Indoor Plant Care

While many people believe that a space just isn’t complete without something green growing in it, keeping plants alive (and thriving) doesn’t come naturally to everyone. To help those who might need a little guidance enjoy the benefits of indoor flora, we asked Leah Borkowski, sales associate at Washington, D.C.-based garden center American Plant, to share essential pointers—plus plant recommendations for everyone from beginners to those who possess an expert-level green thumb.

Plant Care 101:

According to Borkowski, the key elements to successfully tending indoor plants include knowing the environment your plant comes from; recognizing the specific needs of your plant; and understanding light, watering, and fertilizer. For the latter three, she provides the following primers.

Understanding light. Many plants at the nursery come with notes regarding the amount of light they require that can be very helpful—and very confusing. For example, while some plants are marketed as “low light” plants, there are very few plants that prefer little to no light. “At the very least, most ‘low light’ plants prefer bright, indirect light,” Borkowski says. Generally, the strongest hours of sun come in the afternoon, in windows that face south and west. Here’s how to decode the lighting terms that you might encounter (and when in doubt, ask an expert!):

  • Low light: These plants would like at least four hours of light per day, but they don’t need to have direct sun hitting their leaves for any part of the day. Here’s a good gauge: If you can read in a room comfortably without any lights on, then this is the perfect location for these types of plants.
  • Medium light: Plants that prefer medium levels of light need at least four to six hours of bright, indirect light. Depending on the plant, it may also like a few hours of direct sun hitting its leaves.
  • Full sun: Plants that require prefer full sun need at least four to six hours of unobstructed, direct sun hitting their leaves. Many of these plants would also appreciate more when possible.

Understanding water. “As a general rule of thumb, many houseplants like to be watered when the top surface of the soil dries out,” Borkowski shares. Her advice for determining soil moisture is to stick your fingertip into the soil. If the soil feels wet, wait a few more days and check again. With the exception of aquatic plants or plants that are native to swampy environments, no houseplant likes to sit in water. However, when watered, plants appreciate a thorough soaking—even succulents. This means a large plant in a 10- to 12-inch pot may need a gallon of water for proper hydration. In addition, the more sun the plant receives, the more water it will require. By contrast, In the winter months, when days are shorter and light is less strong, plants will need to be watered less frequently.

Understanding fertilizer. “Fertilizer isn’t medicine for plants,” Borkowski notes. “It won’t heal a sick or neglected plant.” Rather, it should only be used as a booster for growth to help the plant thrive. During the growing season, plants can be fertilized with a basic houseplant fertilizer according to the directions on the container. In the winter months, when days shorten and light reduces, fertilizer can either be stopped, or applied at half-strength less frequently.

Plants for Beginners:

For those who are just beginning to cultivate their green thumb, the following plants are a good fit. Not as picky about their light levels and able to handle the occasional overwatering or a little neglect, they are forgiving “starter” plants ready to enliven a living space.

Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans): According to Borkowski, this plant is the quintessential house plant, and its forgiving nature makes it ideal for novices. It prefers bright indirect light and a thorough watering when the soil dries down half an inch, but can also manage with lower light conditions.

Echeveria (Echeveria elegans): There are many beautiful Echeveria species, often known as “Mexican hens and chicks.” They are easy to care for and can add a pop of bright color to any room. Echeverias prefer full sun, and can tolerate a lot of really bright light. Like other succulents and cacti, Echeveria prefer to dry out almost completely in between waterings, with about three quarters of the soil dry.

Bird’s Nest Fern and Japanese Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus): This fern earned its moniker because the center of the plant resembles a bird’s nest. Native to the rainforest, it prefers humidity and a lot of bright, indirect light (it would be perfectly at home in a bathroom with a window). A thorough watering when the soil is dry to about half an inch will keep it happy.

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia): Native to Africa and a true Instagram hero, this plant is typically sold as a “low light” plant, but it flourishes in bright, indirect light. The ZZ plant contains potato-like rhizomes under the soil that hold a lot of water, so it likes to thoroughly dry out in between waterings, until the soil is almost completely dry.

Snake Plant/Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata): This retro houseplant had its heyday in the 1970s, but it’s made a big comeback and is a very common houseplant today. Usually sold as a “low light” plant, the snake plant can tolerate almost any light condition, but it thrives in bright indirect light. The snake plant holds a lot of moisture in its leaves, and therefore likes to thoroughly dry out between waterings.

Plants for Intermediates:

These plants are a little more persnickety, but fairly manageable. Although they require a bit more maintenance, heeding their care advice will reap showy rewards.

Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata): The dramatic, big round leaves of the fiddle leaf fig plant have made it the darling of interior designers from coast to coast. It thrives in a lot of bright indirect light and can tolerate a couple of hours of direct sun. The fiddle leaf fig prefers to dry out about halfway in between waterings. Native to West Africa, if you live in a humid climate in the summer it may enjoy some time outdoors.

Split Leaf Philodendron (Monstera deliciosa): Monstera deliciosa is a drama queen who has rapidly gained popularity in the past few years, primarily for her beautiful, large leaves with splits and holes. Monsteras need a lot of space because of their size, and prospers in a lot of bright, indirect light. The plant likes its soil to dry down to an inch before each thorough watering. Monsteras are able to reach maturity if they are given a pole or trellis to climb and attach their aerial roots to.

Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia seguine, Dieffenbachia ‘Snow’): The beauty in the dieffenbachias is the unique pattern on each large leaf, with foliage that’s a lovely mix of green, white, and yellow. The dumb cane shines in bright, indirect light and can tolerate a few hours of direct sun. They prefer their soil to dry down an inch between each watering.

Rex and Rhizomatous Begonias: Sometimes known as painted-leaf begonias, these beauties are known for their showy leaf coloration. Begonias boast beautiful foliage and prefer a lot of bright light and a watering when the top surface dries.

Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura): Striking multi-colored leaves and a smaller profile make this species a charming addition to any houseplant collection. The prayer plant gets its moniker because its leaves fold together in the evening, like hands in prayer, reopening in the morning. It prefers bright, indirect light and a watering when the top surface of the soil dries about a quarter of an inch.

Phalaenopsis Orchids: These stunners require a lot of very bright, indirect light. Phalaenopsis orchids are unique in that they do not grow in soil, and instead obtain their nutrients and moisture from the air. They should be potted in a mix of sphagnum moss and orchid bark. Allow Phalaenopsis orchids to thoroughly dry out in between waterings, about 7-10 days. When the potting medium feels dry, thoroughly soak it with room temperature water until rehydrated. Only fertilize orchids when they are out of bloom. Orchids may be placed in a location with brighter light when out of bloom, and benefit from being in a spot with fluctuating temperatures.

Plants for Experts:

In the house plants world, these are the high-maintenance crew. However, when properly cared for, they can serve as stunners for years to come.

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum raddianum, Adiantum peruvianum): This gorgeous, delicate fern prefers bright, indirect light and does not like to dry out, so add water as soon as the top surface dries. Maidenhair ferns need high humidity, so feel free to amp up the drama and add a design element by using a cloche. Keeping the soil moist is key to the plant’s survival, so engage in frequent misting to keep it happy.

Calathea (Calathea lancifolia, Calathea makoyana, Calathea ornata): There are few plants that are grown solely for their foliage, and the calathea is one of them; the plants come in many shapes and sizes, with gorgeous, ornately patterned leaves. They prefer bright, indirect light and a watering when the top surface dries. Calatheas also require high humidity, and the edges of the leaves will brown and crisp if the air is too dry.

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula): The Venus fly trap thrives in bright indirect light and needs constant humidity. Venus fly traps benefit from sitting on a layer of moist moss and being encased in a cloche or terrarium. Contrary to popular belief, Venus fly traps do not need to digest insects often to survive. As a matter of fact, triggering the traps to close requires a lot of energy, so if they are falsely triggered often the plant is likely to die.

Citrus Plants (Citrus limon, Citrus × aurantiifolia): These stunners are the grande dames of indoor plants. Citrus plants require direct, full-sun for six to eight hours a day. They like to be watered when the soil has dried down an inch and use a high nitrogen fertilizer. They can be placed outside in the warm months, which will help encourage pollination and fruit growth.

TSG Tip 301 from Leah Borkowski at American Plant in Washington, D.C. American Plant is featured in The Scout Guide Washington, D.C. Shot at And George in Charlottesville, Virginia.