Houseplant Care: A Guide to Healthy Houseplants

How many times have your houseplants died on you and you had no idea why? Or what about those pitiful-looking specimens you can't make perk up no matter what you try? Maybe you've lost hope when it comes to green things.

Understanding a little bit about your plants can help you get to the root of the problem. Growing in the confined space of a container, your plants depend completely on you to supply all of their needs, the most important being water, light, and fertilizer. Often, they'll let you know what they need.


Lots of people feel most anxious about when and how much to water a plant. Too much kills it and too little kills it, so what's just right? When you touch the soil with your finger and feel no moisture, that's a good sign that your plant would appreciate a drink, especially if the leaves look slightly wilted. Pour room-temperature water into the container until it dribbles out the bottom. Make sure you have something underneath the container to catch the excess water.

There is one caveat: When potting soil dries out too much, it may become hydrophobic. This means it won't absorb water very well. You will notice that most of the water just runs out the bottom of the container almost immediately after you apply it, and the container won't feel heavier after you water. To solve this problem, add small amounts of water a little at a time until the soil holds onto it.

If your plant looks droopy when the soil feels soggy, that means that the roots are drowning and may be rotting. Cut back on your watering and test the soil with your fingertip before you do give your plant another drink. If the container is small enough, pull the plant out and check the roots. They should look white and crisp. If they appear brown, slimy and smell bad, the roots have already begun to rot. In this case, try cutting away all rotten parts and repotting the plant in fresh, slightly damp potting soil.


Another essential element for healthy houseplants is sunlight. Different plants have different light requirements, so try to choose plants that best fit the light conditions of your living space. Knowing which direction a window faces can help you figure this out. South gets the longest and strongest light, East and West get a little less exposure and North gets the least. For example, Chinese Evergreen and the Cast-Iron Plant don't need all that much light and would grow in north-facing windows. A rule of thumb: if your plants don't seem happy where they are, move them around and try different places until they respond positively.


Houseplants require one more important ingredient besides water and light, which is fertilizer. Plants need nutrients to stay healthy just like we do. Choices abound from concentrated liquid and powder you mix into water to small beads or sticks, which remain in the soil and slowly release nutrients over time. It's a good idea to fertilize your plants from March to October about once or twice a week, when they do most of their growing. Keep in mind that you win some, you lose some. Even the most green-thumbed people sometimes can't revive a plant that has made up its mind to go to the great compost heap in the sky. Nothing lasts forever, but in return for a little water, light, and fertilizer, your plants can thrive for years to come.

Some hardy houseplants

  • Cast-Iron Plant. It's as strong as cast iron, as it can survive and even thrive on neglect. For best results, water at least once in a while.
  • Chinese Evergreen. This shrubby-looking plant adapts to any light level and requires little care other than a periodic dusting and watering.
  • Devil's Ivy. This vining plant can take over a room if you don't keep an eye on it. It can grow to great lengths even when in a small pot. It tolerates overwatering and underwatering and varying light levels.
  • Mother-in-Law's Tongue. While this plant does look like a bunch of long, green tongues growing out of the pot, it is humorously purported to be as tough as a mother-in-law. It grows in any light and needs little watering or fertilizer, but it grows slowly.
  • Pepperomia. Many varieties of this plant exist. Easy to grow, these short plants do well even with only small amounts of light and water.
  • Spider Plant. This plant has long, straplike leaves and produces long, thin stems with tiny spider plants on the end. It prefers bright light and needs a moderate amount of water; however, it quickly forgives neglect.
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