Houseplants deserve MVP status in our homes: They can help clean the air, make every room smell good, and add natural decor. Unfortunately, not everyone is a green thumb guru — but there's no reason to relegate yourself to the brown thumb category either. If houseplants shrink away from you as you walk down the aisles of a garden store, it's time to get back to basics. While plant life may seem like a mystery you, the essential requirements needed to keep houseplants happy and thriving are really quite simple, and can be counted on one hand.
Requirement #1: Water
Of course we all know that houseplants require water to survive. However, water issues — too much or too little — are leading causes of their demise. Different plant species have different water requirements and it's important to get basic information about how much your specific plant needs. Generally, broad leaf plants need more, while succulents and cactus require less.
Both underwatering and overwatering can kill a houseplant. The leaves of a water-stressed plant turn brown and crisp and the soil cracks. With excess water, a plant's roots can't get the air they need, causing the plant to suffocate or die from root rot. Overwatering issues are often related to drainage issues, so make sure that the pot has adequate drainage holes. No drainage holes? Repot immediately.
Requirement #2: Sunlight
As you learned long ago in science class, plants require sun exposure as part of the photosynthesis process, when they convert sunlight to energy. When houseplants are deprived of light, their leaves may die and their stems grow leggy as they search for those essential rays. So take that into account before you place them on top of a bookshelf in a shady corner. And look out for plant groupings where the plants in the front block all light from those in the back. Rearrange accordingly.
But not every plant likes direct sun or all-day sun. If you expose a plant that needs indirect light to direct sun, its leaves will get sunburned just like skin does, turning dark and sometimes dying.
Keep an eye on the temperature too. Most plants like mild-to-warm temps during the day and cooler rooms in the evenings. This can relate to the amount of sun, but a heater or stove can also raise the temperatures to uncomfortable levels for nearby plants. (If you're planning on putting plants in your kitchen, these superstars can handle the heat.)
Requirement #3: Nutrients
Premium soil contains a healthy balance of nutrients and minerals that your plant requires to stay vigorous and healthy. We're talking nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus (primary nutrients), and sulfur, calcium, and magnesium (second-level nutrients). And houseplants rely entirely on you to keep them supplied. So get on it.
The soil should contain organic material but also remain light enough to allow excellent drainage. If your houseplants' soil is good, they may not even need fertilizers. But don't rely on fertilizers to make up for poor soil. Think of them as vitamins, good for making up deficiencies in your diet but not a substitute for healthy food. If you want to add fertilizer, ask an expert at your local garden store for something appropriate for your particular plant, and never use more than the recommended dose. It can damage and even kill the roots. Not a good look.
Requirement #4: Space
If you laugh at the idea of plants requiring elbow room, think again. Although your ficus and potted palm tree don't have elbow joints, they still need sufficient space to thrive. Above the soil, stems and leaves will only grow if there is enough room to expand. Beneath the soil, roots get stunted in too-small pots.
Space issues don't just keep your plant small, they can also lead to health issues. Overcrowded plants are stressed, with limited airflow above ground or limited rootspace below. This makes them more susceptible to diseases and pests.
Requirement #5: Love
Now, we're not saying that you need to literally kiss your plant to keep it happy (plus, it's especially a bad idea if it's a cactus). But if you care about your plants, you'll do more than provide grudging care. You should look closely at them often and notice problems early. Too much water? Too few nutrients? Poor drainage? Excess sun? None of these will kill your plants the first day or even the first week, but the sooner you catch the problem, the easier it is to solve. Most pest and disease issues are also easy to resolve when nipped in the bud.
All in all, being a good plant parent shouldn't take up much of your time. Whenever you water a plant, take a look at its leaves, top and bottom, with an eye for problems. See if the plant has any new growth, check the soil for fallen foliage, look for any changes, and admire its own particular beauty. Although no scientific studies prove that loving attention makes for healthier plants, what is the point of having houseplants if you don't take time to admire them?
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.