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Keep Indoor Plants Alive With These Non-Basic Tips

Katja Vujić

We are totally inspired by Jarema Osofsky’s approach to caring for indoor plants. She says that plant care is a piece of art you’ll never complete. It’s something that provides a daily sense of grounding and nourishment. If this makes you want to fill your own space with succulents and giant tropical leaves (because it for sure made us feel that way), you’re in luck. We got her top tips for starting your own interior garden.

Repot right away

“When you get a plant, it’s usually good to repot it from its nursery pot,” says Jarema. That’s because nursery plants are normally pot-bound, meaning their roots have reached the extent of growth possible in that pot. Repotting allows your plant to grow faster and get more nutrients. Repotting is also a great opportunity to check out the roots to get a sense of the plant’s health; if they’re mushy, dry, smelly, or moldy, there might be a problem.

“Best-case scenario, you have a drainage hole—that’s the best for your plant. If you don’t have a planter with the drainage hole, you can substitute rocks, but be sure to use lava rocks that can absorb some of that excess water so the roots aren’t sitting in water.” The most absorbent lava rocks are the ones used for grilling. Or, if you’re the DIY-loving type, you can do what Jarema does and drill your own drainage hole into any pot that doesn’t have one. All you need is a drill, a specialized ceramic drill bit, like this one, some water, and a lot of patience. “I start drilling, and then once I’ve made a dent I pour water onto it, and continue drilling,” says Jarema. And be gentle! “If you use too much pressure, you can break it.”

Pro tips: To avoid spilling dirt through the drainage hole, Jarema places small squares of this netting on the inside of the pot. You can also use cheesecloth, old window screening, or anything else that will allow water to pass through. Have a paintbrush handy to dust off your plant if it gets covered in dirt.

“Make sure that your new pot is at least two inches wider and deeper than your current one. And you also want to use the right kind of soil for your plant,” Jarema says. You should learn this by researching your plant, but in general, succulents do best in porous soil containing plenty of perlite and sand—which you can make yourself with a recipe of one third perlite, one third sand, and one third indoor potting soil. Tropical plants usually just require basic indoor potting soil.

Max Burkhalter Photo

Give consistent care

One essential aspect of plant care, says Jarema, is consistency. So constantly repositioning your plants in an attempt to even out their light exposure is a bad idea. “Plants really acclimate to the space they’re in. So they will adapt to their light. If you move it around a lot, I think it can be confusing for the plants to be receiving so much light and then lower light.”

Every plant requires different frequencies and styles of watering, and you can learn those through researching your plant and observing them in practice. “Once you really observe your plants, you’ll learn the signs that they give you when they’re thirsty,” says Jarema. If you notice droopy leaves or yellow tips and rims, that’s a good indicator, but the best determiner is the soil. “Normally, if the top inch of the soil is moist, you can hold off.”

You don’t need to use filtered water, but you do need to let the water sit out, uncovered, overnight to distill the fluoride and chlorine, which filters often miss. Jarema uses a “pour-over coffee” watering method, spiraling the watering can so all the soil is covered. “It’s good to watch the soil absorb the water to see how quickly it’s drinking it up, and that’ll help determine how thirsty it was,” she says. “Part of the joy of having a plant is being able to water it and nurture it and watch it grow.”

Fertilizer can help your plant grow stronger and faster, but be careful. For indoor plants, fertilize in the spring and summer. “You don’t want to fertilize your plants during the winter, only during the growing season.” Use half the amount that the box tells you to. Jarema uses liquid fertilizer, and Osmocote’s smart-release fertilizer is a popular one for succulents.

Pruning and propagating

All plants have nodes on their stems, which often present as raised bumps that look like little joints. The nodes are the source of growth. So when you’re pruning off dead or yellowed leaves, it’s a good idea to cut above them.

When you’re propagating, however, you’ll want to cut below the node—ideally, two nodes down—so that the new baby plant has a source of growth. You can also propagate from leaves that have fallen off, and with a succulent, your best bet is to cut from a stem. For a plant that vines or is very leafy, you can propagate in plain water: “You can take cuttings and put them in a cute bottle and put it near your window, you can watch them grow roots in the water. You can gauge when to plant in soil.”

Succulents are a little different. After cutting the stem, lay it flat near the sun to let it callus over. The cut is like an open wound that needs to heal. Then “propagate them in a shallow amount of soil,” says Jarema. “They don’t want too much soil between the top of the plant and the drainage hole.”

Max Burkhalter Photo

Adjust for winter

“In the winter, plants go dormant. So you’ll see a lot less active growth. And because of that, you can also water your plants less frequently than you do during the growing season,” says Jarema. But be careful not to dry them out. Humidifiers are great for plants in general, but especially during the winter when heating systems create that dangerous dry heat. “If you don’t want to buy a humidifier, misting is a good option. Also, you can fill a saucer with water and some rocks, and then put your plant on top of it, or you can put it near your plant.” You want the plant to be surrounded by water, but not submerged in it.

“Make sure that your plants aren’t in front of or near a radiator. They really don’t like that dry heat,” says Jarema. “If you don’t have the space for all your plants without having some near the radiator, your succulents will be more resilient toward that dry heat because they’re from a more arid region.”

But also be careful not to let your plant get too cold. “You want to avoid putting your plants too close to the windows because the glass can get really cold in the winter and drafts can come in. One way to tell if your plant’s cold is just to feel the leaves; if the leaves feel cold, it means your plant’s probably cold.”

Your bedroom can look like this. Tiered shelves without opaque sides blocking out the sun allow the plants to get an even distribution of light. The hanging plants above are variations of the senecio rowleyanus, or string of pearls—one of Jarema’s favorites. “They grow relatively quickly and will cascade down over time,” she says. “And I think that they’re super cool and adorable.”
Max Burkhalter Photo

Be conscious of low or no light

If you don’t have a lot of light, you can still be a plant parent! For low light, Jarema recommends a philodendron or a pothos. “Those are a couple of easy-to-care-for plants that will cascade down and create that beautiful jungle effect without actually needing too much sun; they don’t even like direct sun,” she says. And while she doesn’t technically recommend putting plants in spaces with no natural light, but “if you’re going to do it, I would suggest a ZZ plant or a snake plant, because those are the most low-light-tolerant plants. And as long as you don’t water them too much, they should be okay, it’ll just grow a little slower.”

And if you are dealing with low or no light, it’s a good idea to invest in a plant light, which is great for dark spaces and all spaces in the wintertime. Jarema’s favorite is this one, but she also recommends looking for one with a timer so the light comes on and off at the same time, regardless of your schedule. You should keep the light on for the length of a day, from early in the morning until about 7 p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m. in the summer.

Max Burkhalter Photo

Your plant probably isn’t dying

“I think people think their plants are dying a lot sooner than their plants are actually dying,” says Jarema. She says plants are a lot more resilient than we think they are. “I think what happens is they observe that their plant might be under stress, and they panic. Oftentimes, I get that question—is my plant dying? And it’s not! It has a yellow leaf, and it’s good that you noticed it.”

By observing your plant, says Jarema, you can figure out what’s going on with it. Yellow leaves and wrinkled succulents, for example, are an indicator that your plant might be thirsty. But if you notice a mottled pattern, you might want to check for pests. If there’s a big black spot in the middle of the leaf, you can check for a bacterial or fungal infection.

Guess what, though: None of those things mean your plant is dying! They just mean you need to take action. It can be as simple as watering or repotting, or it can mean de-pesting. The most common pests are mealy bugs and spider mites, and you’ll find further evidence on the underside of the leaf. “If you see any pests, you want to get an insecticide and spray the leaf, wipe off any bugs or pests you might see with a paper towel, and then spray it again, and let it sit on the leaf,” says Jarema. Use a safe insecticide like this one. You can also wash your plant off in the shower, but tilt it so that the soil doesn’t get soaked.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest