How Not To Kill Your House Plants

My houseplants gathered around the kitchen sink for their monthly pampering!
One of the things that friends say when they visit our home is that our place has nice bits of green. I can't tell you how happy this comment makes me because I have been trying very hard to have lots of plants in the flat. I must confess it has been quite a struggle. Primarily because although I love plants, I had no clue how to go about maintaining them. In our Kolkata home we had a pretty full terrace garden filled to the brim with various potted plants which my grandfather used to tend to. He was the chief and the only gardener and the rest of us his occasional assistants.  There were roses, dahlia during the winter season, hibiscus, summer flowers like jasmine and he also grew a few vegetables like chillies, curry leaves, tomatoes. Sometimes during the summer months I helped him water the various pots in the evening around sunset. By then the plants were almost wilting from the harsh rays of the sun and the parched earth soaked up the moisture greedily. He also used to water the plants early in the morning before the sun became too fierce.  He used to make his own compost in the big, covered earthen pot, which stank some mighty. All the leftover food, vegetable skins and fish bones went into that compost pot. I don't know much else about it, cos I always maintained a safe distance. Back to the watering bit, as far as I remember he used to water the plants every other day during winter, twice during summer and not at all frequently during the rains. Rather during the rainy season, he made sure that water hadn't collected in the pots. After my grandfather died, many of the plants died due to neglect, but some have survived like the hibiscus shrub which still flowers.
That was in the terrace under the open sky in a hot tropical climate.  Here in a small flat in the UK with the heater cranked up most of the time during the winters my house plants kept dying, much to my dismay. Then a friend gave me two leaves of Devil's Ivy which is commonly known as money plant in India. These leaves were in water. Once these precious babies arrived I read up on them because in India we keep them everywhere, out in the balcony, on the roof and they grow like crazy, but here I wasn't sure and I was taking no chances. 

I am no expert, in fact just the exact opposite, but over the last four years' struggle with house plants I have realised/figured out the following seven things-

1i. How to water house plants: Most of us wannabes tend to over water our plants. We tend to think that plants are like us humans and need nourishment every single day. That is not right. Majority of the house plants don't need to be watered too frequently. Each potted plant if you buy it from a nursery or a flower shop will come with a little instruction card with details on watering. Read that and stick to it. In my experience over watering kills a plant far more easily than under watering. 

1ii. Post watering drainage of potted plants: This is as important as watering your plants. If you let your plants sit in too much water, they will rot. Each pot comes with drainage holes at the base.  After you have watered your plants, leave them on the sink for half an hour or so to drain off the excess moisture. If you have put your plastic pot in a fancy outer pot, make sure that the plastic container is nicely drained before putting it back in the outer pot and there is no water collected in the outer pot.

2i. Buying the right house plant: While going houseplant shopping your best friend is the little card which comes with each plant. Learn to read the symbols and check whether it is suitable for your home.

2ii. Choose the indoor variety: Potted plants are two kinds-outdoor and indoors. If you put a plant meant for outdoors inside your home, chances are it would die. So check the label before buying.

2iii. Go for the fuss free ones: Some plants are fuss free and super easy to maintain while others need expert care like bonsai and orchids. For beginners it makes sense to stick to the easy to care ones. Below I have talked about the easy to care plants.

3. Where to place the plants: Not all plants need direct sunlight. So again read the instruction card and place the plant accordingly in your house. Having said that, most plants do need sunlight. Sometimes lack of sunshine can make the leaves of certain plants to turn yellow. So it is best to change the position of a house plant occasionally. Like for example if you have a plant in your bathroom which has no natural light, make sure the plant is out on a sunny  window ledge at least once a week or so.

5. Maintain your plants: Plants are living beings, their perfect  flowers will wither and the leaves will wilt sooner or later. No need to panic! Your precious plant isn't dead or even about to die. Hold the despair at bay and  just trim or gently pull off the dead {brown/yellow/wrinkled/dead looking} leaves and wait for the new ones to grow. Be patient, the plant will take it's own sweet time (generally 3 to 4 weeks, sometimes more) but the leaves will grow again. 

6. Nourish your plants: Water your plants every week or ten days or fortnightly, according to the care instructions. And about once a month nourish it a with specialised plant feed. Plant feeds are available in the nursery section of supermarkets, flower shops, nurseries, online etc. Please buy the appropriate feed like rose, orchid plants etc have special feeds, as do indoor plants. Follow the instructions at the back of the bottle and get the dose right. This extra boost helps the plants to grow and flower better.
Note of caution do not overdo the prescribed dosage or the frequency. 

7. How to repot your plants: This is a tricky thing, something I have cautiously done to some of my plants. {Not all of them have been roaring successes, read below} Some of the rules that I follow. 
i. I repot my plants not immediately after buying them, rather when I see them outgrowing the pots they are in. 
ii. I use fresh, clean pots If you are reusing plastic pots, wash them with warm soapy water, cleanse throughly so that no trace of that soap remains, dry in the sun for a week or so, before reusing it. If you are reusing terracotta plants, please check the cleaning method, I have never reused those.
iv. Always repot in containers which have draining holes at the bottom. If a particular one does not, that means it is an outer pot, one in which you put your container and not the plant straight in.
iii. Fill your clean pot halfway with compost and very carefully lift the plant with roots in the soil and gently place it in the compost bed. Once you have positioned the plant, you may have to add more compost on the sides so that the plant is secure and upright.
iv. Water it a little and pat the compost gently to secure the plant further. 
v. Be very careful not to hurt the roots of the plant during repotting.
vi. Always repot in a bigger sized container and not the other way round.

Three very easy plants to start with in my opinion are Devil's Ivy, Peace Lily and Bamboo Shoots.

Devil's Ivy grows both in water and soil. The ones which grow in soil won't grow in water and vice versa. It is very easy to maintain and propagates easily. From two leaves that my friend gave me, I currently have about 12 bottles of Devil's Ivy in about 4 years with a few odd ones given to friends. Once a plant has been growing steadily for a couple of months in a particular bottle, I gently trim off a couple of leaves and put it in another bottle. I try and change the water in the bottles every week, sometimes I miss a week or two. But when I put in leaves in a new bottle, I change the water of that bottle and the original plant from which I have cut the leaves every day for a week or so. I had read somewhere that at this stage they need extra care, and if you think about it makes sense, doesn't it?
One note of caution, when putting the leaves in a new bottle/container, make sure that vessel is squeaky clean, if there is some residue left your plant won't grow, may die as well.

I also have a  few potted ones which I water once in every 10 days or so. The original potted one I bought from a nursery and in a couple of months time it started growing so profusely that I cut a few stems and re-potted them. They take a few weeks to take root and start growing, be patient. Then I almost killed my original plant when I tried to repot it in a fancier, but smaller pot. Even during the exercise I could feel that I am hurting the fragile roots by trying to squish them in a much smaller space. My plant isn't entirely dead but it is still recovering and no way near to it's former glory. This happened six months back, I am still tending to it, hoping that it picks up soon. {Lesson learned, never will I ever try to repot my plants in smaller pots.}

The peace lily plant in our home is our oldest surviving plant. I would say hats off to this resilient little potted plant for having survived me and my various over zealousness in the last few years. The plant does not need to be watered every day. Do check the card that comes with it or ask the shop people. I follow one simple rule, when freshly watered the leaves stand erect and when they haven't been watered for sometime they tend to fall down. Whenever I see the leaves starting to lean down, I water the plant and leave it to drain. 

Bamboo shoots. When I bought them they came wrapped in a soaked sponge. I put them in bottles with water. They are doing fine, grown much taller, but not out of control. I don't like them too tall and one of them {which was kept in the window ledge} have grown a lot of leaves, while the other {kept on the television console} not so much. Now I have cared for the two bottles exactly in the same way, so direct sunlight does make a difference. I have switched positions, let see if the other one picks up. 

A few other easy to care plants are succulents and cacti.  While the thorny cactus may not be to everyone's taste, the succulents are a current rage. Everyone loves them. I have a few of both varieties in my home and I hardly ever water my cacti, while the succulents I water twice a month, no more. Another easy house plant is the aloe vera. Very easy and fuss free but you need to gently pull out the aloe stalks when they become too heavy with sap.

Some of the more difficult plants are rose, orchids, bonsai and delicate ferns.

These are my views and you may have different experience with your plants. Do share your views in the comments below, would love to hear them and learn more.

Some other articles which helped me in this green endeavour

Simple tips for raising indoor plants in the Enjoy It by Elisde B. Cripe.

My next aim is to do a balcony garden, for which this article Urban Gardening Tips for the Apartment Gardener may come in handy. 

And if you dream of an actual patch of garden then my blogger friend Reshma's garden will wow you and her article Garden Style Projects motivate you.

Back to the house plants, Resham gave some expert tips on them in Disha's Design Decor blog article Grow Indoor Plants Like A Pro


  1. Lovely post Suchi . Loved the write up and the images . It's always nice to get other people's opinion too on plants and how to keep them alive. You always learn something new :) Thanks for linking in some of my posts too .

  2. I am happy that my husband takes care of the flowers:)

  3. I am so glad to have found this post. My plants never survive. I'll try to follow the rules and see if I succeed.

  4. wow loved this post...appreciate ur effort and thanks for lettg us know


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