How to Keep Plants Alive – A Guide to Success at Houseplants

Guide to Keeping Plants AlivePhoto by Daria Shevtsova

Do you enjoy plants, but are afraid of killing them? Or have – gasp – killed some and believe you have a black thumb? Then this is for you.

Indoor gardening is my beloved hobby. I love helping friends and colleagues who appreciate plants, but are convinced they have a black thumb. Here’s the deal – we can all have a green thumb, it just takes practice and understanding!

Here’s a quick and dirty cheat sheet on how to keep plants alive!

1. Light
how to keep plants alive sunlight etiolation

Photos by Elina Sazonova (left) and Thai Nguyen (right)

All plants require light to photosynthesise food for themselves. Think of fertiliser only as a dietary supplement.

  • A high light requirement cactus or succulent* should be basking in the sun, contrary to how they are commonly kept on desks/windows lacking sufficient light exposure.
  • A low light requirement snake plant/sansevieria or devil’s ivy/pothos is more suited for darker corners.

A plant in overly low light conditions but will grow weaker over time and be more susceptible to pests and disease. A plant in excess light may burn if there is high accompanying heat. Find out how much light your plant requires and place them in the appropriate spot. You can download a light meter app to provide a rough gauge of which spots are better lit than others.

2. Water/Humidity
how to keep plants alive water moisture dry leaves

Photos by Holger Link

Find out your plant’s watering requirements.

  • A dry climate cactus or succulent would prefer drier air – avoid humidifiers – and only require watering once a week or less.
  • A tropical fern would prefer higher humidity and may require watering several times a week.

A plant in an overly wet/moist environment than they are suited for is prone to disease and rot, while those drier than appropriate are prone to dry/crispy leaves. Gauge if the soil is dry by being familiar with the weight of your pot before and after watering. You can also stick a wooden skewer or finger 2-3 inches into the soil to get a feel.

3. Soil
how to keep plants alive soil gravel drainage

Photos by Michael Oeser (left) and Paul Mocan (right)

This is closely tied to the plant’s watering requirements.

  • Coarser/gritty mixes retain less water and dry out quicker. This is suitable for dry environment lovers such as cactus and succulents and helps prevent rot.
  • Finer mixes retain more water and stay moist longer. These would work better for moisture-loving plants such as ferns.

You can create your custom mixes with gravel/grit/commercial soil to help provide a more suitable living environment for your plant.

In summary, find out what your plant needs in light, water and soil. Provide those conditions and you’ll see improvements.

Anyone can be successful at keeping plants alive and healthy! Please feel free to share these tips with anyone you know who might benefit. Let’s spread the love.

What are your favourite tips on successful houseplant parenting?

*Disclaimer: Some succulents do better than others in low light conditions (e.g. Haworthia)

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