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How to keep your plants perky: Expert advice for beginners

This is the year your plants thrive — every one of them!

This is the year your plants thrive — every one of them!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If you've ever stepped inside a room filled with an array of bountiful, thriving plants, you know that they can really make a home. You can almost feel their energy. There's the decorative appeal, too. They add colour, personality and natural texture to any space.

However, for some, curating a collection of beautiful greenery can feel like an impossible feat, especially if limp, lifeless plants have ended up in the compost time and time again. Novices can easily give up, concluding that they just don't have a green thumb. If that's you, this article may change all of that.

We spoke with two experts, plant consultant and stylist Julia Rago and Darryl Cheng, author of The New Plant Parent, whose advice may (re)inspire you to cultivate your inner gardener and help your plants thrive. 

Here are some tips on how to optimally care for your plants and fix common signs of plant distress.

Ensure plants get plenty of sunlight

Just as people need good nourishment to thrive, so too do plants. Theirs comes in the form of water and proper sunlight. 

What often causes confusion for new plant parents is when care instructions call for "indirect light" or "low light," which some people think means a plant should be placed far away from windows. Cheng suggests simply placing all plants in front of the window.

For plants that require indirect or low light, it may be helpful to imagine them growing in a forest, with leaves and branches creating a non-opaque canopy and light coming from all around. In a home setting, however, your window is surrounded by opaque walls and the ceiling, which — if you're placing your plant far away from the window — "looks like a cave, not like a forest," says Cheng. He thus suggests getting your plants appropriately close up to available windows while minding the maximum time in direct sunlight that's best for each plant. 

Rago agrees that "a good practice … is [to] think about where this plant actually is in nature, like where its natural habitat is." Desert plants like succulents and cacti love the sun, so they thrive when placed on the sills of east-, west-, and south-facing windows, she says. Plants that grow at the bottom of tree basins prefer bright light that's very diffused. "So calatheas [and] ferns, they normally don't like tons of direct sunlight on them, but that doesn't mean they don't like sun — you still want to keep them somewhere brightly lit," Rago says. 

Water as needed — not on schedule

Each plant type will have different hydration needs, though there's no need to overcomplicate things by trying to keep track of all their different recommended watering schedules (every 10 days, seven days and so on). "You're just going to be overwhelmed," says Cheng. He recommends watering plants in one of three ways, depending on their preference.

For plants such as cacti and succulents, wait until the soil is completely dry before watering. The majority of all houseplants — including popular tropical monsteras and pothos — prefer to be watered when "partially dry," that is, when the soil is just past halfway dry. Lastly, plants like ferns, particularly maidenhair fern, enjoy "evenly moist" soil, so they should be watered frequently. Cheng says the best way to know how dry a plant is to get a sense of how heavy it is when it's fully watered and gauge from there. 

Check the humidity

For some plants, low humidity may cause crispy brown edges on leaves. "Calatheas and ferns love more humidity, so they are going to be very susceptible to that," says Rago. She recommends getting a humidifier and running it for a good portion of the day. You can also purchase a humidity gauge to get an indication of the humidity level in your home.

If the plant is small enough, Rago suggests using cloches or domes — often available at dollar stores — which can help increase and control humidity levels. Be weary of temporary solutions like misting your plants, however. If your plant doesn't have time to dry off quickly enough, Rago says, it may develop a bacterial infection.

Mind yellowing leaves

Yellowing leaves can sometimes be a sign there's a problem for the plant. Rago recommends beginning by checking the soil moisture level at the top and bottom of the vessel. 

"If the soil is super soggy, and you haven't watered it in like, weeks, the reason you'd be having yellow leaves is — nine times out of 10 — going to be because it's overwatered," says Rago. You might have to repot the plant or in the case of root rot, propagate it. 

If the soil is bone dry and the leaves are drooping or wrinkly, then the yellow leaves are a result of underwatering. In this case, "take it to your shower or sink and really give it a good drink" to help it perk back up, she says.

Yellowing or browning leaves may also be a sign that there are pests. Spider mites, Rago says, will cause a yellow gradation. She recommends taking a flashlight and shining it on the backs of leaves to see if there's any webbing or tiny black dots moving around, which could be spider mites. Mealybugs are another kind of pest that can cause yellow leaves. These "tiny, white, almost fluffy-looking bugs … usually hide in like crevices of the plant's leaves," Rago says. (Read on for her best advice for tackling pests.)

If there are no signs of underwatering, overwatering or pests, you've been giving your plant the same care as usual, it's getting a decent amount of sunlight and it looks healthy overall, then a leaf may simply be yellowing because it's run its natural course, both experts note.

But hold off on trimming those older yellowing leaves. "Some people think that the moment a leaf starts turning yellow, that they should cut it off to quote-unquote save energy for the rest of the plant, but in fact, it's the opposite," says Cheng. The nitrogen from the dying leaf actually helps aid new growth in the plant.

Watch out for pests

In addition to spider mites and mealybugs, aphids can be a problem for indoor plants. Though they're less common, Rago says they can sometimes travel in during the summer from open windows or if the plant was purchased at a garden centre. It's even possible to get them from produce brought home from grocery stores. Then there are thrips, invasive pests that lay their eggs inside a plant's leaves. 

To get rid of a few bugs on an otherwise happy plant, Rago recommends repotting it, in case any eggs were laid in the soil, then rinsing off the plant's leaves to physically remove any bugs. She then suggests using an insecticidal spray on the leaves every four to seven days, in addition to wiping them down to remove anything, for about two weeks while monitoring for pests. 

In cases of infestation, particularly with invasive pests like thrips, it may be simpler to compost your plant and move on. Rago says her clients often opt to do this when their plant is inexpensive or has little sentimental value.

With any sign of pests, make sure to isolate the plant from any others to avoid cross-contamination. This is a good rule of thumb when bringing home a new plant, too, says Rago. She recommends keeping them in a separate room, or at least a couple feet away from the other plants, for a week or two to look for signs of bugs.

Rotate plants to prevent awkward growth

A good habit to get into is to rotate your plants once a month, says Rago. This will prevent lopsided growth. If your plant looks like it's growing toward the window, rotate it to the other side so it can straighten itself out. The plant will naturally reach for the sunlight.

For plants with thinner stems, one-sided growth can create a stress point, causing them to topple over and break off. Rago suggests supporting larger lopsided plants using a bamboo stake, garden post or moss pole, and smaller plants with a wooden chopstick or skewer.

Not sure which plant varieties to start with? These 10 hassle-free plants are great for beginners.


Janet Ho is a writer and nature enthusiast. You can follow her at @janetlynho.

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