How to Not Kill Your Houseplants

Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

Have you ever killed a houseplant? I’ll admit it, I have, and I still feel guilty about it. For the past couple of months I’ve been writing plant guides for Apartment Therapy, and over the course of writing them, I’ve learned a lot about mistakes I’ve made with my own plants. Through experience and research, now I know a lot more about successfully growing plants indoors, to the point where my house is turning into a jungle. So if you’d like to learn from my mistakes, here’s my best houseplant advice.

Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

1. Read up on your plant.

Plant needs vary widely. You can’t treat a fern the same way you could a cactus, so if you acquire a plant of a type you’ve never grown before, find out what type it is, and look up what it needs to thrive. It may have come with a little tag telling you about its needs, but that’s just the Cliffs Notes version. There is tons of advice online about how to care for nearly any type of houseplant. If you buy it in a small plant shop, ask the people who work there for advice on care for a particular plant. They’ll probably be happy to tell you all about it.

The only difficulty you might have with this is that sometimes, especially at big box stores, the plants aren’t labeled with their names, or they even have the wrong name. If you end up with a mystery plant, you can try browsing lists of common houseplants like this one or this one, or you can try an identification guide like this one, though you will likely have to look up some botanical terms. (I actually have a mystery plant that I bought at Trader Joe’s, and I haven’t been able to identify it by the above means, so if you have any more plant identification tips, I’m all ears! It’s not very healthy because I can’t look up care instructions, so it’s trial-and-error, but here is a photo.)

If you don’t have a particular plant yet, but are thinking of getting one, read about its care before going to the plant nursery. That beautiful but demanding diva that absolutely must have regular watering and bright light to survive may not be right for your basement apartment and globetrotting lifestyle, but you may decide you can settle for a low-maintenance lookalike that tolerates a bit of neglect.
Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

2. Location, location, location.

You need to meet a plant’s light, humidity, temperature, and water needs, and by putting it in the right place, you can make it more likely you’ll be able to give it the right care. The light in a particular location is key for the survival of your plant, but some plants are a lot more flexible than others. Some will just straight up die in the wrong light, while others, like the cast-iron plantsnake plant/sansevieria, or Dracaena, will just grow more slowly. This is why doing your research is key!

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that I need to put plants with demanding water needs near a sink, otherwise I’ll neglect them because they’re too inconvenient to water (aka I’m too lazy). My maidenhair ferns are the best example of this. I’ve tried to keep them in other rooms, but they do the best when I keep them in a steamy bathroom, and soak them from the sink, then let them drain, a few times a week. Though I might love how one looks on my coffee table, keeping up with that routine just isn’t going to happen in that location. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Another mistake I’ve made is putting a plant that needs lots of water in an out-of-the-way spot where I don’t see it often, or out of reach. Out of sight, out of mind. Or in the case of a difficult-to-reach plant, I procrastinate clambering on a stool or chair to water it, and then it gets neglected. Maybe you’re a lot less lazy than I am, so know and work with your own habits and the needs of your plants. If you’re likely to forget to water a plant in a particular location, choose a hardy plant like a pothosChinese evergreen, ZZ plant, or spider plant.

Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

3. Don’t ignore early signs of problems.

Last year I noticed that a few of my succulents had little cottony spots between the leaves. I didn’t give them much thought until the plants started to go downhill, with the little succulent segments shriveling up. At first I thought I had underwatered them, but when watering more more didn’t help, I assumed I had overwatered them. When I did some research, I realized that the white cotton was from tiny bugs! Mealybugs, to be exact. Even when I knew they were there, I only ever saw one of them. Obviously I had to get rid of them, though.

I already had a bottle of Neem oil, so I made up a mixture of Neem oil, water, and dish soap, and sprayed down the plants. I think that helped, but I was paranoid that it wouldn’t work and I’d get bugs in all of my plants, so I went out to Portland Nursery, where they have a plant help desk, and asked what they’d recommend. They suggested I try Bonide systemic insect control, so I bought a bottle, and dosed my plants. The plants where I had originally noticed the infection were cured, and I treated most of the nearby plants, but a couple of months later I noticed that a new leaf my fiddle-leaf fig was growing was damaged, and then it fell off. It happened again with the next new leaf, and that’s when I realized it must have gotten the bugs, too. I bought another bottle of systemic insect control, dosed every plant in sight, and have been bug-free since.

The lesson I’ve learned is that being vigilant and observant is important for the health of your plants! The longer you let a bug or disease problem go, the harder it will be to treat, and the more plants it will affect. But it can be difficult to recognize the problem, so pay attention, and immediately google any out-of-the-ordinary symptoms.

Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

4. Don’t ignore drainage needs. 

You’re going to think that I have a black thumb, and shouldn’t be allowed to write about plants, but I’ll admit that I have killed a spider plant. They’re supposed to be nearly impossible to kill, but I’ve done it. How? No drainage! When the leaves started dying, I thought the plant wasn’t getting enough water, so I tried to water it more when what it really needed was to dry out. For most houseplants, if the soil and roots are kept constantly soggy either by overwatering, lack of drainage, or both, the roots will rot away, and the plant will die. When I realized what the problem was, I actually rescued a second spider plant I was killing by cutting away the rotting roots, re-rooting it in water, and then replanting it in a pot with drainage. It’s totally fine now!

The lesson here is that drainage is key! Planters need to have holes in the bottom, and plants needs to be in the right soil. That means sandy, fast-draining soil for plants that are particularly sensitive to moisture, like succulents and cacti. If the pot you’re dying to use doesn’t have holes in the bottom, put the plant in an inner pot with holes, then put this in the outer cachepot. Just make sure to dump the excess water out of the cachepot after it drains through the plant.

Lessons I've learned the hard way about how to keep houseplants healthy

5. Find a routine, and stick to it, but adjust as necessary.

Once you figure out what works for each plant watering-wise, make yourself a watering schedule. This can be in your head, written down, or in your electronic calendar, whatever works for you. I’ve found that watering my fiddle-leaf fig the exact same amount of water, once weekly, has kept it happy, so I do that every weekend and water many of the rest of my plants at the same time.

My watering routine gets adjusted when it’s hot in the summer, and during the cold winter months. Most plant guides advise watering less in the winter, but my forced-air heating means my house (and plants) actually get really dry in the wintertime, so I have to water more like it’s summer. Monitor your plants, and water more or less depending on the temperature and humidity, and how they seem to be responding to the care.

I hope that this houseplant advice is helpful. If you learn from my mistakes and keep your plants alive, it redeems those poor plants that I killed! Since it’s starting to look a bit spring-like around here, plants are on my mind to a greater degree than usual, and I’ll be sharing some more plant projects and ideas soon.

11 thoughts on “How to Not Kill Your Houseplants

  1. Thank you so much for this helpful guide! It always makes me glum when I’ve accidentally killed a plant, but as you have explained – sometimes trial and error is one of the best ways to learn!

    And I had to chuckle at your mention of mis-labled plants at big box stores… just about every single plant at my local Home Depot is labeled ‘foliage’. Awesome – thanks, Home Depot! 😉

    • Haha, yes, my Home Depot is the same way! Luckily most of their plants are common types, so it’s pretty easy to figure out. But my Trader Joe’s mystery plant is “tropical foliage,” and I bought it because I’d never seen one like it. Oops!

        • Thomas, good idea, thanks! It’s not very healthy because it lost a lot of leaves when I first brought it home, and I’m figuring out its needs through trial-and-error because I can’t look up proper care without a name. Here it is, though: mystery plant

      • It can be kinda dangerous, though – sometimes when I’m browsing websites trying to identify my mystery plant, I end up adding a few new plants to my wishlist! Haha! And I’m with Thomas – I’d love to see a photo of your strange and wonderful ‘tropical foliage’!

  2. Is your mystery plant maybe a polyscias? The leaves remind me a bit of a Polyscias balfour, and I know that polyscias also comes with smooth-edged leaves sometimes. From the shape of the plant it looks a bit like a ficus, but I bet you looked that up alreads. Are you following @houseplantjournal on Instagram? Darryl is like a walking plant encyclopedia, maybe he can help you. 😀
    (I am @aproposgarnix on IG)

    • Alexandra, thank you so much! I can’t find a picture of polyscias or ficus that matches my plant, but the descriptions of ficus dropping leaves when it encounters changes certainly fits. The leaves on my plant are so much more rounded than most pictures of ficus, so I had dismissed it. It’s hard because varieties of the same species can look so different! I do follow houseplantjournal, and asking plant experts on Instagram is a really good idea. Thank you!

      • It’s superhard trying to find the exact same plant on the internet (I buy a lot of plants off of the “graveyard” in the big DIY/hardware stores, and they are so bad at labelling their plants), but yes, the dropped leaves in your picture made me think of the ficus. Hopefully you and Mystery Plant have a long and happy life together.
        And I am so happy to help, especially as this is literally the first time I came across your blog! 😀 I feel this is a great beginning.

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