How To Look After Plants That Live in Pots in Houses

By Science Guy

Hello, I am Science Guy. Monster Children has hired me to Science Guysplain some important scientific things to you.

They have asked me to use my natural charm, but no, I won’t be spraying you with my pheromones—they mean the sort of ‘natural charm’ that comes with having a personality, and contrary to what my workplace subordinates scrawled on the wall of my office in faeces, I’ve got one. I have been asked to make the secrets of science relatable to the common man, woman, or smoking monkey, which we definitely don’t use as interns in my lab, and we definitely haven’t trained them to ride the little Pelotons that power lab. Here is an example of the humour I will be using: Knock knock, who’s there, it’s still me, science Guy, ha-ha. So, here we go, today I am going to Science Guysplain™ how to look after the plants in your house, in easily digestible chunks of information written in a light-hearted tone of voice. Ha-ha.

Buy Easy Plants

Yes, it’s true, some plants are much easier to look after than others. There is a reason that most apartments have only Monstera deliciosa growing in them, and that’s because you cannot kill them without trying. But if you want to kill them, here’s how. You could salt the soil, you could put them in the oven, you could pour boiling water all over their roots, you could set them on fire, or you could thrash them against the wall all night. But as long as you don’t place these guys in direct sunlight, or drown them with over-watering, they are very easy to keep alive, and in many cases, they will in fact thrive. Some other very easy-to-keep-alive plants include: Epipremnum aureum (devil’s ivy), Dracaena trifasciata (snake plant; tip: almost never water), Spathiphyllum wallisii (peace lily), Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant; note: don’t plant in the garden as they’ll spread like wildfire), Hedera helix (common ivy), Anthurium andraeanum (flamingo plant; water when the top inch of soil is dry as they don’t like to dry out completely), Ficus elastica (rubber plant), and many of the species from the Philodendron genus. Most of these plants do great in bright, indirect light, but not direct sunlight. Care-wise, less is more, with these plants.

Pot With Saucer, Baby

The easiest thing that anyone with at least $10 can do from the onset of plant ownership is to buy a pot that has a hole in the bottom and a saucer underneath. Have you tried to buy a plant pot lately? You will notice to your horror that 96.5% of them do not have a hole in the bottom for ‘aesthetic’ reasons. This is bad news for most plants. Most plants do not like to have their roots sitting in stagnant wet soil permanently. It leads to root rot, in which anoxic [oxygen-deprived] conditions in the potting mix around the roots cause them to rot, with help from members of the water mould genus Phytophthora. If you are noticing that your plant’s leaves feel uncharacteristically soft, and/or the leaves are yellowing/browning, it may be that your plant’s roots are sitting in excessive water, which means you need to water less or your pot does not have adequate drainage. The great thing about having a saucer is that excess water trickles through the hole and is caught by the saucer, so that (a) your plants have a bit of extra water to draw on when they need it, and (b) you do not have to pay a professional floor cleaner to fix water damage on the floorboards of your rental property in order to get your bond back. This water-collection ability of saucers especially benefits plants that do not like to dry out and/or that like a little extra humidity. So, make sure your pots have drainage and preferably a little saucer to go underneath.


Different plant species require different levels of light. As a rule, most ‘indoor’ plants do well in bright indirect light. Say it with me: BRIGHT. INDIRECT. LIGHT. You will be hard-pressed to find a plant that is sold in the ‘indoors’ section of your local nursery that does not do well in bright indirect light. Some plants are extolled for their ability to survive in low light conditions, but rest assured, they are more likely to thrive with a bright indirect light. If your plant has brown ‘burnt’ spots on it, it may be that it is receiving too much direct light. Experiment with different spots around the house and see where works best. If you have a window sill that receives a lot of direct light throughout the day, you might like to try cacti—plants of the family Cactaceae—or what botanists refer to as ‘succulents’, which is not a taxonomic category, but rather a term used for thickened, fleshy, and engorged looking plants that store water in arid climates. These types of plants love lots of sunlight, as do many carnivorous plants. However, unlike cacti and succulents, carnivorous plants often need a lot of water and humidity and will do best planted in a terrarium. (P.S. Pro tip: do not manually feed your carnivorous plants. They will usually do just fine with whatever insects come through the window.)


I love plants, and I love chatting about plants on the telephone with other plant lovers, and while I do this I will often absent-mindedly water my plants without first jamming a finger into the potting mix to ensure it is not wet underneath despite the dry appearance of the surface of the potting mix. This means that some of my plants look a lot less resplendent than they should, and some of them eventually die. Over-watering kills, my friends. When you purchase a plant, ask the plant monger how often you should water it. Many plants are happiest when watered after the top inch or so of soil has dried. So, stick your finger in there!

P.S. Don’t forget to adjust your watering frequency in winter. You will not need to water nearly as much when it’s cool.

Potting Mix

Did you know that different species of plants enjoy different types of potting mix? It’s true! Your plant monger will tell you which kind your plant requires. As a general rule, if you have a choice between cheap potting mix and less-cheap potting mix, I heartily endorse purchasing the more expensive and therefore better-quality potting mix. Your new plant friend will repay you by standing less of a chance of looking shit and/or dying. Remember to repot your plants when they have outgrown their pot (research when this is for each species), and ideally refresh/replace their potting mix every couple of years.


Here is an easy one: plants generally do best when there is good airflow in the house. Crack a window now and then. And if you do not have a window, you could try opening a door or propping open the cat flap. If you are in a very cold place where it is currently snowing, you may want to check whether your plants are frost tolerant if you are leaving a window open next to them. On that note, most plants do not like sitting next to a heater, or an air conditioner or fan for that matter. It is another easy way to kill your plant if you desire to. This leads me to my next point.


Some plants like humid conditions. This means they’re great for the bathroom, assuming your bathroom has enough natural light for them. If you are unsure, you can search the name of the plant that you own using the popular search engine Google and many articles will appear telling you whether your plant needs to be kept in humid conditions.


Horticulture pickup line: How do you like your plants in the morning? Fertilised. Ha-ha-ha. Like, instead of ovaries, which are usually preferably unfertilised, except in the case of captive breeding programs, I guess. Enough jokes. As a general rule, fertilise your plants at the beginning of spring with slow-release fertiliser, or every two weeks during spring and summer with liquid fertiliser. (P.S. Do not use fertiliser on your carnivorous plants and Australian natives without researching their specific needs.)


Sometimes plants get pests. Common ones include: google it, my friend. Honestly, your best bet, upon encountering pests, is to take an iPhone photo of the plant into your local horticulture centre and ask for advice. Neem oil (a naturally occurring pesticide found in seeds from the neem tree) is widely available and useful in many cases.


Are you still paying attention? I’m not. I’m sure pruning is great but I smell smoke coming from the room where we definitely don’t hold monkey fights for profit. So long and good luck, science fans!


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