Title card: The beginner's guide to happy plants: how to choose and care for a houseplant

Recently two members of our staff (and a special guest!) recorded a series of videos on how to grow houseplants. We believe that anyone can be an indoor gardener, even if they don’t have the coveted “green thumb”. All it takes is picking out the right plant and knowing what it needs! If you would like to watch the full series, you can follow this link: Click here to watch the videos.

If videos aren’t your thing, or you just want a few quick tips, read on!

The first step to keeping a happy houseplant is picking out the right one, so that its needs match your environment. There’s lots of great beginner options for every type of home, depending on two factors: the light in your home and how much attention you want to give your plant.

The direction that your light comes from can make a big difference, so it’s typically a good idea to use a compass and determine which direction your windows are facing. Northern windows do not receive direct sunlight, and are generally a bit colder, so they’re good for low to medium light plants. Eastern windows get direct light in the morning, which means the light is less intense, so they’re best for medium light preferences. Western windows get the most light in the afternoon, when the heat is more intense, so they work best for medium to bright light plants. Finally, southern windows get consistently warm direct light, and will work best for plants that require bright light. Different plants also have different watering requirements, which means some are more low-maintenance than others. Below are a few suggestions for good beginner plants in various situations.

If you don’t have much light, and often forget to water:
Snake Plants (Sansevieria) will grow in a variety of light conditions, and prefer to be watered only when their soil is dry.
ZZ Plants are also tolerant of low light, and like to dry out before being watered again.
Both of these are excellent options if you’re nervous about killing your plant and want to start with something that’s really forgiving.

If you have bright West- or South-facing windows, but don’t want to water much:
Succulents is a broad term for plants that store a lot of water in their leaves. They like to get at least a few hours of direct sun every day, and need to have well-draining soil with infrequent watering.
Aloe is a common variety that is easy to care for and can grow quite large. Echeveria is what most people picture as a “succulent”, and Haworthia are very hardy in a variety of conditions.

For rooms with medium light, and those who are good at remembering to water:
Peace Lilies produce lovely white “flowers”, and should be watered when the top inch of the soil is dry.
Pothos are a forgiving plant, and come in a variety of colors! They also only need water when the top of the soil dries out.

If you have a bright space and tend to water more often:
Spider Plants will benefit from a little more light and water, as long as the soil drains well and isn’t soggy.
Bromeliads are a colorful tropical plant that likes bright light (but not direct sun).

The best advice for any new gardener is to do your research on whatever plant that you buy. There are plenty of tips online to help you pick out the best soil, location, and watering method for each individual plant.

 

Once you’ve decided on a plant you’d like to have, where can you get it? There are a few different options:

  1. Big Box Stores. The most common example is home improvement or hardware stores, but you can also find plants at other large retailers like grocers, department stores, and places that sell home décor. These are great places to stumble upon cool plants while you’re doing other shopping, and they can sometimes (but not always) have lower prices. The downside is that they often don’t have employees specially trained to care for the plants, so they might not be in great shape. Keep an eye out for signs of over- or under-watering.
  2. Nurseries & Greenhouses. There are plenty of options for locally-owned garden centers in the St. Louis area. This is a great option for beginning gardeners, since their employees typically have knowledge and experience caring for the plants, and can answer any questions you have. While they may be a little bit more out of the way, try planning a plant shopping day and visit 3 or 4 in one afternoon!
  3. Online. If you’re unable to go out shopping, or are looking for a specific plant that’s hard to find, buying online is an option. Some large retailers or greenhouses do online plant sales, or you can buy from independent sellers on sites like Etsy or Facebook Marketplace. Keep in mind that shipping can be very traumatic for a plant, so make sure you understand the seller’s return policy, read any reviews you can find, and try to avoid ordering during especially hot or cold months.
  4. Plant Exchanges. Some plants will grow “pups” that can be easily pulled off to start a new plant, or others can grow new roots from a cutting of the stem. If you have friends or family that grow houseplants, see if they have plants that they can split for you, so you can try your hand at growing something for free!

 

So now you have a plant that you love, and you want to make sure it thrives. Here are a few tips for basic care:

  • Potting. Choose a pot that’s about 2 inches larger than the root system, so the roots have room to spread but can still easily soak up water. Terra cotta (the classic orange pot) is the most breathable, so it can be ideal for plants like succulents that prefer to dry out between waterings. If you choose a pot made from ceramic, plastic, or metal, make sure that it has a drainage hole to help regulate watering and reduce the risk of fungal diseases.
  • Soil. Most bags of soil sold in stores have labels to help you figure out where to use it. For indoor plants, a standard potting soil or “houseplant mix” is typically ideal. If you have a succulent, cactus, or another plant that requires good drainage, many places also carry soil designed specifically for succulents and cacti which contains ingredients to help it drain better. Soil should be replaced or mixed with fertilizer every 1-2 years to help replace essential nutrients and aerate the soil.
  • Lighting. Generally, plants will do better if they have more light instead of less, although some are more tolerant of low light conditions. If you notice your plant stretching in a certain direction, losing color, or growing very slowly, try moving it to a space with more light. Keep in mind, however, that many plants can’t handle direct sunlight and will get burned in the sun. If your windows are very sunny, you can either move the plant back from the window or add sheer curtains to filter the light.
  • Watering. Contrary to what your instincts may be, most plants don’t want to be watered constantly, and too much water can cause the roots to rot. The easiest way to regulate watering is to reach a finger about 1-2 inches into the soil, and only water when you no longer feel moisture. Plants are pretty resilient, and even if you neglect watering and they start wilting, they will typically perk up once they get a drink.

For more tips, check out these books from our collection!

Decorating With Plants by Baylor Chapman
The Inspired Houseplant by Jen Stearns
Houseplants for All by Danae Horst
The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin
The Gardener’s Guide to Succulents by Misa Matsuyama
The Little Book of Cacti and Other Succulents by Emma Sibley

 

Happy Planting!

Amanda Berberich is the Assistant Director of Adult Services at Kirkwood Public Library. She loves hiking, traveling, photography, and crafting. Her favorite rainy day activity is reading (preferably historical fiction, romance, or fantasy) in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and a warm lap cat.