When considering a new house plant, you should think about your watering habits. Do you forget to water? Do you like to water often? Do you water infrequently, and then inundate the plant? If you take home a plant that needs to be watered every other day, but only find time to care for your plants once every week or two, it isn’t likely to work out. However, there is likely a plant with water needs very similar to your habits and you will find better success with those varieties. When someone says that they don’t have a green thumb, or can’t grow indoor plants, they usually haven’t tried plants that fit their habits and time constraints.
To figure out your habits, first consider the plants that you have lost. Most houseplants die due to a watering issue: either too little, or (usually) too much. There can be other factors in a plant’s demise, but frequently they originally stem from a watering issue. When a houseplant dies, ask yourself:
- Were the dying leaves yellow and crispy?
- Were the leaves dark and mushy?
- Was there a foul odor?
- Did the plants wilt from the leaf tips down?
- Did whole leaves droop down evenly?
- Did the pot feel heavy or light when picked up?
- Have you noticed any fungus gnats?
- Are there mealybugs or spider mites?
Plants that have been under-watered typically (but not always) have dry crispy leaves. Frequently, you will see yellowing of the leaves, and there will be a general, even droop across the whole plant. It may also have a tendency to fall over a lot, since the foliage may weigh more than the dry soil. If you pick up the pot, it should feel light as water adds a lot of weight. Mealy bugs and spider mites thrive on dry plants, especially in more arid conditions (e.g. under a vent).
On the other hand, plants that have been overwatered, usually develop dark spots similar to a disease. These dark areas can feel mushy, gross, and may have a foul odor. The soil may also have an offensive smell, which is a result of anaerobic bacteria growing in the oxygen deficient root zone. Also, fungus gnats- whose larvae eat plant roots- thrive in constantly wet soil, and are often found in and around overwatered plants.
Now that you have considered what plants have been problematic, think about those that you have had great (or even modest!) success with; consider the broader category of plant it belongs to, and what kind of care it was given. Try to find other plants with those same needs. If you have had success with a particular variety, look for similar plants. For example, if you have done well with cacti, check out succulents, agave, and the broad spectrum of euphorbia. If you have a beautiful peace lily at home, look for other varieties of spathiphyllum, or medium light plants that like a good amount of water. By finding plants that mesh with our particular habits, we can all have a green thumb.
by Jason Ellis
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