.”

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to how often you should water a plant. The same plant in your house and my apartment may have drastically different needs.

Many people like the test of sticking your finger in the soil to see if it feels dry, and while this can be helpful, my mom warns that doing this too often will compress the dirt. Instead, she says just to watch your plants closely—the leaves will often change color slightly and start to droop when the plant needs water.

Watch your plants closely—the leaves will often change color slightly and start to droop when the plant needs water. Photo by Julia Gartland

If it’s a cactus or succulent, you’ll want to make sure you’re letting the soil dry out completely between waterings. You can tell the dirt is dry because the pot will feel significantly lighter.

My mom has another cool trick: She uses what she calls “indicator plants”—species that give clear indications that they’re drying out—to let her know when she needs to water.

“I use spider plants in pots with my other plants,” she says. “When the spider plant starts wilting, the soil is getting too dry.” She says that peace lilies are another useful indicator plant—if your peace lily is drooping, it’s time to water the plants in that room.

Plants Don’t Care How Much You Spend on Fertilizer

A lot of people spend top dollar on organic fertilizers, but my mom maintains the type of fertilizer you use doesn’t really matter—provided you’re not eating the plant! She learned in college that plants can’t tell the difference between synthetic minerals and “organic” ones.

“I fertilize my houseplants with whatever we have,” she says. “I like Miracle-Gro, but people tend to prefer organic, all-natural stuff. That type of fertilizer stinks if you bring it into the house, and watch out if you have pets—they’ll dig it up. Save the fancy stuff for your outdoor plants or ones that bear produce.”

How often should you apply fertilizer? She says it all depends on your goals: “If you want your plants to grow bigger, give them a weak solution of fertilizer every time you water them.” Otherwise, she says once per season is plenty.

Don’t Repot Right Away

When I bring home a new plant from the store, a lot of times I’ll give in to impetuosity and repot it right away. However, my mom says this change, coupled with the shock of a new environment, can often kill the plant.

“People make the mistake of buying big trees like ficus or fiddle leaf figs, and repotting it right away,” she says. “They’re going to go into shock and drop their leaves. You have to let them adjust—and then repot.”

Once they appear to be bouncing back, you can go ahead and repot them. Her golden rule is that you “never repot into a planter with no drainage holes.” If you do, water will sit in the bottom of the soil, causing root rot.

Make Peace With Your Brown Thumb

Some people just aren’t good with plants, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The good news is, you can still enjoy having live plants in your home.

“One way is to just treat plants like cut flowers,” she suggests. “A lot of times they’ll live for a month and then they die. You just go out and get new ones—and try to make sure they’re inexpensive. If that works for you, that’s OK.”

Who knows? You might even find one that does thrive in your home. Despite the odds.

Accept There Are No “Right” Answers

At the end of the day, my mom says plant care is kind of like parenting. There are a lot of tips, tricks, hacks, and suggestions out there, but there’s no one right way to take care of houseplants.

“You can ask 10 different plant ‘professionals’ the same question, and you’ll get 10 different answers,” she says.

It’s about what works for you and your plants. If you’re doing something that goes against all the advice you’ve ever read, but it’s giving you good results, just keep doing it!

What is a trick you use to stay on top of your plant care? Let us know in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • linds
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    Reed Keyes
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linds July 19, 2019
What are those gold stands that are in the top image that help plants grow upright?
Kellie D. July 19, 2019
I love this article! I've definitely had to say no to my "dream plants" because they just won't work in my current home situation (here's looking at you fiddle leaf fig). But more than all that, please, PLEASE tell me where to get those beautiful brass plant stakes are in the opening picture! Perfect balance of form and function if you ask me.
Reed K. July 15, 2019
The zz plant is the only plant I've ever had that I not only managed to keep alive but actually thrived in my care - to the extent that I had to divide it into several different pots after about 2 years! And this poor plant is horribly neglected - I water it pretty much once every month or 2, forget to fertilize it (I only just bought fertilizer after having it for well over a year and half - it definitely perked up a bit afterwards), have it in a spot that gets pretty much zero sunlight. And it always looks fantastic.
Arati M. July 17, 2019
ZZ plants are the best. Mine's thriving, too, under less than optimal conditions (oops did I just jinx it?).
M July 11, 2019
Best tip I have is to not marry yourself to the care tips for the plant. Almost all plants I had that were struggling started thriving when I ignored the tips and just put them where I wanted them, and didn't stress about watering. I have shade plants that love the sun, moisture-loving plants that thrive only when they dry out completely, etc.

And don't assume any tip will definitely work. I have a handful of thriving spider plants in a dry-to-normal space, and not one has ever limp-alerted that it's time to water.
Stuart G. July 11, 2019
Why is she misting a crassula?
Smaug July 11, 2019
No reason not to, but in particular it can help discourage mealy bugs, which can be a real pest indoors, particularly on succulent plants. Root mealies, which thrive in dry soil, can also be a major problem indoors, by the way, particularly if you don't thoroughly soak the soil when you water.
Prabhakar July 11, 2019
Do not do not water the plants excessively but water regularly
Smaug July 11, 2019
Direct sunlight depends- I fully agree that placing a plant right behind a window can be dangerous, just too hot. But this depends a lot on latitude. Farther south, your eaves will usually protect windows from direct light in the hotter months, though west windows can still be a problem later in the afternoon. But farther north, the sun angle is lower and you're more likely to get direct light behind windows, the sun's intensity is lower too, however, and heat is a lot less of a problem.