4 Houseplant Care Tips – That Helped Me Grow Indoor Plants Better (& Stop Killing Them)

In Houseplants & Tropicals
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If you’ve been looking at your plants and wondering why they just don’t seem to measure up to others you’ve seen online or at the garden centre, then this article might be for you. Like you, I yearned for some good insider tips to grow my plants like the pros and it took me a bit to figure out which elements of plant care make the biggest impact on a collection. These are my top four plant care tips/lessons/concepts that I feel have made me a better houseplant and orchid grower:

Houseplant Tip #1: Give Your Plant More Light

Exposure Time and Amount of Light Are Tricky Concepts

This doesn’t mean I’m recommending you grow your plants in DIRECT SUN; however, 99% of the time plants which perform poorly in our homes, do so because they either aren’t getting bright enough light or they’re not getting it for long enough. In nature, tropical plants generally grow where they get filtered rays of sun – small amounts of direct sun will make it through the canopy and land on each plant. Unlike a forest canopy our homes generally don’t provide “filtered light” and instead offer a low-grade ambient light – whatever gets reflected off the floor and maybe a few buildings outside (but it’s not a lot). The walls and roofs of our homes, effectively block 100% of sunlight and the light bulbs in our roof don’t put out enough photons to feed a plant that’s over a few feet away from the bulb. Windows let in between 30-70% of the sun’s light (depending on the type and quality of window) but the light coming through doesn’t disperse and filter into the depths of your home like does through leaves in a forest. So, if your plant is growing slowly, if it’s not performing well, if it’s stalled out – there’s a good chance it just needs more light. Homes with smaller windows may be especially dark and less ideal for plant growth and while that doesn’t have to stop us from being able to grow plants, being aware of this limitation will help us become better growers as we can correct for deficiencies.

Light can specifically be a problem in the winter when daylight hours are reduced for people in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. Tropical plants that stall in the winter typically do so because they aren’t getting enough light to continue growing, it’s often not because they naturally “go dormant”—they’re essentially starving for light and so they stop growing. If you find your plants get bacterial rot frequently/easily, this could be because they aren’t getting enough light. If you find your plants don’t establish quickly…then there’s a good chance they’re not getting enough light. Plants need light; it’s just a fact of photosynthetic life and if you want to be a better grower, you just need to accept and embrace this.

The solution to providing more light is generally either about plant placement nearer to a light source or by supplementing light with artificial grow lights. Try moving plants around and see where you get the best growth. If you have pothos or plants that propagate easily, take cuttings and grow the cuttings in different areas of your home. Test where in your home you get the best growth. If your home just doesn’t have many windows, consider getting a good quality LED grow light that averages a minimum of 12w per square foot of coverage.

On your path to finding a spot in your home that offers more light, be mindful that while it’s hard to provide that upper limit of light, it’s substantially easier to provide too much and burn your plant! When moving plants to higher light, acclimate them slowly (over many weeks), opt for filtered direct sun instead of DIRECT sun and watch for signs of leaf burn or yellowing which indicate the sun is too intense. Also be aware that light intensity in the summer (along with heat) is greater, meaning a plant may be more at risk of burning in the summer than it is in the winter. Putting your plants near an East or West window may be ideal because it offers a bit of low-intensity direct sun in the morning and enough indirect sun throughout the day to keep them happy – but again, watch for leaf burn and yellowing.

›› More information about light and plants

 

Photo of houseplants and orchids at East window with additional LED grow lights

 

Plant Growing Tip #2: Embrace Soil Porosity & Root Oxygenation

Peatmoss Alone Sucks, it’s Too Dense

There’s no such thing as “over watering”…unless you’re using the wrong potting mix. In nature, the clouds don’t dip their fingers into the soil to see if the plants are ready for rain, right? But plants in nature don’t get root rot do they? There’s a reason why and it comes down to the substrate you pot your houseplants in.

If you’re one of those who buys a bag of “houseplant potting mix” and you use it straight from the bag into the pot without amending it with any additives, then you might find that you have to be careful about when and how much you water. Most houseplant potting mixes are primarily peatmoss and when you drench a dense and water-retentive potting media (like pure peatmoss), the peat gets saturated and it plugs up the air gaps. A soaking wet, muddy and dense potting media like this does not allow airflow into the inner layers of the media (where the roots are) and it can block airflow like this for weeks! If conditions are like this for even more than a few days, anaerobic bacteria flourish and that’s what can kill your plant’s roots – resulting in root rot 🙁 What’s worse, over time the peatmoss decays and becomes further compacted, so while you may not have issues when you first pot your plant up, you may notice problems 6-8 months later as the media becomes more fragmented and compact.

Some plants are better adapted to “crappy wet conditions” like this, which is why there are “easy houseplants” and “difficult/fussy houseplants.” It’s why some plants are easy to “over water” while others seem to just grow forever. Again, plants in nature don’t negotiate with the weather…the rain happens when it happens and it’s often for days (or weeks) at a time…so stop thinking about your plant like it’s allergic to water; it’s not water that kills your plant, it’s a bad potting mix that does. The solution to growing all of these plants better, isn’t to water them less; it isn’t about changing how often you water each plant; it’s about changing the root environment so that you can water freely and abundantly.

To fix your potting mix, you just need to add structure with inert materials like perlite, pumice, charcoal, turface, and sand—and bark as well (though it’s not inert and will decompose over a few years). How much you add will depend on the type of plant, but typically my potting mix is only 20-50% peatmoss; the rest is a combination of the inert materials (and also bark). Adding structure to your potting soil will increase drainage and provide airflow/oxygen into the middle of the pot where the roots are and improve plant vigor and health.

With a more porous potting media, you’ll now be able to flood and drench the substrate on a routine schedule providing fresh water and nutrients…we’ll get to that next.

›› More about making the most amazing potting soil (recipe)

 

Photo of my Stapeliad succulents
These get watered weekly (but have lots of perlite in their potting mix)

Those same Stapeliads one year earlier

Houseplant Care Tip #3: WATER!!! Actively Irrigate, Don’t Dribble or Bottom Water

Water Your Plant Like They’re in a Thunderstorm

First: to execute this tip and actively irrigate your plants, you need to first follow tip #2 and fix your potting media or you’ll risk “over watering.”

If you tend to only water a little bit, if you…only ever moisten the soil and you never actively flushed water though the pot, then all of the things you put into the soil will stay there (except for H2O itself which evaporates or is drawn in through the plant’s roots). This includes minerals in your tap water, plant excretions and toxins, unused fertilizer salts, byproducts of decomposition, and sour, oxygen-poor air pockets. Some of those things can build up and increase your pH (lead to nutrient-lockout), others can buildup decreasing your pH (also leading to a nutrient issues) but the result is often slower or poor growth. It’s easy to prevent though.

When watering, if you flush 1-2 pots of water through your potting media (at every watering), if you ACTIVELY IRRIGATE your plant, then you’re changing the game. You’re pushing out low-oxygen air pockets, you’re dissolving and pulling out old toxins, minerals and fertilizers, and then as the water drains out of the pot, you’re pulling in fresh air. Active irrigation (when paired with a good porous potting media) makes a breathing action in the soil—and subsequently helps your plant’s roots breath. Active irrigation emulates the torrential rains many of these plants experience in nature too, so it kind of just makes sense, right? But to water like this, you’ve got to have a good soil composition to handle the water flow or you’ll just end up with slop and dead roots.

For me, active irrigation was a game changer. It meant I could water my plants more consistently (once a week) because they also dried more consistently as the airflow into the pot (and evaporation) was uniform. I stopped killing plants because I wasn’t randomly forgetting to water them; it’s Saturday, I water and by Friday, they’re approaching dryness and ready for more water. No fuss once I figured out how to adjust the potting media to work for my plants, climate and watering routine.

Just be aware of a shift – watering more actively and flushing water through your pots, means you’ll need to use pots that have drainage holes in the bottom. This isn’t a recommendation, it’s a rule – if you want to drench and actively irrigate your plants, that water has to drain out of the pot.

›› More about watering plants with tap water

 

Photo of my houseplants getting their weekly showering

 

Houseplant Tip #4:  Don’t Just Use Soluble Fertilizers

Organic Fertilizers Are the Shit (Literally)

In my early years of growing plants, I never understood why I couldn’t get my plants to grow thick and lush like I would see in the garden centre and botanical gardens. That changed one year when I was helping my mom amend the soil for her outdoor English Ivies. We added “bloodmeal”, an organic nitrogen-rich fertilizer, to the soil around the roots. That was in spring and by early summer the plants had ballooned in size—they literally took over the front of the house in a single season. It blew my mind, so I took a teaspoon of that and sprinkled it into a few of my tropical plant pots…and a few months later, those were the bushiest plants I’d ever grown. It was another game changer, but be forewarned you might not want to know what bloodmeal is. If you prefer to use something else, there are lots of alternatives such as fish emulsions, decomposed farm poop, but I’ve never used any of those and cannot comment on their individual effectiveness.

I still use soluble ferts, but for plants that I want to beef up, grow quickly, and build strong/lush foliage, I will also feed bloodmeal in addition to my regular fertilizer routine. If you want to take it a step further look into, rock dust and greensand – one is pulverized mountain rocks the other is from algae; they do wonders for providing micronutrients that most soluble fertilizers don’t. By adding these ferts (bloodmeal, rock dust and greensand), your plants will grow like weeds. But a tip: you only need to add a bit per pot – 1/8-1/2 tsp (depending on the size of the pot) – and you only need to add it 2-3 times per year.

Photo of my Hoya – over potted, in porous media, loving that organic fertilizer

That covers my top secret tips and lessons that I feel made me a better plant & orchid grower

I hope that at least a nugget of information here helps you on your path to becoming a better grower. I honestly feel that the better results we each get, the more our individual passion develops so it’s good to share advice and grow together.

If you have plant-growing friends, and you found this article helpful, spread the word and share it with them—don’t be a HOARDER-culturalist 😉 AND if you want to see more of my orchids and plants or if you want to keep in touch on future plant articles, check out the @here_butnot Plant Instagram and give me a follow!

 

Some other plant photos to help anchor the value of those plant care tips above

If you’re an Aroid grower and love the look of this Philodendron melanochrysum…
Check out this article on Aroid care

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