You’ve killed a few plants and have now given up hope of ever becoming a successful plant parent. But don’t despair. You may not be a brown thumb after all. You might simply be missing a few key skills to make owning a plant a rewarding experience, so let’s explore the basics.

All plants live and grow in basically the same way. Their essential needs are air, light, water, mineral food materials and a suitable range of temperatures. Although they have the same general needs, however, plants differ enormously in the quality and quantity of those needs. So the most important things to ask yourself when choosing your new plant baby are where will I keep it? And does that space provide adequate growing conditions?

Although most plants are remarkably adaptable, a plant that needs shade will not grow healthily in full sunlight, nor a tropical plant in an ice cold room.

Light

Perhaps the most important ingredient to a happy relationship with your plant is offering the right amount of light.

It is obviously pointless to put a shade-loving fern at a sun-drenched window, or a sun-loving cactus in a dark corner. When selecting a suitable position for an indoor plant, the first step is to determine its general light requirements. These are most often found on the basic care tag and are usually categorised like this … full sun, part sun, part shade, full shade, and so on. Still confused? Here’s a basic guide to what these categories mean.

Full sun = at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily.

Part sun = between 3 – 6 hours of direct sun daily.

Part shade = between 3 – 6 hours of sun per day. Needs shade during the hottest part of the afternoon. Morning or late afternoon sunlight preferred.

Full shade = Does not mean darkness! Less than 3 hours of direct sun per day, and definitely not the hot midday sunlight.

Water

The question I get asked the most is how much water and when?

There are no hard and fast rules with watering plants. I can’t assign someone a watering schedule because, just like humans, plants are all different and the conditions under which a plant is grown also affect its requirements.

In hot dry weather or well-heated rooms, an unusually large amount of water is lost through transpiration from the leaves and evaporation from the soil; whereas in cool temperatures, plants obviously lose a great deal less water. During active growth or flowering, plants often require their full helping of water, but when resting (i.e. not actively growing) the same plant can often survive on very little water.

Other factors to consider are the pot in which you keep your plant and the soil in which it grows.

Unglazed pots lose moisture much faster than glazed or plastic pots, and porous sandy soils lose moisture faster than more dense peat-based soils. Because of all these factors, it’s easy to overwater or underwater by only watering in routine. Instead, assess individual watering needs every day or two.

Most care tags will provide basic instructions on how the plant likes to keep its soil’s moisture level. This part is usually worded “water plentifully”, “water moderately” or “water sparingly”. It’s great that they provide these basic watering needs, but generally most people are still unaware of what they really mean and are completely inexperienced at efficient watering. Here are my best interpretations of these phrases and how to execute them.

Water plentifully = water when the surface of the potting mixture begins to feel dry to touch. Flood the surface of the plants soil until it is saturated again and water flows from the drainage holes. Don’t let the pot sit in excess water on their drip tray. Tip excess water off.

Water moderately = water when the top centimetre or so of the mixture feels dry to your finger. Pour water slowly onto the soil surface until the entire mixture is moistened, but not saturated. Stop adding water when a few drops appear out the bottom of the pot’s drainage holes.

Water sparingly = water when no less than two thirds of the mixture has dried out. Test it with a stake. Tip water slowly onto the plant’s soil surface, just covering it, and then stop. The soil should be barely moist after watering. Test again with your stake. If it’s still dry, add a little more water.

Even after you’ve done your very best at monitoring moisture levels, sometimes we still find a plant is dry to the core and looking rather sad. Don’t give up, with a bit of emergency treatment there’s still hope for the withered creature that was once your flourishing plant baby.

Immerse the whole pot in a bucket or sink full of water and leave it there until bubbles stop rising from the soil. This ensures that all areas of the soil are sufficiently moistened. Whilst the pot is submerged, you can also spray the foliage to add additional relief. Once the bubbles have stopped rising, remove the pot plant from the sink/bucket and allow the excess water to flow away and return your baby to its spot. Most plants will bounce back after this treatment, depending on how long the plant was in its withered state. Your plant will take a few hours to strengthen itself once more, so be patient. I also recommend doing this treatment once or twice in the hottest part of summer as a failsafe. Even if they don’t appear to need water, sometimes water doesn’t penetrate every inch of the soil and the soil becomes hydrophobic in spots causing problems in the future.

Feeding

So you’ve mastered watering and found the perfect pozzie for your new leafy friend and all is going well. But after a while, your plant seems to be struggling. It could be that feeding, a key element that is often overlooked, is all that is needed to continue your newfound plantrenthood success.

Every plant needs various nutrients in order to grow well. A newly bought or repotted plant should not require immediate feeding as the soil should have a supply of the necessary nutrients mixed in already. Therefore they do well for a while in your home then start to struggle a wee bit after three or so months and you wonder, what went wrong? The answer could be as simple as a quick feed or fertilize. Fertilizer can be overwhelming to buy as there are always so many on the shelf. Basically there are three key elements essential for balanced growth:

  • Nitrogen (N) – vital for stem and leaf growth
  • Phosphorus (P) – promotes healthy root growth
  • Potassium (K) – used for producing fruit and flowers

The label on each fertiliser always indicates the relative amounts of these main ingredients with numbers or a code – for instance 06-10-06. Don’t let this overwhelm you it is always in the same order of N-P-K. That particular code means there are roughly equal parts nitrogen and potassium but a greater amount of phosphorus in that product.

Keeping this in mind, a fertiliser that is roughly equal in all three main elements will suit potted house plants. The easiest ones to use are in liquid form and you simply add them to the water when watering. Always follow the mixing quantities on the label, it is always better to dilute the product more than is recommended than to under dilute, as excessive amounts can damage roots and leaves.

I now encourage you to head to your nearest local nursery and purchase a new leafy buddy with confidence. There are a huge range of plants to use indoors remembering your plant selection should be partly based on:

  • The level of care you are willing to provide – watering and feeding requirements.
  • The conditions within your space – light and temperature.

Finding plants that thrive in your space rather than trying to make either the plants or the conditions fit will ensure that owning a plant is a pleasure and not a burden. Thus turning that brown thumb, Green!

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Kristina Harper

Kristina Harper was born in New Zealand and grew up on a dairy farm before moving to WA in 2008. She is a passionate, self-confessed crazy plant lady who has been a florist for 15 years, before expanding into terrariums in 2015. Kristina is the owner of The Green Emporium, a Fremantle-based terrarium studio and store providing unique plant décor and plant advice for the home and office. She is married with two kids and three fur-babies.