Living with Plants

Plants can brighten up the interior of any home, but those who lack experience often avoid them. We’re here to say that the houseplant shouldn’t be feared! With some basic knowledge about light, watering and the right plants to buy, you’ll soon be on the way to growing your own urban indoor jungle.

The first step to success is giving your home a good hard look to find the best sunlit spots. Melissa Hagen, houseplant manager at Tillery Street Plant Company, notes how often people come to shop unprepared. “A lot of times, people will come to the store and get a few small plants, thinking ‘I’m going to start small,’” she says. “If you don’t have a good place to display them, or you put your three small plants on your windowsill and you stand back, you barely notice them. I recommend getting a plant that’s proportional to your space, so that might be one large plant instead.”

Once you determine the space the new greenery will live in, it’s time to pick a plant. Solid options for beginners include pothos ivy, aloe vera, spider plants and begonias. If your home’s interior isn’t well lit by the sun, opt for plants that do well in low and artificial lighting, such as peace lilies, ZZ plants and snake plants. For those seeking a tree-like houseplant, dracaena or the ‘Audrey’ ficus are a great place to start. Hagen is a self-proclaimed fan of dracaena marginata, because of its hot-pink coloring. If fun colors also appeal to you, begonias come in a wide variety of hues, and pothos is available in several colors and variegations.

Keep in mind that many of these houseplant varieties, such as dracaenas, peace lilies, begonias and pothos, are toxic to animals if ingested. On the other hand, varieties such as sword ferns, spider plants, African violets, prayer plants and echeveria are all nontoxic. If you have pets, do your research before selecting and placing your plants. (You can find searchable databases at
aspca.org and petpoisonhelpline.com.)

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Cacti and succulents also do very well indoors, but there are a few things to keep in mind before taking one home. They require coarse, sandy soil that allows for better drainage, and the pot has to have holes in the bottom for additional drainage. (This applies to all houseplants, really.) “I would also recommend putting them outside sometimes for extra sun,” says Hagen. “I do that with all my normal houseplants, too. The key to a happy cactus or succulent is lots of light, and a little water.” When you do set plants outdoors, be sure to only leave them out for a day or two, and avoid direct sunlight that could burn the plant.

When watering houseplants that aren’t drought tolerant, the road to success lies in knowing the signs of an under-watered plant. “A thirsty plant generally will look really droopy,” Hagen says. “You look for signs like either the top of the plant wilting or the plant not being as springy as normal. And then with plants like the snake plant, the whole paddle leaf will get wrinkles and start to curl.” Watering is also a good time to check for potential pests in your plant’s soil. Know what spider mites, mealybugs and scale look like, and keep an eye out for them whenever you water, so you can catch any issues early.

There is a wide variety of ways to use plants as decor in the home. Nestle them in a macramé hanger, on a floating shelf or a trendy plant stand—you can even trail vines on the wall. Or pick a pot that functions as a focal point. One of Hagen’s favorite ways to show off her pothos and spider plants is to suspend them in water in a transparent vase. “I feel like, hydroponically, plants are super underutilized,” she says. “A lot of plants you can keep in water. You just need to give them sunlight and some spring water to keep them happy. It’s just so easy.”

Once your new plant is happily placed in your home under the right kind of light, the last step is to be patient, and ask for help if you need it. “So many people are like, ‘I love plants, but I kill them,’” says Hagen. “I just say, ‘Maybe you haven’t found the right plant for you!’ There are so many different varieties of plants and they all have different requirements. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does work out and you end up having a plant for years and years, it’s really nice.”

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Melissa Hagen’s Hydroponic Houseplant How-To

Besides giving us an excuse to bring out our pretty vases, the benefits of growing houseplants hydroponically include eliminating the need for potting soil. Because the plant is permanently suspended in water, there’s no way to over- or under-water, and the lack of soil also keeps pests away.

To get started, all you need are some plant cuttings, a transparent vessel and spring water. Two of Hagen’s favorite houseplants to keep in water are spider plants and pothos ivy, though spiderwort and philodendron are also popular options. Trim a cutting of the plant with several leaves on it (or in the case of the spider plant, cut a plantlet off the mother plant), and place in enough water to cover the stem, allowing the leaves to stay dry. You can also move a potted houseplant into water, but gently remove the soil from the roots first.

Place the vase in the sun, providing the plant with as much sunlight as its potted counterparts require. Whenever the water level starts to drop—typically every week or so—top off the water to its original height. Feel free to add multiple cuttings of the same plant to one vessel, as long as the container is large enough; however, it’s best not to put different plants in the same container, because each houseplant has its own nutrient and sunlight requirements.

The use of rainwater or bottled spring water allows the cuttings to root more easily, and provides the houseplant with the nutrients it would normally receive from soil. Hagen recommends these waters over tap because they have less chlorine. If the water starts to get murky, change it every few months. Also keep an eye out for any rotting roots and remove accordingly. Keep these tips in mind as you watch your new water plants, and you’ll be good to go!

By Darby Kendall • Photography by Jenna Northcutt