CARLY MALCOLM: Hey, LIFE KIT. This is Carly Malcolm (ph) from Ann Arbor, Mich. I've been working on organizing the photos on my phone and on my computer. And that's been a nice, unexpected escape. I put some music on and go through my photos and relive trips and celebrations in the process.
DANNY NETT, HOST:
If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Or email us at email@example.com
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NETT: Listen; if you're anything like me, you know how it goes. You stop by the hardware store after work to pick up some Command strips or Drano. You take a quick peek at the garden center as you're walking by. And then you lock eyes with a plant from across the room, and it's all over. You rush to get it home. You find a cute spot for it on your bookshelf. But then, after a few weeks, that lush plant you fell in love with at the store is looking a little rough. This, or at least something similar, has happened to the best of us.
HILTON CARTER: When I purchased my first plant, which was a fiddle-leaf fig, I had zero idea what I was getting myself into. And I had no idea what I had - what type of plant I even had.
NETT: That's Hilton Carter. He's a plant stylist and author. He also has a YouTube series with Apartment Therapy called The Plant Doctor. Today, he owns about 200 plants.
CARTER: When I started to see a little change happening, when, all of a sudden, the leaves were falling off, I started to freak out because I wanted to be good at taking care of this plant. But I realized that I had already started the process wrong. So I went back to the nursery, asked, what type of plant do I have here? Or, you know, I took a photo. And then I was like, what type of plant did I buy from you guys? And they told me it was a fiddle-leaf fig. And in that moment, I said, all right. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I care for this plant.
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NETT: So maybe you're ready to try again After killing your last succulent or that plant in your kitchen isn't doing so hot right now. Wherever you are in your journey into plant parenthood, we're here to help. I'm Danny Nett. By day, I'm an engagement editor at NPR. But in my free time, I am a big LIFE KIT stan and also the very proud dad of about 60 house plants.
So today, I'm stepping in front of the mic to record a podcast episode for the very first time. I'm going to be walking you through what you need to know to help your plant live its best life, from figuring out what kind of lighting you have to knowing when to water, to fighting a pest infestation. Basically, if you have ever typed the words - why does my plant look so sad? - into Google, like I have, this episode is for you.
When you're looking at bringing plants into your home, the first thing you need to do is find your light. That's takeaway No. 1. Understanding what lighting you have is key to knowing what kind of plants are going to do well in your space.
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NETT: First up, there's low, medium and bright light. Basically, this is just the intensity. If you're wondering how to tell what you have in your space, a good rule of thumb is to take your hand and hold it about a foot above where you want to put your plant. If your hand casts a shadow that has crisp, clear lines, you're working with bright light. If the shadow is a little less defined, that's medium light. Here's Hilton.
CARTER: Medium to filtered light - if you're dealing with almost, like, somewhere in between low and medium, a lot of ferns will do well in that sort of situation.
NETT: Low light is essentially just enough light for you to be able to read a newspaper comfortably. And it's worth noting here, low light is not the same thing as having no light.
CARTER: There are particular plants that do well, that tolerate low light, that you should be looking for to bring into your homes like the ZZ plant, the snake plants - I guess, the variety of snake plants. There's a lot of vine-like plants, like pothos. Or the ponytail palm is a nice one to bring into a low-light situation.
NETT: If you're really sold on having plants but don't have any natural light, grow lights are an option. You can find them online, at your local garden center or at big box stores. Another thing to consider here is the difference between direct and indirect light. This one's pretty simple. Picture that classic image of a cat sleeping in a ray of sun that's streaming through the window. That is direct light.
Indirect light is being diffused by something - curtains, a cloudy day or another building blocking your window. Some plants, like succulents, might appreciate some direct light. But be careful about burning the leaves on your more tropical plants.
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NETT: The type of light your space has will depend a good bit on the direction your windows face. If you have a smartphone, open up your compass app and point it straight out the window. South-facing windows are going to get the brightest light. Western and eastern exposures will also get some good light while north-facing windows are going to get the weakest.
The intensity of your light is also going to change a little bit with the seasons. If your plant isn't getting enough light, the good news is it'll probably tell you. If you've ever seen a cactus that looks like someone took the top of it and stretched it way out, sort of like it's made of taffy...
CARTER: Those are signs that your plant isn't getting enough light.
NETT: This is Hilton again.
CARTER: So you need to push your plants closer to a light source so that can produce more growth right now. Legginess is because they're trying to stretch towards light. And they're not getting enough of it. So they start to produce smaller leaves, smaller size growth.
NETT: So now that you've got lighting down, you're going to choose the right soil mix. This is where you're kind of setting up your plant for long-term success. The key here is to keep your roots happy.
KIRSTEN CONRAD: Plants need a balance of water and nutrients in order to do their best.
NETT: This is Kirsten Conrad. She's an agriculture natural resource agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension. She also trains volunteers with the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.
CONRAD: A good soil mix is going to have pores that maintain good spaces for air to get into it as well.
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NETT: This brings us to takeaway No. 2 - remember your roots. This may not be something we always think about, but plants do need oxygen in the soil to survive. This is why it's so important to choose the right mix that's going to let any extra water drain out.
A cactus or euphorbia, which come from more arid parts of the world, are going to want soil that dries out a little quicker than, say, a maidenhair fern. Cactus soil is going to come with more chunks in it, like perlite or bark or sand, to help water pass through quicker. The fern is also going to need well-draining soil but will have things like peat or sphagnum moss to help retain moisture. Here's Kirsten.
CONRAD: This air is very essential for plant health. And when the soil becomes waterlogged, that air no longer available, and the plants will die in the conditions which we call anaerobic. Anaerobic conditions foster root rot, and they allow the pathogens that cause root rot to thrive.
NETT: Root rot - this is what we're trying to avoid. Without proper drainage, extra water has nowhere to go. So over time, the result is that your plants essentially drown. Fungus can take hold, and the roots of your plant literally start rotting. You can check for this by gently lifting your plant out of its pot and taking a look at the roots. It's easiest to do this when the soil's dry.
CONRAD: Normal, healthy roots are white to cream-colored. And a plant that is beginning or experiencing root rot is going to have roots that are chocolate-colored brown or almost sometimes black. The coating of the roots will sometimes slip off as you touch them, as you feel them and pull on them a little bit.
NETT: Speaking of drainage, let's talk for a second about pots. When you bring a new plant home, give it at least a month to settle in before you repot it. When it is time to pick a new container, you'll need to make sure it's a pot that has a drainage hole in the bottom.
But there are some other factors to consider, too. Clay and terracotta pots are porous, so they'll help wick some extra moisture out of the soil. That makes them really good for things like snake plants and hoya, who like to dry out a little between waterings, whereas pots that are glazed or made of plastic will help keep soil a little more moist for things like prayer plants.
Over time, you might notice roots growing out of your drainage hole. That's your cue to check and see if your plant is root-bound. This is where the roots have wrapped around and around inside the pot and are basically outgrowing it. Here's Hilton.
CARTER: You have kids. Their feet grow every few weeks. You're not going to keep them in the same shoes, right? You're going to make sure they get bigger shoes so their feet can expand so they can get - grow taller and bigger. That's the same thing for your plant.
NETT: If your plant is root-bound, that means it's time to upsize. A good rule of thumb is to increase the diameter of the pot by 2 inches each time.
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NETT: So you have your plant. It's all situated in its new home, getting the light it wants, the drainage it needs. Now it's time to talk about watering. This is super important. Overwatering is one of the most common ways that people kill their plants. So how do you know when it's time to water? That's takeaway No. 3. Plants don't know or care, really, what day of the week it is. How frequently your plant needs water is going to depend on a bunch of different factors, so it's best to just roll up your sleeves and get in there. Here's Hilton again.
CARTER: When it comes to that, I am very keen on the finger test, which is basically sticking your index finger 2 inches into the soil to check moisture levels.
NETT: Now, note if you don't want to get your hands dirty here, you can also use a wooden chopstick for this.
CARTER: Never stick to every Sunday, I water my plants. It should be whenever my - the soil itself is ready to be watered and that's when I water my plants.
NETT: You can also buy a moisture meter. Or if you want kind of a fun party trick, with a little bit of practice, you can even tell when a plant needs to be watered by just picking it up and feeling how heavy it is. When I pick up my monstera and it feels almost like the pot's empty, I know it's time to water it. I use that method and the finger test. And a quick note here - when you do water your plants, make sure you're doing so thoroughly. You should see water coming out of the hole at the bottom of your pot.
Overall, the key with watering is to pay attention to what your plant is telling you. A calathea might get brown tips if there are a lot of minerals in your water. A peace lily will droop if it dries out. A pothos might curl its leaves and start to crisp up.
CARTER: Overwatering is yellowing leaves. That is the most clear sign that you are overwatering your plant - is when you see yellow - yellow leaves or a yellowing spots at all. Once you start to see brown spots, that's an indicator that you are underwatering your plants.
NETT: Now, this is where it can get a little tricky. Remember root rot? When a plant is severely overwatered and gets root rot, it stops being able to take up water properly. So to a lot of people, an overwatered plant may actually look pretty similar to one that's not getting enough water. Here's Kirsten.
CONRAD: When that happens, the top of the plant will wilt in just exactly the same way that it wilts when it doesn't have enough water to take up because the cause is the same. There's insufficient ability to take water from the roots to the top of the plant.
NETT: One of the easiest ways to tell the difference here is to do the finger test - see whether your plant's soil is staying damp. And again, check to make sure your roots look healthy. If you have overwatered, the first thing you want to do is put that watering can down. Let the soil dry out. If your roots have rotted, you'll want to carefully trim off the dead portions. Make sure you use scissors that you've sterilized for this. Also, be sure to clean out the pot and give your plant fresh soil.
Now, if all of this is sounding, frankly, like work, that's because it is. Plants are, of course, living things. And when we bring them into our homes, we are responsible for giving them what they need. If you want to help yourself stay invested in your plant, an easy, fun way to do that is to give it a name. Consider this takeaway 3 1/2.
CARTER: When you name your plant, it pushes you to be better - a better plant parent of that plant.
NETT: You don't have to be super original here. Phil the Philodendron, an Alocasia polly named - you guessed it - Polly. The point here is to feel attached to your plant. And I know, I know. It sounds a little silly, but hear us out.
CARTER: It's really hard to toss out a plant when it's suffering, when it has a name. A lot of those plants that you see in trash rooms or on the side of a curb, those plants probably never had a name.
NETT: That fiddle-leaf fig Hilton talked about at the start of the episode, its name is Frank.
CARTER: I created a bond with the plant so that it would make me responsible to then care for it. Right? But also, I spend time talking to my plants - you know, like, Frank I see that you're getting a lot of good light today, buddy (laughter). Good for you. I hope you're living your best life.
NETT: And all that time with your plants - watering, trimming, dusting off leaves - can be kind of grounding for us, too.
CARTER: That's when I get all of the moments for me to meditate. That's where the therapy, that self-care comes into play - right? - because now I'm dealing with the life that's in my house. And being able to tend to it at that time makes me feel so great.
NETT: And one more benefit of all that quality time - the more you're looking at your plants, the faster you'll catch any issues, including pests. So be a proactive plant parent - check on them regularly. That's takeaway No. 4.
CARTER: And in that process of that routine maintenance, you'll notice if you have a bug or two and then you'll be able to make the fix, 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 a infestation of bugs.
NETT: That bit of advice right there is exactly how I realized that one of my own plants has a pretty common type of pest - these itty-bitty terrors called spider mites.
ADAM PYLE: One of the telltale signs about - of spider mites is that you usually notice some webbing on the leaf 'cause they are actually an arachnid.
NETT: This is horticulturalist Adam Pyle. We're talking on the U.S. Botanic Garden's plant hotline, where anyone can call or email in and ask for advice about what's going on with their plant.
PYLE: They're like teeny, teeny, tiny little spiders essentially. And so you'll see some webbing on the leaves. It'll cause some distortion, perhaps some yellowing. Is that the sort of symptom that you're seeing on your pothos?
NETT: In short, yeah. My plant absolutely has spider mites. I asked Adam what to do from here.
PYLE: It's pretty simple. If you don't have a major infestation on the whole plant, you can actually, with spider mites and other pests, you can remove some of the foliage that has the symptoms. But you can also treat them pretty easily.
NETT: He recommends bumping up the humidity in the room. You can do that with humidifiers or by setting your plant on a tray filled with pebbles and water. Or you can even stick it in the bathroom. Adam suggests taking the plant into the shower and washing it off, too. From there, you can spray the plant with a diluted mix of water and either insecticidal soap or neem oil. We'll link to some recipes for that on our episode page. And the good news - this strategy can help with other pests, too, including aphids, scale and mealy bugs, this white cottony insect that feeds on your plants.
PYLE: You just want a very basic dish soap, and that would work well. If it's a light infestation, just rinsing it off and one treatment of neem oil or soap might do the trick. Sometimes it might take two or three times, but you'll want to give yourself a week to two weeks in between applications to see if it's taken effect and see if you really need that extra application.
NETT: So once we had all of that squared away, I mention to Adam that I have another plant that's struggling a little, a Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, also sometimes called a mini monstera.
So this one - I realize having two plants with issues here, I'm maybe not lending myself a ton of credibility on this episode right now. But...
PYLE: You shouldn't worry about that. We all have plant issues. Even better gardeners than me have a lot of plant issues. And I deal with pest issues all the time. I was dealing with a mealy bug infestation in my houseplants just yesterday. So it's OK (laughter).
NETT: This brings us to our fifth and final takeaway - there is no such thing as a green thumb or a brown thumb for that matter. Mistakes happen. What's important is that you learn from them. Here's Hilton.
CARTER: People who consider themselves having green thumbs are people who understand the work that needs to be done to take care of a plant. They've done the work. That's a person with a green thumb. They put in all the time to make sure that they're watering their plant when it needs to be watered, when it needs to be repotted, when those bugs need to be taken care of. That's a person with a green thumb. So if you consider yourself having a brown thumb, you can easily have a green thumb tomorrow. You just got to figure out what plants work best in your space with the light that you have and then do the work.
NETT: So to recap...
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NETT: Takeaway 1 - in your houseplanting journey is to find your light. Understand what lighting your space has and choose a plant that will be happy there rather than buying a plant and then trying to figure out where to put it. And remember - low light does not mean no light. Our second takeaway - know your roots. Always start with the right soil mix for your particular plant. Make sure your pot has a drainage hole and be on the lookout for the notorious houseplant killer - root rot. Our third takeaway - Plants don't know what day of the week it is, so don't rely on watering every Sunday. That's not to say you won't eventually learn a ballpark of when your plant will need to be watered again, but you should still rely on the finger test, a moisture probe or the weight trick to be sure. Takeaway four - check your plants regularly. The more time you spend with them, the quicker you'll notice any problems, including pests. Plus, all that quality time can be kind of relaxing for us, too. And finally, takeaway 5 - there is no such thing as a green thumb. Taking care of plants isn't some innate talent. It's a skill. It's all about doing your homework and just taking the time. You can find a link to the U.S. Botanic Garden's plant hotline as well as some other resources to read more in depth on our episode page.
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NETT: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to give advice and another on how to reduce your food waste. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. This episode was produced by Audrey Wynn. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Danny Nett. Thanks for listening.
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