Sharing My Biggest Houseplant Mistakes So You Can Avoid Them!

Table of Contents

Mistake #1: Not understanding the relationship between lighting and watering

I originally researched how to water a plant and how to provide proper lighting for a plant separately. While understanding each of these techniques on their own is very helpful, I was completely missing that they are integrally related. To explain, I will use an analogy of our human experience of water and light:

If I am standing in full sun on a hot day I need to drink a lot more water than if I am standing in the shade on a cooler day. If I am running on a hot day I am going to need a lot more water than if I am only standing. The exact same logic applies to your plants. Now we need to take that understanding one step further though:

Light is a plant’s food.

The amount of food (or light) that a plant “eats” (or receives) will determine the amount of energy it has available to grow. The more your plant is growing, the faster it will be using the water available. And naturally, water is also going to evaporate from a plant’s soil faster in hotter, dryer, and sunnier locations.

This helps to explain why we call April through September the growing season!! The growing season is the time of year during which the largest amount of light is available. This means that your plant has the most food possible for growth.

Because winter provides a lot less light, our plant will grow much less (if at all) and will use much less water.

Mistake #2: Trying to use a one-size-fits-all care approach for watering

I tried for a long time to water my plants once a week, but that just didn’t work as well as I wanted it to! I could keep some of my plants alive, but they were not thriving and looking as beautiful as I had hoped.

Once I understood the relationship between lighting and watering, it made sense why I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. It is very unlikely that my plants would always need water exactly once per week. The amount of light they were receiving was consistently changing throughout the year. As such, the frequency that I was watering them should be changing too.

Now, instead of watering once a week, I check to see if my plants NEED to be watered at least once a week and I only water those in need. For more information about how to know when to water plants, check out my post by clicking here.

Mistake #3: Thinking I knew what low light means

I tried putting plants labeled as “low light” in areas that my eyes perceived as low light and they kept dying.

After some frustration and research, I realized:

The way horticulturalists use the term “low light” and the way the rest of us interpret “low light” is not aligned.

Low light doesn’t mean no light. Low light is approximately 75 to 200 foot candles. A foot candle is a unit used to measure light. You can use this light range to help understand the lighting in your home. Try downloading a free light meter app on your phone to test places you would like to place plants to confirm whether it receives enough light.

Here’s a rule you can use without an app or a light meter:
The area you place a low light plant needs to be an area where you can easily read a book throughout most of the day without supplemental lighting. If you cannot do this, the light is too low for a plant to survive.

In case you’d like to use a light meter to test for other higher light plants, here are some additional light ranges:

Low Light: 75 to 200 foot candles
Medium Light: 200 – 500 foot candles
High Light: 500-1000 foot candles
Very High Light: at least 1000 foot candles

Mistake #4: Thinking fertilizer is plant food

I thought for a long time that fertilizer was food for plants, but nope!! Light is the food that your plant needs; fertilizer is really extra nutrients to help give a plant a vitamin boost.

Normally these nutrients would be available to your plant in its natural soil or substrate. But since it is a houseplant, the soil in the pot becomes depleted of nutrients over time. This is because there are no worms or wildlife stirring, pooping, or decaying in it. Yup, that is where a lot of the nutrients come from.

To help add back these nutrients, we add fertilizer.

I will do a more in-depth post soon about fertilizers, but I do want to mention here that you can use items as fertilizer that we do not often think of as fertilizer.

My FAVORITE example is the water from a freshwater fish tank. That is my go-to fertilizer these days. It’s organic, fish-poop fertilizer that my houseplants seem to love. I just replace the dirty water I remove from the fish tank with clean water, which is a winning situation for my fish as well!

I’ve read that some people use the water left after boiling vegetables, boiling eggs (for calcium), and others! You would probably want to abstain if you added oils and seasonings as they may not be healthy for your plant. And, of course, you would want to let the water cool before using. Otherwise, give it a try and let me know how it works!

Mistake #5: Not knowing that compacted soil is bad for my plant

I just never really thought about the soil unless it was time for repotting. If the soil was compacted, I’m not sure I was even aware of it.

Then I read something about how a houseplant’s soil can become so compacted that when you water the plant, the water will run right around the soil and not through it anymore.

This immediately made me think of a plant I had recently bought from a grocery store. Its soil was fairly compacted at the time I purchased it. The surface of the soil seemed pretty hard and crusty and I remembered thinking that the plant would be happy after a good repotting.

Since I hadn’t repotted it yet, I decided to do an experiment. I tried watering it thoroughly, soaking it in the sink. Then I poked my finger deep into the soil to check how well the water penetrated.

The soil was dry.

This was a turning point for me. If the water wasn’t soaking the soil, that means that there probably wasn’t a lot of air making it to the roots either. I knew that wasn’t healthy.

This is similar to our houseplant fertilizer problem: there are no worms and wildlife visiting our houseplants. If there were, they would be moving and stirring the soil for us, creating nice fluffy dirt. Without those workers, we need to do the job for them.

It can be as easy as taking a stick or skewer and poking holes to loosen up the soil so water and air can once again flow through. Doing so will keep your plant’s roots healthy by providing them proper aeration and water!

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