One thing I learned early on in my adult life is that I have zero gardening skills. I have failed again and again to keep even potted cactuses and other succulents alive.
I’ve watched as perfectly healthy-looking plants, placed near a window for plenty of light, seem fine for a while. But then the leaves begin to droop, then they change from green to black, falling from the stem into a pile of dried, crumbly bits. Or sometimes they turn to mush. The common theme is that it doesn’t work.
I was ready to quit even basic houseplants, given my track record and nonexistent ability to keep them alive. But a talk with Judy Tan, manager of local garden center and landscaping supplier Hana Gardens Del Rey Oaks, made me think I might try my hand again at keeping houseplants alive. In Tan’s view, there’s opportunity even for those of us who are clueless, and she shared some tips to increase the chances of houseplant success.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m not the right person to give advice – but Tan, along with Steve McShane, owner of McShane’s Landscape Supply in Salinas, are here to back me up, and they know what they’re talking about. Between them they have over 26 years of professional plant experience. Here’s some of what they suggest.
EMBRACE LOW MAINTENANCE OPTIONS. As at your local nursery about which species are the least finicky. The reason is pretty simple: It increases the plant’s survival and it could make you feel like a skilled gardener (even if you aren’t one) with little effort. Suggestions include some types of ferns, spider plants, peace lilies and rubber plants. McShane’ favorite is dracaena: “[It] is so flexible and it doesn’t require a lot of water.”
TAKE THE TEMPERATURE. Pick a plant that will thrive in the space where you intend to keep it. “Right plant, right spot,” Tan says. When you show up at a nursery it helps if you can describe the lighting and temperature in the room where you intend to keep your plant. Most indoor plants don’t need direct sunlight, but succulents do.
SIZE MATTERS. Some plants are fast-growing, and if you want to keep them in a small windowsill pot, they’ll quickly outgrow their space. Repot as needed to give the roots enough space. Tan recommends repotting every two years if you see roots circling the pot (that’s assuming, of course, that can keep a plant alive for two years – here’s hoping).
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY. Choosing the right pot and soil affects drainage and healthy roots. Terra cotta pots dry faster and soil with a high volume of organic matter drains faster, important factors in letting a plant get watered without getting waterlogged, a distinction that helps keep the roots healthy. Avoid decorative pots that don’t have drainage holes, or if you use them, use then as saucers with another pot inside.
WATER, NOT TOO MUCH, BUT NOT TOO LITTLE. McShane says about 80 percent of issues he sees are related to water, either too much or too little. Most houseplants need to be watered once every one to three weeks, and saturated but not oversaturated. Tan’s recommendation to make sure you get volume right when watering is a simple act of observation: “You should water enough so that some water is going out of the drainage holes, but that the plant will not be sitting in water,” she says. When you check back the next day, the water that drained into the saucer should be gone.
TALK TO YOUR PLANT. That’s only kind of a joke. Tan recommends spending time with a plant, watching when it thrives or when it doesn’t – “You really want to learn about your plant and get a good feel for what it wants and what it needs,” she says. Experiment with more or less water, or moving a pot depending on how the sun comes into your home during different times of year, and see how it responds. Low-maintenance plants are harder to kill, but they still require some commitment. McShane recommends starting with no more than four to keep it manageable, and he thinks it’s a good idea to find an accountability partner (like a housemate or spouse) to check in on your indoor gardening project.
FAKE OUT. If you are not up to the challenge of even low-maintenance houseplants, you can always opt for fake plants. They do come with some advantages over living plants: They are green and vibrant year-round, and you won’t feel remorse if you outlive them – but they’re far more likely to outlive you.