Plants make people happy. This simple fact has been proven time and again by studies showing plants’ effectiveness at bolstering mood, reducing stress and, in some cases, even purifying the air, as the NASA Clean Air Study discovered three decades ago. But you don’t need science to know that adding a couple of well-placed pots can dramatically brighten the mood of a room and bring new life to a space.
Developing a green thumb requires some practice and patience, although just about anyone can help a houseplant not only survive but thrive in its new home. Barbara Pleasant, award-winning garden writer and author of The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, has spent years working with plants and knows a thing or two about keeping them healthy all year long. The following tips, assembled with her help, will ensure your houseplants are living their best life.
Find Your Plant’s Happy Place
One of the most important considerations is where to put a houseplant — and not just for aesthetics. “Plants don’t move locations [in the wild] and if you get them in a place they like, you leave them there,” Pleasant says. “They’re stationary beings.” First, do a little research on a plant’s light and temperature requirements to minimize the trial-and-error period. If you’re purchasing a plant for a specific location, be sure to buy one that isn’t destined for failure by taking a picture of the desired location with your phone. Being able to show knowledgeable nursery or shop assistants the conditions you’re working with is “a wonderful way to pick a houseplant,” Pleasant says.
When it comes to water quality, what’s OK for people isn’t necessarily ideal for plants. Tap water, though generally safe, can have negative effects on a plant over time. “Water that’s been through water softening systems and water that’s high in fluoride will give a lot of houseplants that have long strappy leaves — like dracaenas and even palms — brown tips,” Pleasant says. She recommends using filtered water or, ideally, distilled water instead, which will also help prevent potentially root-damaging salt buildup in the soil. Even if the convenience of tap water wins out most of the time, an occasional rinse with distilled water will help flush salts and other buildup in the soil.
The same goes for water quantity, which is one of the most common houseplant killers. Overwatering can cause leaves to turn yellow, roots to rot and fungus gnats to invade, while underwatering starves a plant and will cause it to wilt and dry up. Before jumping in with the watering can, be sure to test the soil with your finger or a pencil: If the soil is dry an inch beneath the surface (roughly to your index finger’s first knuckle), go ahead and give it a good soak.
Get the Pruning Shears Ready
Though pruning houseplants may seem counterintuitive, occasionally clipping back some growth will help them fill out and give them a healthy glow, particularly just before spring’s new growth period. “The best way I’ve found to get maranta and Swedish ivy to bloom is to put it outside and give it a haircut and then start watering it,” Pleasant says, recommending floral or micro snips for the job. Many plants that benefit from this yearly trim can also be easily propagated in water until new roots form, including vining varieties such as maranta, heartleaf philodendron and pothos. Start by removing dead leaves and branches, then clipping back overgrown branches until you have a healthy and more compact plant.
The average humidity levels in most homes are sufficient to keep plants healthy, but certain varieties such as tropical palms, orchids, African violets, bromeliads and some ferns like a little extra moisture in the air. If you don’t have a humidifier to dedicate to houseplant health, place your pot over a shallow tray filled with pebbles and water — just be sure your pot isn’t sitting in a pool of excess water.
Aerate the Soil
If you water your plant and the pot doesn’t get heavy and seems to drain very quickly, that’s a telltale sign it needs some help. “Sometimes the root ball will get really tight and dried out at the same time and every time you water it, the water’s just running off the side,” Pleasant says. Once a winter, use a finely pointed tool such as an ice pick or an awl — or even a pencil or chopstick — for a quick fix. Slide the pointed end into the soil toward the center and gently move it around to loosen the root mass. There will likely be some root breakage, creating potential infection sites for root rot and fungi, so wait a couple days for the roots to recover before watering thoroughly.
Do Regular Check-Ups
Take some time while the weather is dreary and there’s not much new growth on your plants to pick off dead or yellowing leaves and inspect plants closely — then get into the habit of doing so weekly. “Key it to something that happens in your life — like when a show that you like comes on or as part of enjoying a little quiet time when you get home from work — and take 20 minutes to check all your plants,” she says. “If you just do that, you’ll stay ahead of problems, and they’ll be fine.”
For more houseplant information:
• How to Repot Houseplants
Like any bookshelf, picture frame or other stationary surface, a plant’s leaves collect dust. Taking some time to clean drab-looking foliage improves plant appearance and health.
“Something as simple as taking a damp washcloth and cleaning your plant is satisfying, and plants make better use of light when their leaves are clean,” garden expert Barbara Pleasant says. A soft makeup brush, paintbrush or toothbrush is also effective and especially handy when it comes to plants with fuzzy foliage, including African violets and succulents with a powdery, sun-protectant coating, such as Kalanchoe panda plants.
Prevent Sunburned Leaves
Though there’s no SPF 30+ that will help plant leaves resist sunburn, you can prevent irreversible burning of outer layers of leaf tissue, which causes unsightly bleached spots.
Even houseplants that are labeled sun-tolerant typically prefer bright indirect light as opposed to direct sun, so filtering light through a sheer curtain or moving a plant so it’s out of those direct UV rays can work wonders. But here’s the best way to avoid burns: Don’t shock a plant by suddenly and drastically changing its location. “If I take an aloe plant that’s been in a dim place and stick it in my south-facing sunny window, it won’t die, but it will complain terribly until I move it,” Pleasant says.
Use Proper Potting Mix
When repotting your plant, not just any dirt will do — in fact, you want to avoid using soil and instead opt for potting mix made with peat. Gardening expert Barbara Pleasant recommends using African violet mix for all houseplants. “It’s a peaty, perlite-y, well-drained mix, so the specialty mixes usually don’t offer a whole lot different than what’s in that potting mix,” she says, adding that a local brand is the best option if you can find one. The dirt you choose is important, so don’t go for the cheapest option. “Never buy that $2-a-bag potting soil — you will be disappointed,” Pleasant says.