Houseplants 101: Five plants perfect for plant beginners (or bad plant parents)

Maureen Feighan, The Detroit News
·6 min read

Feb. 26—If plants have power then more of us are falling under their spell.

With so many of us still stuck at home amid the pandemic, houseplants are hot these days as we look for new ways to connect with the outdoors and bring a sense of greenery into our lives and spaces.

And plants are especially big among millennials. Busy with jobs and not ready to commit to kids or even pets, plants are the perfect in between for those who want to care for something. The Houseplant Resource Center called millennials "the Plant-Crazy generation."

Janelle Hamood of Hazel Park started a plant business last fall, Soil & Trouble, specifically aimed at millennials. She's held several popups, which did well, and has another planned for this spring where people can pick a plant and a pot which Hamood and her team put together. Each customer is sent home with a care guide.

"We like to say we're in the middle of a plant-demic," says Hamood, 27, who got her green thumb from her mom. "...Pets are the new babies and plants are the new pets."

And plants are more than pretty accents. Some studies show plants filter out certain pollutants and toxins in the air, especially important during the winter when we're spending even more time indoors.

Kelly Green, the owner of Southern Green, a plant studio inside Tootie & Tallulah's in downtown Berkley, has definitely seen more interest in plants over the last couple years, especially since COVID hit.

"People are cooped up and they have more time and energy to focus on their personal spaces," said Green. "Plus caring for plants is really good for everyone's mental health and is a stress-free, fulfilling way to spend time indoors."

But if you think you have more of a black thumb than a green one and aren't sure where to start with houseplants, here are some great ideas for getting started and common mistakes (see tips below).

When it comes to finding just the right plants, light and location absolutely matter, but experts say there are several plants that are incredibly hardy and will hold up nearly anywhere. You don't have to be the perfect plant parent. You need to pick the right plants.

Sansevieria

Also known as Mother-in-law's Tongue, these hardy plants are very easy to care for and thrive on neglect, says Green.

"They love sun but can tolerate low light," she said.

Sansevieria comes in several new varieties and all sorts of shapes and sizes. Green said they are also on NASA's list of plants that clean the air.

ZZ Plant

ZZ Plants, or Zamioculcas Zamifolia, are nearly indestructible. Forget to water it for a weeks? No problem. Put it in a dark corner? Fine.

"They can live in spaces with low levels of light and need very little water to survive and thrive," said Green.

Bloomscape, the Detroit-based mail order plant firm, has a collection of plants called the Tough Stuff Collection that includes the ZZ plant, Sansevieria and the Hoya. They're small, ranging in size from 5 inches to 12 which includes the pot. The trio costs $65.

Houseplant Guru Lisa Steinkopf said the ZZ plant is "a great plant for forgetful plant parents."

"It takes quite low light conditions yet also bright light and doesn't need water too often because it has large underground rhizomes that store water," said Steinkopf, the author of three books on houseplants.

Pothos

Pothos comes in tons of varieties, including some variegated with white, yellow or pale green. They're a good choice for plant beginners, said Hamood.

"They don't need very bright light," said Hamood.

Steinkopf specifically recommends the silver satin pothos, or Scindapsus pictus.

"This plant has thick leaves and so it can go long times between waterings," she said. "Its leaves are a medium green splashed with silver splotches. It is an easy plant and keeps its variegation even in lower light levels, which it tolerates well."

Peace Lily

These easy-to-find plants are known for their white flowers (spadix) surrounded by a modified white leaf called a spathe, said Steinkopf.

"This white flower is the reason most people buy peace lilies, and they flower even in lower light conditions," said Steinkopf. "Many people wait until the plant is visibly drooping to give them some water and though that does work, there will be consequences including yellowing leaves and brown leaf tips. It is better to always keep the plant moist. "

Haworthia (succulent)

Not all succulents are created equal, says Green of Southern Green, but the Haworthia is a consistent winner.

"It can tolerate more shade than most succulents and doesn't get leggy in the winter," she said. "It will also bounce back quicker than most if it's overwatered. The Zebra (green and white strike) variety is very popular but there are lots of different varieties to enjoy."

Hamood said a succulent thrives off neglect "as long it has bright light."

"If a customer tells me they have east or south facing windows, I'm going to tell them to get a succulent. They're trendy and they don't need a lot of water. They just need a lot of sun."

Common Houseplant Mistakes

— Overwatering: Overwatering is lethal and is very hard to come back from, says Janelle Hamood, owner of Soil & Trouble. Not all plants need the same amount of water and some need hardly any at all, says Hamood. "I can go almost month without watering some of my plant," she said. "Some need it every day. It's totally based on the plant.

— Lack of drainage: Drainage is a must. If you buy a planter without drainage holes, create them, says Houseplant Guru Lisa Steinkopf. "Buy a masonry or diamond-tipped drill bit to create a hole in the container. It is too difficult to try to gauge the moisture in the bottom of the container without a drainage hole, especially for new plant parents," said Steinkopf.

— Light issues: Hamood says customers sometimes struggle with where to put their plants or what direct or indirect light means. And the person who lives in a loft with floor-to-ceiling windows shouldn't get the same plants as someone in a basement apartment. "If you don't know, ask," says Hamood. "Google is such a great tool."

— Pick plants that match your lifestyle: A common mistake, says Kelly Green, the owner of Southern Green, is buying plants that don't match your lifestyle or are incompatible with your living and work space. "Select plants with light and watering requirements that realistically match both the space you live or work in and your lifestyle," says Green. "For example, if you travel a lot or tend to be a distracted plant parent, don't select a plant that is a high maintenance plant or needs to be watered often."

— Instagram vs. reality: Instagram is filled with plant accounts and gorgeously styled plant vignettes. But that's not always reality, says Steinkopf. "So many times, plants are staged to 'look good' but that does not necessarily mean your fiddle leaf fig will live in a dark corner behind the couch," she says. "It may look good there but will not thrive in that location for any length of time. Research the plant for its needs and make sure you can provide those before bringing it home."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com