Help my thumb turn green
December 20, 2016 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm pretty bad at houseplants (although I'm getting lots better). I want to become good at plants. All kinds of houseplants. HALP.

So almost a couple years ago I asked this question. Everyone's answers were super helpful and that peace lily is doing really well now (so thanks!).

I used to be terrible at plants -- like, basically, they died when I looked at them -- and now I'm what I would rate as ok, meaning that I do fine with easy ones like peace lilies and mother-in-law's tongue and so forth. I attribute this mostly to my deciding that I was going to stop thinking of myself as being someone who kills plants.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't really work well if I want to start tackling plants that are considered someone difficult to raise, like azaleas or jade plants or what have you. And if I have to do anything more difficult than "water and put plant food in," I'm totally stuck. For example, I have no idea how to propagate a cutting. And when my peace lily got really big, someone told me I should split it in half with a knife rather than replanting it in a giant pot. Suffice to say I replanted it in a giant pot.

So, my question is: if I wanted to become one of those people who could pretty much grow any type of plant, how would I go about it? Are there any particular books people would suggest? Or maybe websites or videos? Or is it really just a matter of "buy a plant and go for it and learn by trial and error?" I figure there must be a way that people learn to do this, since people do make a living at this sort of thing. I'm not looking to make a living at it, of course, but I'd like to become a pretty talented hobbyist. (I'm aware of this question, but it's more about easy houseplants, and I'm specifically looking for advice on how to to move beyond easy houseplants.)

Oh, just to be clear: I live in an apartment in NYC, so I'm not looking for tips on gardening outdoors. I'm talking strictly houseplants.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by holborne to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Trial and error. Seriously. Read books on plant care and propagation, and then just go for it. You'll win some, lose some. You have to figure what grows in your spaces, and plants don't necessarily read the guide books. It's interesting, frustrating, depressing, and invigorating. I like taking 2 inch starts and growing them into bigger and bigger pots. I'm going to try planting a packet of cactus seeds. I've heard there fussy, but maybe there's an easy variety in there. Eh, maybe I'll get lucky. Get starts from friends or buy cheap plants in small pots. You'll find some that are easier than others. Just have fun and don't stress. The less you fuss, the more success you will have (meaning don't overwater ;)
posted by BlueHorse at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

In some sense, houseplants are diving into the deep end. It's a hazard of NYC life that houseplants are all you get, but gardens and flowerbeds are more forgiving - just pick a plant that likes your climate, and tend it occasionally. With a houseplant, there's much less dirt and root volume to self-regulate water supply, there are issues of too little root space, too little or wrong kind of soil nutrients, fewer options for getting rid of infestations, etc.

Which is to say, don't feel bad about occasionally killing a houseplant, people who say it's easy are either lying, or super-experts who forget what they had to learn, or super-novices who have only ever had bulletproof plants, or rather clueless who think that houseplants have a finite lifespan and are supposed to keel over every 12-18 months.

Propagating cuttings is fun, just look up the plant in question and figure out how much you're trimming off and where the roots will grow, then put it in water with that root-growing spot below the surface and the leaf part above, and wait patiently. If it doesn't work, try again. Basically, my advice is try it! It's not so much that it's trial and error and no way to get it right the first time - there totally is, you can find websites and books and all kinds of info, and if you do it right, it'll work - but the point is that if it doesn't work, the parent plant will be fine, all you've lost is a leaf, or the smaller piece of root ball, or whatever. So don't be too scared of failure, the consequences are most likely just the time it takes to start over, or at worst the $19.99 to buy another parent plant (in the case of, for example, horribly mangling a root ball beyond anything I've ever done and I'm pretty sloppy)
posted by aimedwander at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I guess another point is that part of a hobby is starting out doing some aspects of it badly, and getting better. The uncertainty is the reason it's fun!
posted by aimedwander at 8:55 AM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a huge houseplant nerd. I keep over 100 plants, and while some houseplant nerds specialize so tightly that all they keep are one species (say, African Violets) or category (succulents, perhaps), I keep a relatively wide range. Way back before I reached this point, here were some things I did:

1) Read through the plant info posts on PATSP (scroll down around halfway and look on the right side to see them, or Ctrl+F "PLANT DIFFICULTY LEVELS, SO FAR (FROM MOST TO LEAST DIFFICULT)"

2) Read through interesting-to-you threads on the Gardenweb forums - there is a search option so you can narrow down the topic if the wide range of posts in any given subforum is overwhelming

3) Read through interesting theads on Reddit's /r/succulents and /r/cactus - and ditto regarding the search feature (sadly, despite my own attempts to liven up /r/bromeliads and /r/houseplants, neither are very active communities)

4) For any specific type of plant I was interested in caring for, I'd google it and read several pages about it. Aside from PATSP, Gardenweb, and Reddit, there are a number of different sites that describe proper care conditions. Dave's Garden is a good one, for instance, though parts are behind a paywall. Make sure you're reading from enough sites that you can weed out any atypical advice.

5) For any specific technique I was interested in (propagation via division, for instance, like you mentioned with your peace lily) I would google it and read several pieces about it or occasionally watch instructional videos. If I didn't know what the term was, I'd just google something like "peace lily propagation." Again, make sure you're reading from enough sites that you can weed out any atypical advice.

6) As you get more advanced or have questions, you can start to put up your own posts on Gardenweb or Reddit. You can also see if there are any plant societies near you - near me, there are societies for cacti & succulents as well as for gesneriads and what-have-you. You can go to (open and free to the public) meetings to schmooze and discuss issues or just to their annual plant sales.

All of this is in addition to the trial and error component, of course. You'll find that even once you know your stuff, you'll have an inexplicably green thumb for some species others find super difficult, and then for a relatively easy genus you'll just kill them all no matter what you try.

Also, just as an FYI - when I lived in NYC, I got a ton of plants & cuttings off of Craigslist extremely cheaply and/or free (both by viewing the listings but also by making my own post asking for cuttings). There may also be an NYC Meetup group around plants; I seem to recall that's how I inherited ~10 plants and a couple nice pots from some dude who had to move from NYC and didn't want to schlep them along.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:35 AM on December 20, 2016 [14 favorites]

Lot of great advice already, so I won't add to that.

Just want to say that there's no exact science to horticulture. I have a degree in hort and another in botany and I still have plants die on me from time to time. It happens. Growing plants is all trial and error. And I work for a garden that cultivates plants. Plants die at my place of employment every day. Not b/c of incompetence, but b/c plants are living creatures and some survive better than others. Even under the best of circumstances.

TL;DR Just go get yourself some plants that interest you, read up on their environmental requirements and give it a shot! Some may not make it, but some may surprise you.

My only bit of houseplant advice: don't overwater - water deeply and infrequently

Happy gardening!
posted by strelitzia at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

One "trick" I've learned is for, say, African violets: buy ONE, see if you can keep it alive for 6 months. If you can, go ahead and buy a couple more or propagate some off your current violet. Keep doing this with other sorts of plants. Eventually you'll learn which plants don't do well in the conditions you have and which ones do.

My house is situated such that orchids fooled me. Orchids can only live in one spot in my house. So if you try the "only buy more later" plan, know that you may end up having to keep the like ones together, because you've found the perfect spot for them in your space.
posted by freezer cake at 10:00 AM on December 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Actually, you don't have to start with something boring, like your typical office plant--pothos, snake plant, bamboo, or aloe, but things like Christmas cactus, coleus, and African violets can be pretty spectacular and rewarding, although common and easier to raise.

String of peas, hoya, bird's nest ferns, rosary plant, burro tail, rat tail cactus, pony tail palm, and more common bromelaids are rewarding, and give you a bit more challenge. Getting comfortable with common varieties of plants can give you experience to raise rarer plants of that type.

Given you're in NY, I'd stay away from moisture loving house plants like cyclamen, azaleas, begonias, and orchids, unless you have a window in your bathroom or want to start a terrarium. I don't do either, because they tend to want more fussing and can develop mold and fungus.

Vegartanipla has a great post!
posted by BlueHorse at 10:05 AM on December 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Pick a variety of plants, keep the ones that survive.

Seriously, you'll do better finding plants that fit your house and your style, rather than trying to change your house or habit for a plant.

Get cuttings from friends or ask online, it's easy to experiment when the materials are free.

One thing a lot of people over look is that you have to pay attention to your plants. It helps if you like thinking about them, noticing details, every day.

Most people who are good got there by developing instinct and intuition. Reading and talking to experts can help, but I wouldn't recommend it as your only way of learning.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:23 PM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's a very helpful book on houseplants that clean the air.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 5:59 PM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding th PATSP blog for their plant ratings. It's a really good way to get a sense of what to expect, plus reassurance that plants sometimes die in even the most skilled gardene.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:11 AM on December 21, 2016

One thing a lot of people over look is that you have to pay attention to your plants. It helps if you like thinking about them, noticing details, every day.

Eh, a little judicious neglect goes a long way, too. Don't feel you have to make plant growing a major time suck. Plants grow whether they're watched or not. Unfortunately for Mr. BH, I'm another 100+ houseplant hoarder.

Granted, mine get more attention in the winter, which is when I appreciate them the most as greenery and a reminder that eventually spring will return, but when my focus is outside in the summer, they get by on the minimum of H2O and TLC. The average plant in my house usually gets watered, dusted, and tidied about every 12-14 days. The ones that need more TLC live on the kitchen windowsill. Overall plants are highly rewarding, and they ask very little of us.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:10 AM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wrote this is anothr answer and it applies here too.

One thing that I found that was killing my plants was the tap water! The chlorine, I was told, was the culprit. Since I use only well filtered water now, my plants grow wonderfully. ( and the pets drink more water too)ote this in another answer and it applies here too.
posted by donaken at 6:41 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chlorinated water doesn't kill houseplants. Some of them are touchy about fluoride, and it's possible that some tap water contains other stuff that plants dislike (if you have a water softener, your tap water contains a shit ton of salt, which will kill a lot of plants), but chlorine, in the small amounts needed for disinfection, is not the problem.

Tap water does have dissolved solids in it, which can kill plants if allowed to accumulate. A lot of people water by pouring some water in and that's it: they don't get the soil fully saturated, they don't remove any water that flows through the root ball, etc. Over time, as the plant takes up some of the water and the rest of the water evaporates, the dissolved solids are left behind, and can build up to the point where they begin to prevent roots from taking up water properly. Filtered water can delay the build-up, by containing smaller amounts of dissolved solids, but the problem is not the tap water per se, it's the watering method.

This can be prevented by giving plants a good soaking with every watering (as strelitzia advises above), allowing the excess water to drain out, and then putting them back in their normal location. It's a pain in the ass to move larger plants in and out of the tub every time they need water, true. It also means you wind up washing fertilizer -- dissolved minerals you're adding to the soil on purpose -- out of the pot every time you water as well; this can be countered by giving plants weak fertilizer at every watering, instead of a massive dose of fertilizer every 3 months.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:52 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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