March 30, 2016

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

Houseplants 101:  How to Choose Houseplants

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!


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