My SoCal Garden

Choosing the Right Indoor Plants (And Keeping them Alive)

By Steve Thomas-Patel·
Row of Houseplants

Plants add life to a indoors space. But so many of us have struggled with the sad and sickly, here's how to do indoor plants right

How many of your indoor plants are looking thin and scraggly, or droopy and yellow? Why does it seem that no matter how much you water them, they dry up and die? Have you given up on indoor plants altogether?

The fundamentals of houseplants are the same as any other plant. You have to choose the right plant for the space, and you have to give it light and water.

It's All About Light

I find the biggest problem people have with indoor plants is providing them light. Most people think if it's an indoor plant, it doesn't need sunlight. And this just isn't true.

Most indoor plants come from the rainforest floor. In their natural home they receive only filtered sunlight from below the dense rainforest canopy. For this reason they are adapted to surviving very low levels of sunlight, at least compared to other plants. A good example of this is Chlorophytum comosum, the common Spider Plant.

Even under the dense canopy, they receive more light than they would along any interior wall of your house.

Light is a funny thing, or at least our eyes reaction to it is. If a room is dark, your pupils, the holes in your eyes that let light in, open up to let more light in. This helps to cancel out the brightness of the room. Involuntary parts of your brain also works to process the less light that it is receiving. What this means is, despite what we tend to believe, it can be very difficult to judge how much light there actually is in a space.

When it comes to plants, you might feel a spot has plenty of light, but if you were to measure it you could find that to not be the case at all. So the number one rule of houseplant placement is do not trust your eyes.

So what do you do? You can simply follow the rule of placing all houseplants within 6 feet of a window. Or you can use an app on your phone to measure. The six foot rule is not reliable because different window directions will affect how much light actually reaches your plant. As will anything outside of that window that might shade your window.

Another important thing to do is to pay attention to your plant. It will tell you if it's not receiving enough sunlight. Plants that do not receive enough sunlight will get leggy and floppy. Creating leaves is energetically expensive, so they try to send out foliage that really reaches for the light.

Their leaves can also looks smaller, or those interesting yellow stripes on variagated plants might cease to appear on new growth, since they need to produce more chlorophyll to make better use of the light they are receiving.

It's also possible if you have a shade loving plant that you could give it too much sunlight. If this is the case, it will start to form a "burned" look, with leaves that curl and turn brown along the edges.

Choosing the Right Plant

So everything on this site is intended to help you choose plants that are eco-positive. Plants that will help us alter our world to be more sustainable, usually by reducing our reliance on Big-Agriculture, or helping you choose native plants that serve a positive role in the environment and help the birds and bugs thrive.

So where do indoor plants fit in this discussion? There isn't much value in choosing native plants for indoors. I suppose you could make some sort of economic argument about supporting the industry, or raising awareness. If you love native plants and have figured out some good indoor natives to grow, that's wonderful! But those plants aren't going to do much for your local ecology.

Instead, indoor plants fit into the sight because of an unseemly secret about the indoor plant industry. It heavily relies on peat moss.

Peat moss is getting a lot of attention lately because it is not a renewable resource. Peat moss has been loved by the plant growing industry for many years because it is great at holding moisture without draining the plants. It's a pretty good sponge and won't harbor harmful microorganisms. The problem is, using peat moss is a lot like using petroleum. In fact, it is a precursor to petroleum. As ancient plant materials decay in bogs, it forms tiny layers of peat moss. But it forms so slowly. Harvesters extract thousands of years worth of peat moss in minutes, destroying bogs that home thousands of specialist animals. Just one more way we humans cause mass extinction.

Fortunately there is an easy, cheap alternative to peat that works just as well. Coconut coir is a biproduct of the food industry. Any time coconuts are shelled, say for coconut milk, the hair all over the shells is removed and turned into coir. Coir has roughly the same absorption qualities of peat and even better, doesn't have the acidity. Coir is pretty much pH neutral which makes it far more flexible for usage by plants.

Still, many in the plant industry have not adapted to this. Coir is cheap, but maybe not cheap enough for the large growers that need to squeeze every last bit of revenue out of their labors. It's important to pay attention to this and only choose houseplants that are grown ethically, without peat. Look for plants grow in "coir" or "coconut coir".

Here are some excellent plants and some notes on why you might choose them to populate your house:

  • Succulents and Cacti

Many succulent and cacti make great house plants. Most people think cacti and succulents all grow in the wide-open, hot, sun. But this isn't true. Many prefer the canopy of a tree. What they do have in common is their adaptation to low water usage. For that reason, they tend to thrive on neglect. Put another way, they are "easy". Some popular examples: Christmas Cactus, Burro's Tail, Jade Plant, Zebra Haworthia. Something else to keep in mind is, many houseplants are poisonous to children and pets if eaten. There are more options for "safe" plants in the succulent and cacti communities.

  • Snake Plant

Snake plants are just easy. They are non-toxic, so a great option for almost anyone. And they seem to do okay with pretty much no light. You can keep these far away from a window and they will continue to look great.

  • Fiddle Leaf Fig

This is an attractive houseplant with large, waxy leaves. They are an example of a plant that does well indoors, but does require a good amount of window light. So if you have a bright, south or east facing window, this could be a good choice for it.

  • Chinese Money Plant

Chinese Mondey Plants are a commonly gifted houseplant, especially as a "moving in" plant, said to bring good luck (and money). They do well with indirect sunlight, so near any window, but definitely near a window (within 6 feet).

  • Peace Lily

These are really attractive plants, they flower nicely and do well with very low light. You can get away with keeping them away from the window. However they are toxic to cats and dogs. Cats in particular like the dangliness of the leaves and may chew on them. Fortunately the plant will probably make them sick before they eat enough to be seriously harmed. Best to avoid if you have a cat.

  • African Violet

These are a favorite of mine, probably because I had one of my own when I was a kid. They have really attractive, fuzzy flowers, with all different colors being available. They like indirect sunlight. They are somewhat particulat about the water they receive.

Watering Houseplants

Watering is another place people often go wrong when taking care of houseplants. Some people like to spray them with a water bottle, maybe once a day, or once a week, whenever they feel the plant is looking thirsty. Other people might pour a little from a spout. If this sounds like you, it sounds like you are doing the "small, frequent" watering thing which doesn't encourage healthy root growth.

Healthy roots are everything when it comes to plants. If you only give them a little water at a time, but you do it often, they may end up with small, shallow roots. Maybe, since you are watering often, they will get enough water. But they also need to pull in nutrients from their roots, and if they haven't developed their root system, that isn't going to happen, and that will show in the leaves and blooms.

To see what I mean, next time you water your plant, after you are done, take it out of the pot. How much of the soil did the water reach? Did it go beyond the first inch or two?

The right way to water a houseplant is to give it a good soaking. You want to reach all of the soil. The plant should be able to get water from anywhere in that pot. The catch there is that you do not want to drown the plant in water. Roots need to be able to breath.

As long as your pot and soil are able to drain correctly, you should be okay. And you don't want to do this too often. Only when the soil has started to dry out. You never want it completely dry, but if you check about an inch below the top of the soil and it's starting to dry out, now is a good time to water. The top of the soil will frequently dry out, but that's not where the roots are.

Don't be afraid to look at your plants roots. If you check your pot and the roots are soggy and smelly, you are overwatering and you have root rot. Rotten black roots mean fungus is growing on there. The best you can do it remove the bad soil, replace it with good, trim out the dead decaying roots and alter your watering practices. Hopefully the plant will recover.

If you find the lower parts of the pot are hard and dry, try taking it out in the sink and really soakingit when you water. You should be water less frequently but more at a time.


Hope that helps! In recap:

  • Avoid buying plants grown in peat moss
  • Proper light
  • Proper watering
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