Grow like me—houseplant care tips I still follow to this day Published: Jan 29, 2020 | Updated May 5, 2021

In Houseplants & Tropicals
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If you’ve been looking at your plants and wondering why they just don’t measure up to ones you’ve seen online or at the garden centre, then this article is for you. Like you, I yearned for some good insider tips to grow my plants like the pros -I just wanted big, lush, happy plants- and it took me a good 10 years to figure out exactly which elements of plant care made the biggest impact on my collection, and it seems “secret sauce” is rarely shared when it comes to plant care. This may come as a surprise to you, but I didn’t always have a green thumb. I killed a lot of plants and that was because I was a strict rule-follower. I only gave my plants “low light” with “indirect sunlight”, I ALWAYS avoided overwatering, I even grew some of my collection in an indoor greenhouse, and for over two years I only used bottled reverse osmosis water (which is very pure water, akin to rain water). Despite my efforts, inconsistency inevitably led to dead plants. I needed routine. I needed to understand why plants, that live outside and get rained on nearly every day (never getting repotted), didn’t suffer. My shift in houseplant success came down to a few key perspectives that weren’t commonly shared in plant care sheets or books and that’s what this post is about.

So without dragging on anymore about how I used to be a bad plant parent, these are my “essential houseplant care tips.” Concepts that once understood, made me the houseplant (and orchid) grower I am today. Also, the care outlined in this article pretty much covers how I care for almost every single plant in my collection today, barring only slight adjustments to potting media and light intensity based on the individual plant.

Photo of the messy houseplant shelf in my bedroom

 

Houseplant Tip #1: Plants Need Light, Give Them More

Light is a tricky concept: exposure time, volume over a day, and the amount of light a plant needs…are not everyday concepts.

I often recommend, giving plants more light, but I’m not suggesting you grow your plants in DIRECT SUN either. From my experience running this blog, talking to countless people and giving advice, the majority of plant-care problems are related to insufficient light (and occasionally to burn caused by hot direct midday sun). It’s the most foundational concept for plant care, but it can be hard to find the sweet spot between not enough and too much. Fun fact: a good number of tropical plants can live for MANY MONTHS with literally no light. So consider that a plant that seems to be doing well but exists in limbo may not be getting enough light and certainly won’t be “thriving!” You’ll need to be critical in your evaluation of light in order to achieve the best plant growth.

In nature, tropical plants grow under a forest canopy where they get filtered rays of sunlight (called “sun flecks”), and where a measurable but small amount of direct sun does make it through the canopy, squeaking between the leaves, providing energy for the plants below. The walls and ceiling of our home (unlike a forest canopy), don’t filter light—they completely block it. Another thing to consider: tropical areas are often heavily clouded and rainy; this moisture in the atmosphere disperses, reflects and filters sunlight, reducing its intensity by half or more.

In a home, reflected light at North-facing window might “feel bright” to your eyes, but it’s 100% shadow, not “filtered.” Windows facing East, West or South will let in a lot of light; probably about 30-70% of sunlight (varying based on the type and quality of window), but that light lands on a narrow footprint—you can literally see exactly where the light lands, it’s the little square that sits on your floor or wall. As the sun moves across the sky over the day, that light footprint moves with it, but the light from your windows that lands on the floor doesn’t significantly filter into the depths of your home. So you’re contending with two extremes: total shade or full sun; you need a sweet spot in between that is “filtered” but direct. Once you “get it” and understand that plants need more light…but not too much…you’ll unlock growth speeds unlike you’ve seen before.

I strongly encourage you not to think of plant light as a “true / false” evaluation—it’s not all or nothing. Instead, think about light in terms of volume, and you want to hit that sweet spot of about 5-45% filtered direct sunlight for the vast majority of tropical houseplants.

Here is an example of some very large and well-grown Aroids under shade cloth at @nsetropicals in Florida.
Aroids are low-light plants and shade cloth blocks about 60-80% of direct sun, but look how bright that “filtered but direct” light actually is…

 

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From that photo: Notice the sharp shadow the leaf is casting on itself? That’s because the light, while “filtered”, is still significantly brighter than “ambient room light.”

With your plants, if you’re finding they are not performing well—if they grow slowly, stall, or don’t grow at all—then there’s a good chance they need a bit more light. Homes that have few or small windows may be especially dark and not ideal for plants. However, having a home with crappy light doesn’t have to stop us from being able to grow plants. Being aware of this limitation can help us become better growers as we’ll know to correct for deficiencies and add grow lights.

Light in more Northern or Southern areas of the world is often a problem during the winter when daylight hours are reduced. Tropical plants that stall in winter and appear to “go dormant”, typically do so because they aren’t getting enough light to continue growing. A significant chunk of tropical houseplants do not naturally “go dormant”—but in the winter they’re starved and so they stop growing. If you find your plants get bacterial rot frequently/easily (like root rot), this could be a result of insufficient light. If you find your plants don’t establish quickly…then it’s also possible the problem is related to insufficient light. Plants need light! It’s just a fact of photosynthetic life and if you want to be a better grower, you’ve got to accept and embrace this.

How to provide more light: place plants near a brighter area (near an East or West window), filter direct sun (a shade or sheer cloth in front of a South-facing window does wonders), or supplement by adding grow lights. A great way to find out what is better…move plants around in your home and see where you get the fastest and most consistent growth. If you have “Pothos” or other easy plant, take cuttings and grow them in different areas of your home. Test different spots and you’ll see where you get the best growth. If your home just doesn’t have many windows, consider investing in a good quality LED grow light and try to target at least 8-12watts of light per square foot of coverage.

On your path to finding the perfect spot with more light, be mindful that while it’s hard to find that ideal range 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 beware, light intensity is greater in the summer (along with heat) than it is in the winter; meaning a plant in one spot may be fine during the winter but then burn in the summer. Putting your plants near an East or West window can be ideal because it offers a bit of low-intensity direct sun in the morning or evening 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

Soil that drains quickly lets lots of oxygen into the root zone, and in my opinion, there’s no such thing as “overwatering”…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? So how is that a strategy for success in our homes? In many tropical places it rains daily or there are monsoon seasons where it pours on these plants for months at a time. If “overwatering” caused rot, we would see dieback of forests every rainy season…but we don’t see that happening. It comes down to airflow, avoiding anaerobic conditions at the roots, and building a substrate that doesn’t compact over time.

 

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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), it 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 more than a few days, microbes convert oxygen to carbon dioxide, 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 “overwater” while others seem to just grow forever no matter how poorly you treat them. Again, plants in nature don’t negotiate with the weather. The rain happens when it happens and it’s frequent…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, abundantly and routinely—like they get in nature.

To fix your potting mix, add structure with inert materials that never decay like perlite, pumice, charcoal, turface, and sand. Bark is a good additive too (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 10-30% peatmoss; the rest is a combination of the inert materials (and 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 soon.

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

 

What About Using Pebbles as a Drainage Layer?

Go for it!

Despite what some “master gardeners” say, you can reduce water held in your potting media by up to 30% after watering by adding pebbles at the bottom—it just depends on the composition of your potting mix (don’t use pure peatmoss, right?). A drainage layer at best helps improve soil drainage, aeration, oxygen content, and root health, and at worse…it does nothing. Every single one of my plants has a pebble drainage layer and if a “perched water table” caused root rot (as some people claim without evidence), then I’d be dealing with constant root rot in my collection of over 150 plants, right? To be explicitly clear…I don’t ever deal with root rot and I water every plant every Saturday.

Here’s a quick 2-part experiment that tests a drainage layer:

 

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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 and Drench the Soil, Don’t Dribble or Spot 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 the buildup of anything, simply by flushing your pots.

When watering, if you flush 1-2 pots of water through your potting media (at every one or three waterings), if you ACTIVELY IRRIGATE your plant and run lots of water through the pot, 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 mud and dead roots.

For me, active irrigation was a game changer. It meant I could water my plants consistently (weekly) 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

What about Humidity and houseplants?

Look, I get that in general every plant-care blog, forum and book recommends high humidity, and yes if you can offer high humidity, it’ll probably make life easier for your plants. As a caveat: also recognize that a few plants specifically may not have adaptations to survive in low-humidity. However, I have generally found that most houseplants, “easy orchids” (phals, paphs, phrags, etc) and rare tropical plants (like aroids) can survive in lower humidity (<50%) as long as you offer hydration consistency. With this practice of routine watering, the roots stay evenly moist between waterings, only approaching dryness but never going bone dry. Ideally you’ll want to balance wet/dry watering cycles to a period of 5-7 days, with short gaps between when the soil approaches dryness before your next watering. But a hint: If you’re only watering your tropical plants once every 2-3 weeks, there’s a good chance they’re stressed.

The science behind why humidity is often negligible…a LOT of tropical plants are adapted to survive during dry seasons where the humidity may plunge below 60% for weeks or months at a time. Those adaptations make those plants equipped to tolerate low humidity. Many plants have the ability to regulate the stoma density on the leaves when the leaves are produced in lower humidity; this throttles the rate of transpiration so the plant isn’t water stressed even though the air is dry.

I no longer fret about trying to attain high humidity. What I’ve seen happen too often is people fashion some sort of enclosure or system that crashes if the door is left open, if the temps get too hot, the plants get too big, or the hardware (like humidifiers) crap out. Rather than fussing with micro climates, I just rely on my ability to provide care consistency in the climate I have—even though it’s very dry.

 

Houseplant Tip #4:  Don’t Exclusively 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.

Good Growing Plant Peeps!

That covers the core concepts I follow to grow my plants the way I do. Hopefully it gives you a unique perspective on houseplant care, that you can apply to your own plants. I’ve included a few more photos below as a *slight flex* but mostly to show that these ideas in practice do lead to success.

The Largest Plants in my Collection (@here_butnot)



Begonia pavonina – read care sheet

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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