Plant Care 101: The Basics
It’s kind of hard to give a super basic guide to plant care because plants are super diverse and have varying care requirements BUT there are some things that every plant needs and that you can apply pretty broadly to caring for plants. This is going to be focused on container plants and houseplants more than plants in the ground/garden because that’s a whole other can of worms, but yeah, anyway, here’s some quick tips for beginner plant ownership.
1. LIGHTING - Think about where you’re actually going to put your plants
… before you get them (ideally). All plants need light. No plant will live in a windowless bathroom or basement (I mean unless you have grow lights BUT that’s another story). Very few plants will survive in a dark, dim corner.
Figure out which direction your house faces! Different plants do best in different light exposures. Afternoon sun (west) is hotter than morning sun (east) and can dehydrate plants faster or cause sunburn. Southern exposures get the most direct sun, and northern exposures get mostly indirect sun or no sun. And obstacles like trees or awnings will potentially block light as well.
Full sun is considered 6+ hours of direct sun, part sun is 2-4 hours of direct sun, and shade is less than two hours of direct sun. Keep in mind the sun intensity will vary depending on your location and the time of year.
A lot of houseplants prefer “bright, indirect light”. In a window that gets hot, direct sunlight like a south or west window, this could mean putting up a sheer curtain or keeping the plants farther away from the window. East windows generally get bright indirect light all year and north windows may not be bright enough for most except the lowest light plants.
Get plants to suit your space! Do some research! If you have trouble identifying the plants that you already have, try google image searching using various details about it. Sometimes that works.
2. POTS AND SOIL - Think about your plant’s house
Your plant’s house is its pot. When you bring it home from the store or nursery, it’s a good idea to replant it. The soil that’s best for keeping the plant alive in the store is usually different than the soil that’s best for it in your house. Especially if you’re getting your plants from stores like Home Depot, Lowes, Wal-mart, etc (it’s gross). Taking a look at a plant’s roots is important! A lot can hide under the surface of the soil…
I can’t really recommend a specific soil brand because everything varies regionally and every plant is going to have different soil needs, so really this is just trial and error. Try out different soils! Experiment with perlite which will make your soil looser and drain better. For succulents, I use a mix of topsoil (not potting soil), sand, and perlite.
You generally want your generic potting soil to A) absorb some moisture but B) drain well. Which may seem contradictory, but it isn’t, I promise.
As for your pot….. DRAINAGE HOLES ARE A MUST. If your pot doesn’t drain, you can put your plant in a plastic insert and remove that to water it, you can attempt to add your own drainage holes, or you can doom your plant to slow and inevitable death. If your pot does have drainage holes, test it first to see if it actually drains.
Increase the size of your plant’s pot only a few inches at a time. Tiny plants in giant pots aren’t ideal, mainly because the soil dries down inconsistently. The soil around the edges may be dry but soil at the roots may still be wet. Also, don’t plant your plants too low! The soil should stop about an inch or so below the top of the pot. Planting too low can cause issues with air circulation to the stem/soil which can cause rot issues. (tbh I’ll probably make a specific post about repotting plants because there are a lot of things to know and a lot of tips and tricks)
As for the type of pot, that’s up to you. Plain terracotta pots are helpful for plants that like to dry down between waterings because they wick moisture from the soil… not as ideal for plants that love lots of water. Also, there’s no shame in plain, plastic pots. None.
3. WATERING - please don’t drown your thirsty boys
This one’s the hardest to do an overview of because different plants and even the same plants in different locations have vastly different watering needs.
Plants (usually) only take up water when the photosynthesize. Less light = less photosynthesizing = less water taken up. Cloudy day? Less water taken up. In the greenhouse, we generally don’t water on cloudy days because the plants don’t take up as much water and because water sitting on the leaves/soil doesn’t evaporate as quickly potentially leading to rot issues.
You can usually visually tell if the soil is dry. To be more sure that the soil is really dry, poke your finger in about an inch. To be more, more sure, you can wiggle a wooden chopstick in the soil and if it comes out dry, the soil is dry. Some plants prefer to dry down almost completely before watering again, some prefer about 30-50%, some like to stay moist but not drowning.
If your plant appears to be wilting, check the soil. If it’s wet, it may be overwatered or sick. Don’t water for a bit and check the stem/roots for rot. If it’s dry, it’s likely underwatered. Very dry soil can take a few repeat waterings to actually absorb moisture again.
It is better to water deeply infrequently than to water in small amounts more frequently. Your goal when watering is to dump in enough water that it flows vigorously out of the drainage holes. When I first started watering plants I thought it was way too much but seriously, dump that water in there. No trickles allowed.
4. PLANT ISSUES - wtf is wrong with my plant
You’re going to run into plant issues when keeping plants, that’s just how it is. Diseases, bugs, rot, etc.
There are WAY too many issues to get into in a basic post like this, but in general…. pay attention to your plant! Look at the undersides of the leaves and leaf tips and the stem. Take lots of pictures! Touch your plant and the soil! Keep an eye out for changes.
If your plant does develop what you think is an issue, google is your friend. I’ve googled so much of the stuff I know about plants, even when I’m working with very experienced growers. Google is good. Don’t rely solely on one source of info.
And if your plant unfortunately kicks the bucket? No, you don’t have a black thumb. There is no such thing. That’s especially a time to google the shit out of that plant and re-evaluate your growing conditions. I’ve killed LOADS of plants and that was usually because I put a plant in a less than ideal location and then didn’t give it the right care. Or because of bad luck.
There is NO SUCH THING as a black thumb.
I think that’s about it really for the basics. There’s also stuff like pH and humidity and temperature, etc etc to consider but that’s way too much to get into in just one post. Hopefully this makes some kind of sense and isn’t just a wall of text? And is helpful? If you have any other questions, feel free to message me if you’d like. Or add onto this post with other tips if you have them.