A single plant or a collection of houseplants is a great way to add color and interest to an otherwise plain space. As well as a great way to compliment your interior decoration, taking the time to care for an indoor plant is also good for your mental health. As an extra bonus some varieties, such as the peace lily and the spider plant, also purify the air, further helping to improve your working or living conditions.
Knowing how to properly care for an indoor plant enables you to get the most out of the experience. It also helps the specimens to thrive. This indoor plant care guide is designed to teach you everything you need to know about caring for indoor plants. As well as providing care tips, we will also highlight some of the best indoor plant choices for a range of spaces. Meaning that even if you live in a dark, unimpressive space you will find at least one specimen to suit your situation, allowing you to fill your home or office with life and color.
A houseplant is a great way to liven up a room or workspace.
What is an Indoor Plant?
Before learning how to care for an indoor plant, we must first explain what we mean by an indoor plant.
Put simply, an indoor plant is one that grows inside. Usually in the home or office. While many specimens can be grown both inside and outside, on a patio or in a garden, an indoor plant is one that will struggle to survive if left outside for an extended period of time. Also known as houseplants, many specimens, such as palms, originate in tropical environments. Difficult to grow outside, these sensitive specimens tend to thrive in more easily controlled environments, such as in a home or office.
When selecting your indoor plant, try to select the healthiest possible specimen. This makes ongoing care a lot easier. Firstly, make sure that the specimen has a good root system. Healthy roots will be light in color and thick or sturdy. I appreciate that inspecting the root system can be difficult if the specimen is in a pot.
If you are unable to see the roots, pay attention to the foliage. The leaves should be thick. If you can see through them then they are too thin and your prospective houseplant is possibly unhealthy. Finally, there should be no signs of pests or disease.
Selecting a healthy specimen helps to reduce the amount of ongoing care you need to do.
Most indoor plants have a lifespan of 2 to 5 years. With the right care and attention this can be extended.
How to Care for an Indoor Plant
The key to indoor plant care is providing your specimen with the growing conditions that it needs to thrive. One of the most important parts of this is identifying the right position.
While each specimen has specific needs, there are a few general rules you can follow to make indoor care a lot easier.
Where to Position your Indoor Plant
An important aspect of care, the ideal position can vary from species to species. To check the specific needs of your chosen specimen, consult the information label that comes with the plant.
The majority of houseplants prefer a warm position with some air circulation. A little airflow helps to keep the specimens healthy and disease free. A ceiling or even a small desk fan can help to improve airflow in stale environments.
While some air circulation is good, try to avoid overly drafty positions. This is particularly important during the winter months when harmful, cold air is more likely to be circulating.
Most houseplants require a minimum temperature of 55 ºF. However, some may cope with cooler positions.
One of the most important aspects of finding the right position is ensuring that your chosen specimen receives enough exposure to light. All plants require light in order to carry out vital functions such as photosynthesis. However, some specimens need more light than others. For example, succulents and cacti need continuous exposure to light on a daily basis while the popular pothos can cope with as little as 3 hours of light every day. Again, the information on the label should tell you how much light a specific specimen requires.
Most houseplants can be divided into one of three categories:
- High light specimens require at least 6 hours of light every day,
- Medium light specimens, these specimens thrive with just 4 to 6 hours of light every day,
- Low light specimens need less than 3 hours light a day. These include indoor specimens such as the peace lily and philodendron.
Additionally, some specimens may prefer direct light, such as that from a south facing window while others prefer exposure to indirect or filtered light. This can be light filtered through a net or a sheer curtain. It may also be light absorbed from a grow light.
Ensuring your houseplant gets the right amount of light is key to promoting healthy growth and flowering.
If your indoor plant does not receive enough light new growth may slow or cease. Eventually the specimen will die.
Finally, once you have found the ideal position, rotate the pot by turning it one-quarter every week. Regularly rotating houseplants ensures that all areas of the foliage get an even amount of exposure to light. This encourages even growth and helps to avoid unbalanced specimens.
Potting and Repotting
Another vital part of houseplant care is knowing how and when to repot a specimen. Depending on the rate of growth and the lifespan of your houseplant you may need to regularly repot it. You may also need to repot soon after purchase. Store purchased specimens are often allowed to sit in pots that are too small for them or in nutrient poor earth.
The easiest way to check if your plant is outgrowing its home is to lift up the pot. If roots are sticking out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot, it is time to repot. Other signs of specimens becoming root bound, or outgrowing their home, include growth slowing or ceasing and the soil drying out more quickly than usual.
Repot into a pot that is either the same size or slightly larger than the one already holding your pot. Don’t repot specimens into overly large containers. This can cause shock which may stunt growth or cause leaf drop. Your new pot should be clean and have drainage holes.
The best time to repot houseplants is in late winter or early spring, just before it awakens from its dormant period.
To repot, place some potting medium in the bottom of the new pot. Take care to remove the plant from its container, try not to damage the root system. Gently brush any remaining soil from the root system.
Position the plant in its new container, it should sit at roughly the same level as when it was in its old pot. When you are happy with the position, add more soil to the pot filling in all the gaps. Water well and return the plant to its usual position. This is a quick and easy guide if you are repotting a succulent.
Depending on their size and growth rate some specimens may require regular repotting, while others may never need to be rehomed.
What Soil Should I Use?
Identifying the right soil or growing medium is key to helping specimens to thrive. Most houseplants favor a soilless medium. Soilless mixes make houseplant care easier because they absorb moisture well and resist compaction. However, they can dry out more quickly than other potting mediums. This may mean that you need to water your specimens more frequently.
While you can purchase a soilless potting mix you can also make your own. A combination that is equal parts vermiculite or perlite, compost and peat moss is ideal.
When to Water
Knowing when to water houseplants can be difficult. A key aspect of houseplant care, many people tend to over water their houseplants mistakenly believing that they are severely under watered. Remember indoor plants don’t want to sit in water or wet soil. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings.
During the spring and summer months, when they are actively growing, houseplants require watering once a week. This can be reduced during the fall and winter months to no more than twice a month.
When you water your specimens, try to evenly soak the soil. Water over a sink or bowl. Continue to water until excess water starts to drip out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Allow the excess water to finish draining away before returning the pot to its normal position.
Some specimens, such as aloe vera, require less frequent watering than other specimens.
If you struggle to know when to water, why not invest in a Gouven Soil Moisture Meter? This is an easy way to monitor the exact moisture content of your soil. You can also use a less sophisticated method: simply pick up the pot. The lighter it feels, the less water there is in the soil. If the pot feels heavy there is no need to water.
Once you know how often your plant requires watering, try to get into a regular routine. This helps to make ongoing care a lot easier.
Many popular indoor cultivars originate from jungle or tropical environments where humidity levels are over 40%. Regularly misting the foliage helps to increase humidity levels, promoting growth and keeping foliage healthy.
Use a spray bottle to lightly mist the foliage once or twice a day.
Feeding your Indoor Plant
A vital part of indoor care, a regular application of fertilizer can help to bolster growth.
Slow release granules can be applied either directly to the soil surface or diluted into water. Granular fertilizers need to be applied once every few months. Alternatively, you can also use a water soluble or liquid fertilizer. Either of these are easily incorporated into your watering routine. These fertilizers need to be applied once every 2 to 3 weeks.
Most garden centers sell indoor plant fertilizers.You can also find plant specific fertilizers, such as orchid feeds. As well as chemical products, there are also a number of organic fertilizers suitable for indoor specimens.
Always consult the instructions before applying a fertilizer. If you want greater control over what products you are using on your specimens you can also make your own fertilizer.
Pruning Leggy Specimens
The vast majority of indoor specimens have low care needs. This means that there is rarely any need to prune them. If your specimens do become tall and spindly or leggy, cut away the foliage with sharp scissors. Damaged or diseased foliage can also be pruned away.
Remember to clean your scissors before and after use. This helps to prevent disease and infestations from spreading around your collection.
Common Houseplant Pests
Check the foliage for signs of infestations on a regular basis. Should you notice any pests, spray the foliage with an insecticidal soap. Repeat this application every 2 weeks, so that the foliage is treated 3 times in all. 3 applications over the course of 6 weeks cures most infestations and also removes any eggs left behind. Citrus or neem oil can also be used to treat infestations.
At least once a month, check the foliage for signs of infestation or disease.
Common Indoor Plants and Their Specific Care Needs
Now that we have covered the general points concerning how to care for your indoor plant, we will briefly look at some of the more common houseplants and any specific care needs they may have. If you want an easy to care for houseplant, this is a great list.
Each indoor cultivar has its own preferences and care needs.
Aloe (Aloe vera)
A distinctive indoor specimen, Aloe is an easy to care for option which adores a sunny, warm position. Ideal for bright positions, the more light that aloe receives the more it thrives.
Water aloe sparingly. When you do water, try to soak the soil. Allow the soil to dry out before watering again. This helps to prevent root rot. Finally, fertilize with a general purpose fertilizer diluted to half its strength. This can be applied once a month from March until August.
Dumb Cane (Diffenbachia)
Popular for its large foliage, the most common Dumb Cane cultivar is speckled green and white. However, other color combinations are available. This attractive, upright specimen is best placed in a filtered light position, away from direct light. Additionally some cultivars prefer low light positions.
Water to keep the soil moist, not wet. This may mean providing just a little water once or twice a week, depending on the temperature. Don’t water your Dumb Cane if the top inch of soil is wet. Apply a water soluble fertilizer twice a month.
Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)
The most common orchid variety, Moth Orchids are commonly sold in garden centers. Despite their exotic appearance they are also easy to care for and, with a little patience, can be encouraged to repeat flower. This is a good, detailed guide to caring for all types of orchid.
Moth Orchids like a little less light, preferably indirect light, than other orchid varieties. Once you find the ideal position, Moth Orchids happily thrive and flower. In the wild Moth Orchids absorb water from the atmosphere via their roots. This can be difficult to replicate in the house, so instead water once a week. The roots should be light green and spongy. Apply a suitable water soluble fertilizer once a month during the spring and summer.
Bright and colorful, in the right position the moth orchid will continually reflower.
Peace Lily (Spathyphillum)
The Peace Lily is an attractive, broad leaf specimen which produces a white flower. In fact this flower is actually a colorful leaf bract. The dark foliage of the Peace Lily is an attractive, lush addition to any interior space. It also purifies the air around it.
Easy to care for, the Peace Lily is tolerant of low light positions but they prefer a medium light. If placed in too dark a position the Peace Lily may not flower. Water when the soil is dry to the touch or when the foliage begins to go limp. These specimens prefer dry to wet soil. Apply a granular fertilizer twice a year.
Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)
A distinctive specimen, the trunk of the Ponytail Palm resembles the foot of an elephant. Masses of long, green foliage erupt from the central trunk like water from a fountain. Thriving on neglect, the Ponytail Palm is an easy to care for option.
For the Ponytail Palm, light is key. These specimens thrive when allowed to sit in lots of bright light. Avoid placing in overly shady positions. Water your Ponytail Palm infrequently. Like succulents the trunk stores water. On average Ponytail Palms require watering once every 3 weeks, but this may vary depending on growing conditions. Fertilize lightly with a diluted or reduced dose, roughly 1/10th of the suggested ratio, of all purpose fertilizer.
A resilient, almost indestructible specimen, Pothos has a pleasant trailing habit. Happy to grow in the soil, you can also grow Pothos in water.
Pothos prefers a medium light position but happily grows in any sort of light and also under grow lights. Water infrequently. Allow Pothos to dry out between waterings. Despite its hardiness, Pothos is prone to root rot. If you are unsure whether to water, wait a few more days to allow the soil to dry out a little more. Just don’t allow the foliage to shrivel and dry out. A water soluble fertilizer should be applied once a month during the growing season.
Almost impossible to kill, pothos is a popular indoor choice.
Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)
A resilient, indoor specimen, the Rubber Plant is pleasingly easy to care for. New growth often emerges in an eye-catching shade of red red. This brings masses of bold color and interest to your home before fading to a rich burgundy shade.
Ficus elastica likes lots of indirect light. Place near a window covered with a sheer curtain or net. If the specimen receives too little light, the foliage may be green not red. Water to keep the soil moist during the spring and summer months. They require less water during the winter months. Mist the foliage regularly. Fertilizer once a month during the spring and summer with a water soluble fertilizer.
Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
The Snake Plant, or mother-in-law’s tongue, is a popular, easy to care for houseplant. A number of different cultivars are suitable for indoor cultivation. If placed in a favorable position a flower stalk with white blooms will emerge. Coming in a range of colors the pups, or baby plants, can be separated easily from the mother plant, allowing you to fill your home with these attractive specimens.
Mother-in-law’s tongue is a great addition to the home or office because it removes toxins from the air. These specimens do best in direct light. They can also survive in fluorescent light. A durable specimen, the soil can be allowed to dry out between waterings. For the best results water once or twice a week during the spring and summer. In the winter reduce this to no more than twice a month. For a further boost, apply a 20-20-20 fertilizer once in the spring.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
A popular indoor specimen, which produces lots of babies or clones that can be potted on with ease, the Spider Plant loves naturally humid spaces such as bathrooms and kitchens. Here they thrive in bright light and soak up the moisture in the atmosphere. They also make great hanging plants. Just avoid placing them in too shady an environment.
If placed in a bathroom and allowed to enjoy a couple of steamy showers or baths a week you wont need to water them. Otherwise water once a week or when the soil is dry. Fertilizer with a water soluble fertilizer 4 times a year. Don’t fertilize in the winter when it is dormant.
Spider plants thrive in humid environments such as bathrooms.
Warning, some houseplants, such as peace lily and pothos can be toxic if ingested. They can also cause sensitive skin to develop a rash. If you are concerned, wear gloves when handling and wash your hands afterwards.
With a little knowledge indoor plant care is pleasingly easy. Once you identify the right plant for your space, a little water and fertilizer is all that is needed to fill your home or office with color.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.