Stayin’ Alive

by Rhiannon James

Light is one of the most important factors when it comes to keeping houseplants healthy - photo by Flowers & Plants Association

Ask a lot of people about their houseplants and the first thing they’ll tell you about is the ones they’ve killed. It’s only after a full confession of their guilty secrets that they rally enough to talk about the ones that are happily flourishing. We seem to have developed a crisis of confidence about looking after indoor plants, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Keeping houseplants happy isn’t that difficult, as long as you do a few simple things.

Find a good match

One of the most important things you can do for your houseplant requires no hard labour at all.  As Paul Thomas, Director at House of Plants, a specialist indoor plant retailer says, “It’s just about choosing the right plant for the right place.” And the most important things to think about are light and temperature. “You can put a Kentia palm in a shady place and it’ll thrive on neglect, but if you put it in bright sunlight it’ll die,” he says.

Don’t just think about how sunny the room as a whole is, but also how close the spot you’ve picked is to the window, as light intensity falls surprisingly quickly as you move further away.  For example, many flowering houseplants enjoy a bright spot but out of the full glare of the sun, meaning that they will need to be about two to four feet away from a sunny window. Any further than this and you’ll need to think about foliage plants and if the spot is more than about five feet away from a sunny window with limited natural light, look at plants which can tolerate shade such as Philodendrons, Prayer Plants (Maranta leuconeura) and Aspidistras.

If you want to check light levels in different parts of your room, then you could invest in a light meter. For example, Greenfingers sell the Nortene plant light and moisture meter which is suitable for indoors (

When it comes to room temperature, as long as you don’t like your house on the very hot side then most plants should be fine. But as Ian Drummond, Creative Director at Indoor Garden Design says, “Most tropical plants don’t like a sudden drop in temperature.” So, be careful about putting plants next to drafty windows, doors, ovens and anything else that will create big fluctuations in the air temperature. If at all practical, it’s also good to avoid a big drop in temperature at night which can happen if you crank your central heating up in the winter but turn it off at night.

If you’re buying your plants in a garden centre or online, then check the label or ask for advice. However, if you’re investing in some large specimen plants and you want to make absolutely sure they’re in the right place, there are companies who will send someone to position your plants for you. For example, Inner Green, who run a home delivery service for plants in South West London, will carry out a free “plant positioning survey” when they arrive if requested (

Hold back the flood

Most people have a tendency to go a bit wild with the watering can when it comes to houseplants. As Mr Thomas says, “Most plants still die through overwatering – it’s love that kills them”. If your plant is wilting, it’s not necessarily too dry, compost which is too wet will have the same effect.

So unless your plant likes permanently wet conditions, check the compost before you water. The best way to test is to stick the tip of your finger in. If the compost feels damp and sticks to your finger, then you’re safe to wait for a little while longer. Also, don’t let your plants stand in saucers or pots of water for prolonged periods as this too will over saturate the compost and damage the plant.

If this all sounds infuriatingly imprecise, then you could eliminate some of the guesswork by using a self-watering pot. Most of these planters have an indicator which tells you when it is time to top up their reservoir of water – try Lechuza planters ( or Elho pots (

Tap water is fine for most houseplants but if you’re in a hard water area – then it’s best to boil the water first or use a water filter. You can easily check your water hardness online – on Thames Water’s website, for example, you can access the water quality report for your area by typing in your postcode.

Let off some steam

Many houseplants like a good bit of moisture in the air which can be an issue in our centrally-heated homes. To deal with this, a friend takes his orchids into the bathroom with him when he has a shower. If you don’t fancy lugging your plants around the house however, then there are other options. “Buy a plant mister” is Mr Thomas’ advice. Or you could make a pebble tray. To do this, fill up a tray with gravel, pour some water in and sit your pot on top – just make sure that the bottom of the pot is not in contact with the water. Then all you need to do is remember to top up the tray. Gravel is not the prettiest so you could replace this with something more decorative – try Adorn glass nuggets or decorative pebbles (from or raid the toy shop for some marbles.

If this all sounds like too much hassle, then there are plants which can tolerate dry environments such as Beaucarnea recurvata.

Don’t let it go hungry

The nutrients in fresh compost will only last a couple of months and after that, you’ll need to remember to feed your plants. You can do this as you water, as liquid houseplant feed is the most effective option. Follow the instructions on the bottle and try not to fertilise the plant when the compost is very dry or waterlogged.

Give it a rest

Winter is the time to sit back and relax. Unless your plant flowers then, it will need to take a rest which means much less watering and feeding. It might also need to move to a cooler place for this period if possible. Once new growth starts to appear, this is the cue to gradually resume normal service.

Do some background research

If you want to understand a bit more about your plant – find out where it’s from. This will give you a much richer idea of the best conditions for your plant because the more closely you replicate its home in the tropical rainforest, semi-desert or wherever, the better it’ll do once it’s installed in your living room.

If you’re still thinking all this sounds like too much effort, then there are some plants which can carry on even if they’re neglected. Try Sansevierias, Spider Plants or Aspidistras.


House of Plants –

Indoor Garden Design –

Leave a Reply