Houseplants 101 Part A: Turn Your Brown Thumb Into A Green Thumb

A common complaint from gardeners is that they can grow any plant outside, but they seem to kill any and all houseplants.  If you are a successful outdoor gardener, though, you have developed the skills needed to succeed in growing houseplants by putting into practice three strategies:  

First, identify the conditions or microclimates where the plant will grow.


Microclimates are the weather conditions found in small, localized areas. They include level of sunlight, humidity, soil moisture, air movement, and temperature.

The rainforest understory is the natural habitat of many of our most popular and successful houseplants and, as such, they thrive in indirect lighting, warmer temperatures, and higher humidity.  Recreating that microclimate as much as possible will increase your chance of a houseplant success story.  Consider factors such as ambient room temperature, cold drafts (drafty windows, air conditioning vents), hot drafts (heat vents), and humidity levels in each room. 

Photo by Karen M. Gibson | Hoya Carnosa in Bloom, acquired as a cutting at the 2017 Intern Class Propagation Day, this hoya thrives in a corner of the south-facing kitchen window.


Think about the sunlight-based microclimates you have identified in your landscape and how they impacted successful plant selection and care.  They could include:

  • The south yard that receives sunshine year round
  • The east yard with a mature tree providing shade all morning, but receiving full afternoon sun
  • The narrow north yard between your house and your fence line that never sees any sunshine
  • The west yard that is shaded by your house in the morning, but receives full sun from early afternoon until sunset.

Each of these areas has its own unique growing conditions that, as a successful gardener, you have learned to take into consideration when selecting your plantings.  The same is true inside your house.  Using the scenario above for the outside conditions, your inside microclimates would be:

  • The south windows that receive full direct sun from mid-morning to late-afternoon  
  • The east windows that receive indirect/filtered light (shade from the mature tree) in the morning and indirect light in the afternoon as the sun moves to the other side of your house
  • The north windows that receive only indirect lighting year round
  • The west windows that receive direct afternoon/evening light when the sun is at its hottest

Each of these areas supports different plants.  If you try to grow a plant that needs indirect light in the south window, it will likely perish.  

Photo by Karen M. Gibson | This south-facing window receives full afternoon sun and also a lot of indirect light from the adjacent same-sized east window.  Plants tucked in the sides and corners (Rattlesnake plant, Rex Begonia, hoya (hanging), spider plant, ivy, and African violets) enjoy bright, indirect light while cacti, succulents, and certain ivies do well in the direct light of center. With no solar screens on the downstairs windows (more light for the plants), window blinds can be partially closed as needed to deflect the direct hot summer sun.


Plants require a minimum temperature of 55°F and most are happier with it a good bit warmer.  If we are experiencing a particularly cold winter here in North Texas (or if you move to a cold climate), move houseplants away from cold windows or areas near outside doors in the winter. 

Air Movement

Plants do not like cold drafts (or extremely hot drafts).  Keep away from active heating or cooling vents.  But plants do benefit from additional air circulation (such as a slow moving fan) in order to deter possible pest infestations or fungus growth, especially closely grouped plants.  


During the heating and cooling seasons, the air conditioning and heat lower the humidity level of our houses.  To raise the humidity level for your plant, you can group several plants together. Another way is to set your plants in a tray of water – be sure to raise them up out of the water with decorative rocks or some other means. They need humidity, not wet feet.  Another option is to mist plants daily with a spray bottle. Be sure to check information about your specific plant – some plants, like African violets, do not tolerate wet leaves.  Lastly, the bathroom and kitchen generally have higher humidity levels, making them a good location for certain plants, like ferns, which really need that extra humidity.  

Photo by Karen M. Gibson | Ferns and palms do well in the higher humidity of a bathroom.  Even though this is a south-facing window, the solar screens on the upper level windows lessen the strength of the summer sun.

Water Levels

Is the soil too dry or too wet?  Overwatering is the #1 mistake made – more plants have been killed from overwatering than from being too dry.  Only water when your plant needs it (visibly drooping) or the soil is dry to the touch – the “stick your finger in the dirt” is the best way to tell!  Most plants need less frequent watering in the fall/winter during their dormant stage and more watering during their active growth time of spring/summer.  If your plant sits in a very warm area with direct sunlight, it is going to need more frequent watering than a plant that receives only indirect light.

We have covered the first skill needed to succeed in growing houseplants. Join next week for strategies two and three!

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