Houseplants Care

A few years ago, I came back from a 4 day work trip to many dead houseplants. This time around, I now have 3 dozen of many different varieties. They're all happy, partly because I choose no longer to raise ferns. If you ever get complacent, just get yourself ferns. RIP your self confidence.

You need to adjust your mental model of houseplants.

Adjustment 1: You are over watering and not under watering.

You are loving your houseplants too much. If the plant is browning at the tips, you are giving it too much water. The veins are bursting and the leaves are rotting. This is what is causing the discoloration at the tips. We are taught to think yellow or brown means under watering. This is the most common incorrect mental model.

If the soil smells moldy, that's another sign you are over watering. The roots of your plant are rotting. You may not be able to see it, but a similar effect is happening to the roots where the tips are decaying. Basically, we keep killing our plants softly.

For succulents, the leaves will fall off if you gently touch them. They don't brown at the tips since they are designed to save up water between droughts, so it makes sense they are too full to sustain themselves when over watered.

How do I fix over watering?

  1. Stop watering the plant.
  2. Let the soil dry out completely. 0-100 on a soil meter.
  3. Throw out the old soil and re-pot it with fresh soil.
  4. Put the plant next to a window with lots of light.
  5. Water properly. More on this soon too!

It happens to all of us.

There may be a chance your over watered plant is beyond saving. It's happened to me too, several times. Thank it and give it a proper burial in the compost bin.

Adjustment 2: Low light houseplant advertisement is a lie.

All indoor plants are already getting lower light compared to being at a nursery. All plants need to be next to a window or skylight where they can "see the sun." Ideally, this window will face the east or west for low light plants and the north or south for sunlight loving plants.

How do I water plants properly?

  1. Imagine how plants live outside in the world. When it rains, they get a good thorough soaking. Imagine that and water less often, more thoroughly. The water should drip through the bottom generously.
  2. Don't water on a schedule, water when the plant wants it. Each plant has different needs. Water when the leaves are droopy (most plants) or wrinkly (succulents). This doesn't mean your watering can't be scheduled. This means the information you searched online isn't going to match your home's specific needs. If you cook, this is similar to how "medium heat" could vary between stoves.
  3. Aim for the soil, not the leaves. Pooled water in the leaves will rot the plant and attract bugs. Use a rag to soak up any pooling water that's not going to dry up within the day.
  4. Bottom water the plant if it is difficult to water from the top. Try bottom watering succulents. Bottom watering is putting the planter into a larger container of water and letting the soil soak up its fill.
  5. Use filtered water. Tap water may cause brown spots due to minerals. Rainwater is ideal. Admittedly, I use tap water these days. Just be aware of what the minerals may do aesthetically!

Adjustment 3: Use new growth as your measurement of a happy plant.

Your plant is happy when the leaves are green or the variegated color they are supposed to be. Your plant is happy when it's making new leaves for you at the rate it loses old leaves or faster. When an old leaf dies off, it will yellow evenly across the leaf. Remember, when it's over watered it will brown at the tips.

Some houseplants will bloom at peak contentedness. It is truly a joy to reach that point.

View of Susan's east facing window full of her houseplants.

Common follow-up questions.

So, how can you tell if your plant is under watered?

It has probably never been unless you've literally ignored the plant since you've had it. During my most recent move, they packed a succulent into a box where it sat in storage and transit for 3 weeks. It was still alive when I got it back!

What potting mix do you use?

Buy well draining indoor plant soil. Before you use it, make sure there are no bugs in it already. Before, I used a soil mixture from a book, How Not to Kill Your Houseplants. Honestly, I'm past my experimentation phase, so now I can attest that proper care with even basic tools will suffice.

What're some helpful tools?

Having a soil meter may be helpful when starting out. It measures light, soil wetness, and pH. Sometimes an insect invasion is hard to avoid. Make sure to have gnat strips and hydrogen peroxide on hand. You use a 1:4 ratio with water solution to kill the bug eggs. Water after normal watering to mitigate root burn.

What're some of your favorite plants?

I recommend philodendrons such as monstera or marble queens, snake plants, zz plants, the pilea, and hoyas. Really truly succulents are easy to keep alive so long as you don't overwater them. Remember their natural environments are very hot and dry.

Then you may graduate to more unforgiving species like the fiddles or something rare when you are confident you can keep houseplants alive.

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