Happy House Planting
Nine No-Nonsense Habits of Houseplant Success
break these rules
As they say, rules are meant to be broken, and while these tips are not rules per se, it’s nevertheless true that what follows is general advice — to be read at your leisure and adapted at will. Everyone has their own goals, experiences, situations, and growing conditions. For instance, I’m in Auckland (NZ), so it never really freezes here and it’s warm enough most months for plants to grow indoors without the house heat on. More humid than dry.
Just as important, houseplants are all about adapting. They adapt, you experiment, they adapt, you learn. Figure out what works. Throw caution to the wind and get dirty. Plants can be pricey, but learning is priceless. Don’t be afraid to test the limits and see what happens. Not only will you learn, but you’ll get the satisfaction of becoming the master of your own plant universe. A green thumb is not born, it’s grown.
Not sure if cutting a peperomia straight down the middle, roots and all, will make two plants, or none, give it a go. More often than not, things will fall in your favour (online video tutorials can help). When they don’t, no matter, the world’s still turning. These are houseplants we’re talking about. We’re not restoring the Mona Lisa. Remember: experiment, experiment, experiment. And have fun.
Plants can enrich our lives, but it’s only by active engagement with them that this happens. There is no passive joy in this world, or at least very little that’s worth having.
buy only houseplants that are forgiving, then raise them on tough love
I once knew a couple who had a wonderfully eclectic collection of bonsai, and they had a rule: if a tree couldn’t survive being watered only every-other-day through the summer, then so be it. That was their schedule and they were sticking to it. And as I suggested, they had a great collection, yet they were not slaves to their plants. Same goes here. For houseplants, hell is overwatering. Give’m a break. Most like to work up a good thirst before taking a drink. And just as people like a good bath, so do plants, but they too like to dry out a bit.
Of course this won’t work if what you think is dry is not really dry at all. Often we see a dirt-blown dry surface on a plant and think it’s dying of thirst. I know, I do this all the time. But unless it’s in direct sun, probably not. If you have a new plant, feel its weight after it’s sat in water and had the excess drained off. That’s a fully hydrated soil mass. It will feel weighty. Now let that plant dry out so that, while it still looks healthy and upright, it seems alarmingly light. This might take a week, maybe two. Now you know what it means for the plant to be dry (and if it’s not heavy when wet, you need to repot). With this as your baseline you’ll probably find you can let all the plants go long enough that they can all be watered at one time. Those exceptions can perhaps be moved, or watered differently, to bring them in line. Remember, plants love company (but not touching) and they share humidity when grouped.
Still, there are some plants that are downright unforgiving when they get too dry, or persist in having brown tips. Button ferns come to mind. And overwatered Fittonias can sulk indefinitely. Stay away from these types unless you’re keen on babysitting. There are not many of these anyway; far more common are plants that can be dry but are quite ready to dissolve in water, like a Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema) or even Hoyas. Remember, most plants are robust, which is why they’re still here with us after millions of years.
Tough love doesn’t end here. We also need to show them the way. If we don’t handle our plants, we’ll never learn whether they and their roots are really as fragile as we think. They’re not. Don’t be afraid to divide or cut them back regularly, if for no other reason than to see what happens (more on this below). Consider the cactus in the image below. We cut more than a meter off the top of this fifty-year-old daddy and look what happened. Out pops a baby cactus. Delightful.
Remember, plants get damaged in nature all the time, so they have built in mechanisms to recover. If you accidentally cut off the Monstera leaf that was supposed to produce the next leaf, don’t worry, it won’t sit there idly and die. It will take a bit of time, but a new growth tip will poke its head out somewhere, probably at the base. If so, you’ve just successfully reduced your plant, and that can be a good thing. Short and full beats tall and lanky any day.
In the meantime, just don’t overwater it. If a plant isn’t growing, it isn’t drinking, and if it isn’t drinking, it doesn’t need you watering it (very much). But you won’t know this if you’re not paying attention.
set aside a few minutes every weekday and a few extra minutes a weekend for quality plant time
Yes, you need to pay attention. But the time required is very little when you do it in bits nearly every day. The trick is to want to, rather being on the back foot and feeling you need to. To avoid falling into a neglectful habit with your plants, consider the psychology of the problem. If you procrastinate or simply forget about them, they become homework. They nag at you every time you look at them. You feel guilty and now you’re acting out of guilt, or worse, refusing to as a matter of spite.
To get on the front foot, be proactive. Set a time each day — maybe just before or after dinner — to give your plants quality time. Even just a few minutes will leave you feeling like things are under control, and better yet, it will give you a chance to notice what’s going on with these busy bodies. Subtle pleasures are a big deal with plants, so follow along with what’s happening with them — a new leaf unfolding on your Philodendron Micans, or new pups elbowing out of the pot on your Sansevieria. If you can find a place where change is happening, follow it. Such engagement creates a positive feedback loop that’s naturally reinforcing. ‘So what are you creatures up to today…"?’
Meanwhile, when there are moments when things seem out of control, such as finding a rotting stem, or when you find some pests hiding about — don’t panic. Set the plant aside somewhere for when you can deal with it. With the possible exception of spider mites, pests are rarely so invasive that immediate action is required. This is also a bit of a mindset thing, because our attitude about pests is driven by imagined fears of invasion rather than real experience. Remember, plants are living things and it’s unrealistic to expect these little biological systems to be devoid of all life except your perfect plant. Live with it.
build your collection from cuttings
This discussion could be book length but I’ll make it short by focusing not on how to do cuttings, but rather why to do them. At
MONSTERA we propagate our own baby plants from cuttings and sell them. We do this for four reasons.
First, people love growing their adult plants from juveniles. It’s fun to watch them grow and, being there from the beginning, you have more of a sense of what the plant’s been through so far in its (short) life. Plus it’s so simple.
Second, cuttings are a whole lot cheaper than full-sized plants (more on this below), especially if you do the cuttings yourself.
Third, taking cuttings is a natural process in houseplant management. If you keep your plants happy and healthy long enough, many will need either dividing or cutting. So why not grow these cuttings? Sometimes you can trade or sell these offspring, and reinvest your successful growth into obtaining new species for your collection.
And finally, there’s more reward and satisfaction in having a dwelling full of your own creations. This allows you to try different methods of growing the same plant, and different ways of displaying it. Although it’s surprisingly uncommon, you can also use cuttings to construct group plantings of like-minded companions. This is great for species that can be a bit blasé by themselves (more on this online here and here).
create a collection — not a clutter — of plants
Having sung the praises of cuttings, don’t let it get out of hand. A few cuttings here and there, in soil or in water, can complement a collection by adding to the diversity of the sizes of plants displayed. We don’t want everything a similar size; as noted below, the greater the range in sizes the better your collection will look.
On the other hand, there’s an addictive nature to cuttings that pushes us from a clean and calm presentation to one creeping towards chaos and clutter. Of course some love the look of having plant projects overtaking a room — doesn’t everyone want a ‘conservatory workshop’ in their home? — but more often than not the effect is one of disorganisation and decay (I wrote a Dirt Wise essay on this here).
If I have not persuaded you, consider another option, which is to set aside an area for ongoing plant projects that are not mature enough for the public eye. Sometimes we also have plants that need intensive care and recovery, and this can be a good place for these, especially if you’re using special ‘housing’ as plant ICUs.
All of which reminds me to stress that it’s good on occasion to move plants around and rearrange your collection. Keep in place those that seem to absolutely love their spot, and try new locations for others, always keeping a balance between the plants’ needs and your needs (while also respecting the other people residing with you).
As just noted, if you have more than a few plants, there will be times when something’s gone amiss and a plant needs some intensive care (such as when you asked your neighbour to come water the plants while you were away and they only misted them). Watching a plant return from the dead to push out fresh, new growth can be very rewarding, but sometimes you have to count your losses. It’s part of the process, just try to learn from it.
I’m always amazed when people cling to plants as though they’re some special, sentient beings — as if every carrot you ate wasn’t once a perfectly healthy plant. Plants can be special for many reasons, but keep it in perspective. Try and try some more, but if it just ain’t happening, accept the loss. Out it goes. And if you’re really feeling guilty, try to pass it on to some other unsuspecting, sentimental plant lover. 😊
buy an epic houseplant — or better, create one in minutes
I am a big believer in big houseplants. Go epic! You want to cram a plant as colossally huge as you possibly can into any room you intend to populate with other plants. Why? Because, as noted, a range of sizes in a plant collection matters. A lot. You know what look you’re creating when all your plants are the same (average) size? That’s the garden centre look. Stay away from it. Don’t think retail, think scale!
Okay, enough of the hype.
What I actually want to say is this: it’s worthwhile to make a statement in any collection with one or two very advanced plants. If you take a low-budget attitude towards plants you’ll get a low-budget look. You can buy these or you can set this as a goal, to grow something massive and impressive one day. Plants can be expensive, and a large specimen plant can be really expensive. So yes, if you can, grow your own.
There is, however, another, often overlooked option. More often than not, size in houseplants is not about height, or even width. It’s about fullness. You want a lot of plant in whatever the space the plant takes up, if that makes sense. To give an example, at
MONSTERA we often sell the big-leaf Monstera (Deliciosa) in a size that people consider ‘massive,’ but in truth, it’s not usually a massive plant (although we do have those sometimes as well). Rather, it’s simply several plants grown in a pot as one. When you plant decent sized plants together, the effect is quite surprising, and rewarding. The image below shows an example where two good-sized philodendrons were planted together. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
This scaling up of plants can be done on any level. Remember, it’s not about the total size of the plant, but about fullness. A great tip is get houseplants on sale because they are not at their best. If you can get several of the same type (or not), cut back all the weak foliage and put them together as one. You’ll be most pleased with the effect.
But back to the main point: You don’t have to buy an expensive plant or wait to grow your own, you can create it by selectively choosing some above-average beauties and putting them together. Avoid doing this with trees, like palms or Fiddle Leaf Ficus, as they are not suited for this and their foliage just crowds against each other.
Once you have the two or three chosen, you have to get them all in the same pot, so start by stripping away the loose soil around the roots. Best to find the flattest side of each plant and remove an extra bit of soil to make sure you can squeeze the plants as close together as possible. Good luck, send pictures.
a houseplant’s best friend: the shears
In the image below, you see Honey beside a very full Ficus Elastica plant. You don’t get a branching beauty like this at the garden centre. Usually what’s on offer is a single trunk specimen with leaves and no branches, or several such spindly trees in the same pot. If you keep a single-trunk tree long enough, it will eventually branch, but in a way that’s unpredictable and often too late (the tree’s already too tall).
The second image (above) shows the trunk system of the same Ficus. You might even say it has no trunk, only branches (some of which are clearly older than others). This came about via a very simple method: pruning. This tree would have been cut back when it was small, with the main trunk chopped down very short. One snip is all it took to get the ball rolling (for more on this, see this
DIRT WISE essay).
This would then cause new shoots to appear, which would lead eventually to the highly ramified base shown in the photo. When I obtained the plant, it was like this at the base but the branches were well and truly overgrown. Instead of a single spindly trunk, it had many such trunks. (Which, incidentally, is why the person sold the plant: they didn’t know to prune it back and fell out of love with it.) So I heavily pruned it back again, down to about half its height. What you see is the result, for now. Future pruning will no doubt be needed again, and again, as this guy / gal really likes to grow.
One thing that keeps us from doing what I just described is stinginess. Nobody likes to cut off bits of a plant, thinking that it’s wasteful — less is less after all. But is this true? For starters, you can make cuttings, as I did with all the Ficus tips I acquired. More importantly, less is not in fact less, it’s more. Think quality over quantity. The short-term effect is indeed a reduced plant, but the long-term effect is a much more significant specimen. Think of the gardener’s hibiscus, hedges, or hydrangea: these plants would get up to no good without their owners cutting them back. Plants are all about patience, aren’t they? Cut and wait. And watch.
Meanwhile, consider the trailing plant. Some of these species, like the Bridal Veil (Tradescantia Multiflora) or Bubble Plant (Callisia Repens), need regular chops just to keep their foliage looking full and healthy. Others, like Pothos, become an unmanageable snake. An analogy: if you have eight sprinters jumping off the blocks in a 500 meter dash, will they all be lined up evenly at the finish line? Of course not. It’s the same for trailing plants. Some stems will grow faster and longer than others. There’s no problem letting them carry on, but if you want you can take some cuttings and, in the process, even out the race. By cutting back the stems, what you’re really doing is allowing the shorter ones to catch up. Plus, new shoots will push out and over time this will make the bushy plant you pine for on Instagram. We think it’s just about growth, but it’s not. Much like a bonsai tree, you get a more compact and interesting plant through regular reduction of the foliage.
Who, if not you, is going to make sure your plants grow up big and strong, and good looking?
the three h’s in ‘houseplant’: heat, humidity, and habitat
There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings when it comes to the housing of houseplants, and several are summed up by the three h’s.
First, heat: you can read 100 online articles about why you shouldn’t repot into too big of a pot and rarely will you find one that states the most important reason why. The reason given is that if you double the diameter of the pot size, there will be so much soil the plant will never dry out. This is true and it happens in part because all that new soil has no roots in it, so the plant can’t drink from it. Which means it stays wet longer. And if the soil becomes too wet overall, from too frequent waterings, we get root rot. A downward spiral commences.
But there’s something big missing in this story, and that is heat. Soil that surrounds roots, but has no roots in it, has a name: it’s called an insulator. Bury your plant root mass in a bunch of soil and you’ve just insulated it from the heat outside the pot. I always say, would you rather be buried alive in an inch of soil or a meter of it. No heat gets to the roots and so the roots don’t grow — it’s all about cell division, which is a product of heat (that’s why we use heat pads with seeds and seedlings). This is not some theory. If you go to a high-tech plant nursery, where plants grow on a conveyor belt and are repotted automatically as they go, you might wonder, why don’t they just put the little baby plant or the cell culture in the final pot that goes to market. They resist this temptation because it’s too darn cold and miserable for a plant to be in all that soil. It would never make it to the end of the line.
Most of us think sun when we think heat but there’s no necessary relationship between the two. In a shade house, the temperature may rise to crazy temperatures without any direct sun. We just need moderate natural light and all that heat for the plants to really grow. So think heat, it’s great for plants, but don’t forget our next ‘h,’ which is humidity.
Second, humidity: If heat’s so great, why not put your houseplants on the radiator during the winter? The reason why is because the radiator will dry out the air in that sphere, creating very low humidity for the foliage. But there is a solution: put a moisture tray on a shelf on the radiator, and that should give you the best of both worlds.
The point here is to realise that whenever you’re thinking houseplants and heat, you also need to consider humidity, as they are often inversely related indoors. People often tell me their plant will be fine because, while the room gets direct sun, it won’t fall on the plant. But that’s not exactly right. I ask in reply whether the room gets hot from the sun during the day. If the answer is yes, you can be assured that this room will be among the driest in the house.
See, it’s tricky. How do we get the heat and keep the humidity? If you move the plant to a room with no direct sun, then yes it’s more humid, but now it has to deal with cooler temperatures. Sadly, there’s no one easy solution, but remember this: any thick-leafed tropical plant that you’re convinced need lots of humidity — it’s tropical, after all — probably doesn’t. It’s the thin-leafed plants you really need to worry about, so plan accordingly.
Third, habitat: I’m not sure what I meant by ‘habitat’ but it started with ‘h’ so I used it. But I can say this: ‘indoor plants’ is an oxymoron — no plant that exists today actually evolved indoors — and that should make you stop and think about this whole crazy idea of houseplants.
Ultimately, even indoor plants need a habitat, so we have to keep this in mind when playing the indoor gardener. When you think habitat, think adapt.
I have it easy, as I live in a sub-tropical climate that’s near perfect for a wide range of plants, indoor and out. If you live in Scandinavia, where winters last six months, you’ve got quite a different habitat problem. The good news is that Scandinavians have plenty of nice houseplants — and they need them considering how much time is spent indoors! And then there are places like Singapore, where you’ll find some of the most amazing indoor tropical gardens in the world. But don’t be fooled, house planting in Singapore has its own habitat problems. Why? Because most everywhere indoors is air conditioned. It might be muggy outside but it’s quite arid inside. And yet, houseplants are abundant.
Every place has its habitat challenges, but as these examples show, it’s only a matter of adapting to the conditions. Don’t fight mother nature by putting shade plants in the sun and sun plants in deep shade. I always say, a perfect example of your least favourite plant will still be much nicer than a dreadful example of your most favourite. Match your plants with their basic needs and you’ll do fine.
listen to your plants — unlike the Internet, they’re never wrong
I’m not suggesting you channel your plants and become a plant whisperer, whatever that is. To me, listening to your plants means paying attention to them, and in a certain way. That is to say, certain plants can teach us certain things, and some plants have more to teach us than others. Three quick examples:
The Tradescantia Zebrina: If you don’t have confidence that some houseplants can fully dry out without withering, or even bake in all day sun and just get more and more colourful, try one of these. They can teach you a lot about cutting them back to make a fuller plant, as well.
The Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily): This is the ‘canary in a coal mine’ for houseplant beginners. It takes a licking and keeps on growing. It tells you when it needs watering because it wilts, so by listening to it you can avoid the brown tips caused by overwatering.
The Schefflera (Umbrella Plant): This is perhaps the most indestructible tree you can keep indoors. And it has two other great qualities. First, it grows as fast as any tree when watered well, especially when in the hot sun. Second, it loves to be dramatically cut back. You can have great fun creating a unique shape by pruning it back over and over, which you have to do because it grows so fast.
the nine habits of houseplant success
be tough, with love
spend quality time, daily
build your collection via cuttings
but stop any creep towards clutter
go epic by mass planting
use shears to create volume
think habitat by balancing heat and humidity
listen to your plants
Form these habits and you’ll go well. May all your houseplants ‘live long and prosper’. Happy house planting!