Houseplants 101 Part B: 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:  

  1. Identify the conditions or microclimates where the plant will grow, which we covered last time.
  2. Apply knowledge of plant’s requirements for optimum growth
  3. Observe the plant’s health at least weekly


Knowledge is power.  Know your plant – research its needs, its care requirements, and its native habitat. Choose plants to fit your house.  It’s easier to choose the right plant than it is to try to change your home’s growing conditions.  There are many books and online resources that will provide the information you need for your plants.  Knowing about your plant BEFORE you purchase it will save you time, money, and potential heartache. 

When considering potential plants, keep in mind that some houseplants are toxic to young children and pets.  Surprisingly, these plants include some of the most popular houseplants, including Peace Lilies, Poinsettia, English Ivy, and Pothos.  Poisoning can occur in multiple ways:

  • Eating or touching the leaves
  • Eating the berries, blossoms, or roots
  • Contact with sap or juices from the plant or roots
  • Eating the plant’s soil
  • Drinking water from the plant tray

If you have toddlers, pets, or even elderly family members with dementia, it’s best to limit your plant choices to those that are nontoxic.  The plant tags provided by the big box stores and most nurseries will not include this information, so consult a reliable online resource before purchasing.

Photo by Karen M. Gibson | Happy Plant

Observe Your Plant

Photo by Karen M. Gibson | Sad Plant – These photos of the same Rex begonia illustrate the differences between a happy plant and a sad plant.  Our happy begonia has erect leaves that almost completely hide the small pink blossoms.  Our sad plant has droopy leaves that expose the center of the plant.  It is in real need of a good watering.

Ever heard that talking to your plants helps them grow? The real secret is that it makes you take a good, careful look at them.  Most gardeners make a daily or weekly walk through their gardens looking for potential issues, not to mention enjoying the visual and tangible fruits of their labor.  Think of your houseplants as your indoor year-round garden and do the same.  Because we walk past our indoor plants multiple times each day, it’s easy for them to blend into the background and we don’t really notice them. Make a habit of observing each plant at least once a week.  Does it look happy?  Is it leaning towards the light?  If so, remember to quarter turn the plant each time you water it so that it grows evenly.  Are the leaves an unnatural color?  It might need a different location, either more or less light.

Keep your plants clean – trim away any dead leaves or spent blossoms.  Leaving debris creates a haven for pests.  Check for possible pest infestations – webs or small white fuzzy spots on or under the leaves, along the stems, are just a couple of indicators that you have a pest problem.  Research the common pest / disease symptoms so you can deal with any issues early, before the problem spreads to all your plants.  If you find a pest issue, isolate that plant until you are sure it’s clean and healthy again.

With an understanding of the microclimates in your home, knowledge about your plants, choosing the proper plants for your home, and regular observation, you too can boast of a green thumb.  Pretty soon all your brown thumb friends will be asking you for advice!

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