I used to have terrible luck with houseplants. I lost many plants as a result. I eventually figured out how to change that and want to share how with you. This post is the 4 most important AND simple changes I made that helped me to keep my plants alive.
So if you are someone who keeps losing houseplants and want to figure out where you might be going wrong, this post is for you.
My confession: When I first started purchasing houseplants, I was motivated to purchase by the thought of beautifying my space. I would pick a pretty plant with an aesthetically pleasing pot to match the room I had in mind.
Excitedly I’d come home and place the plant in a spot where it looked GORGEOUS and occasionally water it.
Every time, the plant would slowly wither away and I wouldn’t know why. When the plant began to look sad I would think that I probably hadn’t watered it enough and I would give it more water.
It would inevitably die and I would have no clue what had happened.
I would get rid of the plant and replace it with another kind, only to have the same thing happen.
This cycle continued for a long time until I was tired of watching the plants I loved die over and over.
After doing a whole lot of research, I realized that I needed to change my thinking in 4 ways to become a better houseplant parent.
Here are the 4 changes I made that helped me go from brown, crispy thumb to budding green thumb!
1. I stopped thinking of houseplants as only decorations
By thinking of plants as decorations I wasn’t paying attention to the plant’s needs.
Most importantly, I wasn’t taking into consideration what kind of light the plant would receive in the spot that I was choosing. I was only thinking about how the plant would enhance the ambiance of my living space.
Light is the most essential resource a plant needs to thrive. A plant needs light to have energy to grow, to create food, AND to use water.
It turns out that most of the places I wanted to put plants in the past weren’t even close to a window which meant that the plants received very little light.
If the plant wasn’t receiving enough light, it wasn’t able to thrive and survive. Looking back now, I can say that this was probably the #1 reason my plants died.
Even plants who are able to live in low light conditions need light. If we aren’t able to read a book during the day without supplemental lighting in the spot we want to put our plant, it isn’t enough light for them to survive.
When you get the lighting right for your plant, your plant will thank you with lush and gorgeous growth!! 🙂
2. I stopped randomly guessing when to water
I never understood how people knew when to water their plants and I just randomly guessed when to water. I thought that is what everyone did and that some people were better at guessing than others. I knew I was bad at guessing – that much I felt confident about!
Once I began to research houseplant care, I realized that there were strategies to determine when to water. I also realized that many houseplants provide indicators of when they are ready to be watered.
Some examples of these indicators are:
- Scindapsus pictus’ (Satin Pothos) leaves curl when thirsty.
- Epipremnum aureum (the common Pothos such as Golden Pothos) and Coffee arabica droop slightly when they are ready to be watered.
- Most Peperomias’ and Hoyas’ leaves become more flexible/less firm when they are ready to be watered.
- Spathiphylum wallisii (Peace Lilies) dramatically droop when they need to be watered.
These are just a few of the indicators I have learned from caring for my plants and observing them over time. Use these and share others you have learned down below!
But even if you don’t know the signs that a plant uses to tell you it is time for watering, it is still possible to know when to water!
The easiest way I have found, by far, is to use a moisture meter. Moisture meters are WAY more accurate than our fingers and are able to reach much deeper into a pot, which is so important for larger plants.
Any plants I do not have a visual indicator for I ONLY water when the moisture meter registers a 1 or 2 (the section that reads “very dry”).
Why? Because almost all plants prefer to dry out completely before being watered and do far better when slightly underwatered than overwatered.
I use my moisture meter regularly to determine when to water all of my philodendrons, my fittonia, my euphorbias, and a few other plants as well. As a person who still wants to overwater my plants, I can’t trust my instinct. I have to see what the meter says and then act accordingly!
3. I stopped prescribing water to sad plants
I spent a large amount of time thinking that if a plant looked unhealthy or sad, it was probably because it needed to be watered.
I can now tell you, as a better houseplant parent, that this is a bad practice. It is also how I learned to overwater all of my plants.
Plants are trying to communicate what their needs are, we just have to learn their language. After spending more time observing the plants, it becomes increasingly possible to interpret what a plant is telling us or, more often, showing us.
For example, leaves that are turning yellow near the base of a plant are older, more mature leaves. They are probably dying off naturally as long as the rest of the plant looks healthy and is growing. That is the cycle of life and nothing to be concerned about.
However, yellowing leaves on other parts of the plant could indicate other issues such as overwatering, pests, and nutrient deficiency. The most common cause of yellowing leaves is overwatering.
How do we know if it is overwatering? We can observe other signs and symptoms:
– Is the soil wet or moist for long periods of time (i.e. many days or even weeks)?
– Are there fungus gnats living in or around the plant (as they thrive in wet conditions)?
– Is the plant beginning to look generally unhealthy (as overwatering can cause root rot and root rot can begin to damage the plant)?
– If you check the roots, are the roots white and strong or are they dark and easily breakable? (If the roots are easily breakable and dark in color, they might be suffering from root rot due to overwatering.)
Learning about what common plant issues look like will help us to understand what might be happening to the plant and correct the issue.
Learning what is “normal” for our specific plant helps us to identify when something abnormal is happening and jump into detective mode to figure out what might be the problem.
Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t develop overnight. They come with time spent caring for and observing a plant. But you might be surprised how fulfilling it is, even in the matter of a few months, to recognize how your knowledge has grown. You’ll see your understanding of your plant has changed as you naturally begin to observe changes and interpret what they mean.
4. I stopped choosing a pot based on its beauty
I started realizing that part of what was contributing to how long my plant’s soil was staying wet was the pots I was choosing.
For some reason, a lot of the pots that tend to be aesthetically pleasing either have NO drainage holes OR have attached saucers.
Pots without drainage holes provide nowhere for excess water to drain. This means that you have to be extremely careful when watering to not overwater.
If you have heard about the method of adding rocks in the bottom of pots to care for extra water when a pot doesn’t have a drainage hole, it has been scientifically proven NOT to work. Click here to go to my post that talks about why.
If you want to use a pot without a drainage hole, the recommendation is to have the plant live in a cheap, thin plastic pot with drainage holes that can be tucked inside the pretty no-drainage-hole pot. This allows you to take out the plant for watering, have it properly drain, and then hide it back in its beautiful cover pot.
Pots with attached saucers typically only have one very small drainage hole. This allows very little water to drain and doesn’t make pouring collected water easy. If using these pots, I would recommend treating them the same as a pot without drainage holes and have the plant potted in a thin, plastic pot that can be removed for watering and hidden inside the decorative pot.
My favorite type of pot is terracotta and is what I converted my plants over to when I was determined to keep them alive. Terracotta pots generally have nice large drainage holes, removable saucers, very reasonable prices, and are made out of clay.
The clay medium absorbs moisture naturally, helping to control excess water. Terracotta is also quite beautiful, especially when several plants in terracotta pots are grouped together. It is a classic choice and remains so for a reason!
The easiest way to help plants thrive is to pay attention to what they need and help to meet those needs.
Then observe the plant over time and see what you can learn so you can better understand what they are communicating to you.
If you want to use plants as decorations, you absolutely can IF you choose spots that provide enough light for each plant.
If there is a spot in your home that needs a plant but just won’t get enough light, buy artificial ones instead. Now you can confidently stick them in those dark corners or on the high shelves and they will continue to look gorgeous.
And in case you weren’t sure about buying an artificial plant: Psychology Today reports that the health benefits associated with seeing houseplants in your living space are the same even if those plants are fake, as long as they seem fairly real– check out the article here.
Good luck with your plants! I hope these tips help!
Are you also a budding green thumb? Do you have other advice that worked for you? Share your tips below!
Click to read last week’s article: How to Care for Pothos, the Nearly Perfect Houseplant