4 Very Simple Steps to Keep Your Houseplants Alive

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

A space without greenery can feel clinical and sterile. Now add plants. Homey, right? Your surroundings feel warm, designed, and cared for. There's real science behind all those fuzzy feelings; studies show that plants in the office raise productivity and that tending plants can reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

Yet as the owner of the Seattle-based plant store Urban Sprouts, I've come across too many people with an outright fear of plants. "Can't grow a thing," they'll tell me. "I can kill a plant just by looking at it."

I must disagree, and that's why I wrote The Inspired Houseplant ($17; amazon.com), a guidebook for even those who aren't great at caring for plants. While it's true that certain types of plants are better suited to certain owners, the beauty, joy, and health that plants bring are accessible to everyone. Let's turn your space into a gorgeous garden paradise.

01 of 04

Prepare Your Planting Kit

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Hands and gloves: To keep your hands clean and prevent cuts and scrapes from getting infected, buy a snug pair of gardening 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 for to buy ones that are a pleasure to use and so pretty that you'll want to keep them out.

Scoop or trowel: These are 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.

02 of 04

Master the Art of Potting

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Plants don't enjoy living in plastic nursery pots for long periods, so repot any plant you bring home within about two months. And repot your existing cultivars regularly to keep them looking and feeling their best. Plants in a 2-gallon pot or smaller should be repotted once a year, while plants in larger pots can go between two and three years.

Pick the pot for your goals: To help a plant grow larger, give it more space. Going up by 2 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 1-to 3-inch layer of bark, pebbles, or broken pottery in the bottom of the pot. This keeps soil from running out of 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. That said, 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, 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.

03 of 04

Conquer Your Watering Fears

©Sara Mark Photography

Factors like drafts, humidity, air-conditioning, and pot size and material can affect how thirsty plants get, but 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.

Follow 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.

Pay attention to 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 pots.

Watch for 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. If you haven't changed your watering schedule, and your plant shows these signs, repot your plant.

04 of 04

Decode Light Needs

Low light: Place the plant within a few feet of a window that's facing north or east. If the window is facing south or west, place it across the room.

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.

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