Houseplant Care 101: How To Choose Houseplants

Posted on March 30, 2016 by Jody Cedzidlo | 14 Comments

Flowering rhizomatous begonia on the left; mystery philodendron on the right

One of the most common questions I get from friends and on Instagram is about my houseplants and my "green thumb," which always amazes me because I don't think of myself as an expert by any means! But it is true that I have a good success rate with my indoor jungle, so I want to share my most basic tips. If you are seeking a degree in horticulture, this is not the post for you. But if you want to buy your first few plants and don't know where to start, or if you have had a string of plants that just didn't do well, I hope this will help.  

Houseplants get a lot easier once we group them into categories based on the care they require. Some plants are so easy, and some plants are so picky, and this is not at all easy to discern using the plant ID tags. Nurseries are in the business of selling plants. You can't expect to find a warning that says, "This plant is likely to die immediately after leaving our facility." So when I'm shopping for plants, I carry my phone with me so I can quickly research the required care regimen and the challenges I'm likely to face. (Make sure you search for care as a houseplant rather than as an outdoor garden specimen.)  

As I'm reading the care tips, I mentally categorize the plant into one of three main groups:  

1.  The Workhorses  

First, you've got your plants that need to be watered once a week. I think of these as the "workhorses" as many of them are common plants to see in offices or retail settings, and many grow quickly and can make a dramatic impact on your home. These plants appeal to folks who like regimen and order, or who respond well to scheduling. Get yourself a bunch of dependable plants that you can water every single week, and then do it. Some tough varieties that I've found to be very resilient include peace lilies, pothos, philodendron, and Chinese evergreen. Oxalis (shamrock) is a nice choice for this category as well, often times an extremely affordable plant because garden centers stock them with the outdoor perennials rather than with the tropical houseplants; I've gotten all my varieties for around $3. (Pictured below is a Clivia hybrid which will reward me with blooms if it gets enough sunlight.)

 

2.  The Succulents

This group is a satisfying selection of plants requiring water approximately once a month. This is definitely the route to choose if you're a chronic under-waterer or if you travel a lot and can't commit to a weekly plant routine. My succulent category includes obvious varieties like crassula, echeveria, and aloe, but other varieties that may not be featured on the same adorable shelf at the garden center actually require the same care. Kalanchoe is a nice choice if you want a medium-sized plant with larger leaves, and they bloom! This is a colorful and gorgeous choice for a tabletop that gets plenty of sun. If you want a big houseplant that makes more of a statement, a tall sansevieria will go a long way and is really adaptive to a variety of light levels. And lastly, ponytail palms are a great addition to any succulent collection since they require very similar care but have such a starkly different appearance. (Pictured below is Senecio rowleyanus or "string of pearls.")

 

3.  The Prima Donnas

Finally, you've got your prima donna plants, those beautiful species with picky needs. Maybe they need to be watered every day; maybe they need to be carefully tucked into the dark basement for winter dormancy. Some plants only do well with a nighttime temperature around 50 degrees, which is quite cold for being inside your house, while others require an enormous amount of humidity. All these picky varieties occupy the same space in my head, and that space is called Who Has Time For That. Now, I realize that lots of people have time for it, and I admire those people greatly. My mom has gotten really into vanda orchids, and sometimes I think they require as much of her time as a puppy! They give her an enormous amount of pleasure, so it's certainly worth the trade, but it's important to remember that my mom is retired. Her vanda orchid hobby did not coincide with the children-in-diapers chapter of her life, or her aquarium hobby, for that matter. (Pictured below is the bloom of a Neomarica gracilis or "walking iris." These plants actually aren't that fussy, but the bloom fell off while I was shuffling plants around for this blog post and it was too beautiful not to share.)

If you've made it this far in a post titled "Houseplant Care 101," it may not be too much of a stretch to assume you've killed a plant or two. I certainly have. So with all this in mind, my strong recommendation is to pick one of the three categories and try and limit yourself to just those, so that all the plants in your care require the same treatment. A weekly water regimen or occasional watering may work best for beginners. But if there is some prima donna plant that you simply must possess, why not get a few different varieties to make sure your effort getting to know the plant is well worth it? And try and exercise some self restraint by not buying other prima donnas with opposite needs.

And finally, for heaven's sake, if you do kill one of your acquisitions, it's a perfect opportunity to practice self-compassion. I was once so upset by a schefflera that was dying of a scale infestation that I said a sort of eulogy for it and heaved it as far as I could into the woods, thinking I'd much rather have it decomposing there than in some garbage bag in the landfill. (My friend Meagan witnessed all this and declared someone should start filming me for use in a documentary. What that documentary would be about, I prefer not to speculate.) On occasions like this I take a cue from Marie Kondo and thank the plant for teaching me that it's not the best kind of plant for me, and I move on to try another species. Above all else, your houseplants should bring you pleasure, so if something isn't working, don't be afraid to try, try again!

Posted in houseplant, houseplant care, houseplants, plant care, plants, succulents


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14 Responses

Andrea Barja
Andrea Barja

December 04, 2016

I have a particularly dark fan apartment. I call it the Lair due to its ambiance. I love it. It does get sunlight, mostly in my bedroom but no hours of direct sunlight beaming in any of my 9 windows, yes it’s an architectural feat. I also have a cat that is curious & may nibble any green thing that makes an appearance so cat safe plants are a must. Can you recommend any plants you think would survive our lair’s environment? I currently have a terrarium I was gifted. It had a small orchid variety which started losing its flowers immediately & moved to my fluorescent lighted office.

Thanks for any suggestions!
A

Michael Hayes
Michael Hayes

April 02, 2016

Great writeup, Jody. Bookmarked for my next house planting.

Margarite
Margarite

March 31, 2016

This is so beautiful, Jody, all of it. That string of pearls in its nautilus pot is giving me palpitations. I was tempted by a tiny one of those at Big Bloomers a couple of weeks ago, and I might have to go back for it now that I see how great they can look as they grow. What is that lovely something with the umbrella-shaped leaves and pink flowers?

Annie
Annie

March 31, 2016

Love this! So helpful to a “brown thumb” like me. One of my biggest challenges is dust mites on my houseplants. What can you recommend to treat infestations of mites on houseplants?

Jody Cedzidlo
Jody Cedzidlo

March 31, 2016

Bri, thank you so much for your comment! This blog format isn’t allowing me to reply to you directly unfortunately. I haven’t had any experience with bringing herbs inside for the winter but in general, they need a lot of sun and should be treated like succulents. Water sparingly, give them plenty of light, and do not fertilize or anything when they aren’t in their growing season. I hope that helps!

Bri
Bri

March 31, 2016

Your plants are lovely!! Do you have any tips for keeping potted herbs like lavender, rosemary, sage etc alive if you have to move them inside for the (endless New England) winter?

Carrie Usmar
Carrie Usmar

March 30, 2016

I really enjoyed this post. Very entertaining and It was easy to understand and now I know I can probably handle succulents. Thanks for sharing!

Karen Krajewski
Karen Krajewski

March 30, 2016

Thank you, Jody, for such a great article. I can always use more information on how not to kill my plants. Keep the info coming. Your home is beautiful, you should consider being an interior decorator.

Karen (graduated from Audubon High School with your Mom)

Hannah
Hannah

March 30, 2016

I love the combination of your writing style which makes me laugh and keeps me engaged, your humble expertise, and the great and practical info you are sharing. ?

Dixie Norton
Dixie Norton

March 30, 2016

Great article. Very helpful thanks

Jane Spencer
Jane Spencer

March 30, 2016

You have such good taste! You were always artistic when you were growing up! I am so proud of you!

Barbara Cedzidlo
Barbara Cedzidlo

March 30, 2016

Loved the article and the pictures!

Darlene Laiche
Darlene Laiche

March 30, 2016

WOW your plants are beaitiful. You have your Moms green thumb. Send me your email, and I will send you pictures of my succulents here in sunny Cal. Lots in bloom.
Love Dar

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

March 30, 2016

Your place is so pretty!

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