Author | Laurie Whelden
Nothing energizes a room like a thriving plant. Bringing literal life to your home can make a space feel peaceful, invigorating, and beautiful. Personally, I have collected many houseplants over the years. Unfortunately, I don’t quite always know how to keep them looking happy and healthy. Some seem leggy, while others get crispy leaves that need lots of pruning. And some I just can’t seem to find the right spot for. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to better understand the mystery of my houseplants.
Harrisonburg local Kari Carpenter owns The Plant House, a curated shop of beautiful indoor plants. She also happens to know quite a lot about plant care, which is why we brought her our readers questions. Enjoy her secrets and tips below for getting your plants to thrive.
First off, we want to know a little bit about you. When did your passion for plants start? How did you come to open The Plant House?
During my last few years of teaching, most days I would come home entirely depleted and full of stress. I would find myself craving time practicing yoga, meditating, and spending time caring for (and just staring at and caressing!) my indoor plants. My plants became part of my stress-relieving routine and my collection kept growing. I wanted to surround myself with their peacefulness and beauty and just be silent and breathe with them! I wanted to study more about them, too, and began to focus on learning as much as I could about the ones I had and the ones I was wishing for. It was refreshing to dive into a new subject and it was good to allow my mind to take a break from the seemingly incessant worries I brought home from school each day. It was a gradual transition, but when I finally made the decision to end my teaching career I knew I wanted to continue to work with plants and to share their magic with others.
Let me add that I learn something new daily. All of my knowledge is from my experiences with the plants I have spent time with and my research, reading, and discussions with other plant people. I advise others to the best of my knowledge and I also adjust my care and recommendations if I learn something new and think it will benefit a plant. There are 400 species of Philodendron alone so there’s a lifetime of learning and I’ll never know all there is to know about indoor plants!
What are some great low maintenance houseplants for those of us who struggle with keeping them healthy?
This is a tricky question! Plants that are "easy" for some people can be challenging for others. If you give them what they need, any plant can seem easy! I do get this question a lot and I definitely have some to recommend, but the first thing to consider is the natural lighting in the space where someone wants to add plants. Here are some of the ones I'll recommend for a reluctant new plant owner based on different lighting. For lower (but some!) natural light, the Aspidistra and ZZ are great choices. For medium light: Aglaonema, Pothos, spider plant, and snake plants. For bright light but indirect (no direct sun rays on the plant) Monstera, Philodendron, Peperomia, Hoya and Ficus elastica (rubber tree). And for bright direct sunlight, Jade and most other succulents, cacti, and even the Ponytail Palm if the sunlight isn't too intense.
How frequently should you water?
The watering dance is one that trips us up more than anything and we’ll quickly label a plant as “difficult” if we can’t get it right. Some plants need water before the potting mix gets fully dry, some prefer to get watered soon after they become dry and others do best with completely dry potting mix for days or even weeks. While some people find success with a set watering schedule, I would be cautious of “once a week” type recommendations because several factors are at play here. Some potting mixes retain moisture while others are faster draining and dry out more quickly, and any mix will dry faster in a terra cotta pot than it will in a glazed planter. The amount of light makes a difference, too. If you have two Maranta in the same type of mix and the same kind of pot but one gets more light, it’s going to require watering more frequently than the other one. Plus, during the winter, plants generally require watering a little less often than during the rest of the year because of slower growth. You see how a set schedule might not be the best thing for your plant?
I personally am not a stick-my-finger-in-the-soil kind of waterer and I don’t use a moisture meter, although both these methods work for lots of people. I definitely feel the mix and I often feel how much moisture is at the drainage hole, too, to see if it’s dry throughout. Sometimes I’ll feel the weight of the entire plant and get used to how heavy it is after being watered vs when it’s dry but for the majority of my plants, I rely more on observing and feeling the plant. I get to know how they look and feel after they’ve been watered and how they change between waterings. Some are less obvious than others, but try to get to know your plants and pay attention to what they’re telling you. Remember that it’s easier for almost all indoor plants to deal with getting water a little less often than ideal than it is for them to recover from being watered too often.
What are your recommendations around fertilizing?
Fertilizer is crucial for plants that have been in the same potting mix for several months because they will have depleted the nutrients that were in the fresh mix. There are specialized fertilizers available that may or may not benefit specific plants but it’s much simpler to just use a balanced all purpose one designed for indoor potted plants. Synthetic vs organic is a personal choice but from what I understand synthetic tends to be fairly strong and so it’s probably a good idea to reduce the amount suggested in the directions by half because over-fertilizing can damage roots. Organic fertilizers are natural and more gentle but it’s not a bad idea to dilute these a little more than directed also.
Should you mist your plants?
There are a lot of opinions out there about misting and whether or not it benefits plants. Glass and brass misters are undoubtedly pretty decor and it feels so lovely to spritz leaves that it may actually be more beneficial to us than our plants! Periodic misting is not likely to raise the humidity in the air around the plant enough to make a difference, so if your intention is to increase humidity it’s more effective to use a pebble tray or a humidifier. Misting is not going to harm your plants unless the leaves stay wet for too long (best not to mist your succulents or cacti) so if you love to mist, carry on! Bonus tip: if you add some neem oil and a drop of gentle dish soap or Bronner’s to the water in your mister it will act as a natural pest control.
What type of fertilizer and soil do you recommend?