A beginner’s guide to indoor plants (by a beginner)

My grandmother always had a couple of pots of African violets on her windowsill, and a cyclamen in her house. My mother has always had a maidenhair fern in the bathroom and a jade plant in an interesting pot at the front and back door (for luck). But you may have noticed that lately every dude with designer facial hair and a one gear bicycle has a fiddle leaf fig in his house.

Indoor plants are cool now.

I have a number of indoor plants (because cool, see), but although I am an old hand at outdoor gardening, I am a total noob when it comes to indoor gardening. These are the plants I have right now:

  • Sedum or Jellybean plant x 2;
  • Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria),
  • Pachyphytum hookeri;
  • Pachyphytum kimnachii (my favourite succulent – it looks like some sort of crystalline growth on a cave floor);
  • Fiddle leaf fig;
  • Fatsia;
  • Philodendron;
  • Aspidistra elata;
  • Peperomia variegated;
  • Diefferbachia;
  • Pothos (Devil’s Ivy).

I have also killed several plants, including several Freckle Faces for some reason. These are basically a weed, so killing these takes true talent.

These are my tips for keeping my houseplants alive and looking healthy and happy:

  • Watch the plant. My philodendron, Albert, was initially in the lounge room. He was miserable. His leaves would start off beautifully, then start to crisp around the edges and turn brown and wilt. I was not overwatering, and he was fed a slow release fertiliser for pot plants, so feeding was not the problem. I realised that light was the problem. Philodendrons have enormous leaves almost the size of small plates, which I figured were for photosynthesis. I moved Albert to our sunroom, which as the name suggests, is a much lighter room. Albert is now my most beautiful houseplant, happily unfurling leaf after gorgeous leaf. Every time I go out to the sunroom, I have to stop and look at him.
  • Keep an eye on light and temperature. The plants that I have killed have died due to either a lack of light (one bathroom is too dark) or too much heat (the other bathroom has a north facing window and plants placed there quickly crisped up and died). I have a houseplant in my office at work, and I bring it outside regularly for some sunlight and fresh air. I know my colleagues think I am slightly cracked because about once a week I take my little ‘friend’ for a walk outside. Houseplants can also die due to to overexposure to indoor heating, so I generally do not keep houseplants in my living area, where we have a fireplace going in Winter, and ducted cooling in Summer. The exception is one Sedum (Jellybean plant), which sits over the kitchen sink. It seems to be fine because the moisture from the sink keeps the air nice and moist.
  • Clean the plant. Houseplants collect dust. The dust clogs up the plant and prevents it from properly photosynthesising. I clean my houseplants every few weeks with tepid water to which I have added a few drops of olive oil. The olive oil helps to shine big houseplant leaves. Obviously, I don’t clean succulents.
  • Think about water. I only water my houseplants with bottled spring water. This seems like a wasteful choice, but in fact the spring water is a waste product in my house, because my eldest daughter buys water when she is out and then doesn’t drink it all (yes, I have suggested a thousand times that she takes a reusable water bottle, but she rarely remembers). I started using her leftover water on my plants rather than tip it down the sink, and discovered that my houseplants seemed to thrive on it more than tap water. My non-scientific guess is that it doesn’t have chlorine in it. Of course, if my daughter ever does listen to me and starts taking her own water bottle, then I will have to think about what else to do. Filtered water would be an option, or leaving tap water out for several hours for the chlorine to evaporate might also work.
  • Don’t overwater. This is the most commonly cited instruction for houseplants, but it is true. My plants get watered when I have a spring water bottle to empty. I check the dirt in the pot with my finger. If my finger comes back dirty, I move on to water a different plant. For my succulents, I have some cool German made self-watering pots that I found at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Pretty swish.
  • Feed. I use a slow release fertiliser especially designed for pot plants. I don’t feed the succulents.
  • Use cover pots. I don’t repot pot houseplants, generally speaking. I take the original plastic pot and place it inside an attractive cover pot. That way, I disturb the plant as little as possible. If the plant turns out to need repotting down the track, I will do it, but so far I have not had to do that. The only plants I have repotted are the two succulents pictured below. I re-potted them into the self-watering pots, which came with a special potting medium.
  • Elevate, if possible. If the plants are not on a shelf or a table, I use plant stands. I have found some el cheapo stands from K-Mart ($5-$8), and from Mitre 10 for $14. I personally think this keeps the plants looking good and helps keep them pest-free, but that could be confirmation bias on my part. I don’t see any pests on my plants, so those bug-fighting plant stands must be working…

That’s it – that’s all I know. I’m still learning, but since I killed the last Freckle Face last year, I have managed to keep all my houseplants alive and most are now starting to look pretty great.

One last note on plant choice: I’m kind of a tightwad. I don’t buy expensive mature plants. My most expensive plant was about $15. I figure the point and fun of a plant is to grow it. I understand if you are a decorator or designer, it might be worth spending a lot of money on an expensive mature plant, but that reason doesn’t exist for most people. If I were to buy Albert as he is now, he would probably cost about $65. I think I paid about $12, then helped him to grow into the beautiful plant he is now. I had much more fun doing it this way, plus every time I look at that plant I feel like a proud Mama. I just wouldn’t feel that satisfaction if I had bought him that way.

Also, imagine if you killed a $65 houseplant? You’d feel pretty f$#!ed off.

Twelve bucks: I feel the pain, but not so much.

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