Do you love plants, but find that gardening stresses you out? Do you cringe every time someone hands you a plant and tell them you’re “sure to kill it within a week?” Do you envy the green thumbs of your neighbors, friends and relatives, while struggling to keep even one houseplant yourself?
If this sounds like you, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Plenty of people struggle to keep plants alive at first, but with time, practice and a little instruction, anyone can learn to do it. Just because it isn’t something that comes naturally to you doesn’t mean you have to accept that you’ll never be able to do it.
Keeping potted plants alive is a learned skill, and there is no reason you can’t learn to do it, too. To help you out and get you started on your plant-care journey, we’ve put together this tutorial on everything you need to know about how to take care of potted plants. By the time we’re finished here, you’ll be ready to put these skills into practice. So grab your gardening gloves and potting soil and let’s get started.
Tips to Keep Potted Houseplants Alive
While the rules for all plants are fairly similar, they will differ slightly depending on the environment your plant is going to be living in. If you’re mostly wondering how to take care of potted indoor plants, then this is the section for you. Here are our best tips to keep houseplants alive:
1. Choose the Correct Pot
Drainage is extremely important for your plant. Ideally, a pot should have a hole in the bottom so that excess water can drain out of the soil and collect in a tray underneath the pot. If there is no such hole, all the extra water is trapped in the soil. Often, this is more water than the plant can successfully absorb, and this will result in a plant “drowning.” If you notice your plant looks wilted and droopy, but the soil is still damp, the odds are good that you have a drainage problem, and the plant is too wet.
In the same way, plants need plenty of space to grow. If the roots run out of room to stretch out, the plant will become top-heavy, and the roots won’t be able to support the amount of foliage on your plant. This will cause it to wither and die.
While it’s easiest to simply leave the plant in the pot or basket you got it in, this isn’t always the best way to keep your plant healthy and strong. For your plant to stay healthy, it needs to be in a pot that gives it room to grow and stretch its roots. It will also require a pot that allows for adequate drainage.
2. Use Good Potting Soil
If you’re re-potting your houseplant from the container it came in and putting it in a better pot, you’ll also need to think about what type of potting soil you’re using. It isn’t enough to just scoop some dirt out of your backyard. Instead, buy a bag of potting soil. These mixes often contain extra nutrients or fertilizers that will help your houseplant stay strong and healthy.
Depending on what type of plant you’re working with, you may be able to find a potting mix designed specifically for that species. If you’re planting a cactus or succulent, for example, there are often potting soils that are crafted with just the right nutrients for these types of plants.
3. Watering: Not Too Much and Not Too Little
Watering can be a little bit tricky, especially if you’re new to plant care. Water too much, and your plant can easily drown. Water too little, and the plant will dry up and die. For happy and healthy plants, you’ll need to find a delicate balance between these two extremes. While some plants prefer to live in moist soil, the vast majority of plants do best when you allow the soil to dry out between watering.
To tell whether or not your plant needs water, feel the soil, preferably near the edge of the pot. If the dirt feels dry and crumbly, it’s time to water. If it still feels damp, it probably doesn’t need more just yet. After a few weeks of this practice, you should begin to get the hang of knowing when your plants need water.
Of course, you’ll also be able to tell if your plants are dying of thirst. If you notice the leaves are turning dry, brown and shriveled, your plant is in desperate need of water. Hopefully, however, you’ll water your plant long before it gets to this point.
When giving your plant a drink, water it until the water begins to run out the hole in the bottom of the pot, or until the soil no longer absorbs any water. If the water begins to pool on top of the soil refusing to soak in any more, then it’s time to stop watering.
It’s difficult to prescribe exactly how often you should water your plant because every plant and every plant species is different. You can read up on your specific plant to gain more information, but in general, it’s better to let your plant tell you when it needs water. Learn to read the soil and the leaves of a plant, and recognize when it’s asking you for some water.
4. Give Them Plenty of Light
While every plant has different preferences in terms of shade versus sun, no plant will grow with absolutely no light whatsoever. If you put your plant in the closet, high on a dark shelf or backed into a shadowy corner, it is not going to do well.
Your plant needs at least some sun to thrive. For this reason, windowsills are great places to put plants. If you don’t have a windowsill large enough, though, there are other options. Put them on a table or a cart in front of a window, or in some place that experiences plenty of sunlight.
5. Keep Your Pet Away
This should go without saying, but it’s something you might not have thought of if you’re new to houseplants. Animals may love your plants, but unfortunately, this often translates into loving them to death. Specifically, your pet might eat your plant, or tear it up in their enthusiasm.
To fix this problem, try placing your houseplants in places your pet can’t access. Maybe put them high up on the counter, or on top of a cabinet. Just be sure to balance the need to keep the plant out of harm’s way with the need to place it in an area that still gets sun.
Another thing to note is that there are a variety of poisonous plants to animals, so there is some extra incentive to keep plants and pets separate.
6. Learn About Your Plant
This is a fundamental rule of plant care whether you’re dealing with indoor houseplants, hanging outdoor baskets, garden plants or something else altogether. Take the time to learn about the type of plant you’re caring for. Learn how much sun it likes, or how much shade. Learn if it needs to be watered every day, or if it can go as long as two weeks without water.
Every plant has its own unique set of requirements. While there are plenty of across-the-board rules that apply to most plants, you will have the best results and the greatest rate of success when you take the time to learn about each species of plant individually.
Keep Outside Potted Plants Alive
When learning how to take care of outdoor potted plants, some of the concerns are the same as they are with indoor plants. You’ll still want to take care to use a good potting soil mix. You’ll still want a pot that gives the plant room to grow and has plenty of drainage. However, there are a few additional concerns that will come into play when caring for outdoor plants.
Here are our best tips to keep outdoor potted plants alive:
1. Watch for Shade vs. Sun
This is something you’ll need to be especially careful with when it comes to outdoor plants. Your plant should come with a tag that will tell you whether the plant prefers full sun, full shade or a combination of the two. If you can’t find such a tag, ask at your local garden center or do a quick Google search.
Once you figure out what type of lighting your plant will do best in, it’s up to you to find a place that suits these needs. That might be the side of your house that gets sun for half the day, or it might be your porch that gets sun all day long. Whatever it is, your plant will thrive once you get it in the right place.
2. Keep an Eye on the Temperature
With outdoor plants, one of the biggest considerations is the weather. It can be tempting to experience a sunny March day where temperatures soar to the high 50’s and assume it’s safe to put your plants outside. Next thing you know, the temperature plummets again, and your plants are irreparably damaged.
While some plants are exceptions, most annuals and many perennials can’t be left outside until the temperature no longer dips below freezing at night. To find out when it’s okay to begin taking your plants outside, reference the last date of frost to determine the approximate last date of frost in your area . Keep in mind, however, that this is only an approximate last date of frost. To be safe, wait until slightly past this date. The plant tag may even provide specific instructions along these lines.
Remember to also think about the first frost in the fall. If your plants are not winter-hardy, you’ll need to remember to bring them in before the temperatures drop in the fall as well.
3. Think About the Rain
Since your plant is going to be an outdoor plant, you’ll also have to think about things like rain, and how this will affect your watering schedule.
If your area has been receiving lots of rain, be aware that you won’t need to water your plant for quite a while, or at least until the soil dries out again. If the rains are extremely heavy, to the extent that your plant is at risk of being damaged, you might even want to consider bringing your plant indoors. If this isn’t a possibility, at least bring it under some level of shelter to protect it from drowning.
This might apply to both indoor and outdoor plants, but since outdoor plants more often tend to be of the flowering varieties, we’ve included it in this section.
If you’re never deadheaded before, don’t worry. It’s much less complicated than it sounds. This is simply a process of pinching off dead blossoms that are hanging limply on their stems. Of course, this isn’t something that you absolutely have to do. These dead blossoms will eventually fall off on their own. However, there are many benefits to pre-empting this natural process of the blossoms falling off and doing the deadheading yourself.
First, it’s an aesthetic bonus. Your plant looks better without dead blossoms clinging to it. And since the main purpose of many plants is to look beautiful, this is a good reason to do it. Second, and arguably more important, however, is that deadheading encourages new growth. When you pinch off the dead growth, this helps push new blossoms out and causes your plant to grow bigger and healthier.
5. Keep Pests Away
Once you put your plant outdoors, realize that you are at risk for rabbits, squirrels, deer and all other kinds of animals who would just love to get a taste of your outdoor plant.
To combat this, think of ways you can keep your potted plant safe. Do you have a screened-in porch? If so, this is the perfect place for an outdoor plant. If this isn’t an option, a fenced-in garden is also better than nothing. Hanging baskets are also good, as they are out of reach of most animals other than squirrels.
Learn More About Caring for Your Potted Plants
Are you determined that this time, you’re going to be successful and keep your potted plants alive? Reading this is a great place to start. But what’s the next step? How can you keep learning about how to care for your beautiful plants?
A great next step to take is to talk to an expert. If you have more questions about what you can be doing to keep your plants happy and healthy, then we’d love to chat with you. Here at Patuxent Nursery, we have years of experience in caring for plants of all shapes, sizes and varieties, and we’d love to share that knowledge with you.
If you live in or near Bowie, MD, we invite you to stop in and continue this conversation in person. And if you can’t make the trip, that’s alright, too. We’re available if you’d like to contact us online, and we can be reached by phone. Just give us a call at (301) 218-4769.