We could all use a few tricks of the trade to prevent unintended plant-killing offenses such as overwatering. So, what are the most common habits that cause plants to die off, and how can you avoid them? Here, the gardening experts at Bates Nursery and Flower Mart share some of their best plant care tips for successful indoor gardening.
Pro Tip #1: Start with plenty of research.
While houseplants can be a fun way to spruce up your space, they aren’t great impulse buys. Researching plants that make sense for your lifestyle can lead to less stress and fewer brown leaves down the road. Speak with a specialist and read articles online so you can set yourself up for success and choose your plants wisely. Bates Nursery Marketing Specialist Annora McGarry tells us, “Don’t ever hesitate to reach out to your local nursery or garden center to see if [the plant you’re looking for] is something they carry or that they can get in. There are a ton of really cool plants out there, and there’s sure to be one that fits your lifestyle, personality and space. Often, the plants you see online can be purchased locally — support a local Nashville business while adding some unique flora to your collection!” It’s also worth noting that many houseplants are toxic, so a little bit of research can mean a big difference in keeping children and pets safe.
Pro Tip #2: Invest in the proper equipment.
There are a few items that are worth having on-hand for assistance, such as a good quality potting soil — typically, a light indoor mix. Flower Mart owner Tom Willmore suggests staying away from potting soils that contain moisture-control agents, which can keep your indoor plants too wet. A watering can with a long spout that doesn’t get the foliage wet is also essential. The amount of water needed is directly affected by indoor conditions, so it’s helpful to have a moisture meter that tests water levels for you. If you have an abundance of tropical plants that traditionally exist in conditions with more moisture, you may find that having a humidifier is an added benefit. Additionally, a small set of sharp pruners will help you cut back dead leaves, and make sure you have a drip pan or saucer to put beneath your pot for drainage.
Pro Tip #3: Put your plants in a spot with sufficient light.
Does your plant prefer direct or indirect light? If positioned near a window, does your plant get partial or full sun during the day? Understanding how much light your plants need is crucial to their survival. “For instance, if your bedroom doesn’t get much light, a Fiddle-leaf Fig won’t do well there,” offers Annora. “Get a Sansevieria or ZZ Plant (more on those below) that thrives in low-light conditions.” She cautions us not to put plants too close to windows, especially in the winter months, since temperature swings and drafts can stress them out.
Pro Tip #4: Never water until you’ve checked the soil.
The most common mistake in houseplant care is inadvertent overwatering, which causes root rot, so it’s important to always check the soil before adding water. Annora reminds us, “Water settles to the bottom of the pot, so soil that appears to be dry on the surface may actually be damp enough for your houseplant. Roots need air to grow, and over-watering essentially drowns the roots.”
Instead, Tom suggests, “Water the plant until the water exits the base, and allow the plant to draw that water back like a sponge. Any remaining water after a couple of hours needs to be removed.”
From succulents that require minimal watering to Poinsettias, which like moist soil, specific water needs depend on the plant. So, how do we determine how much to give? Observation is key. If you’re looking at your houseplants daily, you’re likely to notice when foliage is turning yellow or looking wilted from moisture stress. Putting your finger in the soil is an easy way to test moisture levels — simply go a few inches down to see if it’s still damp. If it is, you don’t need to water yet.
Heating and air conditioning can also mess with an indoor plant’s moisture levels, removing the humidity that many of them rely on, especially those of the tropical variety. Misting is one way to help replenish that moisture. “Grouping plants together and placing them near a humidifier will also help to recreate a humid environment,” offers Annora. “Humidity needs vary from plant to plant, so be sure to research if you should be misting before indiscriminately spraying your houseplants with water. You can damage foliage by misting certain houseplants.”
Pro Tip #5: Make sure you have proper drainage.
Since houseplants are kept in containers rather than in the ground, they need plenty of aeration. Consequently, pots without drainage holes aren’t suitable for indoor planting. Instead, leave your plant in the nursery pot it came in and set it down into your decorative planter. This way, the roots still have room to breathe, and they don’t sit in stagnant water for too long.
Pro Tip #6: Don’t forget to fertilize.
Though some potting mixes already contain fertilizer, most will only give a plant the nutrients it needs for three to four months. The best practice is to fertilize your houseplants a few times throughout the spring and summer seasons when they are working on new growth. Alternately, hold off on fertilizing during the colder, darker months so your houseplants can rest. “During the fall and winter, when plants are receiving less light, they go nearly dormant and do not need fertilizer to survive,” Annora tells us.
Pro Tip #7: Recognize when it’s time to repot … and when it’s not.
Repotting a plant can cause its health to decline, so it’s important to leave your plant alone until it’s absolutely necessary to move it to a different vessel. So, when is it the right time to repot? If you have a tall plant that becomes too top-heavy, repotting is recommended. It’s also crucial to repot if your plant becomes rootbound, which is when the roots get too large and begin to grow circularly rather than outward. “You can tell if a plant is rootbound by observing,” explains Annora. If your plant’s growth appears stunted, the leaves are yellowing, or water is draining through the pot instead of being captured in the soil, you may have found the culprit. The tangled mass of roots can deprive your plant of nutrients, air and water. If you are concerned your plant might be rootbound, you can gently remove it from the pot to better assess the root system. “We normally don’t recommend repotting a plant until the pot is bulging or the roots are coming out,” offers Tom. “Keep in mind most plants can live years by simply keeping them watered as needed and fertilized monthly. Repotting can also allow the plant to become much larger, which is sometimes a problem with smaller rooms.”
Pro Tip #8: Give your plants some daily TLC.
A little attention goes a long way. Adding a few minutes of plant observation to your morning routine will help you recognize small changes over time, such as new growth, and give you a chance to catch problematic issues early on. And though there’s no guarantee that talking to your plants helps them grow, the idea isn’t as crazy as it might sound. “If talking to your plants gives you joy, go for it!” says Annora. “A happy owner makes for happy plants.”
Tom agrees, saying, “I have seen studies that say it’s true. I think what’s important is that plants improve our quality of air, which improves our lives.”
Now that you know the tips, check out the 5 Top Houseplants You Won’t Kill.