6 Tips for How To Care For Your Houseplants : Life Kit Eager to bring new plants home, but aren't sure where to begin? This episode will get you started with the basics of houseplant care — from watering schedule to light conditions. Because anyone can become a green thumb with a little time and attention.
NPR logo

Why Does My Plant Look Sad? 6 Tips For Raising Happy Houseplants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/867887979/886861545" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why Does My Plant Look Sad? 6 Tips For Raising Happy Houseplants

Why Does My Plant Look Sad? 6 Tips For Raising Happy Houseplants

Why Does My Plant Look Sad? 6 Tips For Raising Happy Houseplants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/867887979/886861545" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A prayer plant opens and closes against a fuschia backdrop

Look, we've all been there. You fall in love with a plant at the store. You bring it home. You find a cute spot for it on your bookshelf. Then, after a few weeks, that lush, beautiful plant you picked out is ... suddenly on its last leaf.

Many of us — in our eagerness to bring nature into our homes — have lost a houseplant or two along the way. Maybe that pothos in the background of your Zoom call isn't looking so hot anymore, or you're ready to try again after killing that succulent.

Wherever you are in your plant parenthood journey, NPR's Life Kit is here to help. And while we can't cover the specific needs of every individual plant, we can get you started with a strong foundation.

Here are six tips to help your plant live its best life:

1. Find your light.

You can figure out the intensity of your light — low, medium or bright — by holding your hand (or the leaf of a Swiss cheese plant) about a foot over where you'll place the plant to see what sort of shadow it casts. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

You can figure out the intensity of your light — low, medium or bright — by holding your hand (or the leaf of a Swiss cheese plant) about a foot over where you'll place the plant to see what sort of shadow it casts.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

The first thing you need to do is figure out the type of lighting you have.

Intensity

Different light intensities are described as low, medium and bright. This can depend on a bunch of different factors, including the time of year and the direction your windows face. (In the US, south-facing windows will have the strongest light, while north-facing windows will get the weakest.)

If you're wondering what you have in your home, here's a quick test: Hold your hand about a foot above where you want to put your plant. If it casts a shadow with crisp, clear lines, you're working with bright light. If the silhouette of your hand looks a little fuzzy, that's medium light. Low light is essentially just enough light for you to read a book.

Direct vs. indirect light

If there's a straight line from the sun to your plant, that's direct light. Indirect light is diffused by something such as clouds, curtains or trees outside your window. Plants such as succulents and cactuses will appreciate some direct light, but be careful about burning the leaves on more tropical types.

Overall, most houseplants are going to do well in medium or bright indirect light. If you're working with lower light, pothos, snake plants, some philodendrons and ZZ plants will tolerate low light.

Low light is not no light

An important clarification here: Low light is not the same thing as no light. If you have zero natural sunlight coming in, you'll need to consider getting grow lights.

If your plant is starting to look "leggy" or stretched out, that's a sign it isn't getting enough light. It might also start putting out smaller leaves or stop growing altogether.

2. Remember your roots.

If your plant is rootbound — where the roots have wrapped around the inside of the pot and are outgrowing it — it might be time to upgrade to a bigger pot. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

If your plant is rootbound — where the roots have wrapped around the inside of the pot and are outgrowing it — it might be time to upgrade to a bigger pot.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

You'll also need to choose the proper pot and soil mix for your specific plant.

It starts with soil

"Plants need a balance of water, air and nutrients in order to do their best," says Kirsten Conrad, an agriculture natural resource agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension. "A good soil mix is going to have pores that maintain good spaces for air to get into." Most ready-made soil mixes at the store are just fine.

Plants need pockets of oxygen in the soil to survive, so proper drainage is critical. This is why potting mixes will often include bigger chunks, such as perlite or orchid bark, to help extra water pass through more quickly.

Root rot

When soil doesn't have proper drainage — and when you overwater — you risk your plant contracting root rot. This is when those tiny air pockets in your soil become waterlogged for too long. Your plant will essentially drown, and fungus takes hold in the roots.

Check for this by gently lifting your plant out of its pot and taking a look at its roots. It's easiest to do this when the soil is dry.

"Normal, healthy roots are white to cream-colored," Conrad says. "A plant that is ... experiencing root rot is going to have roots that are dark-colored. They're gonna be chocolate brown or almost sometimes black. The coating of the roots will sometimes slip off as you touch them."

Picking a pot

The right pot can also help with drainage. When you bring a new plant home, give it at least a month to settle in before you repot it. When it is time for a new container, make sure it has a drainage hole in the bottom.

From there, there are a few other factors to consider. Clay and terra-cotta pots are porous, so they'll help wick extra moisture out of the soil. That makes them great for things such as snake plants and hoyas, which like to dry out a little between waterings. Pots that are glazed or made of plastic will keep the soil moist, for things such as ferns and prayer plants.

The big move

Over time, you might notice roots growing out of that drainage hole. That's your cue to check and see if your plant is rootbound — where the roots have wrapped around the inside of the pot and are outgrowing it.

"You have kids — their feet grow every few weeks. You're not going to keep them in the same shoes, right?" says Hilton Carter, an author, plant stylist and parent of about 200 plants. "You're going to make sure they get bigger shoes so their feet can expand, so they can grow taller and bigger. That's the same thing for your plant."

When you are upsizing your pot, a good rule of thumb is to increase the diameter by 2 inches each time.

3. Ditch that strict watering schedule.

A finger checks to see how dry the soil is, then a hand waters the plant

Overwatering is one of the most common ways people kill their houseplants. So, how do you know when to give it a drink?

The finger test

One of the simplest ways is the finger test. Stick your index finger (or a wooden chopstick) a couple inches into the soil and feel if it's still moist. Different houseplants have different needs, but a general guideline is to water when the top 2 inches of soil are dry. You could also buy a moisture meter online or at a local garden center.

"Your soil might dry out faster this week than it does the next week," Carter says. "Never, just never stick to: 'Every Sunday I water my plants.' It should be whenever the soil itself is ready to be watered."

When you do water your plants, make sure you do so thoroughly — you should see water trickle out of the drainage hole.

Too much water? Not enough?

Sometimes, it can be tricky to tell whether a plant is looking sad because it's been underwatered, or because it's gotten too much water and developed root rot.

If your plant is underwatered, it will probably try to tell you. A peace lily will droop if it dries out. A pothos might curl its leaves in or start to crisp up.

Some telltale signs that a plant has been overwatered are when you see yellowing leaves, the soil is staying consistently wet or you find root rot.

If you've gone overboard on the water, put that watering can down. Let the soil dry out. If your plant has root rot, use sterilized scissors to carefully trim off the rotted portions. Also be sure to clean out the pot and give your plant fresh soil.

4. Give your plant a name.

"When you name your plant, it pushes you to be a better plant parent," plant stylist and author Hilton Carter says. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

"When you name your plant, it pushes you to be a better plant parent," plant stylist and author Hilton Carter says.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

We've talked a lot about the work involved with a plant. But, of course, keeping houseplants is fun, too.

To help stay invested in caring for your plant, consider giving it a name. It doesn't have to be super original: Phil the Philodendron. An Alocasia polly named Polly. The point is to feel attached to your plant.

"When you name your plant, it pushes you to be a better plant parent," Carter says. "It's really hard to toss out a plant when it's suffering when it has a name."

You may also notice all that time with your plants — watering, trimming, dusting off their leaves — can feel pretty nice for you, too.

"That's when I get all of the moments for me to meditate. That's where ... that self-care comes into play," Carter says. "Seeing new life, seeing new growth. All that positive reinforcement is coming to me at that point because I can see my hard work paying off."

5. Be a proactive plant parent.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
How to take care of house plants, from NPR's Life Kit.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

The more you look at your plants, the faster you'll catch any issues. You know that saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

Pests

"In that process of that routine maintenance, you'll notice if you have a bug or two," Carter says. "And then you'll be able to ... correct that situation right then and there. And you won't show up like a month or two later and then all of a sudden have an infestation."

There are a few common pests to watch out for. Spider mites are these tiny arachnids that leave thin webbing on the undersides of leaves. Mealybugs are white, cottony-looking insects. You may also run into scale, thrips or aphids — all of which feed on your plant and can do serious damage if left unchecked.

One way to help, particularly with spider mites, is to make sure your plants have enough humidity. You can use a humidifier or keep your plant on a tray filled with pebbles and water.

If you do notice pests, isolate that plant from any others. Rinse it off in the shower or with a hose outside. You can then treat the plant by spraying it with a diluted mix of water and either an insecticidal dish soap or neem oil.

"You just want a very basic dish soap," says Adam Pyle, a horticulturist at the U.S. Botanic Garden. "You don't want to use one that says antibacterial. You don't want to use one that says ultra-concentrated.

"Sometimes it might take two or three [treatments], but you'll want to give yourself a week to two weeks in between applications to see if it's taken effect."

If you don't know what's plaguing your plant, you can reach out to the U.S. Botanic Garden's plant hotline either online (send photos!) or over the phone at 202-226-4785.

6. No one has a green thumb.

There is no such thing as a green thumb. Taking care of plants is a skill you can learn. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

There is no such thing as a green thumb. Taking care of plants is a skill you can learn.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

One last bit of advice: There is no such thing as a green thumb. Taking care of plants isn't some innate talent. It's a skill you learn.

"People who consider themselves having green thumbs are people who understand the work that needs to be done to take care of a plant," Carter says.

Mistakes happen. What's important is that you learn from them, do your homework and take the time.

"So if you consider yourself having a brown thumb, you can easily have a green thumb tomorrow," Carter says. "You just got to figure out what plants work best in your space with the light that you have and then do the work."


We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail with your best house plant advice at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you want more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

The audio portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.