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 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 good 10 years to figure out exactly which elements of plant care made the biggest impact on my collection. This may come as a surprise to you, but I did not always have a green thumb. I killed a lot of plants (all of them in fact) and that was because I was a rule-follower. I only gave my plants “low and indirect sunlight”, I always avoided overwatering, I even grew some in those indoor greenhouses, and for over two years I only used bottled reverse osmosis water. Despite of those efforts, inconsistency inevitably led to dead plants. I needed routine and I needed to understand why plants that live outdoors and get rained on daily (never getting repotted), never seemed to suffer and yet here I was…killing everything I tried growing. It came down to a few key perspectives that once I understood, really shifted my success.

So without dragging on anymore about how I used to be a bad plant parent, these are my “essential houseplant care tips”, lessons or concepts that I feel significantly shifted my success with plants. Lessons that have me the houseplant and orchid grower I am today and the care outlined in this single post, pretty much covers how I care for almost every single plant in my collection.

Photo of the messy houseplant shelf in my bedroom

Houseplant Tip #1: Give Your Plant More Light

Exposure Time and Amount of Light Are Tricky Concepts

First, 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 grow under a forest canopy where they get filtered rays of sun (called “sun flecks”). A measurable but small amount of direct sun does indeed make it through the canopy, between the leaves, providing energy for the plants below. Unlike a forest canopy (which has lots of little holes) the walls and ceiling of our home don’t filter light—they completely block it. And while windows do let in about 30-70% of sunlight (varying based on the type and quality of window), that light lands on a footprint directly in front of the window—you can often see exactly where it lands and as the sun moves across the sky, the light footprint moves with it. However, that light from your windows doesn’t significantly filter into the depths of your home, in the same way (or same brightness) it does through leaves in a forest.

I 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; you want to target about 10-45% direct sunlight for the vast majority of tropical houseplants and so rather than black and white, you need to find the right volume of grey in between.

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” that you’d find in most homes.

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 less ideal for plant growth. Having a home with low light doesn’t have to stop us from being able to grow plants, but being aware of this limitation can help us become better growers as we can correct for deficiencies by adding grow lights.

Light can specifically be a problem in the winter when daylight hours are reduced for people in more Northern or Southern areas of the world. Tropical plants that stall in 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 a result of insufficient light. If you find your plants don’t establish quickly…then it’s also possible it’s 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 just need to accept and embrace this.

The solution to providing more light is to either place plants near a brighter light source, filtering direct sun (shade or sheer cloths are great for this in front of a window), or to supplement with artificial grow lights. Try moving plants around in your home 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 investing in a good quality LED grow light; one that averages a minimum of 12w per square foot of coverage.

On your path to finding the perfect spot in your home that offers 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 may be ideal because it offers a bit of low-intensity direct sun in the morning/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

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? In many tropical places it rains daily, nightly, or there are monsoon seasons where it pours on these plants for months at a time. However, plants in nature don’t get root rot do they? There’s a reason why and it comes down to airflow and the substrate you pot your houseplants in.

 

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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 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 “overwater” 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 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.

To fix your potting mix, 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)

 

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 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

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. This means the roots stay evenly moist between waterings, only approaching dryness but never going bone dry, and your watering schedule is also consistent—balancing wet/dry cycles of about 5-7 days, with short gaps between when the soil approaches dryness and when you water next. Hint: If you’re watering your tropical plants once every 2-3 weeks…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.

So…these days I don’t fret about trying to attain high humidity because what tends to happen 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 dry climate I have.

 

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.

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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