houseplants 101
July 16, 2021 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I have a couple of questions around my (beginner-level) houseplants.

1) I've had a ZZ plant for over a year. The leaves are shiny, it looks happy enough. I water it very sparingly - it doesn't seem to feel the lack of water in any way. My apartment is pretty dark and oriented towards the north, the ZZ plant lives in an NE facing window and gets a little light in the morning but otherwise doesn't get much light at all. (The window looks into a garden and any light that comes in is filtered by the trees and the neighbouring house.) It doesn't grow at all - in a whole year, I haven't seen any new growth on it. In fact a friend of mine thought it was an artificial plant because the leaves are so shiny and waxy and it just doesn't seem to change. I don't want to shock it by over-watering, and I wonder if the lack of light is stunting its growth. Is there any way I can help it or is this just how it's going to be as long as I live in a dark apartment?

2) I have had a neon pothos plant for 3 years. It started yellowing and dying last year after I put fertiliser into it, so I cut off the living bits and repotted them. At first the cuttings were quite leggy but I pruned them right back and now it is growing back very bushy. The roots are coming out of the drainage pots. Does it need repotting? I read that pothos likes being 'pot-bound' and it does look quite happy. It sits in a NW facing window and gets some bright sunshine in the afternoons. (The NW facing window gets a bit more light than the NE facing window.)

3) What are some other chill plants that would be good for north-facing windows? Apart from the plants named above I also have a dracaena fragrans and snake plant (also by the NE facing window) and a calathea lancifolia and pilea peperomioides (by the NW facing window). They all seem happy enough, with active growth in the summer months. The pilea in particular is extremely vigorous and I've separated the babies from the mother plant many times.

In general, I tend to kill my potted plants through over-caring for them (fertilising/watering too much etc). I'm trying to only water them now when the pots feel light and/or the leaves look droopy.
posted by unicorn chaser to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This doesn't directly answer your questions, but I'm a happy user of Greg. It sounds ridiculous but it's quite useful for plant care recommendations. And I love looking at my Oasis :)
posted by pando11 at 10:10 AM on July 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

As another app suggestion, I really like Planta. I was just-okay with plants before, but mine have thrived using the app's recommendations.

As far as other plant recommendations - I know they're basic as hell, and you already have a neon one, but if you ask me there's never too much pothos. They can go almost anywhere! Maybe a marble pothos? Also, I have many similar plants to you, and I particularly love my schefflera and crispy wave fern. Or tradescantia zebrina if you enjoy propagation.
posted by mosst at 11:10 AM on July 16, 2021

I love plant questions! And I think we have similar houseplant taste. First, it sounds like you understand your plants and you are doing a lot of things right, yay!

Yes, the problem is probably that your ZZ plant isn't getting enough light. Sometimes plants have enough energy stored that they can keep themselves alive-ish even in low light conditions, but sun is food for plants, and your plant is slowly starving (sorry). Watering or fertilizing won't do anything, and you're right that more water would probably hasten its death through root rot. You do have options, though. Can you stick it under a table lamp that's frequently on? You don't need a special grow light. The light in regular LED bulbs has the light that plants need. If it was a really dim light, that wouldn't be enough, but living room brightness light might be good. Of course, the plant needs to be close-ish to the light.

You could also give it some time in the northwest window. I would move it over there for a while and see what happens. You can rotate some plants; the snake plant could probably do fine in your northeast spot for a while.

I have some rooms and corners that are super dark. I got some LED strip lights (this sort of thing but there are lots of options) and attached them to the top of a shelf and have plants underneath. This wouldn't be enough for plants that need really high light, but it's been great for my calathea, peperomia, pilea, and tradescantia. I turn the lights on and off each day, but they do have a little timer you can set too.

I do think your pothos needs a bigger pot. Roots growing out the bottom is a sure sign. I don't think the fertilizing pushed it over the edge, except that maybe it had nowhere to grow. I hear that thing about such-and-such plant loves to be root bound, and I think what's going on is a few things: sometimes people pot up a plant and it goes into shock and dies and they think the plant preferred the smaller pot; some plants really can tolerate tough conditions; and it's not good to have a super oversized pot. So go up two inches or so with your pothos and I bet it will be happy.

You can also refresh the potting soil even if you don't pot up for plants that have been in the same pot for a few years. You'd sort of scrape off some of the top soil and put new soil in. But a plant that root bound wants some room to grow.

Tradescantia has so many varieties! I think many would do well in your home.

Also, you said you have a snake plant. What kind? There are so many varieties! The leaves come in many different shapes and shades of green, yellow, and white, with different growing patterns. Some of my current favorites are moonshine and Bantel's sensation. I really love snake plants because they thrive and grow even in my relatively low light house.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:26 AM on July 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I have plants in dark corners and I make individual grow lights for them with pendant lamps, using grow bulbs that screw into regular lamps. I make them myself so it matches the planter they're in (simple tall bowl shapes mostly) but you could certainly buy some inexpensive premade pendants instead. Line the inside with foil to maximize the effect. Make sure the lampshade comes well down over the grow light so the light is all directed onto the plant and not, for example, into your eyes when you're hanging out on the couch. You may have to experiment with height, but the plants definitely do well once they have them.
posted by ananci at 11:35 AM on July 16, 2021

Most of my houseplants, including my ZZ plant, get watered from the bottom. That is, once a week a set it in a sink with several inches of water in it and leave it for about thirty minutes. In that time, it drinks whatever water it wants/needs and my risk of over-watering drops to zero.
posted by DrGail at 11:50 AM on July 16, 2021

I have a rubber plant that is quite happy in a north-facing window. Spider plants and hypoestes (polka dot plants) are also good lower light plants. I also have succulents which have been pretty low maintenance... they surprisingly don't actually need all that much light (although I think they do better in brighter light).

If you are concerned about over-watering, you could consider putting your plants in clay pots instead of plastic ones - I think plants do better when they are planted in more breathable mediums. I also second the recommendation to water from the bottom. My mom, who has a huge green thumb, even goes out of her way to collect rain water for her plants, because salts can build up from tap water, which makes some plants less happy.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 12:23 PM on July 16, 2021

The ZZ isn't growing because it's not getting enough light. This is probably just as well -- if it tried to grow anyway, the new growth would be etiolated (stretched and weak). If you're going to ask it to be in the same spot for a long time, you should find a way to supplement the light.

Repotting pothos has never worked that well for me, even when the new pot was only 1 or 2 inches larger, so I'm going to skip question 2.

I'm personally not a fan of watering from the bottom, partly because we have very hard tap water and everything gets really crusty really quickly that way, plus salt buildup can become a problem if you're not repotting everything every year or two.

Going by pot weight or droopy leaves can work, and aren't wrong if your plants are staying alive, but sticking a finger into the soil to feel whether it's moist or not (and how far down) is more accurate than either.

I agree that clay pots are better for people who tend to overnurture. On top of that, I've personally found that ZZ plants do better for me when I mix something in to improve drainage. (I use an "aquatic soil" made from fired clay pieces sifted to be a uniform size; the mix is about 3 parts regular bagged potting mix to 1 part clay.) ZZs are pretty robust and not easily killed, but if you're going to kill one, it will probably be by overwatering. This is even more the case if it's getting so little light that it's not bothering to try to grow.

Good plants for lowish light, that can roll with being a little too cared-for, that you don't already have:

• silver pothos (Scindapsus pictus) isn't the same species as pothos (Epipremnum aureum) but does well with similar care.

• Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema cvv.), though skip the ones with reds and pinks in the leaves, because although they're very pretty, they need better conditions than you have (warmer, brighter, more humid) in order to do well. If there's silvery-gray in the leaf ('Silver Queen,' 'Diamond Bay,' 'Silverado,' 'Cutlass,' 'Stripes' etc.), only different shades of green ('Mary Ann,' 'Maria,' 'B. J. Freeman'), or greens with yellow or white variegation ('Gold Dust,' 'Cory,' 'Brilliant,' 'Golden Bay'), it should be fine.

• heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum cvv.) also resembles pothos but is not pothos.

• Fire Flash / mandarin plant (Chlorophytum 'Fire Flash') is related to spider plants, and is similarly easygoing about care.

• spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum cvv.) too, obviously.

• arrowhead vine (Syngonium cvv.), though in very low light, new growth will be slow and overwatering will be more of a concern.

• Swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus) can be pretty happy in fairly low light for a long time.

• dumb cane (Dieffenbachia cvv.), in particular the old-school variety 'Tropic Snow,' which isn't the prettiest or most compact dieff, but makes up for it by being absurdly durable.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 2:19 PM on July 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

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