How to Keep Houseplants Alive?

I love having at least one plant in every room. And I usually think a room feels sort of stale if there's nothing alive in the space. But, you guys, I am killing houseplants left and right and I'm spending way too much money replacing the goners!


I know a lot of you have the greenest of green thumbs - so I'd love to ask you - What do you do to keep your houseplants alive? Water from the bottom? How? And how much? Do those glass bulb water things work? I read online once that leaves with brown edges means you're over-watering. Plant-tending is finicky business!

68 comments:

Nora said...

My Dad has the greenest green houseplant thumb of anyone I know, and his procedure is very simple: every Sunday, soak all of the plant in the sink until water runs out the bottom of the pot. Once a month, use miracle grow or similar. That's really all he does, and his orchids bloom forever.

Linzy said...

Apartment Therapy has done a few good posts on low-light and low-maintenance houseplants. A few of my favorites include boston ferns, peace lilies (there is a type with variegated leaves that I love) the ficus, the "prayer plant", and one that has many common names but most people know it as "snake plant". I water once a week for non-succulents, and every other week for desert climate plants, like the snake plant. And I do it the same day, ever week. The peace lily is fantastic because it will pitch a very obvious fit when it needs water, and is instantly revived as soon as you do. And water amount depends on pot size, but I say that you should water until just a small amount of water comes out into the saucer below the pot. The soil should be dry by the time you water again, but not so dry as to come away from the sides of the pot. I worked in a greenhouse for a long time, and have had some of my houseplants for almost a decade now.

Sarah B said...

I have found that it is all about the types of plants you have. The easiest ever plants to keep alive that I've found are both the sansevieria/snake plant and pothos vine. Both could do well no matter what the light situation is. I water my snake plants so rarely (I am talking once a month). You practically can't kill them. Pothos can just be watered whenever the leaves start drooping (every few days). I have a lot of succulents that I just water once every few weeks and keep in a lot of sunlight. Both the snake plant and the pothos vine are easy to propagate which is fun and saves money!

Lisa said...

I like some of the self watering pots from IKEA. They are great because I usually forget to water until plants are all droopy.

JC said...

I've always had dozens of plants around my apartment (and now in my house). The key for me is to find low maintenance plants. Many varieties need full sun, and that really doesn't tend to work for me. I tend to get ones that are partial shade or filtered sun. I water all my plants once a week, and the amount of water will depend on how much soil is in each pot. I aim to completely moisten the soil, but not so much water that it fills the saucer in the base (if the pot has one).

I tend to give all my plants the same treatment, and if they don't survive, too bad. For this reason, I've never been able to keep plants like Rhododendrons (azaleas) alive no matter how much I try to keep them happy.

The plants that I *DO* have, tend to be very healthy and beautiful. I currently have:

African Violets
Ivies (English, and Arrowhead)
Succulents (Aloes, Haworthias)
Rubber Tree
Hoyas (which are gorgeous and have wonderful flowers)

Jenny at LGN said...

Ooh, what's this about self-watering pots from IKEA?? I'd be allllll over that!

Holly Robertson said...

First make sure you know what plant you have. Not all plants like the same thing. Some like more or less water than others. Some will get sunburnt in direct light but needs lots of bright indirect light. The pots that have standing water in the bottom can be a nightmare because they keep the plant sitting in soggy soil which always leads to root rot (sometimes even if you have a bog plant) and standing water attracts bugs. Keep a small dish beneath them and empty it after you water them. Watering bulbs do nicely for most plants but not all. Some plants like less water. Also try re-potting them when you get home to a slightly larger pot and use water retention soil. Like miracle grow. Go to a legitimate nursery and ask questions. Just because someone is working in the garden section at lowes doesn't mean they can help.

Good Luck!

Shannon said...

I am an occasional waterer - once every two to three weeks. I find plants that tolerate and thrive on this! Like ZiZi...and I dont tryto replace any that don't make it...

Kate Tichy said...

I like Ikea's self-watering pots but I've found they don't have a good medium size- just small, large and jumbo. There is a brand called Lechuza that makes a good in-between size and has more colors and styles than Ikea. The plant I have in it is doing amazingly well.

Lisa said...

I have the NEKTARIN and the PS FEJÖ. I don't love that they are plastic but my plants in them have done well. I haven't had any trouble with root rot.

Danielle said...

What kind of plants do you have? I can only successfully tell you how to keep succulents, peace lilies and yucca plants alive...and that's mostly by ignoring them for a few days at a time (I ignore the succulents for a week or two sometimes). When a peace lily starts to droop, you know it needs a little drink of water. My mom sent me those watering bulbs, but they didn't work for me. Plants are tricky. Good luck!

http://3princestreet.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/plants-that-you-cant-kill/

Em said...

It also helps to make sure you have generously sized pots. Plants that are in pots too small for them will get root-bound and run out of water much faster.

Victoria said...

Invest in a cloche!! My business partner is a landscape designer so we do custom container gardens for clients--in between sales we have to keep some alive in our own homes and we've eaten the cost for a few because of my black thumb, but the plants I have been VERY successful with are small fern varieties planted together and topped with a cloche. It's a self-contained greenhouse, really. Good luck!!

Kathy said...

You CANNOT kill a peace lily - I've inadvertently tried. Might be one for your replacement list!

Ellen Runyon said...

I have around 30 house plants, and I've learned a few things over the years...I love them so much and would love to be able to help if I can.

(1) be realistic about how much light you can offer a plant in a given space...almost everything I have killed has been due to this reason. If you have some well lit areas , fiddle leaf figs do great, but be realistic about how much light they will need (at least 6 hours of full sun).
(2) Pothos are awesome & cheap and work GREAT in lower light areas or anytime you want a plant in the interior of a room (far from the window). I am also having great luck with Silver Philodendrens in my low light areas.
(3) Most of my plants do not like to be soaked in water. I have those plastic liners from Home depot in every pot and give each plant 1/2 c. to 1 c. each week. Whenever I get a new plant I do a little general online research into how to care for it, and then I try to learn exactly what it likes and doesn't like. I have never had anything rot from a little bit of water in the plastic liner.
(3) Your new dog is precious, so make sure he doesn't take a liking to anything new you bring in. There are some general guidelines you can find online, but anything in the lily family will send a cat into renal failure. Pothos are also somewhat toxic, but my cats pretty much stay away from them. I think each animal is different.
(4) I have a few succulents (jade) that are doing great, but they def need to be near a window.
(5) African violets need a lot of sun and do best when watered from the bottom up...not sure why, but it works.

GOOD LUCK! And if you buy from home depot, they usually have a guarantee for 6 months/year.

Laura said...

The photo you are using for this post is a bromeliad. They are kind of cool in that you don't water the soil. You put the water directly in the center of the plant, near the leaves and flower and they are good to go. I like that you can see if it has enough water, if you can see water in that little bowl of leaves in the center it doesn't need anymore water.

Anne said...

My mom always tells me that more plants are killed by over watering than under watering. That being said light is critical - if a room has iffy light - only certain plants will survive. It can also be helpful to develop a relationship with a garden center. I like the once a week watering approach.

Lynn said...

I used to kill plants too until my mom got me one of those water meters that you stick in the soil and it tells you if the plant needs water or not. There's a red dry zone and a green zone just right, and a blue too much zone on the meter on it. Mine is from Hold All, but I bet there are lots of them out there. It sounds hokey but it made a big difference for me.
Love your blog!

Janna McCalley said...

I worked in a flower shop before and the biggest thing is over watering! Especially succulents or tropical type plants. Let the soil dry out in between, so that the top few inches feel completely dry to the touch before watering. Make sure there's good drainage too, or your roots will rot. Also, make sure they're getting enough sun, and not too close to the cold from windows or drafts! Hope this helps!

sugarfoot said...

Generally, letting plants dry to the point of wilting a bit is much healthier for them than over watering. For leafy plants that do wilt a bit, it is a perfectly fine strategy to let them wilt a bit before watering. Be sure that plants are potted in pots with drainage. I typically water until water runs into the saucer underneath. If you wait an hour or so, that water is likely to be absorbed into the soil. Be sure to dump any water in the saucer after an hour or so.

Rebecca Aponte said...

The #1 culprit, as I think others are saying, is over-watering. It rots the plant's roots and then the plant can't feed itself - or worse, the roots become food for something icky like gnats. Try hardy plants that are able to be 'expressive' first - Lillys are great at this, the leaves will droop a little when the plant is thirsty, and perk right back up when you water.

Rebecca Aponte said...

The #1 culprit, as I think others are saying, is over-watering. It rots the plant's roots and then the plant can't feed itself - or worse, the roots become food for something icky like gnats. Try hardy plants that are able to be 'expressive' first - Lillys are great at this, the leaves will droop a little when the plant is thirsty, and perk right back up when you water.

Jenny at LGN said...

These are SUCH helpful tips! Thank you guys! Keep em coming!

(PS I think I must be guilty of overwatering...) :/

Christy said...

I have no idea - I kill them all too. We stopped replacing them ages ago, so we just have the one that has an amazing will to live. It must be 10 years old!

ALSO - I think that your blog is awesome, but SO much more awesome since you decided not to care what people thought about what you write!

Squeak said...

I used to own a flower shop and learned from my partner that the best way to water a plant is to submerge the pot in a bucket or basin of water. As the water is taken in, the air is forced out of the soil, and bubbles form in the water. When the bubbles stop, the plant is thoroughly watered. Depending on the size of the plant, it should not need watering again until the top of the soil is dry. The larger the plant, the longer it can go between waterings.

Lenya Kovacevic @ 7 Year Wedding said...

Oh goodness, I am such a brown thumb!!!! All of these tips are brilliant. I love Nora's tip - that is so easy to do, even a brown thumb could do that one! haha!

Ti said...

For us, it is all trial and error. No science here! I figure, if it is going to live with us it has to put up with us. And if it can't handle us, it doesn't belong here!

Lacyed487 said...

Another good one that is very low maintenance is the zz plant. Dark vibrant green leaves, low light, and I water mine only about once a month! They are highly poisonous though so you have to be careful with kiddos and pets but I haven't had any issues.

Hillary said...

I am not crazy experienced but this is what has worked for me... Like others have said, wait till the top of the soil is dry, but not all. I usually stick my fingers in the dirt and see how far down till its damp. If the top inch or two (depending on pot size) is dry then I water. When I water I always take the pot to the sink and saturate the dirt under the faucet then I let it completely drain before returning it to its spot. That way it doesn't ever sit in water. I usually don't have a designated water day cause all plants are different and need water at different times depending on heat, humidity and pot size. Some small plants that I have had that have lasted well and look nice and not "granny-ish" are Creeping Fig, Angel Vine, Baby Tears and Orchids -naturally. :). These have all done fine in normal household light and with with watering the above stated way. Well, with the exception of the orchid... Those I let dry all the way out - per the instruction of an experienced grower. I love the way plants give a room a certain something too. Good luck!!!

Hillary said...

I am not crazy experienced but this is what has worked for me... Like others have said, wait till the top of the soil is dry, but not all. I usually stick my fingers in the dirt and see how far down till its damp. If the top inch or two (depending on pot size) is dry then I water. When I water I always take the pot to the sink and saturate the dirt under the faucet then I let it completely drain before returning it to its spot. That way it doesn't ever sit in water. I usually don't have a designated water day cause all plants are different and need water at different times depending on heat, humidity and pot size. Some small plants that I have had that have lasted well and look nice and not "granny-ish" are Creeping Fig, Angel Vine, Baby Tears and Orchids -naturally. :). These have all done fine in normal household light and with with watering the above stated way. Well, with the exception of the orchid... Those I let dry all the way out - per the instruction of an experienced grower. I love the way plants give a room a certain something too. Good luck!!!

okorindear said...

Whoot. I'm learning so much from all the comments. Who knew about bromeliads. I consistently kill them off. Thanks for asking the question.

The only other thing I do for my plants is spray them with water. Just a light mist. I'm sure its wrong for some of my guys, but I read that it would make a fern much happier to have a humid environment. It also keeps me from overwatering since I feel like I've cared for them by something other than pouring water in.

~k

The Glam Lamb said...

orchids are so easy and look so rich. every sunday i put 3-4 large ice cubes right by its root (where the large leaves stem from). i dont have a super green thumb, but i only replace my orchids 2-3 times a year.

Myra said...

Filtered light works best for most house plants. I water my African violets, Christmas cactus, philodendron once a week on the weekend. That makes it easy to remember. I water from the top until the plant begins to drain. Do not let the plant sit standing water. Snake plant - every 4-5 weeks sparingly.

td said...

Goodness! I've had my orchids for over 10 years and my rubber plants for much more. The main thing is to match the plant to the correct light situation and learn what it needs. I've never had plants die from sitting in water, but african violets will rot right away if their leaves get wet. They do best watered from below. Every 7-10 days is about my watering schedule. Some plants like to be pot bound and will not flower otherwise. Pothos are great for a very low light situation as mentioned by others.
I adore self-watering pots. You can find them most places. I must be the only one that has killed plants through neglect.:(
If you have large plants (or even small), they all love a vacation outside in the summer. Just be careful not to give them too much sun at once. I think that's why all mine have done so well.

Jennifer Ramsey George said...

Hi! I am a horticulturist and take care of houseplants for people who own vacation homes as a part-time job. It comes down to right plant, right place, every single time. I really don't feel that self-watering pots work. Plants actually like to dry out a little between waterings. Now, for plants I don't use, unless I expect only to use them for a short time: ivy (hello, spider mite), peace lilies (they tend to get ugly with age), African violets, and kalanchoe. The absolute, most durable plant we use in homes is the ZZ plant. It tolerates really low light and hates to be watered. It has an interesting look, as well. You literally have to water it about once a month, if that. We also use neantha bella palms in rooms with very little light. They are smaller and tidy. Bamboo palms, which are larger, also do well. Phalaenopsis orchids (the moth orchid) are amazing. They need the slightest bit of water once a week and can hold their blooms sometimes up to 6 months. For that reason, they are really cheaper than any flower arrangement. Such a better gift! Bromeliads hold their blooms for a long time if they are not overwatered. Rabbit's foot fern and bird's nest fern also do well for a longer period of time. Keep in mind, most plants bought from greenhouses have been growing in very bright, indirect light. They don't like to go from the joy of that to a dark corner, next to a heat or A/C vent. If you want to put a ficus, or other bright light plant in a darker part of a house, it needs to gradually be moved (acclimatization) there from a brighter location. I hope this helps!

Caitlin said...

Like Nora's Dad, I too soak my plants in the sink and let them drain and then put them back in their saucers. You really want to avoid ever having your plant sit in water in its saucer, that will turn their leaves brown and kill them. And never fertilize when the roots are dry, it should always be on a secondary watering. And I have the most luck with southern and western exposures. Good luck!

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Olivia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bec said...

My husband got me a peace lily plant when we were dating. Called it our "love fern" (name that movie). And that sucker will not die! :) I believe it was Lizzy (above) who said it "will pitch a very obvious fit" when it's thirsty. Too too true! This bad boy has been literally flat against the pot (more often than I care to admit), but within minutes of watering will perk right back up. Amazing! Hooray for resilient love, ha! :)

For this Valentine's Day, though, my hubby ge got me a Gerber Daisy plant. Said its name was Bond. Later he found a clip from an old James Bond video that said (from Bond to Goldfinger), "Do you expect me to live?" In which Goldfinger matter-of-factly replied, "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die." :) The punk.

Good luck finding a plant that works for you! It's harder than it ought to be.

Bec said...

It was Linzy, not Lizzy.

Lynn said...

I have - I just counted - 14 plants in my living/dining room, all kinds, and they are mostly doing just fine. (The only problem child is a 6' olive tree which looks on the edge of demise; surprisingly, it's the only one in an Ikea self-watering pot). I water them all once a week, till moist but not soaking wet, and in stages so I get the amount right. My special favourite is a bonsai-type ficus which was once in a bad way when our son forgot to water it when we were away for 6 weeks: with care (and, I admit, a lot of verbal encouragement) it has come to thrive.

M.L. Risson said...

There are a few suggestions on Bright Nest that might help such as tracking your plants sunlight exposure and water.

https://brightnest.com/posts/never-kill-a-houseplant-again

Designology Interiors said...

Stick with snake plants and jades. Succulents just need damp soil- never saturated soil- and they will live for years. I move my jades outdoors once the overnight temp stays warm and they get huge. Te best part is you can clip off sections and start a new plant. (might be why I have 10 now!)

http://designologyinteriors.blogspot.com/2011/04/succulant-plant-projects.html

Allie @ PardontheNoob said...

My problem has always been over-watering--especially my succulents and bromeliads. However, there are some plants that I just can't seem to keep alive for more than a few weeks no matter what I try. I've finally realized that despite how much I love the look of certain plants, they aren't worth the money if you can't keep them going. I've had the best luck with any type of pothos, philodendron, or sansevieria. I love to come across new varieties of these favorites because they add new splashes of color to my planters, and I know they'll last.

http://www.pardonthenoob.com/2013/02/a-little-bit-of-green.html

Kate Rogge said...

My black thumb thanks you for posting this question--I learned so much from the comments! Love your blog and style, I subscribe thru RSS feed and get so excited when there are updates!

theloudandclear.com said...

I've had the best luck with spider plants and Christmas cactus. Both are hardy enough that if leaves fall off, you can stick them in a glass of water in a sunny window and they'll grow new roots. I also forget to water them for weeks and they forgive me. My mom says that both plants like to be pot-bound so you don't need to re-pot them too often.

Elizabeth said...

I try to always have an aloe vera plant in the kitchen. I've killed a few but they're pretty low-maintenance and they don't get too large when you snip them regularly to treat minor cooking burns like I do!

Carrie @ Cosy Carolina Interiors said...

I don't have the greenest of thumbs so I'm happy to read all of these helpful comments. The only thing I would add that I haven't seen yet is sometimes I will add an ice cube to my plant and let it melt down. I have no idea if that's a good thing to do or not, but my plant has survived since this past summer (I also asked the florist for the easiest plant she had). I'm hoping to work up to a prettier plant like an orchid or bromeliad or fern. Good luck!

Kim L said...

I also love to have plants in my home - they make it so much more "homey". I try to buy easy care plants and I always find that the more I fuss over them, the worse they do. I honestly leave them in the nursery pots and put them inside another, more decorative pots. I water them randomly - when I remember and they are all thriving. I have a Schefflera, several jade plants, two pots of random succulents from Home Depot, a rubber tree, and a snake plant. I need to be careful what I buy because my cat eats plants.

Kim L said...

I choose super easy care plants and mostly leave them alone. It seems like the more I fuss over them, the worse they do. I don't even re-pot them from the nursery pot-I just plunk them inside a nicer one. Some easy ones are the snake plant, jade plant, succulents, rubber tree, scheffelera, and peace lily. I can't have peace lilies because my cat eats plants. I do find that almost all of them like to have a saucer underneath them though.

Valerie Piana said...

We used to kill every plant that entered our home...until we discovered KOUBACHI.

Its an app you can get for your smartphone that has a pretty big library of plants. You find yours, enter whether its indoors or outside and then it helps you "calibrate" it - asking you to water it, then check the soil moisture everyday. When the soil is dry, you water it and tell the app, and with that, it tells you how best to maintain the plant in your home given the humidity, etc by sending you reminders to mist and water the plant.

I tell you, its AMAZING. We have a number of absolutely gorgeous plants now, that get compliments from everyone who comes by.

Jenny at LGN said...

YOU GUYS. This is all amazing information!! Thank you all so much!

(Valerie - downloading that app as we speak! xo)

Sarah said...

@Valeria Piana - I am so excited to learn about that app!! Thanks for sharing. :)

dellamargaretta said...

I wish I could help! At Christmas, my poinsettias died the day they came home with me!? If you find any techniques that work, please let us know!!

Ally N. said...

I have a brown thumb, but I have kept a peace lily alive for 7 years! They are so easy. To avoid over watering, I just wait til the leaves get droopy. Then I dump about a cup of water. Its amazing - the plant tells me when it needs watering!

Anne Marie's mommy said...

I second everyone who says orchids are easy! I get mine from the grocery store. Once a week, I take each orchid out of the outer pot, put it in the sink in the morning, soak it in water from the faucet, and leave it in the sink until the following morning to dry out. I do this on the same day every week, and my orchids easily last 6 months. I have also learned from a friend that sometimes my plants look dead (like African violets), but if I pull off all the dead leaves, re-pot, and add water, they will put out new leaves and can be saved.
My kids love making terrariums and dish gardens - there are lots of great tutorials out there and they last for a while, too. The nice thing is that you can use really small, inexpensive plants but massed together in a great container they look amazing. I have a succulent dish garden that has been going for more than 2 years and still looks great.

Traci Lee said...

Here's a timely link:
http://www.ivillage.com/house-plant-care-guide/7-b-421152?nlcid=sw|02-20-2013|&_mid=363441&_rid=363441.13503.85037#421153

MaKaela said...

I have had a peace lily for two years. Everyone here is right, wait till the leaves droop then water it. The key is to not set it in direct sunlight that's when she gets angry! My husband feels bad for mine, I let it get too the brink of death and it can see the light at the end of the tunnel and then I water it and it springs back to life! I've done this more times than I can count!

Meagan Claire said...

They need less water than you think. Stick your finger in the dirt and root around. If it's damp a couple of inches in, then leave it. That bromeliad bloom will shrivel and die after a while, but the plant shoots "pups" from around the base.

Jane Durham said...

I think it's less about water, more about light. Mostly it comes down to the light in your house. I don't have much light and only a few plants can handle it for very long. Moving some to the window has made all the difference, but still! My mom's house though is full of light and she could keep things alive forever, we had an orchid for 3 years, other plants much much longer growing up. I know you come to UT, the best place to start learning about this sort of thing is Cactus and Tropicals. It is my happy place. You will love it. You tell them how much light from what time of day to when, and they can help you find a plant that will do well. Even if you bought it at IKEA, they an tell you what it needs to stay healthy, and like me, you might not be able to offer it in every room. :( Someday. I'm sure there is a similar place near you, but it is still one of my favorite stores to check out in SLC.
Peace lilies are some of my least favorite plants, so good luck finding something more interesting and more hardy at the same time!

Katie said...

I'd love it if you did a post with the results from this post. I'm hopeless with apartment-plants.

Kimberlee Martin said...

Gardenweb.com is my best friend for both houseplants and my vegetable garden. Put any plant name in the search, and you'll find a log of helpful info that's easy enough for the non-green thumb'ed to follow.

ladycreates said...

I take tai chi in a studio that has the glass water insert containers with a stem that just sits continually in the pot. I'm guessing it works well because it's not anybody's job to water the plants (so it doesn't get done) and they are pretty holistic about everything. I always keep the care instructions in the container ('cause I can't remember all the details), but I think I should get plants that are all on the same schedule of watering so it makes it easier.

Shavonda said...

Im totally sneaking in info via your commenters. I JUST began incorporating house plants into your home because I have always had the blackest of black thumbs. I just spent moolah at ikea today on a few new "live" additions to the family. Hopefully I can keep them that way.

Mary Beth Hamilton said...

I'm with you completely. I wish I had a natural green thumb, but I don't. I'm a plant serial killer. I struggle with when to water, how much, what kind of light. No matter what I try, even if I follow the instruction exactly, plants die. Love all the suggestions in the comments. I'm going to try a lot of them. I'm tired of going to plant funerals and so is my wallet.
my morning coffee

Dani said...

I love succulents for this reason. I can honestly forget I have them for a month (or longer) and still have them love me. They actually love me more the more I ignore them. Just play them good music sometimes and if you do accidentally ignore them for too long, they can often be revived with a little attention.

kalanicut said...

It's amazing how much better my houseplants did when I actually read and followed the care instructions. haha. They are all healthy & happy at the moment....but things could change at any second.

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