How to help your houseplants thrive

Houseplants. They bring beautiful greenery and a soothing outdoor presence to artificial interior environments. They convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen. They help filter pollutants from sterile, indoor air. In other words, they’re simply miraculous!

Houseplants are typically grown for their foliage; their leaves can range from tiny to huge, lacy to leathery, rich green to variegated or multicolored. Some are grown for their spectacular and vibrantly colored flowers: orchids, African violets, bromeliads, kalanchoes, and more. Whatever your preference, indoor plants can be a great source of beauty and joy.

The best way to ensure a “green thumb” is to choose plants that will thrive in the conditions in the different areas of your home. Each nook or shelf or spot on the floor has its own special mix of sun exposure, light, air circulation, humidity, and temperature. Paying close attention to these conditions is the first step to success.

Houseplants are incredibly diverse. Some come from dry and sunny climates like ours; many others originate from areas with warm, humid, semi-shady tropical environments. It’s important to know the basic preferences of different indoor plants so that they can be given the best home.

The other key to success: learning how to maintain each of your chosen plants in a healthy condition. With houseplants’ great diversity comes a wide range of specific cultural needs, but here are some basic care guidelines. 

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’). Photo by “Mokkie”, Wikimedia Commons,


Interestingly, overwatering is the main cause of houseplant death. Symptoms of overwatering—yellowing foliage, droopy appearance—often mimic those of under-watering, so it’s important to check soil moisture before breaking out the watering can. (On the other hand, severe lack of water is also very harmful to plants, and they might die if allowed to wilt repeatedly.)

One easy way to check for dry soil is to test its weight by lifting the entire pot. Properly moist soil will have some heft; too-dry soil won’t have much weight. A quick visual test can be effective, since moist soil is usually dark in appearance. You can also physically test soil moisture with a meter (the fancy method) or by probing with a finger (the low-tech method). If the soil is damp an inch or more below the surface, it’s probably moist enough. 

Frequent watering with small amounts of water is harmful to potted plants over the long term, because this leads to a build-up of salts and other minerals. It’s best to water plants less frequently and more thoroughly, until water passes through the pot’s drainage holes. Most potted plants benefit from an occasional thorough flushing. Plants growing in solid-bottomed pots without drainage holes must be watered cautiously, so that the soil doesn’t become waterlogged. 

Seasonal changes also affect the amount of water houseplants need. Most houseplants need more water while actively growing in spring, summer and early fall; water them more sparingly in the late fall and winter. 

The water itself is also important to consider. Some houseplants are highly sensitive to fluoridated water; others prefer lukewarm water instead of cold water. Never use softened water since it contains high levels of damaging salts. 


This is the second of the two most crucial elements for houseplant care. Depending on their natural environment, houseplants vary greatly in the amount and type of light they require. Some plants prefer direct sunlight, but this can literally be deadly for others.

Natural light from windows is best for indoor plants, but full-spectrum fluorescent lighting can be a good substitute in dark indoor areas. Some plants prefer only diffuse, indirect light from north- or east-facing windows; others can tolerate bright light or direct sunlight from south- and west-facing windows. Be sure to research the individual needs of your plants, because correct lighting is absolutely critical.


Purchase a high quality, commercially prepared, sterile potting mix that is suited to the plant(s) you own. For most tropical plants, an all-purpose potting mix with some organic matter will suffice. For plants that prefer acidic soil, use a specially labeled mix or one high in peat content. For succulents or cacti, use a product specifically labeled for them since it’s lightweight and fast draining and will dry out between waterings. Don’t fill pots with compost (which is a soil amendment) or garden soil (which is too dense).

Examine the soil and the rims of your pots for white, crusty-looking deposits; this indicates a build-up of harmful salts in the soil (from fertilizers or minerals in the water). To remedy this problem, scrub the pots and either replace the soil or thoroughly flush it with water. Most houseplants should be repotted with fresh soil every few years. Don’t reuse old soil, since it could be contaminated or nutrient poor.


With the exception of hot-environment succulents and cacti, houseplants generally don’t care for extra-dry indoor air. 

Moisture-loving tropical plants appreciate the humid environment in bathrooms or laundry rooms. Some plants appreciate a gently daily or semi-weekly leaf misting. Another way to increase humidity is to place potted indoor plants on trays filled with small pebbles and a small amount of water; the little rocks keep the pot bases above water, and the water evaporates slowly to give some extra moisture to the plants.


Daytime temperatures between 65 and 75 °F are acceptable for most houseplants, with slightly lower temperatures at nighttime. Keep plants away from the hot, drying drafts from heater vents and the cold blasts of winter air from doors, windows, and air conditioners.


All potted plants need fertilizer to replace lost soil nutrients. Plants that are fast-growing, frequently watered, or in quickly-draining soils should be fertilized regularly. Slow-release fertilizer pellets and water-soluble fertilizers are the easiest to use for indoor plants. Be sure to follow the label instructions to avoid misuse or harmful over-fertilizing, and avoid fertilizing plants in late fall and winter when their growth slows.

Pests and Diseases

You can minimize houseplant pest problems by using a few simple precautions. Before you purchase a plant, carefully inspect its leaves, stems, and flowers (if any), and also check the soil. Most common houseplant pests—mealybugs, scale insects, whiteflies, spider mites—will be visible to the naked eye. Also check for discolored, speckled, blotchy, or rotting leaves or any unusual growths on the soil; these can be signs of microscopic pests, fungal infections, or other diseases. Leave behind any plants that don’t pass these basic tests, because a bargain price isn’t worth the potential headache of spreading pests or pathogens throughout your home.

Keep in mind that stressed plants are more susceptible to attack by harmful organisms. Conscientious care of houseplants is the best way to prevent pest and disease problems.


Although these general care recommendations apply to the vast majority of houseplants, each species has its own specific cultural requirements. It’s best to consult a reputable book or other guide for specific advice about caring for your beloved plants. Some excellent references are: 

  • Houseplant books by well-known publishers such as Sunset and Ortho.
  • The House Plant Expert, by D. G. Hessayon
  • Sunset’s web page entitled, “The Ultimate Guide to Indoor Plants”
A glossy-leaved stalk of a “ZZ plant” (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

To close, here are a few of my favorite, super-hardy, and easy care houseplants:

  • The ubiquitous spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
  • The “ZZ Plant” (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), with fleshy underground tubers and long sturdy stems graced with deep green, glossy leaves.
  • The snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), which grows as a cluster of narrow, stiff, upright leaves.

For gardening related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

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