Take the Plunge into Owning Houseplants

A Beginner’s (Brief) Guide to General Care
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Created by Zac McEachern

Published on Aug 25, 2022
a collection of house plants in pots

So, you’ve decided it’s time to adopt your first houseplant. How exciting! Bringing green into your space is the liveliest way of adding aesthetic flourish. But did you know that active interaction with indoor plants can reduce both physiological and psychological? Or that the roots and soil of some indoor plants, tested in a NASA study, showed the potential to filter household pollutants? Whatever enticed you here, whatever your reasons may be, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here, taking the leap.

I admit, it can be daunting. Which one? Where? There’s a myriad of plants with a myriad of varying conditions to be met. But rest assured, amateur horticulturist, green thumbs are merely urban legend. The perfect plant–and the right way to take care of it–is within your reach.

The first step in choosing a plant for your home is often overlooked, yet it’s the most critical to your houseplant’s success and happiness (and yours, too!). It’s easy to get your eye on a particular plant, but a prickly pear cactus in a north-facing window will be a death sentence (for us residents of the northern hemisphere, that is). It’s salient to understand the location your new friend will reside. Will it receive early sunlight? Or later in the day? Is the window blocked by trees, buildings? Where will it be placed in relation to a window? Take the time to note how light enters your space and the cardinal direction your window faces.

Sometimes, you may find that plants are relegated to a certain sun exposure–a snake plant in an east window or a money tree in the west; but, if your western window is pressed against another building, it won’t receive the same ‘supposed’ sun exposure.

This is why light, less so directional exposure, is best to consider hand-in-hand with location. There are two important distinctions in regards to light. One: it can either be direct or indirect. Sun coming through a window is direct light, while indirect refers to ambient sunlight, best expressed in southern and northern exposure, respectively. An east-facing window will receive early, less intense direct light, while western ones receive late, more intense direct light. Two: there’s a range of light intensity from bright to low light. The closer to a window, the brighter the light will be (and vice versa).

Consider a houseplant on a west windowsill. As the day unfolds, it will receive lower levels of indirect light and, gradually, more and more bright light. Once the sun falls on it, it now receives direct, bright light. However, a houseplant placed beside or under that window may not receive any direct light at all–but it will get exceptionally bright indirect light when the sun shines through. Same if it were to be placed further into the room, away from the window. As such, a houseplant meant for an east-facing window may do just as well placed near a western one–or better, if it seems to not enjoy any direct light at all.

A helpful trick in measuring light is to place your hand against a wall or object and observe its shadow. The crisper, the brighter. The less defined, the lower the light. It’s an empirical process, so don’t be afraid to move around, testing different areas at different points in the day.

Got lots of good spots? Great! It’ll make your plant options plentiful. But beware, some will need more attention and maintenance than others. It’s more helpful to ease yourself in by picking easier growing types, which can handle more forgetful neglect or are more adaptable to different light conditions. Needless to say, if you’re up for the challenge, all the power to you. Feel free to choose a plant that really speaks to you.

Succulents are found in hotter regions, displaying thick leaves that harbour water in the sparseness of rain–the camels of plants, if you will. Two great starter options are the snake plant (Dracaena, formerly Sansevieria) and zebra cactus (Haworthia), both possessing many intriguing varieties. Snake plants are prized for their ability to grow even in low light conditions, though both thrive in bright, indirect light. Out of the direct sun, these succulents will need less watering. Aim for once a week in the hotter months, down to about once a month in cooler seasons.

Tropical assortments do wonderfully well in our homes, as they mimic the plants’ natural environment all year round. The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), named for its draping foliage, is a fast grower that does best in bright, indirect light–personally, I’ve found some early or late direct sun does wonders to accentuate the curly variety fully. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a gorgeous vining plant that does well in a variety of light conditions, including low light, but cannot tolerate much of any direct light. Peperomia obtusifolia–nicknamed the baby rubber plant–is a favourable choice for its thicker, glossy leaves that can hold more moisture than other tropicals. Aim to water these every few days in summer, down to once a week in the winter.

Before you run off! Understand that watering isn’t a science, but more a subjective task. Your schedule will change noticeably through the seasons; even between days in the heat of summer. Always, always water until it flows out of the pot’s bottom, or use the bottom-water method (though oscillating between both is ideal). To determine when to, opt to stick a finger, toothpick, or chopstick into the soil to gauge humidity. Keep in mind that guidelines are useful, but it’s ultimately up to you to pay attention… and be willing to learn! At the end of the day, remember that a plant is only ever trying to stay hydrated. 85-90% of a plant’s weight is water, so if you find yourself pounding back water on a surprisingly blistering day, maybe check on your little friend, too.

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