How to Grow Houseplants

Choosing a houseplant is often more about evaluating your home and lifestyle than it is about gardening expertise. Once you come to grips with your home's growing conditions and your signature style, it's not difficult to find plants to suit the setting. Then you can decide if you're ready for an experts-only finicky beauty or a bulletproof, never-say-die plant.

Related Products

Whether you have rooms filled with plants or are pondering a first-time purchase, here are some tips to help select the right plant for the right spot.

Evaluating Your Home For The ideal Conditions

Light

Plants need light to grow. Walk around your home at different times of the day to determine the type of light in each area.

  • Bright south- or west-facing windows are ideal for plants that need a lot of light.
  • Some houseplants need bright, indirect light, which describes a spot located in a room that receives sun for several hours per day, but where the plant itself is away from the window and doesn't receive direct sunlight.
  • Some foliage plants can survive with little light, such as rooms with windows that face north or corners of rooms far from windows. Examples of houseplants that can thrive in low light include Mother-In-Law's Tongue, Cast-Iron Plant and Chinese Evergreen.
  • You can also provide supplemental light, although it can get expensive. Some “grow lights”, available in nurseries and specialty mail order catalogs, fit traditional light fixtures, which can turn a tabletop into an ideal growing environment. Flowering plants that thrive with artificial light include African Violet, Begonia, Cyclamen and Orchid. Foliage plants that grow well with supplemental lighting include Aloe Vera, Fittonia, Peperomia and Polka-Dot Plant.
  • If your plants need supplemental lighting, learn about lighting indoor houseplants from the University of Missouri Cooperative Extension Service.

How Much Space Do You Need?

How much room do you have for houseplants? If space is tight, choose small plants for tabletops, such as dwarf specimens or short succulents. In larger rooms with tall ceilings, go for larger plants such as potted palms or Ficus trees.

Think carefully about a plant’s mature size. Many plants, like African Violet, stay small. But a tiny Norfolk Island Pine or Rubber Tree can grow into a larger-than-life specimen needing quite a bit of room. Unless you’re willing to prune, root-prune or move large plants, you’ll need to do some research to ensure you’re getting a species that fits your space.

How Much Time Do You Have?

Plants are living things and require regular care.

  • If you’re very busy, choose low-maintenance plants such as cacti or succulents.
  • If you enjoy caring for plants and can handle weekly watering and light primping, consider more demanding houseplants.
  • In general, flowering plants typically need more exacting conditions and attention than their foliage cousins.

Evaluate Growing Conditions

Temperature Needs

Many plants have rather specific temperature requirements. Most houseplants are tropical and thrive when temperatures stay between 65-75°F during the day and are about 10 degrees cooler at night. If your home has an area that’s consistently chilly or overly warm, you may not want to include houseplants plants in those rooms – or you can look for species that are adapted to temperature extremes. You should also keep plants away from cold drafts or heater vents.

How’s the Humidity?

In all seasons but winter, most homes have adequate humidity for a variety houseplants. In winter, dry air can be deadly. Avoid placing plants that require high humidity, such as Ferns, Orchids or Bromeliads, in dry spots or near heater vents. Tuck humidity lovers into moist places, such as near a dishwasher, sink or in a bathroom.

What Fits Your Décor?

Different plants create different visual impacts.

  • Spiky cacti, succulents and plants with strong leaf shapes, such as Xanadu Philodendron or Flamingo Flower, go particularly well with modern design themes.
  • Plants with soft, touchable textures (Ferns, Weeping Fig, Gold Dust Croton) look perfect in cozy, homey settings.

Choose Carefully If You Have Kids Or Pets

Do you have small children or pets? Obviously, you’ll want to avoid cacti or succulents with sharp spines or thorns. But some houseplants, like Caladium, Philodendron, Peace Lilly and even Poinsettia can be poisonous or cause allergic reactions. For a curious pet or child, these plants could cause illness or injury. So, make sure you research on the internet before purchasing your plants.

Give Houseplants All The Care They Need

No matter what kind of houseplant you have, you’ll get the best results when you provide basic care and follow these tips to keep them healthy.

Potting Soil

When you buy a houseplant, it's most likely growing in a potting soil, which contains various materials, such as peat moss, perlite, bark, vermiculite or sand.

  • The ideal mix retains nutrients and moisture, while allowing for drainage and aeration, and anchoring the plant.
  • If you need to replace or add soil, buy a packaged potting soil mix available in nurseries and garden centers.
  • Don't add garden soil to houseplants – it rarely provides the right balance of conditions that the plant roots need.

Containers

The pot should be more than just a decoration, although a great looking container can turn a simple plant into an eye-catch focal point. Make sure you also consider the plant's needs when making your choice.

  • Pots must have drainage holes so excess water can drain away from soil. Otherwise, the roots will rot and the plant will die. If a decorative pot lacks drainage holes, use it as a cachepot and place the houseplant, pot and all, inside. Set pots that do have drainage holes in catch trays to prevent water from leaking onto the floor.
  • The material a pot is made of can affect water needs. Porous containers, such as unglazed terra-cotta, lose water through the sides of the pot and can dry out faster, which means you'll need to water more often. Plants grown in glazed or plastic pots usually require less frequent watering.

Water Needs

Determining how much and how often to water is probably the trickiest part of growing houseplants. Water needs vary depending on many factors, including the plant, soil, air temperature, humidity and light levels. Type of foliage also influences water use. Thick, waxy leaves don't lose water as fast as soft, lush ones.

  • Before watering, check soil moisture using a soil meter or your finger. If soil feels dry to about 1.5 or more inches deep (depending on the size of the container), water. Dry root balls are also lighter than wet ones.
  • Apply water slowly so it soaks into soil and runs out the drainage holes. Dry root balls often separate from the sides of containers. If you don’t water carefully, water may run down the edges of the pot without entirely wetting the root ball.
  • Empty catch trays or cachepots if water stands in them for more than an hour or so. Never leave containers sitting in water. It will cause the roots to rot and kill the plant.

Raising Humidity

Tropical foliage plants need humid air, which can be challenging in winter, when household relative humidity drops as low as 5-10%. Do whatever you can to raise humidity around plants.

  • Use a room humidifier.
  • Place plants on a pebble-lined tray filled with water. Maintain the water level just below pebbles. As the water evaporates, it will raise the humidity around plants.
  • Mist plants with room-temperature water. Avoid wetting walls or furniture.

The Right Temperature

Look into specific temperature requirements for your plants.

  • Some, like Cyclamen or Calceolaria, prefer cooler temperatures.
  • Others, including the Weeping Fig (Ficus Tree), will turn yellow and drop leaves if exposed to cold drafts.
  • Keep all plants away from heating vents.

Feeding

Fertilize houseplants using a balanced fertilizer labeled for houseplants.

  • Follow label instructions.
  • Over time, fertilizer salts can build up in soil. Every 4-6 months, leach these salts from the root ball by watering heavily. If the weather is warm, you can do this in a shady spot outdoors. Indoors, leach the soil in a sink or bathtub. Pour slowly, allowing water to drain away from the pot. Repeat several times.
  • If white fertilizer salts build-up on the top of the root ball, remove them, along with approximately one-fourth inch of soil, before leaching.

Learn more tips on growing healthy houseplants.

Related Articles