You already have a green thumb, or: how to grow houseplants

Guest post by Derek Powazek

Those of you who have read my book already know Derek Powazek: he’s the one who had the vows about marriage being like liquid metal. For the rest of you, he’s the guy who runs, where this post originally appeared. -Ariel

elephant earI’ve been growing indoor plants since my first dorm room. They look nice, smell good, produce oxygen, sometimes make pretty flowers, and make a room feel alive. Nowadays, so much of my life is virtual, getting my hands dirty is a real pleasure.

When people come over to the house, they usually compliment me on my green thumb, but here’s the secret: There is no such thing as a green thumb. Or, if there is, you already have one.

Houseplants are easy to grow, and I can prove it. If you’re the kind of person who says that you can’t keep a plant alive, this single blog post will teach you everything you need to know to keep a plant alive in your house.

I’m going to talk extremely generally about “most” houseplants here. Of course, there are exceptions to everything. Plants have been on this planet longer than us, and their variety is endless. But this advice has always helped me, and I bet it could help you, too. I learned it from 20 years of trial and error, and a lifetime of watching my dad. (Thanks, Dad.)

The Basics

Plants are just biological programs. They have four inputs: water, soil, light, and their environment.

  • Environment means air temperature and humidity. Most of us have no control over these things, and that’s okay. I’ve lived in apartments in San Francisco with no air conditioning (you don’t need it here) and crappy electric heaters (which never worked) and had perfectly happy indoor plants. So don’t worry about controlling the environment for now. Just get plants that are likely to thrive in your environment.
  • Soil, if you’re buying potted plants, comes with the plant. You can generally assume that they picked the right kind, so this is another thing you won’t have to worry about at first. You may need to repot a thriving plant, but that takes years.

So, of a plant’s four inputs, you’re already done with two, and you haven’t lifted a finger yet. See how easy this is?

The two you have to worry about are light and water. If you have an unhappy houseplant, one or both of these things are probably off.

  • Water. I water once a week. It’s okay to let most plants dry out in between waterings, but if the leaves droop, it’s time to water. If leaves go brown, the plant may not be getting enough water. If the leaves go yellow, it’s getting too much water.

    Standing water is bad, because roots can rot. Make sure water can flow through the pot. If it’s small, pick it up and put it in the sink, give it a good soak, and make sure water’s coming out the bottom. If the plant is too big to be picked up and put in the sink, make sure it has a saucer and water it slowly until you see water come out the bottom. Have a towel ready for when you over-water. It happens to the best of us.

    Years ago, I had a bunch of houseplants that all started to droop around the same time. I asked for help at my local garden store, and the proprietor asked, “What kind of fertilizer are you using?” The answer was, none. The plants had been fine for years, but had finally used all the nutrients they could get out of the soil. A little fertilizer and they perked right up. So buy a simple liquid fertilizer, but use it sparingly. Too much fertilizer can kill a plant.

  • Light. Plants are solar-powered. I can’t tell you how many times a friend has asked me for help with a plant, and I came over to find it in a dark corner.

    Most houseplants like bright, indirect light. So pick a window that’s bright, but not in the direct path of the morning or evening sun. Often this means a north or south-facing window, but it could also be an east or west-facing window that’s partially obscured by something outside.

    If your plant’s leaves are withering, turning brown on the edges, or developing brown spots, that means it’s getting too much light. Move the plant away from the window a bit.

Go Get a Plant

elephant earIf you don’t have a houseplant already, go get one. Here are some shopping tips.

Buy small plants. The fun part of having plants is watching them grow. So don’t go buy a huge, well-established plant.

You don’t have to go to a plant store to buy a plant. Some of my longest-living houseplants were bought from grocery or hardware stores. Think of it this way: If a plant is hardy enough to survive a week on a shelf next to the breakfast cereal, it should be able to live in your house.

When considering a plant, make sure the stalk is dense and not squishy. But don’t just examine the plant, check the soil. Stick your fingers in and make sure it’s not moldy. Look for bugs under the leaves and in the soil. Sniff it. It should smell like wet earth, not a stagnant pool.

Buy cheap plants. Some of my favorite plants came from the 99-cent bin because they were a little weird. I’m a little weird, too. If you can revive them, they’ll reward you with amazing growth. If you can’t, well, you only lost a buck.

Find the employee that’s tending to the plants, and strike up a conversation with them. They’re almost always nice and helpful. They’ll know the plants better than anyone. If you describe the room you’re buying for, they’ll help you find the right plant, and advise you on how to care for it.

Buy plants in plastic pots, and get a clear plastic saucer to go under them. Do not but plants in baskets or pots without drainage. You have to be able to see when water comes out of the bottom to learn how much to water. Also avoid pots that have several different plants sharing the same soil. It’s just too complicated to get everything right for all the plants at the same time.

If you want your plants to be in a nice pot, get a ceramic or metal pot and put the plastic pot inside the nice pot, instead of physically transplanting the plant from the plastic pot to the nice pot. Having the plastic pot inside the ceramic pot allows you to swap plants between the nice pots, and also allows you to pull the plastic pot out to see if there’s standing water in the saucer.

If you’re just starting out, don’t buy finicky plants like Ficus, Orchids, or African Violets. You can work up to those.

Keeping It Alive

dracenaNow that you’ve got a plant in a plastic pot, with a saucer, in front of a window, all you have to do is keep it alive. The good news is, plants want to be kept alive, so they talk to you. You just have to learn their language.

Strong, green leaves are generally what you want. Brown means too much light or not enough water. Yellow means too much water.

Flowering usually means the plant is happy, but some plants will flower if they think they’re going to die. Some plants will drop leaves if they’re unhappy, but others just drop leaves as they grow. Point is, every plant is different. So get to know your plant. Just check them every day, and see what changes.

Dust collects naturally, and it gets in the way of the leaves making energy out of sunlight. So if your plant is dusty, you can occasionally take a damp cloth to the leaves and gently wipe off the dust. This is more important for plants with big leaves. Do not use a vacuum cleaner. Trust me. I tried.

Many houseplants originated in jungle-like environments, where there’s a lot more humidity in the air. So if you live in an arid environment and want to be nice to your plants, you can get a simple mister and mist your plants occasionally. I often mist my plants when I’m waiting for the toaster or on the phone. It’s not required, but I think it helps them, and it’s a nice calming ritual for me.

Remember that plants live in slow motion. So any change you make today won’t make an immediate difference. Sometimes you won’t see a change for weeks, even when you’re doing the right thing. So, above all, be patient.

Looking Forward

umbrella treeOne of the first plants I ever bought was an Umbrella Tree. I got it at Long’s Drugstore in Santa Cruz for $3.99 in 1991. Since then, it’s grown to the ceiling, twice. It’s lived in a dozen different rooms in several cities. It’s now in my living room, still growing.

As plants mature, new issues emerge. The soil, which I said you could ignore at the beginning, is now important. There’s only so many nutrients in soil, and they run out. Remember, these plants were designed to live in the ground, which is a living ecosystem. As a potted plant, they’re like little space stations. If they live long enough, they’ll use up all their nutrients and run out of space to grow.

Also, some plants come from bulbs, which are like big seeds. These plants will make baby bulbs that split off from the parent bulb. Give a plant like this enough time, and the bulbs will crowd out the soil. I just repotted an African Mask plant that had become one huge mass of bulb babies. It had to be repotted into five pots.

So if a previously happy plant starts to seem unhappy, and you haven’t changed your routine, they may need to be repotted. Fortunately, it’s easy. Just get a bigger pot and some potting soil. Gardening stores will sell soil specifically marked for indoor plants.

You might want to do this outside, since it’s messy. Pull the plant out of its current pot and marvel at the network of roots that have formed at the edge of the soil. You’ll have to break up the roots a bit, so that they’ll notice the new soil. Then set the plant in the new pot and pour soil around it. Pack the soil in tight, give the plant a big water, and let it drain completely. Congrats! You’ve repotted.

Some plants also need to be trimmed to make sure they don’t get too big or unbalanced. Don’t be afraid to trim aggressively. If a plant is healthy, it’ll come back. The aforementioned Umbrella Tree has been cut back to a stump twice, and each time it bounced back strong.

Watch out for critters! If you see little insects on your plants, go get a gentle bugspray for houseplants. It’s basically a soapy spray, and you may have to mist the plant with it every day for a week to do the job. If you have house pets or kids, make sure you get a nontoxic bugspray that won’t hurt them.

The worst case of bugs I ever had was an ant colony that took up residence in a Dracaena. I tried all the gentle bugsprays I could find and nothing worked. I finally took it outside and doused the soil with Raid. It worked, but it almost killed the plant. Not recommended.

It Ain’t About You

The most important thing to remember is this: It’s not personal. Sometimes you obsess over a plant and it still keels over on you. Other times you forget to water for two weeks and your cat uses it as a litterbox and it thrives anyway.

Plants are living things, and living things are complicated. If your plant dies, I’m sorry. It’s probably nothing you did or didn’t do. The environment may have just been wrong for that particular plant. Try again with a different plant. Ask for advice at your local plant store. Try again.

If your plants look great, feel free to take credit when your friends compliment you on your green thumb. But know that it probably has very little to do with the color of your thumbs. You just lucked into the right plant in the right spot. Smile, enjoy the beauty it brings to your life, and then go get another one. posts you might love

Comments on You already have a green thumb, or: how to grow houseplants

  1. Great tips! All my plants are at work, most of which are happy, but one is a little sad looking. I’d love to keep plants at home, but the last time I did, well…. one of my cats kind of nommed it all.

    But maybe I’ll try again! All of a sudden, I want an umbrella tree. So cool.

  2. I’ve been having trouble getting my orchid to bloom again. It was blooming fine for a few months, then BAM! Leaves turned yellow and fell off. I heard that’s normal for orchids…(I have leaves sprouting again)…but maybe I need some orchid food (fertilizer) to help it along.

    Meanwhile…I have no idea what’s going on with my daffodil. It was a present, and I don’t know what to do with it!

  3. Boy, this makes it sound easy! I barely seem to be able to handle the little catnip plant I bought at Petco…

    Any recommendations on houseplants that won’t poison a cat?

  4. I clicked on this thinking “Psh. Another green thumber snubbing his green nose at me! I totally can’t grow plants. They shrivel in brown, curled-leaved fear when I walk past.” And then I got to the water part… and I went “OH, maybe I should have taken the bamboo out of the shower… hmm and I guess I should have kept it in a pot that had drainage. Ooops.” And I thought my bamboo had some rare strain of TaraMonster Black Thumb Virus that gave it root rot and yellow leaves! I stand corrected. And yay! Because now I’m gonna go buy some bamboo!

  5. Thanks for the warm welcome! This is my first guest post here but hopefully not my last.

    Lauren: I grow orchids, too, and it can be a challenge getting them to rebloom. Here are some tips:

    Jill: Unfortunately a lot of houseplants are mildly poisonous. Most aren’t deadly, but they may make a kitty barf. The best thing to do is to train the cat out of nibbling on them. I used a spray called “OFF” to dissuade my cat from going after plants – it’s mostly citrus oil, which doesn’t hurt the cat or the plant. It also helps to put plants up and out of reach, if possible. Look into hanging or wall-mounted planters? Finally, some plants are more attractive to cats than others. They especially like mint (catnip is a kind of mint) and grasslike plants, so if you have a nibbler, avoid those.

  6. This may be a dumb question, but do these methods work with growing herbs? I can’t tell you how many basil plants I’ve destroyed.

  7. Derek, what’s the name of that variegated vine type plant growing up around the window beside Fred (before he got cropped)? I love it!

  8. Conniebird: Don’t feel bad. Basil is hard. It likes a lot of sun and heat, which is hard to do indoors, and impossible to do outdoors in my native San Francisco. Still, everyone says you can’t do tomatoes indoors and my friend Gayla did!

    Mullberry: In the hanging basket? That’s a Pothos, aka Scindapsus aures, aka Epipremnum aureum ‘Marble Queen’, aka that climbing vine that’s in every office and is impossible to kill. I’ve had that one for 20 years! You can find them anyplace that sells indoor plants.

  9. Love this post!! I’ve been dying to put some nice fluffy green things in my apartment. We get NO sun, though. It’s so bad my African Violet finally bit it, and I grew that thing from half a leaf to the size of my coffee table. One front window gets very indirect sun. Any recommendations???

    • Rosemary and Mint. I bought those guys in a Walmart grocery section, and they’re great in indirect light. The Rosemary doesn’t need a whole lot of water and likes to have very dry soil, so if you forget to water it, it’s fine. The mint is a total weed (Don’t plant it outside). It just grows and grows, and if it starts drooping a little because it hasn’t been watered enough, I just soak the soil until it runs out the bottom and the plant is fine within an hour. And they’re both in a north window, I think they get 4 hours of sun a day.

  10. Thank you for this post. I recently have had serious guilt for killing a phalaenopsis orchid my partner gave me for my birthday… it was my first orchid! I dont feel so bad now.

    If you have any links to lists of “Any Jane-blackthumb can grow these indoors without killing them” plants, Id be much obliged 🙂

  11. I have a trio of cacti sitting in my window. Spike the cactus is the first plant I’ve kept alive for more than a few weeks. He’s been thriving for about a year. He can defend himself agains the dog (but not my retarded cat who uses him as a toothpick). I think he’s about ready for a bigger pot.

  12. Hooray! We’re moving into our house at the end of this month and I was excited to have space for plants, but unfortunately I’ve never grown anything before (except for cats). This will be most helpful! Any tips for outdoor plants? Also, we live in Georgia and I know the humidity and hot summers can be problematic. Any tips?

  13. I love indoor gardening! I have a gigantic something plant that was only supposed to get to be about 12-20″ and is now around four feet tall. I still have no idea what it is, and I’ve had it four five years now. (It’s lived in two countries and three states now.)

    I also have a jabuticabeira, my beautiful Brazilian fruiting tree. I cannot wait for it to start fruiting, as I really miss Brazil and their jabuticabas! It’s about a foot and a half tall and will get gigantic eventually. It’s only a year and a half old. I also have a mango tree (mangeira) which I started from seed. It’s almost a year old now and just under a foot tall. It’s an ataulfo mango and is super sweet! Mmm. We also have many smaller plants such as basil, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, aloe vera, a christmas cactus, and my food garden which consists of sprouting watermelons, cucumbers, zucchini, peas (3 types), mustard greens, red celery, true cantaloupe, another melon, some sort of cilantro, and I have more seeds to plant once we’re finished moving into the new house.

    I’d love to get a water garden started and put some tilapia in it! Oh, and I have an outdoor garden with onions, chives, parsley, tomatoes, and strawberries. Oh, and a yellow raspberry plant. It’s all coming with us!

    I tend to let my angora rabbit eat whatever he wants from the indoor garden (as long as I know it won’t poison him.) Dimitri particularly likes rosemary and basil. My foster cat keeps trying to pull out the seedlings, but we’ve squirted him with water a few times and he leaves them alone now. My dogs (two large breed dogs) love to try to eat the rosemary when the bunny is out, but they are confused when it’s not yummy meat! That weird rabbit…

    My end goal for this year is to try out a lemon tree again (it was brutally infected with armoured scale, and nothing we did cured it after trying for 9 months and we didn’t want it to infect other plants) and try out an orange tree, a lime tree, a cocoa tree, a coffee tree, and maybe even a pintangeira! is a great place to find specific tropical fruiting trees. I’m not affiliated with them, but they make it easier to find tropical trees in the US. Believe it or not, I bought my Jabuticabeira on Amazon, and they have a special on a lemon/lime/orange seedling trio!!

  14. What a great article!! Thank you for your simple and easy to understand tips! I’ve recently fallen in love with indoor plants and I’m so excited to grow more! This was very helpful! Thanks!

  15. It’s a bit old now, but Derek I really love this article (and your writing generally). I know a fair bit about plants, so do get bugged a little for tips too (although happy to share the green thumb love), the problem is there is a lot to say and not much time to get it all in. Your article is clear and concise though = *bookmarked* and problem solved. 😉

  16. For serial plant killers, I think the best are pothos and spider plants. They’re hardy and forgiving as new plant owners learn about water and light levels. Cacti are kind of easy but they’re sensitive to too much water, and they don’t give early warning, they just keel over from rot. Also, especially if you’re growing a tall plant, don’t forget to turn it a little when you water it, or it will grow lopsided.

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