An *Idiot’s Guide to Growing Indoor Plants

*It’s me. I am the idiot.

Until about a year ago, I thought I was the Plant Killer. Everyone always said, “Start out with a succulent! They’re SO easy.” So I would buy a succulent and do my best to take care of it the way everyone said (which was basically: don’t. just leave it. flick water at it every few months). Unsurprisingly, these hardy unkillable plants would wither under my baffled care.

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Then, last spring, I saw a plant at the farmer’s market and I fell in love. It was called an artillery plant (I’d never heard of that before) and I had to have it. “I’m so sorry,” I crooned to it on the way home. “You’re going to die but I had to have you.”#truelove

I bought a terracotta pot and some soil from Home Depot, and thus I had my first green plant. (The non-succulent kind. Although I did receive a venus flytrap as a gift, before I figured plants out, and it died, and I was heartbroken. I want to find another and care for it properly this time, but they’re NOT easy to find around here).

I kept waiting for the artillery plant to keel over and die, but every day it remained – beautiful, green, and happy. I began to wonder – was my curse over? Had God taken pity on me and given me a green thumb (or at the very least taken away my black one)? I began to keep my eye out for more plants. Grocery stores and the farmer’s market became new fields to scope out, and I found myself regularly coming home with new plants. Every space that DIDN’T have a plant began to look bare. Every few days I’d be crouched outside, quickly potting a new one so I could take it inside and spruce up my room.

The most plants I’ve ever had in my room at one time was a grand total of sixteen. Right now I have thirteen, but the farmer’s market is almost back and I’ll have more plants than I know what to do with.

NONE OF THIS HELPS YOU (yet) but I’m about to, I promise. I have a variety of plants right now – roses, pothos, ivy, ferns, a few mystery plants I haven’t sent to Flower Checker because I’m used to them and hey, we’ve made it this far together. SO without further ado, onto the tips!

LIGHTING

My room faces east(erly) and while I have two windows, my room isn’t particularly sunny. It’s bright, but it’s not ‘sustain all the plants with photosynthesis’ bright. I realized, while trying to take care of a large ivy plant and keep it from dying, that some of my plants weren’t getting enough sun, even though they were consistently getting several hours of ‘brightness.’ With plants that aren’t low-light or shade plants, I developed a system – I’d take them into the bathroom every two or three days, set them on the counter, flip on the light, and leave them for a hour or so. At first I was afraid the light might be too bright and might burn the more sensitive ivy leaves, but no! The plants began to thrive, sprout new leaves, and grow faster. So if you’re wondering why you have a plant that’s ALIVE but isn’t growing, it might not be getting enough light!

That said, NOT ALL of my plants need this extra treatment. So far only my ivy and a mystery plant require this extra light, but if I get a plant that doesn’t seem to be growing, I give it the extra light.

SOMETIMES a plant just needs to be moved. Ferns need SOME light, but too much will burn them or dry them out. (Most ferns die in this house, I’ve discovered; it’s simply too dry. The thicker the leaves + darker the color of the fern, I’ve noticed, the hardier it is. Fiddle-leaf and maiden hair ferns need a lot more moisture and might do best in a bathroom.) If a plant’s leaves are turning yellow or brown but it’s getting enough water, it might be in too much sunlight so try moving it somewhere a bit shadier or more out of the way. Most plants DO NOT thrive in COMPLETE shade, though, so don’t lock them under the stairs like Harry Potter.

LOCATION

Another important thing to consider when choosing a location for your plant, aside from lighting, is the air quality and flow. Basically: don’t put your plan right by or under an air vent, or anywhere with extreme temperature changes. Plants like consistency. I know I said to move them around and test which lighting they like best, but don’t move them TOO much. They actually ‘get used’ to residing in a certain location, and moving them around too much will stress them out.

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WATER

I’ve heard many different plant owners give many different recommendations about watering your plants. ‘Water them once a week, that’ll keep them alive,’ some say, but that doesn’t work for all plants. Some, sure – devil’s ivy and pothos plants are pretty low-maintenance, but I have a mystery plant that begins to wilt if I don’t water it every two or three days. I essentially water all my plants the same way – I give them roughly a cup and a half of water ever two or three days. You don’t need to be exact – your plant isn’t going to die if you forget to water them one day, or don’t give them e x a c t l y a cup and a half of water. I fill a regular-sized water bottle, and that bottle waters two plants before I go refill it. A common tip is: dig your finger into the soil of your plant, and if the top two inches of your plant are still damp, you don’t need to water them (I think this works as a rule of thumb, but since I have a loose watering schedule I don’t use this unless I’m trying to figure out why a plant is unhappy).

SINK WATER IS FINE, also. At first I thought it was causing problems, but it isn’t. Washington water is known to be pretty hard, and the plants still like it just fine. If your water is unusual for any reason (extremely high-mineral, etc.) maybe test it out on a hardy plant to see how it reacts.

FEEDING TIME

I use the little yellow sprinkle-food balls (I never said I was a professional at this, okay) because they’re the easiest and seem to work. Miracle Gro is TRICKY, GUYS. I killed four plants using it wrong because I, in my genius, didn’t read the instructions and assumed it worked like regular plant food. Yeah, that artillery plant that kick-started my obsession? I killed it this way. It was tragic. I also killed my largest, most beautiful ivy plant. So either use it the way it’s instructed or NOT AT ALL. I’ve decided I don’t like extremely concentrated plant foods like that anyway and prefer the time-released fertilizer types, but that’s up to you!

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SOIL

Not all soil is created equal. If you have indoor plants, use soil for indoor plants. The more nutrients it comes with, the better. Also, some plants thrive on sandier soil – I try to avoid those plants, but if you’re looking for more desert-style plants, be sure to check on what kind of soil they’d prefer! Since I don’t have any of those, I use the same soil (I don’t remember the brand, but it’s a fairly generic brand of indoor potting soil from home depot) for all my plants.

POTTING

Except for my hanging plants, I use typical terracotta pots. It’s VERY important that whatever pots you buy have a drainage hole + saucer, otherwise they can build up backlogged bacteria inside the plant and that will rot it from the roots. Also, after you’ve watered a plant, if you notice water in the saucer, be sure to dump it out. You don’t want your plant sitting in a puddle of water.

NOTE: mold does grow on terracotta pots. If you notice a thick white film forming around the bottom, that’s a kind of plant-mold. But never fear – it wipes off with a damp paper towel, and it’s not dangerous. Super easy to take care of.

If you have hanging plants in plastic pots (of which I have four), you obviously won’t want to just water them over the carpet, as water WILL drain out through the hole in the bottom. I just take mine into the bathroom, put them in the sink, run water into them, and let them drain for 10-15 minutes before hanging them back up. Be sure to tilt the pot in all directions to get the excess water out, otherwise you’ll have surprise dirt-water dripping out after you re-hang them.

Finally…

Some plants will still die. For example, I bought my little indoor rose plant on a whim, and it’s not doing so well. I can’t figure out why, since by all accounts I’m doing everything right, but I don’t think it’s long for this world. That, unfortunately, is life – and if you get emotionally attached to your plants, like I do, it can legitimately be hard when a plant dies under your care. Don’t worry! The more you practice and the more plants you succeed in growing, the easier it gets. I rarely have plants die anymore, unless I have no idea what they are, can’t find any information about them, and have no clue what they need despite my experiments.

I recently downloaded an app called Flower Checker (it does cost something like two dollars, I think) where if you send in pictures of your mystery plant, a team of botanists will try and identify it for you!

I hope this helps you on your journey to becoming a plant mom, plant father, plant cousin, weird plant uncle, etc. etc.

Frondest wishes to you all.

(yes that was terrible i’m leaving now)
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10 thoughts on “An *Idiot’s Guide to Growing Indoor Plants”

    1. Unfortunately I am too forgetful (lazy?) and this current house does not really allow plants inside. (Although I did get away with my little plant baby by keeping it in a vase in the windowsill of the bathroom. (Which gets terrific sun.)

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  1. Oh my gosh. I’m gonna try this. I’ve been killing succulents for years (which is tragic, because I think they’re beautiful). I do have one asparagus fern ice somehow managed to keep alive for three years now. But that’s pure luck, I’m convinced. Everything else I’ve ever gotten has died, despite my best efforts.

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  2. I’m trying to work up the courage to take home a few of these mystery plants we have at the library. They literally just grow in mason jars of water and we never put any dirt in them, they just… live, somehow. My boss keeps encouraging me to take some cuttings but I swear: I WOULD be the person to drown a plant that lives only in water. XP

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  3. I was waiting eagerly for the advice about roses, and then my face fell when you admitted your rose was giving you a hard time.

    I’ve tried several times with those adorable mini roses, the kind where the full-size blossoms are about an inch across, and they always gradually dry up on me no matter how carefully I tend them! Wish I knew the secret to rose care…if there is one.

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  4. I’ve killed, oh, four maybe of those roses. I adore them, they are like $5, so I grab them, and then well. We’ve even planted a few outside, but they don’t last too long. I “think” we still have one living outside (we also don’t have great soil).

    I do want to try a variety of plants eventually, it’s supposed to be so good for the air, so I’m definitely filing this away.

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    1. SUPER good for the air! Different plants clean different things from the air; I have to wipe the leaves off and clean them pretty frequently because they physically pull dust, etc. to themselves!

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