I was warned years ago that people who work with ephemeral mediums (think: words, code, tech anything) need to find a tangible creative outlet or they will lose their minds. Perhaps this is why I’ve become a wee bit obsessed with green things over the past year or so.
Or perhaps it’s because we’re now in an old home with all white walls. I love it here, but I recognize that this house needs a heady dose of life to make it feel warm and welcoming instead of like a museum. Plants are known to be good for health and happiness, but I didn’t need convincing. I just wanted to live among green things—if I could learn how not to kill them.
Over the past year my previously-brown thumb has grown significantly greener. I’m no expert, but I’ve come a long way. Over the past year I’ve grown in confidence and the plants under my care have grown in happiness.
A year ago, I couldn’t believe how the plant store staff immediately knew what kind of care each plant needed, off the tops of their heads. I had to keep a spreadsheet (really!) to track which plants needed what care. But I haven’t looked at that spreadsheet in ages, because now, I just know. (If you’d told me this would happen a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.)
I still kill things sometimes, but “killing things sometimes” is different from “can’t keep a plant alive.” Knowing that many of you would also like to raise your status from “plant killer” to “not-so-hopeless-after-all,” today I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
My houseplant philosophy
If you’re not wild about spending money on a plant you’re likely to kill, I hear you. To convince myself to buy plants I may not have the skills to keep alive, I looked at them as if they were fresh flowers.
I buy fresh flowers. I’m happy to spend $5 on a bouquet that will look great in my kitchen for a week. And I view plants the same way. I’d heard weeping ficus trees were hard to maintain, but when Trader Joe’s had them for $8 I snatched one up, because if I could keep it alive for a single month I’d consider it to be worth it. When I spent $60 on a large fiddle leaf fig, my mental math was different: I needed to keep it alive for months for that to feel worth it. (And I have, woohoo!)
Of course I want to keep my plants alive. But if they ultimately die, at least I enjoyed them while they lasted.
Where do I start with houseplants?
I still have my very first houseplant: a perky little philodendron (like this one) I bought for my college dorm room. These are among the easiest houseplants to grow, as they can grow almost anywhere in the house and can adapt to a wide range of environments. The fact that I somehow kept it alive for nearly twenty years despite my lack of any skill testifies to its durability.
Other tried-and-true picks for beginners currently in my home: the snake plant, ZZ plant, pothos, and dracaena warneckii, two of which I’ve managed to keep alive for going on five years now. (Succulents are often called easy, but I can’t quite get the hang of mine.)
Many of you asked (on instagram) for me to share my favorite plants. I’ll do so in a future post.
Where do I buy houseplants?
My very favorite place to buy plants is at my local plant shops. There’s nothing like having someone right there who knows your climate to answer all your plant questions. If your plant is ailing, you can even drive your plant to the store for help.
Here in Louisville, we have several wonderful stores that specialize in houseplants and plant care. (My faves: Mahonia (pictured above), Forage, The Plant Kingdom.) I don’t typically enjoy running errands, but the plant shop and bookstore are the two exceptions.
The specialty plant shops are my favorite, but I also love buying houseplants at places like Home Depot and Kroger. The offerings are hit-or-miss, and the plants aren’t always in great shape, but the deals can be fantastic. This summer, I purchased two fiddle leaf figs at Kroger for $17 each. Because they were so cheap, I felt like I had little to lose. I felt free to experiment with new locations in the house, and even moved them outside in the summer (oh my goodness, they were so happy outdoors!).
I also check out the plant selection every time I visit Trader Joe’s. They occasionally have excellent finds, like my pilea I picked up for $7.99 (instead of the $40 you see in plant shops).
How do I keep my plants alive?
This is the #1 question you all ask me, along you more often phrase it like this: How do I not kill my plants?
• Know your plant. Know what it is, and what it needs to be happy and healthy. My local plant shop, google, and the #plantstagram community on Instagram have helped me so much with identifying what I own and knowing what they need.
Case in point: when I bought this nerve plant (below) at Home Depot, it didn’t come with a tag identifying it. I thought it looked like a succulent, so I treated it like one, giving it an ice cube’s worth of water once a week. It was sad and droopy—until I shared a photograph on Instagram. You identified it for me, and told me it might be the only houseplant in existence that couldn’t be overwatered. It’s been happy ever since.
• Know your needs. Some plants aren’t safe for pets or kids. Do your research before you bring a new plant into your life. (Daisy likes to eat the dirt, but otherwise leaves the plants alone.)
• Get the location right. The amazing and maddening truth is that each plant has different needs—for light, humidity, drafts, watering—and your job is to find a spot for each plant that lets it thrive and brings you joy. This is tricky, especially if you’re not sure what “low light” or “bright light” means. Ask your local plant shop if you can; it may help to take in photos of your spaces. And by all means, figure out which direction your various windows face, so you can put information like “does best in a northern exposure” to good use.
• Water on a regular schedule. With practice, you’ll learn when your plants need water. But for now, establish a rhythm to water your plants so they don’t dry out. A year ago I established “thirsty Thursday” for my houseplant care. (I’ve been told this means something new and horrible on Urban Dictionary these days, but this phrase helps keep my plants healthy.) In my climate, weekly waterings suit nearly all of my plants, although I do have the constantly-thirsty nerve plant, and a special kind of snake plant that only needs water once a month.
• Fertilize. I never fertilized my plants till this year, but now I use this fertilizer once a month.
How do I choose containers?
I’ll be honest: planters are challenging for me, because they need to look good in the space and with the plant itself. I’m an impulsive plant buyer, but it takes me much longer to decide on the planter.
Because shape and scale are crucial factors, I find it difficult to shop for planters if I don’t have my own plant—or a similar plant—nearby. That’s why I prefer to buy containers in person. I have ones I love from my local shops (of course!) but also from Home Goods, Anthropologie, and IKEA, which often has inexpensive and elegant planters on their shelves. (I just made a rare visit to IKEA, where I bought two lovely small white planters, and am still kicking myself that I forgot I needed big ones as well!) I also like putting plants in baskets, like you find at home shops, World Market, Target, or even yard sales.
You may need to experiment to get it right. I know that sounds hopelessly wishy-washy, but there are two things I can say with confidence. First, when in doubt, a white ceramic planter will make 90% of plants look good. And second, go for the cachepot system, especially if you’re a newbie. This is a fancy way of saying to use a two-pot system for each plant: keep your plant in the container you bought it in (assuming it has drainage holes in the bottom) and nestle it inside a planter to make it look pretty. That allows you to thoroughly water your plants without fear of drowning them, because the water drains out the holes in the bottom of the inner container. (This method allows me to put some of my plants in the actual shower.)
I hope these tips inspire you to learn more or jump in, depending on where you are on your plant journey.
Do you have houseplants? What have you learned along the way about caring for them? What other advice would you share to houseplant newbies?