A Non-Expert's Guide to Keeping Houseplants Alive (and enjoying it, too!)

Like most things in life, if you put time and effort into it, add a little bit of perseverance and patience...chances are you’ll produce something that results in “growing fruit”. Whether that be a physical, spiritual, or mental growth, the key is that whatever you put into’ll reap the benefits of.

I remember my first house plant well...let’s just say it did NOT thrive ! It was the month after we bought our house. The space in our living room next to our then lime green piano looked empty. What better way to fill it than to get a nice big green plant! So off to the greenhouse I went, in search of some pretty plant to fill my empty space. I chose a massive corn plant-- but did I have the slightest idea how to take care of it? Not a clue.

I’m guessing that many first time plant growers are in the same boat, right? You can’t just pick out a pretty plant and place it in an empty spot in your house and let mother nature take care of it-- as I've learned.

Houseplants can be relatively easy to grow, but do require some TLC and dedication. Which is why I’m sharing how I turned my very black thumb into something that I’d consider a “greenish thumb” and allowed my green plant babies to not only grow, but thrive too!

I’m certainly no expert and have a lot to learn (I do still kill plants each year!), but growing them and watching them mature has become one of my favorite hobbies. I love learning about each plant I bring home, giving them care, and watching them grow. Some quicker and easier than others!

They're not only a pretty decoration in my house, but also an air purifier, a mood-booster, a brightener of indoor spaces, and a reminder of the beauty that God placed on our earth for us to enjoy. But like I said, they require some work. I’ve learned a lot over the past several years about how to take care of them and have come up with 6 steps from start to finish on how to turn any black thumb into a “greenish thumb”.

African violet

Step 1: Finding Good Spots for your Plants

As a natural light photographer, I’m always looking for good natural light. I’ll take a brilliantly sunny day over a cloudy day 100% of the time! Plants are no different. They need sunlight to survive. One of the biggest mistakes I made early on in my plant growing journey was choosing an empty spot in my house or on a shelf that looked like it needed something. Even the best low-light plants require sunlight, so this is essential. I aim to place all of my plants within several feet of a decent light source. The majority of my plants are in our playroom/sunroom, where we have both east facing and west facing windows, which provides bright but indirect light most of the day.

My go-to spots are on windowsills, a dresser near a window, in a hanging planter beside a window, side tables close by a window, or if it’s a larger plant I love to place them on the floor near a window. See the commonality here? Plants need to be near windows!

Step 2: Choosing the Right Plants to Fit your Space

After you’ve located some well-lit locations to place your plants, it’s time to decide what plants will do well in that space. Plants range in the amount of light they require, so be sure to pay close attention to the labels and signs in the greenhouse that tell what type of light each plant likes. This will make or break the success of the plant! Finding a knowledgeable greenhouse is the best place to search for plants, since they are trained to take the care of plants. I always ask questions each time I visit, and it’s where I get a large amount of my tips for success! If you’re in the Lancaster area, my favorites are Esbenshades, the greenhouse at Longenecker’s Hardware, and Stauffers of Kissel Hill.

My favorite low-light plants (placed about 5 feet away from a window)

  • pothos (grows in any type of light!)

  • snake plant

  • philodendron

neon pothos
snake plant

My favorite medium or brighter-light plants (plants that receive about 8 hours of sunlight a day)

  • jade plant

  • hoya (comes in really pretty varieties)

  • rubber plant (the #1 air purifying plant!)

  • baby tears

  • nephthytis

  • Christmas cactus

  • aloe

  • fiddle-leaf fig (a good amount of sunlight is essential for this one)

jade plant
exotic hoya
rubber plant (aka ruby ficus)
Christmas cactus

Step 3: Bringing your Plant Home-- How to Choose the Right Pot and Set it up for Success

Now that you’ve found the perfect plant(s), it’s time to get them acclimated to their new home! A pot with drainage holes is always recommended, especially for succulents. Many plants don’t like their roots to be sitting in soggy soil, which is why a drainage hole is best. If you have a hanging planter that doesn’t have a drainage hole, you can fill the bottom few inches of the pot with small rocks. I recommend using ⅝ inch river rock, which can be found at most greenhouses. The size of the pot is also important-- try to find a pot that is about the same size as the pot you bought it in from the nursery (or just a bit bigger). Roots like to be contained and snug without too much soil around to make the soil too wet.

When repotting your plant, I also recommend using a soil that has nutrients in it. There are many different brands, but make sure it’s a potting soil rather than just dirt from your backyard. After your plant is potted, give it a good drink of water and it should be ready for it’s new spot in your home!

Step 4: Figuring out a Weekly Watering Schedule

Looking back on my first few plants that I had years ago, one of the biggest reasons why they didn’t thrive was because I had a very inconsistent watering schedule. I watered them occasionally and thought they would be fine.

Since then, I’ve developed a weekly watering schedule that fits about 75% of my plants. There’s truly not a one-size-fits-all approach to watering plants, so this goes back to the point of knowing what your plants need! Saturday is my plant watering day. I water all of my plants except for a few succulents, my cactus, and snake plant (these plants like to be watered less frequently). If you’re not sure if your plant needs to be watered, stick your finger in the soil about 1-2 inches. If the soil seems dry, it's time to water it. Too much water is the #1 reason why houseplants die!

Each plant variety requires a different amount of water and care, but a good rule of thumb to follow is to water it until you see water begin to trickle out into the saucer. You’ll quickly learn which plants can take more or less water each week and which ones can wait to be watered less often.

Step 5: How to Make your Plants Survive AND Thrive!

Keeping your plants healthy and growing is obviously the main goal, right?! When my plants get new leaves or flowers, it’s a sure sign of success! It’s a visible reminder that they are happy and that my care for them is good. In addition to my weekly watering schedule, I also fertilize and prune them as well as clean their leaves and aerate the soil. I do these extra steps about once a month by gathering my plants onto my kitchen table so they're all in one spot and the mess I make from cleaning them up is contained.

Fertilizing- Most plant fertilizers consist of Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (a N-P-K ratio). Certain plants like higher levels of each of these, but I’ve found that instead of having many different fertilizers, I stick with a basic All-Purpose Plant Fertilizer. Plants don’t need to be fertilized in the winter months since the amount of sunlight doesn’t make them grow as much. Read the back of your specific fertilizer to find out how often to fertilize. The one I use recommends every 7-14 days, so I aim to feed them about every 2 weeks.

Pruning- After I fertilize, I prune the plant by picking off any dried up or yellow leaves. This gives new, healthier leaves room to grow.

Cleaning- Since many indoor houseplants come from tropical locations, they prefer humid air. To help with this, I mist most of my plants with a spray bottle about once a month. This helps to clean any dust that accumulates on the leaves as well as give them an extra boost of moisture. For plants that have larger leaves and aren't as delicate, after I mist them I wipe their leaves with a clean microfiber cloth to get the dust off. This makes a big difference with how vibrant and shiny the leaves look!

Aerate the Soil- The last way I put some extra care into my plants’ growth is by aerating the soil. Oftentimes you’ll notice that the soil becomes clumpy. To help with this, I take a spoon and sift through the top inch of soil, breaking up clumps and making it look more healthy. The also helps the soil to drain more quickly and not get so soggy.

Step 6: When your Plant is Too Big for It’s Pot...Repot, Divide or Propagate

After lots of TLC and dedication to your plants, if you’ve succeeded in caring for them correctly you’ll see the fruits of your labor...aka growth! Most indoor plants are more slow-growing and repotting isn’t necessary for several years. However, if a plant looks like it’s height is much bigger than the pot itself, it’s probably time to find a bigger pot. Most plants like to be more snug in their pot, so it isn’t necessary to get a substantially larger pot than the previous one. If your plant is still pushing out loads of new leaves at a healthy pace, let it alone.

When you repot your plant, make sure to use good repotting soil (with nutrients) and give it a substantial watering afterwards. Expect 2-4 weeks of a transition time before your plant acclimates to it’s new pot.

Propagation- Something so amazing about lots of plants is how they propagate (or multiple) by snipping healthy leaf cuttings and placing them in soil. You have yourself a brand new plant from the growth of your original plant!

In my experience, pothos and philodendron plants are 2 of the easiest plants to propagate by using small leaf cuttings. You want to establish some healthy roots first, so after you snip your cuttings, just place the stem in water and wait for roots to grow (typically about a month or until you have an inch of new roots).

Succulents are great plants to propagate. The easiest way is by sticking the leaf itself straight back into the soil. I’ve done this with a few of mine and had success.

Root Dividing- Over time, some plants grow large enough that the best way to keep it healthy is by dividing part of it to start a new plant. I’ve done this recently with my philodendron and now both plants are looking great. It’s best to take the whole plant out of the pot, cut off a section of the plant and its roots, then repot both plants in fresh soil.

Common Houseplant Q & A:

Why are my plant’s leaves turning brown and falling off?

There are several different reasons for this, but almost 100% of the time it’s because it’s getting too much water. Make sure your soil has dried out between each watering.

How can I tell if my plant is healthy, happy and sufficiently watered?

You want to look for plump leaves that stand upright and are not droopy.

Why are my plant’s leaves turning yellow?

When leaves turn yellow, it’s most often a sign of over watering.

Why is my trailing plant looking long, spindley, and is reaching towards the light source?

When there’s a large gap between leaves on a trailing plant and the leaves are turned towards the light source, the plant is probably not getting enough light.

Why are my plant’s leaves wilting?

If your plant looks limp and wilted, it probably needs more water. Some plants will perk right back up after this.

Why are the tips of my plant turning brown?

If just the tips of the plant’s leaves are turning brown, it’s a good sign that the plant needs more water.

Why is my flowering plant (such as an African violet or Christmas cactus) not getting flowers?

If you have a plant that typically flowers but is not, it’s probably not receiving enough sunlight to produce flowers.

Why does my plant have some brown spots on it’s leaves?

This could be a few different things, but most likely it’s a plant fungus that is due to poor air circulation and over watering. Try removing the spotted leaf, watering just the soil and not the foliage, and making sure the plant has enough space to “breath” (aka isn’t too close to another plant or something else).

What are some of the easiest houseplants to start out with?

Some of the houseplants that I’ve had the most success with are pothos, philodendron, rubber plant and nephthytis. All of these come in tons of varieties! I've been told that ZZ plants are extremely easy too, although I don't own one of those yet.

Will singing or playing music help my plant grow?

I’ve always wondered about this and the answer is YES! It’s been shown in studies that the sound waves from music result in vibrations that stimulate growth in plants. I don’t usually do this but may have to start! Bonus tip, the study linked above also found that female voices actually increase growth of plants more than male voices!

Thanks for reading and good luck with your plant adventures! If you have any questions or need help picking out your own little green plant babies, feel free to email me at or message me on instagram @molliedonghiaphoto.

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© 2020 by Mollie Donghia Photography