Plant experts share their tried-and-true methods for simple, effective houseplant care.
While plenty of houseplants are so low-maintenance that even the most hands-off gardener can keep them alive, all plants are happier and healthier with proper care.
To keep your indoor plants thriving—and not just surviving—we asked plant experts to share their favorite ways of tending to all kinds of houseplants, from tropical florals and dry-air-loving cacti to pretty succulents and draping vines.
Learn how to calculate the amount of light your plants receive each day, perfect your watering technique, prevent dust and pests from halting your plants' growth, and improve drainage and soil quality with these professional tips.
Meet Our Expert
Related: 14 Easy Houseplants Anyone Can Grow
Clean Your Plants Regularly
You know how refreshed you feel after a shower? The same is true for your plants. "Putting your houseplants in the sink or shower—or if they’re too large, wiping down the leaves with a soft, wet cloth—is one of the best things you can do to keep them happy and thriving," says Justin Hancock, horticulturist at Costa Farms.
When you wipe or spray your plants, you'll dislodge pests that may have taken up residence on the leaves and remove any accumulated dust. "That dust layer acts as a filter, reducing the amount of light available for your plants," says Hancock. "Wrap the pot in a plastic bag to help reduce the amount of soil that splashes out."
Related: The Benefits of Owning Houseplants
Improve Drainage—Without Fillers
Since potted plants are surrounded by less soil than in-ground plants, it's important to make sure they have the correct drainage. "Both the pot and potting soil should allow water to drain away from the plant's roots," says Jessica Mercer of Plant Addicts.
Many houseplant owners add rocks, bark, or other filler to the bottom of their pots to improve drainage, but this can backfire. "These materials reduce drainage by creating a saturation zone where the soil just above the filler layer stays saturated," says Mercer. "Fillers mean less space for the roots to grow and more moisture trapped in the bottom layer of soil. The extra moisture can lead to root damage and fungal diseases. Spend the extra money to fill the pot with potting soil and save yourself some trouble down the road."
Monitor the Roots
Check your plants' roots every year, and repot before they become rootbound, says Hancock. "If you slip the plant out of its pot and see 75 percent or more roots (versus 25 percent potting mix), your plant will thank you for giving it more space," he says. "While most common houseplants are pretty tolerant of being rootbound—some to the point where they’ve unfortunately earned a reputation of preferring to be rootbound—repotting before they get to that point promotes optimal growth and a happier plant."
Combine New Soil With Old
When it's time to repot your plant, mix new potting mix in with the old instead of replacing the old soil entirely, says Hancock. Loosen the plant's roots to combine the two soils for optimal drainage. "If you drop the rootball into a new pot and surround it with new potting mix, the two types of potting mix may hold moisture at different rates, making it easy to over- or underwater," he says.
Water Dry Soil With Care
When watering a plant that has dry potting mix, add moisture a little bit at a time—don't flood it. "Many common mixes actually repel water if they get too dry, so if you follow the often-dispensed guidance of adding moisture until water runs out the drainage holes, dry potting mix may not absorb much if you pour out a lot [of water] at one time," says Hancock. "The slower you apply water, the better a chance it has to absorb."
For especially dehydrated plants, go right to the roots. "If your soil is so dry that water runs off immediately, it can be really helpful to let the rootball soak in water for 20 minutes or so, allowing it to fully moisten," says Hancock.
Try Watering From the Bottom
If you typically water your plants from above, you're exposing them to the risk of rot, says Mercer. "Orchids are a prime example of a plant susceptible to crown rot from trapped moisture, and after killing an orchid this way, I've switched to bottom watering with excellent results," she says.
To water plants from the bottom, place your pot in a filled sink, tub, or tray for about 15 minutes, says Mercer. This allows the soil to pull moisture up through the pot's drainage holes. "Bottom watering leads to better hydration of dry or hydrophobic soil, deeper root growth, and less risk of fungal diseases," she says. "The main drawback of bottom watering is that salts from fertilizer can build up in the soil and should be flushed out every few months with top watering."
If you're watering plants that like dry conditions—like cacti—only bottom-water those planted in a specific succulent or cacti mix. "Bottom watering will saturate the soil, and could lead to overwatering if the soil does not drain well," says Mercer.
Understand Your Light Exposure
Knowing what light conditions your houseplant needs—and the conditions your home provides—is critical to raising happy, healthy plants. Figure out whether your windows provide bright or low and direct or indirect lighting, and then pair plants with their proper place.
"You can tell if the sunlight is direct if the path of light from outside lands directly on your plant," says Mercer. Light that is obstructed or filtered—as through a curtain—is indirect. "Finding the sweet spot with light conditions is often a trial and error process," she says. "If the foliage starts to bleach out or develop brown crispy edges, the plant is likely receiving too much light. If the plant fails to put on new growth or the leaves lose their vibrancy, try increasing the duration or intensity of light for the plant."
Calculate How Much Light Your Plants Get
A spot that looks bright and sun-filled when you place your plant there may not stay that way long enough for your plant to thrive, says Hancock. "It’s easy to pick a spot in your home, especially if it’s not right up by a window, and decide it’s in bright light. But if it’s only bright a small portion of the day, it might not provide enough illumination for plants with high light needs," he says.
Light intensity is measured in foot-candles; light meter apps can help you test yours. "If you don’t want to try and measure foot-candles for a scientific bearing of light, use the shadow test. If a plant casts a strong shadow throughout the day, then it’s likely high light. If a plant casts little to no shadow, then it’s more likely a low-light spot."
Plenty of different pests can target your indoor plants; fungus gnats are one of the most common, says Mercer. "Fungus gnats multiply in moist soil and often indicate that you are overwatering the plant," she says. "To treat a plant for fungus gnats, try cutting back on watering and allow the soil to dry out a bit." Other techniques include using sticky bug traps to catch adult files, and incorporating Mosquito Bits into your soil.
Use Time-Release Fertilizer
Over-fertilizing your plants can burn the roots, but time-release fertilizer granules are a low-effort way to feed your plants just enough—and just at the right time. "This category of fertilizer is ideal for your plants because it slowly releases nutrients into the soil over the course of weeks, instead of all at once as with a water-soluble fertilizer," says Hancock. "I like to think of it like my plants snacking throughout the day rather than just getting one meal per day."
Make Your Plants Part of the Family
Healthy, happy plants are those that receive regular care and attention from their owners on an at-least weekly basis, says Hancock. "It feels good to watch their growth, but it also can help prevent pest or other problems from getting out of hand," he says. "If there’s an outbreak of a pest, for example, it’s far easier to tackle the problem at the start when pest populations are small. Looking over your plants can also give you a hint if there’s environmental or other types of stress before it becomes a big deal for the plant."
Read the original article on Martha Stewart.