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How to Cure Your Black Thumb

Leah is an enthusiastic collector of indoor plants. She also raises three children in BC, Canada.

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The Joy of Plants

Indoor plants aren't only gorgeous, they're also healthy for us. We all know their important role in cleaning the air but many people I know, myself included, find plants to be just the right kind of therapy to reduce stress. Tending to plants gives one a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and pride. Watering the soil and wiping the leaves become a meditation. House plants just feel good.

I know it can seem overwhelming, especially if you've failed in the past and deemed yourself to have a black thumb. You're not cursed, I promise, you just need a little more information.

Common Plant Killers

The most common problems people run into with plants are

  • Drainage problems
  • Too much or too little water
  • Inadequate light
  • Pests

We will get into those more in a moment but first we need to figure out what kind of plant parent you are.

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Finding Your Plant Care Style

There are two types of people in this world. There are the ones who want to nurture and tend to their plants every day. They show love by watering and wiping and rearranging and fertilizing. Then, there are the ones who completely forget about their plants or can't really be bothered to tend to them often. Life gets in the way, you get busy, I totally get it. The right plant is out there for both of you.

If you are a nurturer, don't start off with a cactus or succulent. You will overwater it and it will die along with a piece of your soul. If you're a set and forget kind of person, don't get a fern or those tempting venus fly traps. They will dry up and die very soon after you bring them home, and so will your confidence in plant care.

When you become more experienced in plant care, you'll be able to find a better balance between these two extremes. When you're just starting out, though, the trick is to choose the right plant for your life and caring style.

Perfect Starter Plants

There are plants out there that will be very forgiving to you, start with those plants.

Whether you're a nurturer or a forgetter, pothos (devil's ivy), sansevierias (snake plants or mother in laws tongue), dracaenas (dragon trees), and common philodendrons are a good place to start.

These are some of the hardest plants to kill and will forgive you when you mess up, for the most part.

Those of you who like to love on your plants, maybe try a fern that can put up with the excess water you're bound to give it. Alternatively, if you're the type to have a plant dry out on you, choose a succulent or cacti.

Pro tip: when buying a plant from a store, slip it out of it's pot to make sure the roots are healthy (aka not mushy)

While these plants are better suited for you, the pot, watering, drainage, and correct lighting still need some attention and will make all the difference.

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Potting and Drainage

Now that you have your new plant, you're going to want to choose a pretty pot for it. This is where so many people go wrong.

The biggest thing you must factor in is drainage. A plant without proper drainage is a dead plant. When the water cannot drain, the roots begin to rot and that rot will climb up the roots and murder your plant. So...find a pot with drainage holes.

Pro tip: A terracotta pot is the ultimate when it comes to drainage because the pot, itself is pourous.

Sometimes you come across pretty pots with no holes. Many people make the mistake of planting their plant directly into them. These pots are called cache pots and are meant to be a pretty cover for the plastic nursery pot that your plant comes in. It's important to remove the plants from these when watering, letting the soil to fully drain before slipping them back in. Also, if you're handy, you can totally drill holes in these and plant directly into them.

Don't be fooled by potted plants in the store. I'm sure we have all done it, succulents are cute, the pots they can come in are cute, and we bring them home to die. That's often because there's no drainage hole and they've tricked you into thinking that they care about the plant you're taking home with you. They don't. A quick check for drainage will save you from heartache.

Watering

Even if you get the perfect pot and the perfect plant, if you water it every single day or never...it's going to die. For most plants it's okay to water once the top inch or two is dry. Succulents can handle way less than that and most ferns could use a bit more.

Pro tip: With few exceptions, it is ALWAYS better to underwater than overwater

When people ask me why their leaves are yellowing, my first question is about watering. Always research the watering needs of your plant.

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Light

If you choose plants from the list I gave you, they will be able to handle a variety of lighting conditions. They can even live under artificial light. Be sure to note that while these plants can survive in darker light conditions, they may not grow quickly. For a plant to thrive and grow to it's full potential, conditions DO have to be right.

Researching the light requirements of every individual plant you buy is very important. I like to check a few websites because sometimes there is conflicting information. In fact, I will always quickly research the plant I am about to buy right in the store. Why not?

Knowing the correct light requirements can save you from sun damage and leggy plants that are reaching for the light.

Pests

The bane of my existence, pests can quickly turn plant parenting bliss into total frustration. Part of your care routine needs to be checking for creepy crawlers on the leaves, under the leaves, and on the stem and base. Check into those nooks and crannies and make sure they're clear of those little sap suckers. If you do find some, quarantine the plant away from your jungle almost immediately.

Pro tip: Always check a plant for pests before buying

Treatment of pests varies depending on where you live and your comfort level when it comes to pesticides. Different countries have different rules about what is allowed and it's really best to do some personalized online research. I'm also available to answer any of your questions.

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Now go Fly, Little Grasshopper

Once you're more confident in caring for your plants, you can spread your wings and start challenging yourself with plants that require different care than what you're used to. I used to be a forgetter and now I've somehow managed to keep a maidenhair fern (a plant that needs to be watered often or else it'll have a fit and collapse completely) alive for over a year. There's hope for us all.

Just know, that even the most experienced indoor plant caregiver has killed more than one plant. We've all lost a plant to rot or pests or under watering, it happens. The more you try and learn, the more that black thumb will turn to green.