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How To Keep Houseplants Alive

This new series looking at indoor foliage kicks off with how to care for some of the most popular houseplants around

Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More

The health benefits of houseplants are well documented, so it’s great that the trend for growing indoor plants continues. But how do we keep these evergreen jewels alive and looking good all year round? Here’s the first in a series of short guides on how to look after some familiar indoor specimens.

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When and how to water your houseplants
Unfortunately, there’s no rule about how often you need to water a houseplant: it will depend on the type of plant, its size and the time of year. Remember, all plants need to rest in the winter months, so will need less watering. When you do water, make sure you don’t water the leaves of the plant, as this can cause damage. It’s better to water around the stem into the compost, making sure any excess water drains through properly.

The best watering can to use for houseplants is one with a long spout that you can direct right into the compost. Never leave the plants standing in water for any length of time.

Overwatering will lead to leaf drop, brown patches, mould and root rot. With under-watering, you may see the edges of the leaves turn dry and brown, the plant will look as if it’s wilting and the leaves may become translucent or turn yellow.

Styling tips for accessorising with plants at home

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Swiss cheese plant
Monstera deliciosa, which is also known as the Swiss cheese plant due to the large holes in its glossy dark green leaves, has a real retro feel to it. The nature of the plant is to trail or climb high – as it does in the rainforest – and it will produce aerial roots at the base. It’s best to provide the plant with a moss-covered stake in the pot and push the roots back down into the compost.

As monstera can be quite big when mature, you’ll need to give it enough space to grow, and position perhaps in a large room or hallway. It needs moderate light but not direct sun, temperatures of around 18 to 26ºC (65 to 80ºF) and high humidity to grow well. Make sure you always allow the compost to dry out completely before you water again and use a liquid fertiliser once a month.

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Cacti and succulents
Cacti and succulents have the ability to store water in their leaves or stems and prefer bright, sunny spots. Make sure the compost is free-draining to prevent water-logging. You can add grit to the compost for cacti and succulents if you feel the plant would benefit; it’s worth doing, especially if you’re repotting. You can also buy a specially formulated cacti compost in most garden centres. For succulents, adding sand to the mix will help with drainage.

Water between April and September and less in the winter months. Always allow the compost to dry out between waterings. Problems with cacti and succulents mostly occur around watering. Overwatering will cause the plants to rot and go limp. If possible, use rainwater rather than tap water, as tap water contains many minerals and salts, which may affect vitality and growth.

Overwatering succulents will make the leaves swell, causing oedema and leaf-drop. Because a closed terrarium can get very moist, succulents are not suited to being grown in these. Conversely, if you under-water the plants, they will become misshapen and scarred.

Lack of light for both cacti and succulents will also produce weak and misshapen specimens and cold damage produces patches on the surface. On cactus, corky scab is a common problem. This condition occurs when growing conditions are too humid or too bright. The result is brown buff patches on the skin of the plant, which shrink to form a scab. If you provide a gradual reduction in humidity and light, this might prevent further scabs, but abrupt changes can make the problem worse.

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Pilea are happy in a bright spot with light shade. They need to be watered twice a week and are happy with a small amount of moisture, but do not like being too wet, otherwise the stems and roots will rot. These plants need high humidity and good air circulation and are happy to have their long stems trimmed back if you find they’ve become too overgrown.

Pilea are good plants to use in a terrarium or to place on a high shelf, where you can enjoy their cascading nature.

Pilea depressa, also known as baby tears, resembles a leafy moss with cascading small, round leaves and is a popular trailing houseplant, as it’s easy to look after.

A larger leaf variety, Pilea peperomioides or the Chinese money plant (pictured here), has glossy, fleshy leaves and is equally low-maintenance. It’s often seen in Scandinavian interiors.

The best position for this Pilea is in bright light but not direct sun; rotate the plant once a week to prevent it getting lopsided. Water once a week in the growing season, let the plant dry out between waterings, and make sure the pot has drainage holes. As the large leaves accumulate dust, you can gently wipe it away or give the whole plant a light shower.

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Weeping fig
Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig, has been a very popular indoor plant for many years, as it’s known for improving air quality. Weeping figs like bright but partially shaded light and a room temperature of 10 to 12ºC (50 to 54ºF) with medium to high humidity. Ficus do not respond well to being moved or being in a draught, and as such may go into shock and start to drop their leaves.

When watering, only do so when the top few inches of compost are dry, and mist the leaves in the summer months. Use a high nitrogen liquid fertiliser once a month between April and September, but don’t add any between October and March.

You can remove the dead leaves in late summer, but, as the plant isn’t happy being moved, try not to turn it too much. Both over- and under-watering can cause leaf drop on ficus, and it’s best to make sure after watering that you let the water drain through to the bottom of the plant pot and remove any excess.

Many people place their ficus pot on a tray of expanded clay granules. If you do, make sure you keep them moist just below the surface to help the humidity, but don’t have them swimming in water.

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Palms are architectural and look good in their own right as a standalone specimen in a room. The Kentia palm, Howea forsteriana, is the sort you might associate with the palm court tea rooms or lobbies of grand old hotels, where its used partly for its unsurpassed ability to tolerate shady conditions and dry air.

It’s safe for children and pets and is slow-growing. However, the individual feathery fronds or leaves can grow up to a foot long, so make sure the plant has plenty of space as it matures.

An ideal room temperature would be around 13 to 18ºC (55 to 65ºF). Kentia palms respond well to having their leaves misted once in a while and prefer a compost with good drainage. Always allow the plant to dry out between waterings. Water in the growing season, but very little in the winter months.

If you need to repot your palm at any point, use an ericaceous compost. Add a liquid palm feed monthly in the growing season if you feel the plant would benefit from it.

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Spider plant
Back in fashion, this 1960s favourite was often seen hanging in macramé baskets, its grass-like leaves arching over the top.

The spider plant, also known as Chlorophytum comosum, has a reputation for being impossible to kill. However, overwatering may well lead to the plant dying and also to root rot, so make sure it’s in a pot with drainage holes and let the soil dry out between waterings.

Spider plants thrive in lots of indirect light, between 13 and 26ºC (55 and 80ºF), and enjoy high humidity – making bathrooms and sunny windows good spots for them.

They enjoy being pot-bound and this will encourage the production of tiny baby plants. But if the roots are spilling out of the pot, you can either repot the whole plant or divide it by cutting it down the middle with a sharp knife into halves, thirds or even quarters. Just pot up the smaller pieces and they will start to grow immediately.

People often worry about the brown tips on the ends of the leaves, and they can look unsightly. This browning can be due to overwatering, but also to fluoride in tap water, which causes a salt build-up in the compost. A good idea is to flush the soil with distilled water to wash out any excess salts or fertiliser if the tip burn is excessive; otherwise, simply remove the leaves you don’t like.

Still dubious about keeping your plants alive? Browse artificial foliage in the Houzz Shop

Which plants do you have growing indoors? Share your photos and green-fingered tips in the Comments section.

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