Many of us would love to add more greenery to our homes, but have this idea that we’ll kill any plants that we do take in. Darryl Cheng has come to the rescue of trepidatious would-be plant people with his book The New Plant Parent, which is packed with tips that will help anyone be an excellent plant parent.
Cheng is also the creator of House Plant Journal — you can follow him on Instagram at @houseplantjournal — and an engineer by training. And in part because of this background, he takes a different approach to plant care. His philosophy? In order to have long-lasting and rewarding relationships with plants you have to:
1. Understand the environmental conditions in your space and how they relate to the biology of your plants.
2. Try your best to meet your plant’s needs in relation to those conditions.
3. Let nature takes its course, which means letting go of the idea of what a plant should look like, and embracing how it grows and changes, no matter how quirky it looks.
“We should see the reward of plants as actually having the best of both worlds — it is both a pleasure to look at the plant, but it is also something that can grow with you and you can feel a sense of relationship with,” he explains. “I think of my indoor space as an indoor garden, not as a place decorated with plants.” says Cheng.
If you’re curious how to put these ideas into practice, read on for some helpful advice from Cheng.
How to help your plants thrive
According to Cheng, the biggest consideration when taking care of a plant is the light it gets, as this is an essential ingredient for plant growth, alongside water and carbon dioxide (remember photosynthesis from biology class?). Without the right amount of light, your plant will suffer, and be more susceptible to pests and other problems like root rot. So, no stashing a plant in a dark corner, OK?
There are two considerations when it comes to light. “All plants will appreciate as wide a view of the sky as possible. Meaning, unfortunately, the people who'll do the best with plants are the ones who have the biggest windows,” he explains. The second part is the amount of direct sunlight it gets, so if the path the sunlight takes to get to your window is partially blocked, say by a building, or the window faces a certain direction that gets less sun, that will affect growth, too.
Different types of plants need varying amounts of direct sun, he says. Cacti and succulents want four to six hours of direct sun, while tropical foliage, like pothos, philodendron and monstera (mainly the plants with cool-looking leaves), are OK with two to four hours of direct sun. Another thing to note for the tropical foliage plants is that a higher amount of direct sun will mean you’ll need to water them more frequently.
Here again, we need to consider light, says Cheng, because unless your plant is getting what it needs in that area, any watering strategy you apply won’t matter. But when you have that sorted, it’s important to think about the type of plant you have, which will dictate when to give it a drink.
The tags you find on the plant will give you a clue as to what it likes, but here are some general guidelines.
Ferns and other thin-leaved plants prefer evenly moist soil. “The moment you see even the top of the soil is dry, or you lift the pot and it's slightly less heavy than when it was fully watered, then you should add some more water,” explains Cheng. “And we're bringing the soil back to the maximum amount of water that it can hold.”
Tropical foliage with slightly thicker leaves likes to be watered when the soil is partially dry, which means when the top one or two inches of the soil are dried out. When you see that, it’s time to give the soil a soak.
For succulents like jade plants or snake plants (also known as sansevieria), you should wait until the soil is as dry as sand before watering.
A stainless-steel chopstick is your friend when it comes to house plants, as poking around in the plant’s soil does two things. It shows you how much moisture is in the soil, and it aerates the soil.
To aerate, each time before he waters his plants, Cheng pokes around the pot about three or four times (for, say, a medium-sized pot), which helps loosen the soil so that water flows through and can soak more parts of it evenly. “In nature, you have insects and earthworms crawling around. That is a system that plants have evolved to depend on,” he notes. “Most problems with indoor plants occur because there's no action going on in the soil, the soil just literally becomes a stale hard rock. And even if you think you're watering it a lot, the water could just be flowing around these dry clumps where inside those dry clumps roots have been dead and dying.”
The one caveat is to try to avoid damaging the roots, though Cheng says roots grow back quickly, so he believes the slight risk is worth it.
How to tell if your plant is healthy
Yellow leaves and brown tips aren’t necessarily a sign that your plant is in trouble, says Cheng, as long as older growth isn’t dying off much faster than new growth is coming.
If you think that your plant looks cramped and needs to be repotted, take a look at the underside. If the roots have grown so long they are coiling around the base of the pot, or emerging from the drainage hole, then a bigger pot is needed. Don’t just assume that a plant requires more room. “The overall preference for most plants is to be a little bit cramped in their pot. Because if you have extra space in the pot where the roots aren't ever going to fill up, then your soil is just going to stay wet without drying out because of root action, as opposed to plain evaporation,” explains Cheng.
Plants for beginners
If you’re not sure where to start, try one of these plants, which are traditionally more forgiving, says Cheng: pothos, money tree, dracaena, ZZ plant and sansevieria. Check Flipp for deals on these types of beautiful yet easier to care for greenery.
When it comes to gear, you can keep it simple, explains Cheng, though a watering can with a narrow and long spout so you can direct your water more carefully is key. Another thing that he finds handy is a little dustpan, in case any soil gets spilled. And of course, some stainless-steel chopsticks for aeration.
Cheng is a fan of placing plants on different levels on an étagère, which has open shelving, like this one he uses with glass shelves. He also says grouping the same types of plants together always looks nice, and the care would be similar so they’d likely thrive. For example, you could keep several sansevierias together. “There are so many different shapes and sizes of snake plants; you can have an entire collection of just snake plants and you would have quite a lot to collect. They can be almost like green sculptures.”
Another option is placing plants in containers on vertical spaces. “This is both beautiful and also functional in the fact that you save yourself some floor space,” he explains. Cheng has a number of examples of how to do this on his Instagram feed. You can even train some plants with vines to grow up your walls, like philodendron. “Affix the vine to the wall with a hook, and then naturally the rest of the plant will eventually grow its aerial roots onto the wall,” he explains.
If you share your space with any furry friends, then take a peek at the ASPCA’s database of toxic and non-toxic plants to scope out which ones are pet-friendly. One plant Cheng says you should definitely avoid is the Sago palm, which is potentially deadly for dogs, cats and horses.