If your living space or WFH office needs an instant update, we’ve got an easy answer: Get a houseplant! While we’ve all been cooped up this year, houseplants—already on the upswing in popularity over the past few years—have become the hottest new home accessory. Scroll any Instagram feed and you’ll see plants of every size filling kitchens, hanging in bathrooms, and brightening up living rooms.
And there's good reason for that—beyond just their looks. More and more research shows that being surrounded by indoor and outdoor plants is good for us, offering benefits that include improved mental health, better sleep, and boosting feelings of connection during times of social isolation. How’s that for a sound investment?
Before you fill your online cart, though, do some homework. You need to find the right plant to fit your lifestyle because they do take a (tiny) bit of effort. And if you’re nervous because the last houseplant you bought died in less than ten minutes, it’s okay! We promise! Even the most experienced plant people lose plants occasionally.
We know you’ve got plenty of questions, so here’s everything you need to know about how to buy houseplants:
I'm new to this—where do I start?
The good news is there are tons of great plants for beginners. Looking for a striking architectural plant? The low maintenance snake plant, also called Sansevieria, is the answer. Want a big, splashy plant that’s not super-fussy? Go with Monstera Deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant. Pilea peperomioides, or Chinese money plant, is a petite plant that’s charming on an end table. Pothos, or devil's ivy, is a super-easy vining plant. Whatever you fall in love with, read the plant tag or description for care tips so you’ll know if it’s going to be easy-care or require some babying.
Should I buy plants in person or online?
These are both good options! It’s fun to shop local nurseries because you can see and touch plants. But there are many reliable online retailers, too, which do a great job packaging plants for shipment to your doorstep— and you’ll often find more unusual varieties. If shopping in person, look for plants that appear healthy, which means no droopiness, no yellow or brown leaves, and no sticky or cottony masses, which are a sign of pests.
And here’s a tip: If you’ve got your heart set on a specific plant, search for it by its botanical name, too, to be sure you’re getting the right one. For example, many different plants are called ficus. But a weeping ficus, or ficus benjamina, is not the same plant as ficus elastica, which is the rubber tree.
What if I have pets?
Unfortunately, many houseplants can make your fur baby sick. Some plants, such as English ivy, cause tummy aches and vomiting, while others, such as lilies, can be deadly, especially to cats. Check the ASPCA toxic plants list to learn which plants should be kept away from curious pets. And remember that any plant your pet ingests, if eaten in large enough quantities, can cause GI upset. If you have a new furry family member, don’t leave him or her unattended around your houseplants until you know if your pet is a nibbler! Finally, always call your vet ASAP if you suspect your pet has eaten something potentially toxic.
How do I keep my houseplant alive?
Okay, so you've purchased your plant. Now, to maintain it. Besides giving it the right kind of light, watering correctly is the next most important thing. Overwatering is one of the most common reasons houseplants die, especially succulents, which retain water in leaves and stems.
Instead of sticking to a strict watering schedule for houseplants, push your finger or a chopstick into the soil. If it feels damp or bits of soil cling, it’s probably wet enough—recheck in a day or two. But if the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot or cracking or the plant has wilted, it’s time to water. In general, err on the side of too dry versus too wet. In time, you’ll get a feel for how often each plant needs watered.
What kind of light does my houseplant need?
This is another huge reason houseplants don’t thrive. Insufficient light will cause plants to drop leaves, stretch toward the light with spindly growth, or to die altogether. You may daydream of a fiddle leaf fig for the living room, but if it’s too dark there, you’re better off with a less finicky plant that tolerates low light, such as a rubber tree.
Walk around and assess your space. Then be realistic about how much light a specific area gets, which depends on which way your windows face. Use your phone’s compass if you’re unsure about which direction is which. In general:
South-facing windows get the most intense light, so they’re best for plants that like bright light.
East-facing windows receive bright morning light and lots of indirect light for the rest of the day, which works for most plants that need bright or medium light.
West-facing windows get the setting sun so bright light plants do well. Shield low light plants with a sheer curtain or pull them farther back from the window.
North windows get the least amount of light, so they’re best for low light plants.
Don’t forget the amount of light changes with the seasons, too. In the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky, you may get more (or less) light than during the summer months. If you have no windows or windows blocked by other buildings, an inexpensive LED plant grow light is a great solution.
Should I fertilize my houseplant?
Most plants do benefit from a balanced fertilizer for houseplants, but it’s not entirely necessary. After all, plants make their own food from photosynthesis. But if you want to give them a little boost, feed only during a plant’s active growing season, which is spring to fall for most plants.
If you’re forgetful, use a granular fertilizer, which releases slowly over a period of weeks or months. If want to be more hands-on with your babies, go with a liquid. But reduce the amount to ½ the amount recommended on the package because the instructions always list the maximum dosing. Also, if choosing organic fertilizer, be aware that it’s stinky and may attract your pets. So, keep your fur babies away from your plant babies!
How do I know when to repot a plant?
Most plants don’t need repotted as soon as you bring them home. Just make sure the pot has drainage holes, then drop the entire thing into a pretty decorative pot. You’ll know it’s time to repot if your plant dries out faster than it used to, if the roots begin poking out the top or bottom of the planter, or if water won’t penetrate the soil surface.
When repotting, move up only one pot size at a time. For example, if you’re in an 8-inch pot, go to a 10-inch. Putting a plant into a pot that’s too big isn’t healthy because the soil dries out slowly, which may cause root rot.
To move your plant into its new home, gently tip the plant on its side and work it out of the existing pot. Run your hands over the sides of the root ball to loosen any winding roots. It’s fine to trim a few if they’re super-long. Place potting soil in the bottom of the new pot, put your plant on top, refill empty spaces with soil, and gently press down so there are no air pockets. Make sure it’s planted at the same depth as it was in the original pot.
What if my plant isn't thriving?
Take a close look at your plants from time to time, because little problems can become big ones overnight. If you see anything odd, such as leaf spots or tiny bugs or bits of sticky or cottony stuff, you may have a disease or pest infestation. These vary widely by plant type, so do an online search to figure out what’s going on. In many cases, you can use insecticidal soap or neem oil to deal with pests. And when you bring a new plant home, keep it away from others for a few weeks to ensure any potential hitchhikers don’t hop onto your other plants!
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