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Houseplants: The basics to growing and keeping indoor plants healthy

Ferry-Morse Home Gardening Blog | October 2021

Close-up of an assortment of various herbs growing in containers.

Indoor plants sitting in partial sun / indirect sun next to a golden watering can.

Houseplants bring us little bits of comfort year-round, particularly throughout those months where all the vibrant greenery outside is dead and gone until the next growing season.

They brighten and soften rooms and are great for those who experience a little difficulty handling the physical demands of outdoor gardening, don’t have the time or space, or just prefer houseplants.

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of growing and maintaining houseplants and even debunk a couple of myths. Let’s see what we can uncover.

What’s your indoor environment?

The main thing is to select houseplants suited for your indoor environment.

Perform a quick assessment:

  • Estimate your available space, keeping in mind houseplants come in all shapes and sizes
  • Determine the lighting that different areas receive
  • Decide if you’re best able to care for low, moderate, or high maintenance plants

Tip: Many indoor plants have tropical origins, but not all tropical plants can handle indoor conditions.

It makes sense, right? Let’s move on.

Lighting needs

Meeting the lighting needs for indoor plants is the most critical factor for success in its duration, intensity, and quality.

In terms of sunlight, an unobstructed south window will receive the most, while north windows receive the least amount.

If windows are obstructed or don’t match your desired plant’s requirements, then consider supplemental lighting as an alternative.

An example of a low light plant is Sanseveria (snake plant), while Jade Plant (money plant) prefers lots of sunshine.

The best part is these tables list the light requirements of common houseplants to help you make the best choice. 

Assortment of houseplants sitting in indirect light on windowsill.

An assortment of houseplants sits in indirect light near white windows.

What kind of container do your houseplants need?

So let’s get to it, solid-bottomed, cutesy flowerpots look nice in the store, but save them for artificial flowers. To grow houseplants successfully, you’ll need pots that promote good drainage.

Ensure each pot:

  • Has a drainage hole at the bottom
  • Is large enough to accommodate roots and soil

Clay or plastic pots usually work best, realizing some clay pots are glazed on the outside, and that’s OK.

Potting Mix

Fill your containers with high-quality potting mix. If starting houseplants from seeds, then use a seed-starting mix. Be sure to leave enough space between the soil level and top edge of the pot (headroom) to water the plant without soil and water floating out and making a watery mess.

Life’s complicated enough, so keep it simple by purchasing a pre-sterilized, balanced mix widely available in retail outlets. Your plants will thank you!

Please don’t add field soil to your pots because:

  • You’re not sure what’s living in it, like pathogens;
  • Its composition likely won’t promote aeration in a pot; and
  • It probably lacks proper nutrients, all of which might kill your plants.

More about drainage

Did your favorite aunt ever tell you to drop some rocks or pot shards in the bottom of a flowerpot, and the water will drain just fine? Don’t forget her birthday but please ignore that advice.

The truth is that water must drain out of the pot for best results. So, please select a suitable pot and a drip tray to match, even though it’s irksome that they’re often sold separately. If you don’t want to buy a typical drip tray, check out these alternatives.

A planter with a drainage hole and bottom mesh covering.

A planter with a drainage hole and bottom mesh covering.

When is it time to repot houseplants?

You’ll know it’s time to repot when you observe roots growing out the bottom of the container.

Select a new home for your plant as follows:

  • Choose a pot about two inches larger in diameter than the current pot
  • Ensure it has a drainage hole
  • Upsize the drip tray, if necessary
  • If used before, scrub it using these pot-cleaning instructions

Also, here’s a handy set of instructions for repotting plants. It’s worth your time to check it out!

Water

The bottom two-thirds of the pot is where most roots reside. So, only add water when this zone starts to dry out. Stick your finger in the pot or keep your fingernails clean with a moisture meter.

Just remember the following:

  • Try not to under or overwater your plants
  • Let the water run out of the bottom of the pot
  • Don’t allow houseplants to sit in water

Take a little time to learn more about watering. You’ll be glad you did!

Temperature

Most houseplants enjoy temperatures between 60° to 80°F, tolerating fluctuations between higher daytime temperatures and lower nighttime temperatures (in this range). Colorado State University has some excellent guidance.

Humidity

Tropical houseplants need sufficient humidity to thrive. Increase humidity by:

  • Placing a humidifier nearby
  • Using wet gravel trays under your plants
  • Arranging plants into groups
  • Spraying a fine mist of water on your plants early in the day

Conversely, no adjustments are needed for arid-loving cacti as indoor climates tend to be dry.

Airflow and quality

Drafts and heated air tends to dry out and damage houseplants. Learn more about how air circulation affects plants’ wellbeing.

Many believe that houseplants can clean indoor air. Unfortunately, studies show that this happens at a prolonged rate, certainly not at a rate fast enough to replace more effective air purification methods.

But don’t take our word for it! Read the analysis published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.

Supplying nutrients

A good rule of thumb is to supply houseplants with vitamins and nutrients every two weeks during the spring-summer growing season. Always follow the instructions on the label and let a little run out the bottom of the pot.

Soluble salts

Over time, minerals (soluble salts) build up in potting soil from water and fertilizer. One telltale sign is a crusty ring around the inside of the container at the soil line. When too many salts build up in the soil, water flows out of roots. And that’s not good!

Avoid this problem by:

  • Ensuring your potting container has a drainage hole in the bottom
  • Pouring excess water out of the drip tray
  • Leaching plants every four to six months, which is simply running water through the soil to wash the salts out
Top down photo of a potted succulent next to some containers and another houseplant.

Top down photo of a potted succulent next to some containers and another houseplant.

Care and maintenance

Houseplants require care and grooming, but usually not very much.

Typical activities include:

  • Pinching tips
  • Pruning branches or sections
  • Dusting leaves (gently)
  • Controlling pests

Check out this complete guide on how to care for houseplants. There’s good stuff there!

What are some popular indoor plants?

There are well over 250 varieties of houseplants. Let’s focus on the most popular (and easiest).

Pothos is one of the most popular. And spider plants are super-easy to care for, probably one of the easiest.

Succulents are low-maintenance plants like cacti, sedum, and sempervivum.

Ferns are intricate plants that have spores on the underside of their leaves. So, don’t mistake those for insect eggs!

A begonia houseplant is easy for beginners, as long its need for humidity is met. And coleus is a striking plant easily grown from seed.

Mid-size to large indoor plants can make a bold statement, especially Bolivian Jew, Hypoestes, palm tree, philodendron, and Wandering Jew.

Small indoor plants fit in various spaces and allow you to grow a collection of—sometimes rather unusual—houseplants instead of just a few, such as paddle plants and string of pearls plants.

Make your indoors cozier with a houseplant!

Growing and caring for houseplants need not be a tendril-curling experience. They are some of the most abiding plants you can ever have.

The main thing is to ensure they can thrive in your space and be realistic about the care needs you’re comfortable handling, which will help you find houseplants you’ll love amongst an almost overwhelming array of choices.

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