How to Become the Best Plant Parent Ever

How to Become the Best Plant Parent Ever

Indoor plants need a little more than water, light, and love. Here’s what you can do to help yours thrive.
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Indoor plants promote mindfulness and emotional health. They enhance the visual appeal of interior areas. Plant care is a therapeutic and relaxing hobby that fosters a connection with nature and provides comfort in caring for living things. If you've been thinking about adding one or a few plants to your indoor space or even have some that need a little TLC, we've got you covered.

Determine your commitment level

Plants demand time and effort. Fortunately, you can choose the challenge that best fits your level of interest and commitment. Plant expert and Living Wild author Hilton Carter recommends considering how much time you spend in the space you want to place your plants."For spaces you are not regularly around and will likely forget about," says Carter, "I would suggest a faux plant or no plant at all." Carter explains that although there are hardy plants available, plants should thrive and not fight to survive.

Match the environment

Once you’ve determined your commitment to caring for a plant, the next step is to thoroughly examine the area where you want your plant to live. "Putting the right plant in the right place is key to success," says Justin Hancock, a horticulturist at Costa Farms. Take note of the environmental conditions where you want to put your plants, such as light, humidity, and air drafts. Matching the plant’s needs to the environment you have will make it easier to care for them.

Understand your light

"Proper light levels are the single most important factor for plant care," says Hancock. Light is essential for plant photosynthesis, which is necessary for your plant to produce food. "Proper lighting is important to ensure your plant is receiving the right nutritional value," says Carter. Improper lighting deprives a plant of its ability to make basic nutrients. "If they do not have ample lighting, they will eventually deteriorate," he warns.

Before you head to the nursery to grab that gorgeous fiddle leaf fig, study the light in your space. Carter advises observing the brightness, duration, and direction of light in a room. This light study will allow you to narrow down your plant choices.

Measure the light

Nursery plant tags will typically list the minimum light preferences for a plant in one of four categories: low, medium, high, or direct sunlight. But what does that mean? Author and hostess of the Growing Joy with Plants podcast Maria Failla says, "I find the most common mistake people make when starting out is overestimating the amount of light they have in their homes."

Light levels change throughout the day and year. "If you want to be technical, you can get a light meter and actually measure light," suggests Hancock. Light levels are typically measured in foot candles (FC).

  • Low light is generally considered from about 100 to 250 foot candles 
  • Medium light is about 250 to 400 foot candles 
  • High light is more than 400 foot candles 

Measuring the light in your space will give you the most accurate information about what plants can thrive. "Keep in mind that plants recommended as tolerating low light can—and actually love—brighter conditions," says Hancock, "But plants that want high light won’t be happy with less." If you are still unsure what the light requirements are for optimal plant growth, consult a houseplant light chart.

Use the right soil

Most houseplants need a well-draining potting mix. "The most important thing is to use bagged potting mix for your houseplants, not soil you dig up outdoors," says Failla, "Since houseplants are kept indoors, they need potting mix formulated for their controlled environment."

However, the right soil will depend on the type of plant. Any general-purpose potting mix labeled for houseplants or container gardens works well for leafy foliage houseplants, according to Hancock. Cacti and succulent plants need a lighter, porous soil. Look for potting mixes formulated explicitly for them.

Pick the right pot

The right pot will keep your plant happy and elevate your space. Carter suggests always using a pot with a drainage hole. "It is so important for your plant to have proper drainage to avoid disasters like root rot and rancid water," says Carter. If you see a pot you love but it lacks a drainage hole, no worries. You can always drill a hole and then line it with a saucer on the bottom.

The material of the pot also affects water retention. "Definitely choose something that brings you joy to look at and matches the flow and energy of your space, but make sure it is made from a material that will help support the quality of moisture your roots want to be surrounded with," says Carter, "Porous vessels help wick moisture away from the roots while glazed and plastic containers help retain it."

Keep them hydrated

Plants need water, but underwatering or overwatering them can be detrimental. Water needs vary by plant and environmental conditions. "The easiest way to prevent watering problems is to be observant and feel or detect how much moisture there is before watering your plant," says Hancock. If you like gadgets, consider getting a moisture meter to gauge moisture levels in the soil.

"Some of the best indicators for when to water are when the leaves are droopy, the soil is caving away from the rim of the pot, the soil is cracked and dry, or the plant is light to pick up," says Carter. Nonetheless, developing a good routine of checking on your plants will indicate when you need to water them.

Keep them cozy

Many houseplants are tropical, but that doesn’t mean you must transform your home into a rainforest. Most houseplants enjoy warm temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees with a moderately humid setting and good ventilation. "In other words, if you have a humidifier and ceiling fan, then you are good to go," says Carter.

Feed them

Plants make their food from photosynthesis, but you still need to feed them. Fertilizers are like a vitamin boost for your plants. How much and when you feed them depends on several factors. "The rule of thumb I like to use is to fertilize when your plants are growing," says Failla. However, with indoor plants, growth can occur year-round.

"Fertilizer is largely up to you as a plant parent," says Hancock, "My minimum recommendation is once or twice a year, but if you want to push optimal growth for your plant, you can fertilize as often as the directions on the fertilizer package recommend."

Accept that there may be pests

At some point, you will deal with a pest infestation. Thoroughly check your plant when you are at the store. "Different pests leave different calling cards: look for webbing in the space where the leaf connects with the stem, wilting, yellowing, unusual spots on the leaves, white fuzzy cotton balls (mealy bugs) collecting on the leaves, or little brown scabs (scale)," Failla recommends.

"One of the best things you can do to prevent pests—or prevent a small outbreak from becoming a big one—is to inspect your plants regularly," says Hancock, "Regularly washing them in the sink or shower can also help a lot by dislodging pests."

To ease into your plant-rearing adventure, try forgiving plants such as snake plants, Chinese evergreen, pothos, or ZZs. Plant care may appear daunting at first, but by following these simple steps, you’ll be a plant expert in no time.

Top Photo Courtesy Hilton Carter.

Related Reading:

The Beginner’s Guide to Propagating Houseplants 

11 Houseplants That Flourish in Low Light