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Bye-Bye, Black Thumb: Growing Beautiful Houseplants

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a farmers’ market junkie. I love knowing where my food comes from, just how fresh it is, and that I’m looking into the eyes of the person who grew it. There’s just one problem: my habit has escalated. My bank account is hemorrhaging money in the form of heirloom tomatoes and locally grown strawberries.

Unwilling to give up my commitment to hand-produced food, I decided to take another look at at-home gardening, despite the fact that, as an apartment dweller, I have no yard, and my past attempts at growing herbs have left me with nothing but potted fire hazards.

This time, instead of just going out and grabbing the first plant I saw at the market, I decided to educate myself before diving in. What are the easiest types of houseplants to grow for those of us who don’t have a green thumb or are just plain inexperienced? And what are some tips we can abide by to ensure that our greens actually make it to the edible stage?

Before Buying
Turns out, there are a few things we have to consider before even setting foot in a gardening store. “When shopping for indoor plants, you need to take a few things into account,” says Myra Samson, a Walnut Creek, California, gardener who sells her plants at local plant sales and farmers’ markets.

First, she recommends selecting plants based on where in your home you’re going to place them, because ensuring that the little green guys will get enough light is crucial. All plants are classified based on how much light they need to grow. If the card that comes with a plant says that it needs “high light,” but you’re hoping to keep it away from the window, this may be a recipe for failure. (Word to the wise: any indoor plant will not get enough light to satisfy a “high light” requirement.)

Another important factor to consider is your skill level when it comes to planting. Are you a total novice, or someone who hasn’t had much success in the past, like I am? Take baby steps by opting for plants that are easier to care for. “A lot of people who think they’re bad at growing plants just aren’t choosing the right ones for their homes and lifestyles,” says Samson. Hard-to-kill plants are low maintenance and need only occasional watering.

Also, consider the temperature where you plan to grow your greens. As with watering and light, different plants have different needs and thrive under different temperatures. Generally, most are good to go with sixty-five- to seventy-five-degree temperatures during the day and temps that are ten to fifteen degrees cooler at night, the standard temperature inside most homes. Places with rapid temperature changes—say, right underneath the air-conditioning or heating vent—will damage your plants. Not sure if your temperature is okay? Too-hot plants will be weak and small, and too-cold plants will have yellowish leaves that fall off easily.

Finally, be aware of your home’s humidity levels. Low-moisture air, like when you’re blasting the heat all winter, can cause dry leaves and curling leaves. If you live in a drier area, use a humidifier or spray the leaves each morning with some water to help counteract this.

Easy Houseplants
Now that we’re armed with the necessary information for buying the right plants, what do we do when we arrive at the gardening store and are overwhelmed by a visual explosion of colorful foliage? “Go for the easiest-to-grow kinds,” says Samson. “The leafy, nonflowering kinds require less maintenance.”

Ivy: This plant is easy to care for and comes in many varieties: Persian, English, Algerian, and Irish. Ivy doesn’t need too much water and can thrive in low-lit areas inside your home. It also doesn’t mind if you overwater it accidentally.

Cacti: These are brown thumbs’ BFFs, since they require little water and do best when simply left alone. Plus, their unique look can add interest and variety to a room.

Bamboo: All this needs is the occasional water refresher. Bamboo sits in about an inch of water and needs little direct sunlight.

Spider plant: A little water and sun, and any spider plant will grow like, well, spider legs.

Snake plant: Another common houseplant, the snake plant is known for being tough to kill. It has heavy, swordlike, green and yellow leaves that grow tall and can survive on as little or as much light as you provide.

Aloe: Aloe’s thick, succulent leaves can lend a calming feel to a room. It has a low light requirement and thrives on just a bit of water. Plus, you can always break open a leaf and rub it on a wound, should you burn yourself in the kitchen.

Corn plants (the houseplants, not the vegetable): These need watering only every seven to ten days.

Tips and Tricks
You can affect the success of any plant’s growth with light, temperature, humidity, water, nutrition, and soil, says the University of Georgia’s cooperative extension. The gardening cooperative recommends a few ways to ensure that these elements are balanced just right.

Potting: “A pot should allow the water to drain out of it,” says the cooperative. This means that each time you water, liquid should drain out of the bottom of the planter.

Watering: There are no general rules, just specific ones for different types of plants. “You’d be amazed by how many people water plants without even knowing what the plant requires,” says Samson. So find out!

Soil: Soil provides anchorage, minerals, and moisture for plants. So can I just get a bag of soil and dump it in a pot? “Absolutely,” says Samson. A good potting mix will usually be fine this way, but double-check with the salespeople at the nursery, since a handful of plants do require a special mix.

Fertilizer: This keeps plants happy and pretty. Droopy leaves, color changes, or browned edges indicate that they’re hungry for more than they’re getting. Sprinkling the soil with fertilizer every few months will correct these symptoms.

I’m now convinced to give indoor gardening another go. Here’s to a greener, more beautiful home.