Keep Your Houseplants Happy

This expert guidance will help ensure that your indoor plants have what they need to stay healthy and flourish all year.

  • Plants of all kinds boost mood, reduce stress and can help purify the air.
    Photo by iStock/imnoom
  • Studies find that caring for plants helps increase compassion levels and improves interpersonal relationships.
    Photo by iStock/LaraBelova
  • Trimming back extra growth can help your houseplants fill out and get a healthy glow.
    Photo by iStock/Yasonya
  • Find your houseplant's happy place, and leave it there!
    Photo by iStock/iwka
  • Cleaning plant leaves enables them to photosynthesize more efficiently.
    Photo by iStock/Visivasnc
  • If your plant's rootball has gotten too tight, chopticks can be used to carefully loosen the mass.
    Photo by iStock/StockImages_AT
  • Even sun-tolerant plants prefer bright, indirect sunlight to direct UV rays.
    Photo by iStock/skynesher
  • Succulents are often among the easiest houseplants to care for.
    Photo by iStock/ChamilleWhite

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.

Water Wisely

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.

11/24/2017 6:39:43 AM

Is there any info on well water? this is the water that makes brown rings in the toilet; I have a filter on my fridge for drinking water. Thanks

11/23/2017 5:53:18 PM

That was interesting about tap water quality. Recently there was so much rain I saved 16 gallons of it for my plants, from a large garbage can under a leaky gutter! That doesn't always happen. I also have more plants than windows so mine get moved around and am thinking about getting a 4 ft grow light. Thank you

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