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The Top 5 Easiest Mistakes to Make When Keeping Houseplants

Published On 03/12/2014 | By Tom Ludorf | Balcony & Container Gardening, Indoor Gardening, Urban Agriculture

While gardening comes to each of us at a different pace, a little preparation goes a long way. Many of us have had amazing experiences keeping houseplants, watching them grow from an inconspicuous seed to a thriving garden of greenery and flowers. For others, it hasn’t been so great. Strange and mysterious oddities that wither away on the window sill without warning, or a seasonal plant brought into the home as a gift that collapses shortly after the giver has gone. Luckily for those of you just starting out there are a few helpful tips I’ve picked up over the years (mostly though my own mistakes) that will get you going in the right direction for a greener tomorrow.

Mistake #1: Overwatering

Many of us were given our first houseplant at some point in childhood or early adulthood. Setting in eagerly, it’s quite likely that a hearty drink is the first thing it received, followed promptly by another the next morning, continuing on this way until the little plastic pot or wrapping it came with is brimming with stagnant water. Soon enough the leaves start to wilt and turn yellow or develop soft brown spots of rot. To the untrained eye this can be misdiagnosed as under-watering and another cupful is given. Compared to over-watering, this is often much deadlier, roots require air just as much as they require water and submerging them for days at a time more often than not proves fatal. Once root rot has set in there’s a good chance it will spread, cutting off the effected roots is the only solution and one that is labor intensive and an intimidating task to undertake.

Certain plants, like the sundew pictured above, thrive in standing water. Most however, do not.

Certain plants, like the sundew pictured above, thrive in standing water. Most however, do not.

How to Help

Unless you’re positive that your plant makes its home in a bog or swamp you’re going to need drainage in your pot. It’s all too common for ornamental plants to come planted in decorative pots without drainage which gives you very little wiggle room in your watering regimen. Ensure that your pot has one or more sizable holes in the bottom of the container, sometimes there is a small plastic pot inside a decorative container which works just as well as long as you’re able to drain the excess easily.

The time is right to water when the surface of the soil feels dry. Little to no temperature fluctuations, poor airflow, and the lack of direct sunlight all reduce the amount of water your plants uses indoors. When the time is right, water your plants slowly, starting from the center and slowly moving outward. Stop watering as soon as you see a trickle emerge from the bottom of the pot, this means the water has penetrated through the soil and will spread out adequately.

Mistake #2: Under-watering

Either you’ve gone on vacation or overlooked a potted plant during finals week and what you’ve returned to is a wilted mess of foliage and bone-dry soil. Several factors affect how often a plant will need water including the moisture retention of the soil and the temperature/humidity of its environment. There are also several varieties of plants that ‘drink’ a considerable amount more than others.

How to Help

Different plants have different tolerances; many of the more dramatic plants such as the common Peace Lily will wilt drastically and rebound within a few hours of watering. Other plants such as evergreen pines may be dead before they show visible signs of being dry. First thing first is to thoroughly water the plant, perhaps even standing it in 2-3 inches of water for 20 minutes to an hour and letting the soil wick up the moisture. You may get lucky and discover your poor plant has found a second wind, possibly even sending out an entirely new set of (smaller) leaves if it dropped the previous set.

This one is a hard lesson to learn in keeping houseplants. But there are certain devices that can help. Plant nannies or other bottle like devices that you leave in your plants can slowly release water, but until you know how the plant will react it’s good to keep an eye on them to ensure they’re not being waterlogged. Terra-cotta has an interesting habit of turning darker brown when its moist, there are interesting and decorative indicators that can inform you if your soil is drying out.

Mistake #3: Light

Your studio apartment faces north, directly into a skyrise. The only natural light you receive is faint sliver between 12:00 and 12:04pm on the summer solstice. While you feel that you can see well enough in your home, certain plants may feel otherwise. Compare the shadow of your hand about six inches above a surface in your home; unless the shadow you cast is crisp and detailed you may be dealing with lower levels of light. Many plants love this sort of scattered and diffused light, you simply need to make sure you’re placing your plants someplace they will feel at comfortable.

Supplementary light is often sufficient for small seedlings but they will grow to be etiolated and lanky without proper sunlight

Supplementary light is often sufficient for small seedlings but they will grow to be etiolated and lanky without proper sunlight.

How to Help

The easiest method for dealing with your lighting conditions is picking suitable plants. Many plant species will thrive in high light but adapt perfectly well to lower light levels, color may be more subdued, foliage will be less dense, and there’s a chance they won’t flower but often enough house plants are kept for their interesting foliage.

Using supplementary light can be a finicky and expensive endeavor. High intensity, full spectrum specialized grow-lights often fetch a hefty price, but can easily be substituted for a more economical option if you’re not trying to grow tomatoes in a cave. Fluorescent or LED bulbs will work much better than incandescent lights, you can place them closer without worrying about the heat. A good rule of thumb is doubling the distance of the light source delivers a quarter of the usable light to the plant itself. As close to the foliage as possible without scorching is always your best bet.

Mistake #4: Pests

You’ve just brought home an exotic plant that you’ve rescued from the dumpster. Never has such beautiful foliage graced your halls. Suddenly and without warning your other houseplants are plagued by miniscule green specks draining the life out of one leaf after another. Meanwhile, small black flies swarm your face as you approach the plant. These are two common pests, aphids and fungus gnats, and they’ve been stressing plants and gardeners for hundreds of years.

How to Help

After you’ve successfully ID’d the culprits, you need to take proper action. Application of a neem-oil solution may work for aphids, spider-mites, or mealybugs but it isn’t always easy to obtain or apply properly indoors. If you catch a plant early in the assault, you can often rinse off the majority of the offenders with a strong jet of water either from a hose or your faucet or shower (an exception is succulent plants, never apply oils or spray water onto the leaves of these desert plants) depending on the season.

Manual application of physical force (crush them!) is an oft employed method in the garden for the larger pests, but as with any method vigilance wins the day. Keep a close eye on ailing plants and separate them from any other potentially vulnerable plants. There’s no pest-predators indoors so you’ve got to do the work of a legion of ladybugs on your own. The best offense is always a good defense, so if you’re unsure of a plant just leave it on its own for a week and check it regularly before risking the others.

Mistake #5: Animals (Children included)

You’ve constructed a grand shrine to your beloved cat and you’d like to adorn it with some lush foliage. The only issue is that your poor cat keeps shredding your pothos vines and gagging after chomping down the dumb canes. Children may be a bit easier to train, but all animals are curious at first. Dogs and cats are often just investigating the additions to the house with their mouths.

How to Help

It’s a good rule of (green) thumb to be considerate of the co-inhabitants of your home or garden. When it comes to pets there are a considerable amount of harmful or toxic houseplants that we (well we don’t eat them) wouldn’t consider dangerous ourselves. Most only go so far as to irritate the pet’s mouth or skin, but others cause serious complications that may require treatment. Many pets will simply ignore plants, but cats especially take personal offense to the careful placement of a delicate new bush by the window. After all, that was prime sun basking real estate. A heavy terra-cotta or ceramic pot can provide a stable base to prevent the animals from knocking them over. A shredded leaf or two is nothing much to worry about but a carpet full of soil is another story.

Do your research, figure out what plants may be harmful to the four legged friends and pick a friendlier variety. Spider plants are generally considered safe, and easy plants to care for. For a full list check out the ASPCA’s website.

About The Author

Born and raised in a small town in Northern CT as the middle-son of a DIY-champ Auto Mechanic and a Psych-Nurse I've moved to New Jersey with my fiance to pursue a career in Psychology. Somewhere along the way I picked up gardening and each day is better because of it. Always remember you learn more from your accidents than anything you've ever learned in school. It's never too late to pick up gardening and reap the rewards it brings.