There is no magic to good plant care, just basic science and simple rules.

By Jen Stearns
Updated January 29, 2019
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©Sara Mark Photography

Think about what a space with-out plants feels like: clinical, sterile. Now add plants. Homey, right? Warm, designed, cared for. There’s real science behind all those fuzzy feelings; studies show that productivity goes up when there are plants in the office and that tending plants can reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

RELATED: 16 Low-Maintenance Houseplants Most Likely to Survive All Winter Long

Yet as the owner of the Seattle-based plant store Urban Sprouts, I’ve come across too many people who have an outright fear of plants. “Can’t grow a thing,” they’ll tell me. “I can kill a plant just by looking at it.” Some people consider owning a houseplant akin to owning a dog in terms of responsibility.

I must disagree there, and that’s why I wrote The Inspired Houseplant ($17; amazon.com), a guidebook for even the blackest of thumbs. While it’s true that, like dogs, certain breeds of plants are better suited to certain owners, what I love about plants is that the beauty, joy, and health they bring to us indoors are accessible to everyone. Let’s dive in and turn your space into a gorgeous garden paradise.

RELATED: The Surprising Health Benefits of Owning Houseplants (and How to Incorporate Them Into Your Decor)

©Sara Mark Photography

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Hands and gloves: If you want to garden “naked” but keep soil from getting under your nails, run your nails over a bar of soap, as if you’re scratching it, to fill in the space underneath. After planting, wash your hands, and the dirt will come right out. If you’re eager to spare your manicure (or you’re handling cacti), buy a snug pair of gloves that offers dexterity and a solid grip.

Snips: Good-quality snips (or clippers) are the only tool you should use for trimming roots and pruning. Their edges are razor-sharp, which spares the plant by making clean, surgical cuts. Wipe them down after use and keep them dry.

Watering can and mister: You can buy very inexpensive watering cans and spray bottles for a few dollars, or spend a bit more to buy ones that are a pleasure to use and so pretty that you’ll want to keep them out.

Scoop or trowel: Useful for adding dirt to pots and digging planting holes. Measuring cups work well in a pinch too; just wash them after use.

Chopsticks: These are great for poking holes in soil to make space for roots, aerating the soil, or placing items in delicate pots.

Plastic tote: When you don’t have the luxury of a shed, a plastic tote works well for holding all your tools and pots. Plastic containers meant to hold large amounts of cereal or grains are nice for storing soil, compost, or fertilizer.

©Sara Mark Photography

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In general, it’s a good idea to repot any plant you bring home within about two months, as plants don’t enjoy living in plastic nursery pots for long periods. And repot your existing cultivars regularly to keep them looking and feeling their best. Plants in a two-gallon pot or smaller should be repotted once a year. Plants in larger pots can go between two and three years before repotting.

Pick the pot for your goals: To help a plant grow larger, give it more space. Going up by two inches in diameter is a common rule of thumb, but you can give your plant even more room if you really want to encourage growth. To keep a plant the same size, just trim the roots prior to repotting it in a same-size pot.

Add a drainage layer: Put a one-to three-inch layer of bark, pebbles, or broken pottery in the bottom of the pot. This keeps soil from running out the drainage holes and prevents the roots from sitting in water. Cover with a thin layer of potting soil.

Let your roots breathe: Loosen and separate the roots with your fingers and shake off as much of the old soil as you can. Don’t be concerned if you hear slight tearing sounds—most plants can lose a lot of root mass and come out OK. Caveat: If you’re repotting begonias, ficus, or cacti, try to disturb their roots as little as possible, since they don’t like to be touched.

Pot the right way: If you’re not going up a pot size, take the plant and use snips to trim the roots, focusing on big, thick roots. Holding the plant with one hand, fan out the roots in the bottom of the pot. Scoop soil around and on top of the roots, leaving at least ½ inch at the top of the pot to catch water overflow. Pat the soil down lightly and water immediately with a microbial inoculant.

©Sara Mark Photography

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While there isn’t one golden rule—factors like drafts, humidity, air-conditioning, and pot size and material can affect how thirsty plants get—there are a few general tips you can apply to growing plants in your home.

Look at the leaves: Leafy plants tend to want to stay moister, while plants with thicker, rigid structures, including cacti, snake plants, and plants with woody stems, need less water.

Don’t let it sit: No plant likes to sit in water. If water goes into the drainage tray and stays more than a day, dump it out.

Consider the size: Smaller pots generally need to be watered more often. But many people overwater bigger pots, thinking they need to saturate every inch of soil. A very general rule is to use an amount of water equal to about one-third the volume of the pot.

Cachepot rules: If you’re using a cachepot (a pot with no drainage hole), halve the water volume and double the frequency of watering.

Schedule it: A regular schedule may help beginner gardeners who have trouble telling by look or feel when it’s time to water. Pick a day (or several, depending on your plants’ needs) and make it a routine. Reassess periodically to make sure it’s working for your plants.

Signs of overwatering: Look for a musty smell, soil that never dries out, small insects on the surface of the soil, bottom leaves that are turning yellow or brown, and mushy leaves or mushy pots.

Signs of underwatering: Look for drooping, shriveling, leaf tips or edges that are crispy and brown, and leaves in the middle or near the top that are yellowing. A plant that needs to be repotted might exhibit these signs too, so if you haven’t changed your watering schedule and your plant shows these signs, it’s time to repot.

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Low light: Place the plant within a few feet of an east- or north-facing window, or across the room from a south- or west-facing window.

Moderate light: Place it next to an east- or north-facing window that gets at least a few hours of direct light each day.

Bright light: Place it in a spot that gets direct exposure for six or more hours each day.

© 2018 by Jen Stearns. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Inspired Houseplant ($17; amazon.com) by permission of Sasquatch Books.