An avid gardener for over 40 years, Dolores has landscaped for private clients and maintained one client's small orchid collection.
Things to Check Before You Buy a Plant
- Check new plants for possible problems before you buy.
- Consider the lighting and placement in your home.
- Make sure that you have room for a plant that will grow large.
- Purchase a heavy container with a drainage hole in the bottom.
Buying a houseplant is fun and a relatively inexpensive purchase. But before you buy even the cheapest plant, do a little research to make sure you are getting a plant that will thrive under your care.
Consider the lighting in your home and in the area where you wish to keep a plant. Think about how much time you are willing to devote to a plant. Does it matter if the plant is poisonous? Many houseplants are toxic—safe enough for adults but not for small children or animals.
If you are just getting started and keeping plants in your home is new for you, start off with something that is easy to maintain—something tough and cheap. Killing an easy-to-find, inexpensive plant is not nearly as bad as killing that fabulous and expensive exotic.
Size matters. Some houseplants grow quite large. Make sure that your purchase will fit into the confines of your home. The leaves of a Tree philodendron, for example, can be over two feet long, and the plant itself can spread wide.
Buying a New Houseplant
Take a good look at all the plants in the store. Do they look healthy? Are they clean and free of dust? Are the stems turgid, the growth compact? Does the plant have buds or new leaves? These are all signs that the plants have been well cared for.
If a lot of the plants look bad, shop elsewhere.
Here are some signs of troubled houseplants:
- spindly or leggy growth
- pale lackluster leaves
- lumpy spots on leaves
- insects or webbing
- white spots on the soil
- roots protruding from the bottom of the pot
- malformed leaves
- leaves with dry, brown edges
- yellowed leaves
Don't mistake aerial roots for problems. Some plants have what they call "air roots" which grow out of the soil. You'll see these in large vines as well as in moth orchids.
Don't mistake color variations in the leaves for problems.
Don't mistake a leaf with unique growth pattern, like Monstera Deliciosa (it has holes in the leaves) for a malformation.
The Best Houseplants for Beginners
There are several time-honored, easy-to-find, inexpensive houseplants that are the best bet for a first plant. These easy-care plants will not die if you occasionally forget to water or feed them. They are not fussy about light and will struggle along just fine if you don't fertilize them as often as recommended.
- Cast Iron Plant
- Snake Plant
- Jade Plant
- Rubber Tree
- Parlor Palm
- Heart Leaf Philodendron
- Chinese Evergreen
Moth orchids are available at grocery stores and almost anywhere that you can buy plants. Unlike many orchid plants, moth orchids are fairly easy to keep alive and in bloom. With bright low light, weekly watering, and light weekly feeding, you may be able to get this easy-care plant to rebloom yearly.
Lighting Conditions for a Houseplant
When you are looking at houseplants, check out the tag. Most plant tags will tell you the kind of light that is best for that particular variety.
Most houseplants flourish in indirect, bright light from an east facing window. No plant will thrive close to the glass in a south-facing window; the light there is too strong.
- Bright indirect light means that the room is brightly lit but the plant will not stand in direct sunlight. Five to eight feet from a window works well in bright rooms.
- Filtered light means the light that comes through a lace or gauze curtain.
- Low light does not mean no light. No plant will live without light. A dark corner or an unlit hall is not conducive to life. In a low light area, you should be able to read without artificial illumination. If you need a lamp to read by during the day, that area is too dark for plants.
A north facing window may be adequate for plants that prefer low light conditions as long as the area is not cold.
Lighting can change over the course of a year. Trees outside the window drop their leaves, or grow new ones. A northeast facing window may provide enough light in summer but not in winter when the sun changes position.
An east-facing window may not provide enough light if it is blocked by an awning or another building.
Do not allow a plant to touch window glass. It may be too cold in winter or scorch the plant in summer.
Chances are that you will not keep a houseplant in the container that it comes in - usually a cheap plastic pot. Buy a container that is slightly larger than the one the plant comes in. You'll have to buy more soil too.
No matter what kind of pot you buy, make sure that is has a drainage hole in the bottom. Containers that don't drain well hold excess water at the bottom causing root rot. You will need to place a shallow dish or saucer beneath the container so moisture does not ruin the furniture or the floor.
- Remember that porous clay pots (terra cotta) dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pottery.
- Terra cotta dishes should not be used under a drain hole as they wick water down and can create moisture that will stain or ruin furniture.
- You can set an ugly plastic pot inside a pretty container.
- Make sure the container for a large plant is heavy enough so the plant does not fall over. You can weigh down a light container by placing a few rocks at the bottom of the pot.
Water and Moisture
If you are just getting started and are not used to taking care of plants, you may want a plant that does not need a lot of watering or misting.
Some plants prefer weekly watering. Some need the soil to dry out between watering. Other plants need the soil kept slightly moist at all times.
You can choose plants that will forgive you if forget to water them:
- snake plant
- cast iron plant
- jade plant
If you visit a greenhouse or a conservatory, you'll notice how beautiful all the plants look. They are richly colored and their leaves are large and healthy looking. That's because humidity is added to the air and the climate is regulated. In your home, the air can be very dry due to heat in winter and AC in summer. Modify these harsh conditions by
- Avoiding temperature extremes. Don't keep your house like a refrigerator in summer.
- misting your plants (with water from a spray bottle)
- running a humidifier
- set the pot in a shallow dish filled with wet pebbles
Do no allow houseplants to sit in water or the container to sit in a puddle of water as this will rot the roots.
Do not over water.
Many plants will suffer due to chlorine in tap water. Cold water may also stress a plant. Set out a bucket of water the day before watering your plants. This will allow chlorine to evaporate and the water to come up to room temperature.
Fertilizer for Houseplants
Most houseplants need a light fertilizer once a month from spring to autumn. Hold off on the fertilizer during the winter months. Many commercial fertilizers recommend too heavy a dosage. Of course, they want you to use up their product so you can buy more! Miracle Gro can be cut in half. In any event, liquid fertilizers are easy to manage and to measure. Algoflash is another popular liquid fertilizer.
- Plant spikes are a poor choice as they may damage roots.
- Granular plant fertilizers may be a good choice for someone who does not wish to be mixing liquid fertilizers.
- Fish emulsion is an excellent plant food but can be very stinky. If you set your houseplants outdoors in summer, that's a great time to feed them fish emulsion.
Many experts recommend a balanced fertilizer. On the fertilizer container, you will see 3 numbers, such as 20-20-20. Each number stands for the proportion of three important nutrients:
- Nitrogen—the first number, stimulates growth and provides lush green foliage
- Phosphorus—the middle number, assists root growth and promotes flowering
- Potassium—promotes strong stems and help the plant resist disease and other stresses
Flowering plants may need a fertilizer that has a higher proportion of Phosphorus. In that case, the middle number will be higher. Often, people who raise African violets or orchids purchase fertilizer that is specially made for those particular plants.
Crisp, brown leaf edges or white crusting on the pot are a sign that the plant has been over fertilized.
Leaves that are ringed with yellow (have yellow only at the edges) may need more fertilizer.
Read the bag on new potting soil when you repot a plant. Some soils have added fertilizers that last six months or so. If your soil includes fertilizer do not add any fertilizer until the six months have ended.
Secret Tip for the Most Beautiful Houseplants Ever
My grandmother was famous for having the most beautiful houseplants ever! She was coy about divulging her houseplant secrets, giving only very general, common sense advise. Was it the brightly lit east facing room where she kept her plants? Did she have some secret fertilizer she concocted?
One day, Grandmom decided to confide her ultimate secret to growing and keeping perfect houseplants: "When they start to look bad, I just throw them away and buy new ones!"
Just because you fail with a plant or two does not mean that you cannot grow plants. Certain plants may not work well for your lighting conditions. You may have under or over watered the plant. Make sure you buy plants that are best for your environment.
How to Choose an Indoor Plant
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on February 18, 2014:
Very useful information, and just what I needed, since I have yet to grow a plant that thrives. And should all else fail, there is always grandmom to keep in mind. Voted up, useful and interesting
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 12, 2013:
Heather Says - thank you! You must live in a warm area if you keep your aloe outdoors. We had one that we put outside in warm weather and it did flower.
Heather from Arizona on December 11, 2013:
Great Hub! I love my aloe in my backyard-- great for fresh aloe vera and it can survive our scorching summers even if I forget to water them. They're blooming this time of year and looking lovely for the holidays.
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on March 12, 2013:
Hi DirtFarmer! Thank you! I love my grandmom's advice too and think of it every time I try to nurse a half dead plant back to life!
torrilynn - thank you! Well you don't need your own place to have a little plant! A bit of lucky bamboo in a small container of water is no biggie!
Hi drbj - thank you so kindly!
Hi sgbrown - I've always called the dwarf snake plant mother-in-law's tongue. What a great idea for a weeding gift! A friend of mine has an ancient jade plant that always seems dry as a bone. Which makes me think they need very little water. Thank you!
Hi Maren Morgan M-T - thank you! I still feel like I should tinker with the light part which is actually worth a whole hub itself!
Hi Jamie Brock - I would love to have more indoor plants too. But I have lousy light and a cat who made hash out of an orchid that I actually got to rebloom!!! Thank you!
Jamie Brock from Texas on March 11, 2013:
Thank you for this! I love plants but I don't have much luck with them. Surely I could handle some of these :) Love your grandmothers secret to growing and keeping perfect plants!!
Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on March 10, 2013:
Great explanations of what lighting conditions mean! Good for the average person! Thanks for a fine article.
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on March 07, 2013:
Great hub! I have several of the plants you have mentioned here. What you called the "snake plant", we call the "mother-in-laws tongue". I have two of them and you are right, you just can't kill one. When my two sons married, I gave my new daughter-in-laws a "mother-in-laws tongue". I told them, jokingly, that it was to remind them to take good care of my sons, or they would receive the wrath of my "sharp tongue". They thought that was great! I haven't had much luck with the jade plant for some reason, I think I tend to over water them. I have 2 "corn plants" that do very well indoors. I really enjoyed your hub, voting up, interesting and useful! :)
drbj and sherry from south Florida on March 06, 2013:
Very useful information and great photos for a gardening rookie. Thanks, Dolores.
torrilynn on March 06, 2013:
thanks for this hub about houseplants and how
to really take care of them. when I move into my own place,
I hope to have plants as well. thanks again.
Voted up and shared.
Jill Spencer from United States on March 06, 2013:
I just love this hub! Your tips & plant recommendations are spot on (as is your grandmother's advice!) Voted up & shared. I'll pin it when I can. (Don't see the link for that now.)