How to keep house plants alive 101: everything you need to know

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I come from a long line of plant killers. I carried on that proud tradition for a long time – well into my thirties.

I don’t know what changed exactly – I think it must have been the sheer amount of time spent on Pinterest looking at home decor ideas – but I suddenly decided to watch Jenna Marble’s plant tour.

Now, I’d not watched Jenna Marbles in a while. A good couple of years. For no reason other than…I hadn’t.

But something made me click on a 30 minute video of her showing off her plants.

And I changed.

Just like that.

It may work for you. Click here to watch her INCREDIBLE video. It has everything – even a dog fight (the funny kind, not the desperately sad kind).

I was inspired. Not because of how many plants she had, any particular she owned, or even the way they all looked together.

It was Jenna that inspired me.

She fucking LOVES those plants. And it inspired me to love mine too.

And now I have dozens of plants and I’ve only lost one. YESSSS.

We have a lot to get through, so on we shall crack.

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1 – Assessing your house

Unless you live in a cave with no light at all bar when you open the door, you will have somewhere that a plant can live.

Honest.

I promise.

Should you only have one spot suitable for a plant then have a look at the light. Is it near a window? On top of a book case? In a cold spot?

Be honest. You’re not going to be able to keep a monstera alive in the back corner of your living room, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a big-leafed, statement, Instagram-worthy plant for a dingy corner. As long as it has some natural light (and maybe a lamp), you can find a plant to suit.

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2 – Choosing your plants

Bright windowsill (east facing)

Pretty much anything you fancy. Most plants will thrive in bright, indirect light. East light is great because the sun hits in the morning when the rays are weaker.

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Bright windowsill (south or west facing)

If you put up a sheer curtain, this is suitable for most plants.

If you don’t want to put up a curtain, then you’re going to be looking for desert plants – ones that can withstand the harsher west light.  If you live in a hot country, then be aware that even cacti can burn, though it’s never been a problem for me, here in the UK.

Cacti and succulents are great for bright, hot windowsills. If you have a big space to fill, go for an aloe, or massive cactus (think about how long you’re going to be living in your home though – cacti are an arse to move).

If you want something large but none spiky, how about a rubber plant?

If you want something small and pretty, consider an African violet.

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Bright, indirect light

If you have a bright area a couple of feet from the window, again, you can pretty much get anything, bar cacti and succulents that really like the bright light and cool winter temperatures.

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Medium light

A lot of plants like medium light – think of rainforest plants that live on the forest floor, such as ferns and calathea. Vining plants like pothos and philodendron also like medium light. A lot of plants can survive in medium light but won’t thrive and grow as they could.

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Low light

There aren’t many plants that can thrive in low light – plants need light for energy – but there are a couple. ZZ plants are perfect for low light areas and beginner plant parents because they’re nigh on impossible to kill and they put out growth even in low light.

Pothos and snake plants can also survive in low light, but they won’t get as full or grow nearly as quickly.

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3 – Buying your equipment

Once you’ve bought your plant, there’s not really anything else you NEED in order to properly look after your plant, but there are a few things that will make taking care of your new charge a lot easier:

  • A watering can (I use an old teapot, and a jug with a spout will do
  • A moisture probe – they’re only a few quid and they take the guesswork out of watering. Water cacti when it gets to number one, and everything else at two or three. Done.
  • Tray to soak orchids or bottom water – I use an old rabbit litter tray to soak ferns and orchids, and bottom water any plants that don’t have big enough saucers
  • Hygrometer – a new addition for me, but a good one. It displays the temperature and humidity, so it helps pick out a good spot for humidity-loving plants like Calathea.
  • Humidifier – I don’t have one (don’t need one -my house is damp af), but the only surefire way of controlling the humidity in your room
  • Spray bottles – I have one with just water for misting, and one filled with water, but with vinegar and dish soap added to use as an insecticide. You can use a tiny bit of neem oil (a pea-sized amount) mixed with water as an insecticide too. I’m currently trying this out since I have a minor case of mealybugs. I read somewhere that neem oil doesn’t remain effective for long when mixed with water, but Planterina uses it, and her plants all look incredible.
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4 – Picking a spot for your plant

It’s possible to put a plant pretty much anywhere if you’re willing to make adjustments. For example, if your preferred spot is too dark, you can add grow lights, too dry, get a humidifier etc.

However, in the interests of keeping things easy, it’s best to keep low light plants in low light, and plants that need bright light on windowsills.

As well as matching the needs of the plant to the spot, it’s also super important to make sure that you’re not putting the plant somewhere where you’re never going to look at it, such as on top of a bookcase, or in the spare room, or really anywhere you don’t walk past fairly regularly.

I mean, if you’re a very diligent plant parent that will regularly schedule plant time in which to go and look at your charges, then, by all means, put your plants wherever you want. But if you’re likely to forget about them, then put them in your eye line OR somewhere that guests will see them – you don’t want your friend thinking you’re a bad plant parent do you?

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5 – Watering basics

The easiest way to get to grips with giving the right amount of water is to invest a tenner or so in a moisture probe – plants won’t adhere to a rigid watering schedule, but you can.

Every few days, go around your plants and probe them all. Water the ones that need watering, and leave the others alone, making a note of how dry they are, so you know how long you can leave it before checking again.

As a general rule of thumb, plants that live in the desert can go longer without water than ones that originate from the rainforest. Plants that live on the forest floor need more moisture than ones that live closer to the canopy.

Whether you top or bottom water is up to you – I personally prefer bottom watering because it doesn’t compact the soil – click here to read the article I wrote detailing the pros and cons of top vs. bottom watering.

I do top water sometimes because it’s generally more convenient and it helps remove some of the mineral deposits, but it does most plants good to have a good soak every now and again.

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6 – Humidity basics

A hygrometer is another great investment that’ll only set you back a few quid. If you like plants like cacti, succulents and forgiving plants like the more common philodendron, then don’t bother – your plants will probably be fine.

I, however, have recently developed an obsession interest with calathea, so I got a hygrometer to ensure my tips remained sexy, not crispy. Turns out my house is humid as hell. Yay for the calathea, not so great for us. Oh well.

The reason plants like humidity is that it mimics their natural environment, i.e. the rainforest.

If your house is dry as hell and you don’t want a humidifier, then go for desert plants, like cacti and African violets.

If you’re willing to get a humidifier but only a little cheap one, then you’ll be fine with Monstera and vining plants, but may struggle with Calathea.

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7 – Light basics

Plants use light to create energy. They need it to survive.

You can save as many ‘THESE PLANTS CAN SURVIVE WITH 0 LIGHT’ posts on Pinterest as you like, but no plant can survive in the dark.

Even those that can survive in low light conditions will grow much faster if exposed to bright, indirect light.

Very few plants can take bright, direct light without getting sunburned, even cacti, unless you expose it to them gradually. If you have super bright windows, then consider covering it with a sheer curtain. I live in the UK, so it’s not exactly a problem for me.

My living room gets good, gentle east light, which is marvellous in summer, but winter’s creeping up o I’ve invested in a grow light for my dingy back corner. It’s uplighting my philodendron (Golden Dragon, Green Wonder, and Pedatum) wonderfully. They look evil af but also really cool.

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8 – Temperature basics

Not many house plants enjoy being below about 10ºC/50°F. And that’s a bit too cold for most, but I’m hoping mine survive it.

Desert plants don’t mind a bit of a cold snap. In fact, cacti, in particular, are used to freezing temperatures, and may even require them to properly grow and produce flowers and all that gumph.

Succulents can also endure freezing temperatures – to the point where you can keep them outside in UK winters as long as you keep them dry. The cold doesn’t bother desert plants, but the wet will kill them quickly.

Keep your less hardy plants away from windowsills in winter (if you’re planning on trapping them between the curtain and the window), because a little pocket of cold air can form between the curtain and the glass and kill them. Cacti should be fine there.

Too hot a room can also kill plants – not that it’s really a problem for me here in sunny North Yorkshire. Warmer temperatures can lead to a decrease in humidity, so your moisture-loving plants may suffer.

Your plants will predictably need watering a lot more in hotter weather, and you can mist them to cool them down if you like.

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9 – Pest control

Pests are kind of inevitable – damp soil will attract a lot, but dry soil can attract spider mites, so you need to have some kind of plan in place before you get an infestation.

I personally use homemade bug spray (neem oil or dish soap & vinegar mixed with water). It’s not as harsh as a chemical killer so you may need a few applications, but it’s less harmful to your plant, you and any pets you may have. If you have a pest problem, I have an article on identifying and getting rid of them. Click here to read it.

Fungus gnats are the most common problem for me, which I more or less eliminated by doing mostly bottom watering and getting carnivorous plants. There are still a few hanging around, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever get rd of them all.

I currently have an aphid issue, which annoyingly enough started on my Sundew (which is carnivorous) and has spread to a string of pearls and a sprouted avocado pit. The string of pearls has had a hard life – when I bought it it was so overwatered that there was a mushroom growing in the pot. I spend a bit of time picking the aphids off, and they seem to be diminishing in numbers.

What I really need to do (and would recommend you do) is schedule bug spraying into my diary. The neem oil is beneficial to plants because it kills the bad bugs and leaves the good ones (except bees, so be wary about using it outside), so I need to remember to spray them every week or so.

What would be exceptionally good practice would be to clean the leave of my plants after I spray them with neem oil. That would improve the plant’s ability to absorb light and make the leaves lovely and shiny.

Maybe that’ll be my new year’s resolution.

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10 – Repotting

I have a whole in-depth article on repotting if you’re interested – click here to read it.

Because I already have a full post on it, I’ll just leave a few quick-fire tips for you here:

  • Don’t repot a plant unless it needs repotting
  • Reasons for repotting are: a) the pot is too small and roots are protruding or b) the plant needs to have its soil changed due to disease, root rot, or chronic overwatering
  • You can make your own repotting mix from coir, bark, perlite, charcoal, moss, and fertiliser such as worm castings.
  • If you buy potting mix, make sure it’s designed for houseplants, and always mix in some perlite to help with drainage.
  • Buy specific potting mixes for orchids, cacti & succulents, and carnivorous plants if you’re unsure of what to use
  • Terracotta pots are a great option for over waterers, since the porous clay allows water out and air in.
  • Use ceramic pots for plants like Calathea that like to be kept moist and plants with delicate roots like hoya. Try to find ones with drainage holes to make watering easier.
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11 – Winter care

Again, there’s a whole article on winter care here, but here’s a roundup of important things to know:

  • If you have your heating up full blast, make sure you have a hygrometer to check your humidity is not being compromised
  • Check over your plants regularly to keep an eye out for pests – plants are weaker in winter and less able to fend off attacks
  • Use your moisture probe when watering – plants use far less water when they’re not growing, and less water will evaporate when it’s cold and dark.
  • Be aware of any draughts – move any plants that may be sitting in one.
  • Invest in grow lights if you see any signs that your plants aren’t getting enough light – look for pale or yellowing leaves and leggy growth.
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In conclusion

I know it seems like a lot of info (and it is) but trust me, keeping a house plant alive needn’t be difficult as long as you pick the right plant for the space (don’t keep a cactus in the bathroom), don’t ignore it for weeks on end, and don’t over water it.

If you’re worried your house is dark, you’ll forget to water your plant, and you’ll kill every plant stone dead, go and buy either a pothos or a ZZ plant. Both are cheap and easy to find, they don’t mind low light, and they don’t need watering more than about once a fortnight. If it turns out you have more light than you thought, you’ll see tonnes of new growth, but they’ll be fine as long as there’s a light source somewhere in the room with them.

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