The Beginner’s Guide to Houseplants

Jan 07, 2019

Houseplants

Ah, houseplants. Both the metaphorical and literal evidence that you are setting down roots. Whether you’re a new homeowner or just a curious newcomer to the wondrous world of our light-eating brethren, you’re in the right place. In this, The Beginner’s Guide to Houseplants, we’ll cover everything you need to know to choose and care for your first houseplants.

We’ll also point you toward some resources that will help you turn over a new leaf as a gardener. Feel free to skip ahead to the topic you’re most interested in.

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What to Consider When Choosing Houseplants

Just like outdoor plants, houseplants have preferred climates and habitats. One way you can maximize your odds of plant-raising success as a beginner is to start by considering the living conditions your plants will have. We recommend considering the following:

  • Light: Maybe the most important part of the houseplant equation, your house’s lighting will dictate which houseplants will do best in your home. Make a note of which side of the buildings your windows are on (north, south, east, west) and where your home gets direct light in the morning and afternoon. There’s no right or wrong amount of light, but choosing plants that prefer the kind of light your house gets naturally will set them up to thrive.
  • Temperature: Most of the houseplants we feature here prefer temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have areas of the house that are exceptionally drafty (like a three-season porch), know that you may need to move your plants somewhere warmer during the winter.
  • Air: Air flow is important for keeping plants functioning healthily, but air quality matters, too. Be aware of the humidity in your home. Many plants prefer more humid conditions, which may mean providing additional sources of moisture during the dry winter months (more on that later).
  • Pets and children: Some plants are toxic to pets and children (and adults, but they’re less likely to try to eat houseplants). If you have (or plan to have) either in your house, be sure to choose houseplants that are non-toxic.
  • Yourself: Do you travel a lot? Are you wildly forgetful? Do you hate curtains? All these things can affect which houseplants will do best in your home. If you’re away a lot or the forgetful type, keep an eye out for hardy plants that don’t mind a little benign neglect. If you’d rather not hang curtains, choose varieties that prefer direct sunlight.

When you have a sense of the kind of habitat your home has to offer, you can choose plants that are naturally suited to it. When you do that, houseplant care becomes infinitely easier.

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Houseplant Care: Tips and Tricks for Beginners

The best part about having houseplants right now is that you can diagnose many problems by going online. But once there, you’ll probably find recommendations that involve things like “bright indirect light” or “medium light” or “low light” – without definitions! We’ll offer an overview of what some plant-care lingo means, along with some handy starter tips.

Light

Here’s how to decode various light prescriptions:

  • Direct sunlight: What it sounds like. If your plants like direct sunlight, look for a spot near a south-facing window that gets the full force of the sun, unmitigated by curtains or shades.
  • Bright indirect or filtered sunlight: This can best be achieved by hanging a sheer curtain over a window. But plants that like “bright indirect” light may also do well in areas near windows, as long as they’re not getting the sun’s full force.
  • Medium light: These plants like light (all plants do, tbh), but they do better near a west or southeast window.
  • Low light: Plants that prefer low light do well in darker areas like bathrooms or offices that don’t get much natural light.

Still not sure what kind of light you have? Try the hand-on-paper test: when it’s sunny out, set a sheet of blank paper near a window. Hold your hand a foot above the paper. The more distinctly hand-like your shadow appears, the brighter the light: clear hand = direct, fuzzy hand = medium, vague shadow = low light.

But honestly, you don’t have to ace the light question on your first try. As the saying goes, life finds a way, and houseplants want to live as much as the rest of us. So see how your plant does in one spot, and if it looks sad (you’ll know), move it somewhere with a different amount of light.

Water

Now, a few tips on watering like a boss.

  • Minerals in your water: Every region has slightly different mineral composition in its water. Some plants tolerate minerals better than others. Fluoride, for example, can really upset a peace lily. If a plant isn’t thriving, you may need to filter your water.
  • Water temperature: Cold water can shock plants, especially in winter. In the cooler months, let water come to room temperature before watering your plants.
  • Showers: Some plants need occasional leaf cleaning. Others just love humidity. Either way, certain plants will thrive in your shower, if you’ve got space for them. And even if you don’t, filling the tub with plants and opening the tap can be an efficient way to water them every week.
  • Egg water: Next time you hard-boil eggs, don’t drain the water when you’re done. Instead, let it cool to room temperature and use it to water your plants. They love the calcium that leaches from the eggshells during the boiling process – and you’ll feel like a total pioneer badass for being so economical.

Soil

Also known as dirt. While it’s possible to fill your houseplant pots with plain old dirt from your backyard, consider buying some potting soil instead. This can help give your houseplants the best shot at thriving because you’ll be able to choose the best type of soil for the plants you have and because store-bought soil is much less likely to have any pests that could hurt your leaf babies.

Diagnosing Problems

For beginners, the the most stressful prospect of raising houseplants may be the thought of what to do when problems arise: curling leaves, brown spots, yellowing leaves, loss of variegation – oh, my!

The best advice we can give is to take a deep breath and plunge in. With the magic of the internet, it’s easier than ever to figure out what might be causing your plants to fuss and find a fix. Plus, every problem (and solution) you encounter will give you a better understanding of how to care for your houseplants – and make you more confident moving forward.

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13 Best Houseplants for Beginners

Here comes the fun part: choosing houseplants to start your indoor garden. We consider all of these houseplants to be good for beginners because they’re easy to care for. From this list, it’s best to choose the ones whose preferred conditions match those of your house.

(Before we get into it, one quick note: if you’ve inherited or been given a houseplant and you don’t know what it is, try doing a reverse image search on Google to identify it.)

Without further ado, the 13 best houseplants for beginners, broken into two groups: those that are safe for kids and pets and those that are potentially toxic.

Not Safe for Kids and / or Pets

The following plants are best for homes without children or pets because these plants can be toxic if ingested. So, you know, don't eat them.

Dieffenbachia

  • Street name: Dumbcane
  • Latin name: Dieffenbachia
  • Light: Filtered / bright indirect. Rotate the plant regularly to make sure it gets light evenly.
  • Soil: Choose a well-draining soil.
  • Water: Water when the soil is dry about an inch down. Don’t over-water.
  • Fertilizer: From early spring through early fall, fertilize every two weeks, but skip fertilizing in the winter.
  • Toxicity: Toxic to kids and pets. If ingested, this plant can cause the tongue and mouth to swell, which can prevent talking (hence the name “dumbcane”). In a worst-case scenario, it can also cause suffocation, so skip this plant if you’ve got pets or little ones.

Dracaena

  • Street name: Many – Dracaena is actually the genus name (the one pictured is called Song of India)
  • Latin name: Dracaena + species name (pictured is Dracaena reflexa)
  • Light: Filtered indoor light or semi-shade
  • Soil: Good potting soil
  • Water: It doesn’t need much. Let the soil dry out before watering, and make sure it’s in a pot with good drainage.
  • Fertilizer: Fertilize once in the spring and once in early fall with a low-dose fertilizer.
  • Toxicity: Toxic to cats and dogs.
  • Other notes: The word “Dracaena” comes from a Greek word meaning “female dragon,” so this could be a great housewarming gift for the Game of Thrones fanatic in your life.

English Ivy

  • Street name: English Ivy
  • Latin name: Hedera helix
  • Light: Bright light
  • Soil: These babies don’t like heavy or wet soil, so make sure you’ve got a well-draining soil in a well-draining pot.
  • Water: Make sure soil is dry to the touch before watering.
  • Fertilizer: Use a nitrogen-rich fertilizer monthly in spring and summer; don’t fertilize at all in the winter.
  • Toxicity: Potentially toxic to kids and pets.
  • Other: Occasionally give the ivy a shower to clean its leaves and get rid of pests.

Money Plant

  • Street name: Money plant, devil’s ivy, devil’s vine, Ceylon creeper, hunter’s robe, ivory arum, silver vine, golden pothos
  • Latin name: Epipremnum aureum
  • Light: Bright indirect or low light, but not direct
  • Soil: It’s flexible! Money plant can even grow in vases of water.
  • Fertilizer: Fertilize monthly to bimonthly, with any houseplant fertilizer.
  • Toxicity: Toxic to children and pets.
  • Other: Easy to grow in bathrooms and other low-light places.

Peace Lily

  • Street name: Peace lily
  • Latin name: Spathiphyllum (that’s the genus; there are about 40 species)
  • Light: Bright, indirect light is best. Avoid direct afternoon sunlight. An east-facing window is ideal.
  • Soil: Well-draining, all-purpose potting soil
  • Fertilizer: One to three feedings during the growing season should be sufficient (that’s about every six to eight weeks in the spring and summer).
  • Water: Keep it moist but don’t over-water it. Use room-temperature, filtered water, as fluoride from tap water can brown the leaves. Misting can be good.
  • Toxicity: Peace lilies are toxic to animals and children.
  • Other: If your plant isn’t flowering, it may need more light or a different fertilizing approach.

Philodendron

  • Street name: Heartleaf philodendron (here), plus others for various species
  • Latin name: Philodendron is a genus that contains several hundred species (Philodendron cordatum pictured here).
  • Light: Bright, indirect
  • Soil: Buy a mix fertilized with macronutrients.
  • Water: Water when the soil is dry an inch down.
  • Fertilizer: Choose a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer with macronutrients. Fertilize monthly in spring and summer, every six to eight weeks in the off season.
  • Toxicity: Moderately toxic to children and definitely toxic to pets.
  • Other: Try moving these outside for a bit in the summer. If the leaves are small or there isn’t much new growth, your philodendron may need more fertilizer.

Rubber Plant

  • Street name: Rubber plant
  • Latin name: Ficus elastica
  • Light: Bright, indirect light. Keep it away from any light that gets too hot.
  • Soil: Regular potting soil
  • Water: Keep it moist during the spring and summer. Regularly wipe down its leaves or mist them with water. During the winter, water just once or twice per month. If the leaves look droopy, try more water until it perks up.
  • Fertilizer: Every three to four weeks during spring and summer.
  • Toxicity: Potentially toxic to pets.
  • Other: Get your rubber tree while it’s young so it has time to get used to living indoors.

Snake Plant

  • Street names: Snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, viper’s bowstring hemp
  • Latin name: Sansevieria trifasciata
  • Light: Indirect but steady light with some direct sun mixed in is good, but it can also survive both darker and brighter conditions.
  • Soil: Loose, well-drained soil is good. Look for a drier mix.
  • Water: Let it get pretty dry between waterings; too much water can kill this plant.
  • Fertilizer: Fertilize once or twice during spring and summer, with any houseplant fertilizer.
  • Toxicity: Moderately toxic to humans and pets
  • Other: This baby is related to asparagus!

ZZ Plant

  • Street name: ZZ plant
  • Latin name: Zamioculcas zamiifolia
  • Light: Bright to moderate indirect light, but they’ll tolerate lower light.
  • Soil: Honestly, whatever
  • Water: Less is more. They can survive months without water, but too much will kill them. Let the soil get completely dry before watering.
  • Fertilizer: Don’t even bother.
  • Toxicity: Toxic to humans and pets.
  • Other: These plants are incredibly low-maintenance. That, combined with their waxy leaves, mean that they’re often mistaken for fakes!

Safe for Kids and / or Pets

The following plants are safe for homes with children and pets, so go nuts!

Bromeliads

  • Street name: Actually, there are a couple thousand types of bromeliads
  • Latin name: Bromeliad is the family name for the whole group (including the pineapple!)
  • Light: Medium to bright (but not direct)
  • Soil: Look for an “orchid mix,” as bromeliads don’t like thick soil. Try a shallow pot in a saucer of wet gravel to achieve the humid environment they prefer.
  • Water: Fill the cup at the base of the plant’s leaves. Drain any standing water in its pot weekly.
  • Fertilizer: Use standard houseplant fertilizer at half strength every month during the growing season (aka the warm months).
  • Other notes: There are so many to choose from! Read more about popular bromeliad varieties to grow indoors. Also note: they’re easy to grow, but they may be hard to coax a flower out of.

Cast Iron Plant

  • Street name: Cast iron plant
  • Latin name: Aspidistra Elatior
  • Light: This plant prefers bright light from a north window, but it will tolerate lower-light conditions pretty well.
  • Soil: High-quality, well-draining soil. Try a mix designed for African violets.
  • Water: These babies like to be consistently moist but not soggy. You can miss a few waterings, but they will be happiest with constant humidity.
  • Fertilizer: Cast iron plants grow slowly, so they don’t need much food. In the spring, fertilize once a month if the plant is in good light or every three to four months in low light. Don’t use any in the winter.
  • Other notes: Again, these grow slowly, so you’ll only have to repot them every two to three years. Don’t be discouraged if yours isn’t getting big fast – that’s perfectly normal!

Peperomia

  • Street name: Many – Peperomia is a genus with about 1,500 known species (one popular kind is the “baby rubber plant”)
  • Latin name: Peperomia + species name (pictured above is Peperomia prostrata, which just goes by its Latin name)
  • Light: Medium to low, out of direct sunlight. They also do well in fluorescent light.
  • Soil: A houseplant mixture with coarse gravel
  • Water: Water sparingly. Let the soil get dry as deep as five inches before watering.
  • Fertilizer: Fertilize every two weeks in spring and summer, and monthly in the winter.
  • Other: Because there are so many species, care instructions will vary a little. But most Peperomia are pretty easy to grow inside!

Spider Plant

  • Street name: Spider plant
  • Latin name: Chlorophytum comosum
  • Light: Bright, indirect light is best.
  • Soil: Spider plants like well-draining soil.
  • Water: Water well, but let the plant dry between waterings; if they’re too wet, they’ll get root rot.
  • Fertilizer: In the summer, fertilize weekly.
  • Other: These babies are known to sprout “spiderettes,” which can be clipped and replanted.
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Further Reading for Houseplant Beginners

This guide is meant to offer enough information for a complete houseplant newbie to take the plunge and get their first plant. As you care for your plants, you’ll learn a lot more than you could from any book or online guide. And the more you learn, the more questions you’ll have.

To that end, here are some resources you might enjoy as you make your journey from beginner to expert houseplant caregiver (or, really, from beginner to slightly older beginner – we’re not going to judge):

  • Grow Great Grub is a book that offers practical advice on how to grow food plants even if you live in a small, urban space.
  • How Not to Kill Your Houseplant offers tips for the “horticulturally challenged,” with much more detail than we have room to get into here.
  • Homestead Brooklyn’s posts tagged “garden” offer tips on everything from how to keep your indoor air moist to which plant podcasts are hot right now.
  • FoyerShop is the Instagram account of Chicago-based Foyer, a houseplant store and consultancy. The owner is great about responding to questions, and her content is helpful and gorgeous!
  • In Defense of Plants is a podcast that’s not about houseplants per se but will help you more deeply appreciate plants overall and will probably inspire you to try all kinds of new things.