How to keep your houseplants alive

And what to put ‘em in to help survival– and look fabulous

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By Sally Newall on

It’s hard not to notice that houseplants are very much a thing – and not just among millennials with a penchant for photogenic cacti. High -street stores across the country have expanded ranges to meet customer demand, from Wilko’s six quid Monstera deliciosa – AKA a very good- value Swiss Cheese plant – to Ikea’s biggest-ever range of indoor greenery. Our tip: its ferns look particularly good in an alcove.

The rise of the houseplant has been fuelled, not least, by the Instagram effect. Search #houseplants or #indoorplants and you get over a million results for each. In the online interiors world, having at least five different plants in each room, all in jazzy pots, stands and hangers, seems to be a prerequisite. Add to that the increasing interest in wellness and the fact that numerous studies have shown that indoor greenery can help purify air, boost oxygen levels and reduce stress, then you have a trend that’s sticking around.   


But, we all know that Insta isn’t real life. And buying a crew of spider plants is one thing, but keeping them alive is another. I have had a number of pub conversations, recently, about who is the most black-thumbed of our friendship group (me, sadly), and I’ve even seen people joking about their lack of horticultural prowess on dating apps – 'John, 30, keen cyclist and serial plant-killer' was one chancer’s bio.

So, where are John and the rest of us going wrong?

Location, Location, Location

“Most houseplants hail from tropical rainforests, so they like a warm, humid and bright spot,” says Veronica Peerless, gardening writer and author of How Not To Kill Your Houseplant. She recommends bathrooms and kitchens as a good bet, as they are the rooms most likely to fit that criteria. “A few feet from a window suits most plants; keep them out of the direct glare of the sun, as it will scorch the leaves.” Cacti and succulents are the exception to this rule and can go on a sunny windowsill. Generally, though, extremes are out, as they can cause wilting. Take note as the weather gets colder: hot radiators and plants do not mix.


And beware trying to emulate the Instagram pack. "Put the plant in a space it will thrive in, as opposed to one where you think it will look good,” says Peerless. “I’ve got several spots in my home that I’d love to green up, but I know they’re not right for a plant – my dark, draughty hallway, for example.”

Choose your plants wisely

If you have plant-killing form, Peerless recommends species that are “forgiving of neglect, such as the peace lily, spider plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, aspidistra and the ZZ plant – they’re pretty much indestructible.” For more inspiration and to find out what is most suitable for your space, try gardening website Crocus, which has a good range of plants available to buy online , with listings accompanied by straight-talking advice. Ditto online-only plant specialists, Patch, which helpfully lets you sort by light requirement and has a very useful video tutorial series. If you've bought a plant and information on the care label is scant, then Peerless says the RHS's comprehensive site is your best best. 

To repot or not?

The original pot your plant comes in will usually have a drainage hole in the bottom to avoid “drowning”. If you want to upgrade from the usual plastic, you can put it in a slighter larger, more aesthetically pleasing pot; Peerless likes Crocus, Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters for these. You only really need to repot if/when your plant grows out of its original pot – roots out the bottom are the tell-tale sign – then you can transfer it into something larger with new compost (multi-purpose stuff from the garden centre will do the job). “ If it’s too big to repot, such as a Swiss cheese plant, you could scrape away the top 5cm of old compost and refresh with new,” says Peerless. 

It's all in the watering

Peerless advises that it’s under- or over-watering that does for many houseplants. “As a rule of thumb, only water when the top one or two centimetres of compost is dry,” she says. Though it’s tempting to do your watering as a speedy after-thought, doing it in- situ can be hard to judge “In an ideal world, you'd take the plant out of the larger pot to water it – stand it in a sink to water with a watering can. Or, if you’re watering your full collection, try putting them in the bath for a ‘pool party’,” says Peerless. The key thing is to make sure the excess water drains away so that your plants aren’t sitting in soggy compost. Requirements change from season to season. “You don’t need to water houseplants much in winter, as most are not actively growing.” Peerless recommends topping up with a liquid feed once a month from spring to autumn. And to keep plants Insta-ready? “Wipe the leaves with a damp cloth occasionally so that they are glossy and dust-free.”

Read more on plant-care in How Not To Kill Your Houseplant, published by DK


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