Plant Care Basics
Want to learn how to take better care of your plants? Have a specific question? Read all about plant care basics here!
The most important factor for any plant, any place, anywhere - is light. Light is the plant’s food - they break it down to their food (Photosynthesis). Without adequate light, plants will not thrive, or survive for very long. The average tropical plant needs to be close to a window, or getting at least 6 hours of light per day. Now - light itself is tricky to measure. The sun coming into your windows is cut down by up to 50% by grime on windows, obstructions (curtains or buildings or trees) UV protective coatings on the glass itself, even dust on your plant’s leaves. The farther your plant is from a window, the more light it is losing.
The strongest and longest sun exposure is from the south-facing windows in your home
The weakest and shortest duration for sunlight (with no direct light) is from northern windows. East windows have morning sun, West windows have afternoon sun.
If you don’t have enough light coming from your windows, grow lights are a great option. They don’t have to be expensive purple LEDs - even fluorescent shop lights can provide adequate light (which is why some office buildings have such happy plants!)
Good grow lights for plants should be a few thousand lumens, with the colour being 6400 Kelvin (bright white) Keep the lights pointed at your plants and on a timer if possible so they are getting consistent lighting every day.
How much light do your plants need? It depends on the species -it's best to research each individual plant to make sure you're meeting their needs!
Check out our handy guide:
Direct sun, bright direct, bright light: At least 3 hours of direct sun, 1 - 5 feet from an unobstructed South window, 1 - 2 feet from an unobstructed East or West window. Examples: succulents, cacti
Bright, medium: Several hours of bright light daily, 4 - 9 feet from an unobstructed South window, 1 - 2 feet from a North window, 3 - 5 feet from an East or West window, 6 - 8 feet from a South window. Examples: Monstera, philodendron, most tropicals
Low light, indirect light, dappled shade: No direct sun, keep 10 feet from a South window, but keep within 5 feet of an East or West window, or right beside an unobstructed North window. Examples: Ferns, calatheas, sansevieria
-Rotate your plants so they fill out evenly and don’t tip over! A quarter-turn every day is good.
-If your plants are producing small leaves, or visibly stretching towards the light - they want more. Give them more!
-It’s normal for a newly purchased plant to drop several leaves as it adjusts to its new home, especially larger and older leaves.
-A sign of too much light is scorch-marked or pale, bleached leaves. Always slowly acclimate plants to brighter (or less bright) conditions
-Low light never means zero light - no plant will thrive without light. Get your babies a grow light - they will thank you!
Watering is simple - you don’t need to worry about ‘overwatering’ as long as your plant has the light it needs (so that the roots can take up the water) All plants like a deep watering - even cacti. The difference is the frequency of watering. Some plants cannot tolerate drying out more than 50% - ferns, calatheas, etc; and some plants like to go bone dry, like succulents. Knowing what each specific plant needs is key to success - you can learn by grouping plants of similar needs together, or by using labels.
With good light, warmth, and air circulation, even the most saturated of soils will dry out in no time. When you water a plant, remember to water it thoroughly - don’t tease it with a few spoons at a time - your goal should be to drench it until water runs out of the bottom. Let any excess water drip out, and then put it back into its spot.
You can also ‘bottom water’ by placing a plant in a bowl full of water and let it drink it’s fill. Just remember to flush the plant out occasionally so there isn’t an excess of salt and mineral build up in the soil, especially if you have hard water.
How do you know if your plant’s soil is dry? There a few ways to find out:
-Touch the soil with your fingertips. Is it moist, do bits of soil stick to you?
-Lift the pot. Is it light?
-Look at the soil. Is it dry and cracked? Is it pulling away from the sides of the pot?
-Stick a bamboo skewer, or popsicle stick a few inches deep into the soil for a few minutes, and then remove it. If the wood looks damp, there is some moisture.
There is no need for a ‘schedule’ of watering. Instead, spend a little time getting used to knowing when your plant needs a drink: try to water BEFORE the plant is visibly wilting as this may one day stress the plant beyond return. If a plant is getting less light, especially in our dark winter months, it will need less water.
A few more tips:
-water plants early in the day to ensure they have time to dry out and reduce the chances of mold/mildew/etc
-avoid getting water on the leaves, this can cause bacteria to develop and fungal issues. Similarly, avoid letting water collect in the crown of plants.
-dry and crispy brown leaves are a sign your plant is thirsty
-soft yellowing or mushy brown leaves are a combination of too much water and not enough light
-if the soil seems to repel water and seems very compacted, gently loosen it with a pencil or chopstick, and water until it absorbs properly.
The reason drainage is important is because like people, plants don’t like standing in water for more than a few hours!
Proper drainage has a few factors:
-the quality and quantity of potting mix (soil) your plant is in
-how excess water can escape (a drainage hole or holes in your plant’s pot)
- the material of your planter (terracotta/clay are porous, plastic/glazed ceramic are not)
Gravel or rocks at the bottom of the pot do not help with drainage, this is actually a myth! What ends up happening is the plant’s roots will get tangled with the rocks and be submerged in water - leading to rotting roots anyways.
You CAN keep your plants in containers with no drainage, providing you water very carefully. If you have your heart set on a decorative pot that doesn’t have drainage, you can always:
- Drill a hole into it - use a diamond-tip drill bit and plenty of caution
- Use a plastic nursery pot for the plant and tuck it into the decorative pot. This is especially helpful for very large plants - a plastic pot is much lighter to move and repot.
Generally, most houseplants come from the tropics, deserts, and warm regions of the world. They prefer temperatures of 16°C at the coldest and up to 35°C at the warmest. Always take caution when transporting plants in the colder months; wrap them carefully with layers of paper or plastic. Another thing to be mindful is drafts from windows, frequently opened doors, heat/AC vents, leaving plants in hot cars, and even how many degrees your window sills drop at night.
However, just as frigid temperatures can damage a plant, a hot room with little air circulation can easily cause an unhappy plant, or a spider mite outbreak.
Air circulation, especially after watering, can be enormously helpful. A small oscillating fan or ceiling fan is great, or placing plants at chest level, all increase air circulation.
Misting does not raise humidity for longer than a few minutes, and has the potential to spread bacteria and fungus. A more sustainable way to raise the relative humidity is grouping your plants of varying heights together, or pebble trays: fill a tray with pebbles, and then fill with water halfway - ensure pots placed on top are not drinking the water they may not need. Refill the tray as water evaporates. The most efficient way to humidify your plant’s surroundings is undoubtedly a humidifier: use filtered or distilled water to avoid white dust/mineral deposits with ultrasonic humidifiers, and change your filtered humidifer’s filters monthly as well.
Remember, soil moisture is more important than humidity. Many plant owners assume their ferns and calatheas are suffering with brown tips due to a lack of humidity, when it could be inconsistent watering or minerals in the water instead.
Most houseplants are actually grown in ‘soilless’ potting mixes comprised of peat moss (dark brown, very fine) coco coir (fluffy, lighter brown) perlite (expanded volcanic glass, crumbly white balls) and vermiculite (a mineral that holds moisture) and occasionally other amendments.
Every plant has different needs, but there are some basics. For example, orchids are almost always potted in tree bark or sphagnum moss - they are epiphytes (plants that grow on the sides of trees) and cannot tolerate a lack of air flow to their roots. Cacti and succulents do best in a very well-draining mix, with perhaps ¼ peat and ¾ perlite & rocks like pumice. Tropicals and aroids do well in an ‘airy’ substrate, ¼ perlite, ¼ orchid bark, and ½ peat moss.
All these mixes and materials have different benefits, so it’s best to pot the individual plant on a case-by-case basis, instead of a one-fits-all potting mix. You can start by acquiring a sealed bag of anything labeled 'Houseplant Potting Mix'. (Note: Never use garden soil, compost, topsoil, or anything intended for the outdoors - these mixes are far too heavy, non-sterile, and can cause many issues for tropical plants) Then depending on the specific plant, amend your soil with perlite, fine bark, and vermiculite. ALWAYS wear a mask and dampen the products lightly - the fine, nearly invisible particles are easily inhaled and can cause lung and throat irritation!
When you bring a new plant home, often the first instinct is to repot it. Give your new baby time to adjust to new surroundings, at least 2 weeks - and when you do repot, the new container should only be 1 inch larger than the current pot. So if your plant is in a 4-inch pot (measure with a ruler across the pot at the widest part) you should repot it into a 5-inch pot. Repotting your plant in a pot too big for it may result in shock, root rot, or very slow growth as the plant puts all its energy into growing more roots.
When you do repot, gently remove your plant from its pot, loosen the roots a little, pop it into the new pot, and tuck soil in and around the empty spots on the sides, taking care to tamp down lightly, going for a fluffy consistency. Give the plant a through watering, and put it somewhere bright for a few days while it adjusts.
-If your plant is tightly root bound (roots going round and round, and you can't ease the roots apart) use a sharp knife and carefully make vertical cuts along the root ball, and then ease apart
-Healthy roots are firm, plump, and a cream colour
-Dead or rotting roots are dark brown, mushy or dry, and usually have a foul odour. Cut these away and rinse off the remaining roots before continuing to repot
Fertilizing doesn’t need to be a complex topic. The 3 numbers you see on most plant fertilizer labels stand for N-P-K: nitrogen (helps with leafy green growth), phosphorus (helps with root growth and flowering), and potassium (crucial for general plant health). Most tropicals will be happy with a balanced fertilizer, (20-20-20 or 15-15-15) Flowering plants like orchids usually have custom fertilizers like 10-35-15.
Most houseplant fertilizers are water-soluble and come in powder or crystallized granule form. You mix ratios as instructed , such as 1 tsp to 1 litre of water and water your plants with the mixture after they have been thoroughly watered.
Some tips on fertilizing:
-When you first starting to fertilize your plants, dilute the mixture by half or even a quarter
-Fertilizer is not medicine, it’s more like a protein shake. A stressed plant will only become further stressed if fed fertilizer. Fresh potting mix with slow-release fertilizer is a better idea.
-Fertilize your plants when they are actively growing, which for most is spring, summer and fall.
-Use this chart for troubleshooting nutrient deficiencies, and apply a balanced fertilizer or repot if the plant is still actively growing.
Always avoid using commercial plant shine products - these were originally created to shine foliage and greens in the floristry industry. While it’s tempting to get a plant an extreme high gloss - remember that this isn’t natural and can cause damage to the plant as well as polluting the air in your home, as well as potentially causing sunburn to leaves if they receive any direct light .
A much better and effective way of keeping your plant’s leaves shiny are as follows:
-Avoid misting or splashing water which may leave watermarks, especially if you have hard water,
-Rinse off your plants in a warm shower,
-For small or delicate-leaved plants: Try using a soft paintbrush.
A word of caution: do not attempt brushing or wiping delicate plants like succulents or African violets (or plants with fine fuzz/hairs)- this can damage their leaves beyond repair! Your best bet with such plants is to encourage fresh new growth.
Simple recipe to help polish up those leaves:
Create a mixture of warm water and white vinegar (approx 1 tsp of vinegar to 3 litres water - you don't need a lot!)
-Lightly dampen a sponge or a soft absorbent cloth like a microfibre. Support each leaf with the palm of your hand and gently make circular motions until you reveal your plant’s natural and beautiful shine. Repeat for the underside of the leaves as this is where pests like to congregate. Use this time to enjoy your plant’s beauty, look at, talk to it and listen to it, and don't forget to relax.
Remember - the best hobbies are designed to bring you joy during your spare time!
FAQ & Troubleshooting:
Yellowing leaves? Sad-looking plant? If you’ve eliminated all variables like underwatering, water-logged roots, not enough light, cold drafts, etc - you can try moving your plant somewhere bright and warm out of direct sun for a few days and wait for improvement. If this is a plant that has never given you any trouble, perhaps now is the time to get to know it better and see if there’s anything missing, a fresh pot of soil, fertilizer, or pruning!
Q: What plant is right for me?
A: Choosing the right plant is a fun process! First, understand your conditions - do you have a bright windowsill or sunny room? How much time do you want to spend on your plant - do you want to water daily, or do you want something that can handle your busy schedule? Do you have curious pets? First-time plant parent, or looking for a challenge? Shop our Collections and get ready to "embrace a plant filled life!"
Q: Why does my plant have small leaves/not flowering/no Monstera splits?
A: Probably not enough light! Gradually increase the quantity and quality of light your plant is receiving. When new growth begins, you can start a fertilizing regimen.
Q: Why are some of the leaves on my plant turning yellow?
A: Yellowing leaves are inevitable with living plants as they grow and change. It's completely normal for a plant to lose older leaves. It could be moisture stress (inconsistent/improper watering), a cold draft, not enough light, nutrient deficiency, pests, or disease.
If leaves are small and plant is stretching: increase light.
If leaves are yellow/brown and mushy: Check the roots and soil, help the soil dry out faster by placing the plant in a brighter, warmer location.
If leaves are paper and crispy, it's possibly too dry or too warm.
If new/young leaves are yellowing: Check for pests, overly wet or overly dry soil.
Defined spots/circles on leaves: Potentially bacteria or fungus. Check if soil is soggy, prevent water from getting on leaves (avoid misting) and increase air circulation. Prune off affected leaves with a sharp, sterile blade, and clean with alcohol between cuts.
Or: nutrient deficiencies. Use this chart for troubleshooting, and apply a balanced fertilizer or repot if the plant is still actively growing.
Q: Why are my succulents in rich dark soil that stays wet?
A: Nurseries or greenhouses where plants are grown are extremely hot and bright, leading to fast growth, and all plants are grown in nutrient-dense soil mixes so they can grow as large and healthy as possible before being shipped to stores and garden centres. Remember, the average house or apartment temperature and humidity in Canada is nothing like the searing heat of a greenhouse with 12+ hours of light in California. Ideal to amend your potting mix as needed.
Q: Why are my succulents getting really tall and spindly-looking?
A: Succulents and cacti come from sunny deserts - they need lots and lots of sun and direct, bright light. If your succulent begin to stretch, they are undergoing etiolation(stretching due to lack of sufficient light), move them to a brighter spot or propagate them!
Q: Can I put succulents in a terrarium?
A: No. A terrarium is a sealed ecosystem, and succulents, cacti, and air plants need lots of warmth and air circulation. They also do not appreciate the humidity and will eventually or quickly rot. Join one of our Tropical Terrarium Workshops instead, or check out some of our charming Succulent Planters!
Q: There are mushrooms growing in my plant's pot. Should I be worried?
A: Not at all! Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi (mychorrhizae) which feed off of decomposing organic matter. Most household mushrooms are harmless, but will continue to spread spores, so you can remove them. A light dusting of cinnamon will usually prevent further mushrooms, as will better air circulation, and letting the soil dry out a bit more between waterings.