Plants can add so much personality to a room, but it’s not always easy to keep them alive. That’s why horticulturist Jon Peter, curator and manager of plant records at the Royal Botanical Gardens, stopped by The Goods to show off his favourite plants you can’t kill (unless you really try, you monster).
Some people seem to be born with a green thumb, but others may be in need of a little help. Not to worry! Jon says that it all starts with keeping light and sun exposure in mind. The first step is to get out a compass – there’s likely one on your phone – and point it out a window you want to put plants in to determine which direction the window faces. This will give you a good idea of the amount of light this spot in your house receives throughout the day. Access to air for the root system is just as important as water to the plant’s overall wellbeing.
Here are some of Jon’s plant recommendations based on the type of light exposure your windows get:
Northern facing windows usually get low light. Jon’s two suggestions for a north exposure window are the Snake Plant, also known jokingly as “Mother-in-Law’s Tongue” (left) and the Pothos Plant (right). Let’s learn more about them.
Snake Plant – Sanseiveria trifasciata
This plant is easy to care for – it hates pampering and generally wants to be left alone. However, the more light you give it the more variation in colour it will get in its leaves. You should let the soil dry out completely before watering and you can tell if the soil is completely dry by picking up the plant and get to know its weight. Then, put it back down and water it until some comes out of the bottom of the pot and lift again. Get to know the difference between these weights and that will be a great indication of how wet the soil is.
Pothos Plant – Epipremnum aureum
This plant is on NASA`s list of top 10 plants to purify your indoor air. Many plants do this, but the Pothos Plant is one of the best. Water it when it starts sulking. In tropical habitats it can grow giant leaves as it vines its way up trees, so you can train it to grow up a trellis or let it hang from a hanging basket. But it can be toxic to people and pets, so be careful if you have kids or a dog that eats anything in sight.
Jon’s two suggestions for a south exposure window are Succulents (left) and the Bamboo Palm (right).
Succulents need at least six hours of sunlight a day so they’re perfect for south facing windows, as they receive a lot of light. Don’t water your succulents daily or even weekly. Instead, let roots dry out completely before watering them again. Jon suggests that you use a cactus and succulent soil mix for the perfect environment for your new green friends. Add a few rocks on top to further help drainage and add a little decoration. The best pots to plant a succulent in are free draining (with drainage holes) and made of terra cotta because the moisture wicks through the terra cotta, helping with drainage.
Bamboo Palm – Chamaedorea
You can buy these plants just about anywhere – the hardware store, decor store, or garden center but they can be a little tricky. Bamboo Palms love bright light, but they prefer it to be indirect or filtered. Direct light could actually burn or scorch this plant’s leaves.
If the leaves start to go brown from the bottom up you might need a little bit of fertilizer. Use half-diluted fertilizer during the active growth of the plant every few months and that should keep it happy. Use a palm or tropical plant potting mix for best results, and be sure to protect it from cool drafts or A/C vents.
Jon’s two suggestions for an east exposure window are the Fiddle-leaf Fig (left) and the Heartleaf Philodendron (right).
Fiddle-leaf Fig – Ficus lyrata
This plant likes three to four hours of filtered sunlight a day, and eastern facing windows provide weaker morning light which fits the bill. They can grow quickly with the right type of care. Jon says to keep it evenly moist but not consistently wet. You’ll want to water it before the leaves look limp and floppy as this means it has dried out. Be sure to slow down on watering in winter and if it starts losing leaves, it needs more sun, has been exposed to cold drafts or incorrectly watered. The Fiddle-leaf Fig might need a little fertilizer during active growth but otherwise this is a tough one to kill. This plant is a super popular choice in the design world right now because it adds a dramatic, bold flair to any room.
Heartleaf Philodendron – Philodendron scandens
This is the workhorse of the indoor plant world! All you have to do is keep soil evenly moist in moderate but indirect light and it will thrive. It’s perfect for hanging baskets. Be sure to pinch the tips back (cut a few of them with shears) or it will grow long and slender stems that may become lanky. Pinching will also help it to branch out propagate new plants with the pieces you cut off. You can put the pinched part in water and it will grow new roots if you want more Heartleaf Philodendron in your life.
Jon’s two suggestions for a west exposure window – that means one that receives lots of evening light – are the Jade Plant (left) and the ZZ Plant (right).
Jade Plant – Crassula ovata
Jade has succulent leaves and stems that are mostly water and will freeze and turn brown or black if it’s too cold next to a window in the winter. Plant it in a well draining cactus soil mix, and pinch back any lanky stems to promote dense growth. Only water your Jade Plant when it starts showing signs of needing it (if leaves feel limp) and cut back on water in the winter. This is a great plant if you’re going on a long vacation because it needs to be watered so infrequently.
ZZ Plant – Zamioculcas zamiifolia
This is one of the lowest maintenance plants ever. It is virtually indestructible with the thick water holding stems and underground storage rhizomes. Jon only waters his two or three times a year. It’s waxy leaves keep in moisture, and storage rhizomes in the roots also hold a ton of dampness. If your ZZ turns yellow it means it’s getting too much water and its underground rhizomes may be rotting. Resist the urge to over-water! And exercise a little caution, because ZZ plants are toxic to dogs and cats.
No light or low light
Jon’s two suggestions for low or no light environments are the Dracaena (right) and the Peace Lily (left). These are good for a garage, basement, or apartment in a really dense area.
Dracaena/Corn Plant – Dracaena fragrans
Water when the top couple inches of soil dry out, but it will forgive the occasional missed watering and is easy to kill by overwatering. It’s good for condo living because it’s a slow grower so can remain compact for long time. It can be pruned back if it grows too tall, but usually it grows straight up and doesn’t take up a lot of room in your apartment. Brown leaf edges can be a symptom of low humidity, dry soil or too much direct light. But Dracaena Plants are also toxic to dogs, cats and humans so be careful where you place them in your home.
Peace Lily – Spathiphyllum
The Peace Lily requires very minimal light and it’s one of the few houseplants you can get to produce flowers. Steven even keeps one in in his windowless dressing room and it does just fine. It’s a resilient and forgiving plant that will let you know when it needs water as the leaves will start to droop. It also is great for purifying the air, and it’s also on NASA’s top ten list. But be careful of its placement in your home – it can also be toxic to people and pets. Keep it out of direct sunlight because can also get sun scorched if placed in direct sun.
All of these indoor plants require very little care – but there are a few things you can do to keep them healthy. Increase light levels on the plants by dusting the leaves, allowing them to better photosynthesize. Occasionally rotate your plants so they can receive light on all sides. And, be sure to replenish the pot with new soil every now and then to keep it full of nutrients. Use a bigger pot if your plant has a major growth spurt. Follow these few tips, and you’re well on your way to being a great plant parent!