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Care For Your Plants

The one aspect of plant care that even the most inexperienced plant parent intuitively understands is that plants need water. However, learning about a plant's specific water needs takes practice and can lead to the most common mistake in plant care: overwatering. This section will discuss how to properly water indoor plants, and dive into 4 other crucial components of houseplant care: cleaning, pruning, fertalizing, and repotting.



Dr. Leonard Perry from the University of Vermont should have called me out by name when he said:


“Overwatering… is probably the one cultural practice that causes the most problems… and where inexperienced gardeners can go wrong.”


When I first started taking care of houseplants, I would water my plants anytime that I thought about it - sometimes three times per week, sometimes three times per month. I figured plants love water, and it couldn't hurt to give them a drink fairly often. To put it simply, I'm an idiot and that is a terrible strategy. After doing some research, I was surprised to learn that houseplants are more likely to die from overwatering than from underwatering. The reason for this is simple: plant roots need oxygen, and keeping the soil constantly wet prevents oxygen from reaching the roots.


There are a couple of ways to tell if your plant is overwatered.

  • Your plant’s leaves are turning yellow or brown

  • Your plant has stopped growing new leaves


When you notice either of these two indicators, check the soil. If you haven’t watered in a few days and the soil feels wet/damp, you have likely overwatered. If the soil is dry, these indicators suggest that your plant needs a light or temperature adjustment.


If you have overwatered your plant, there is a really simple fix. Wait. Let the soil dry out before watering again, and then take advantage of the watering strategies listed below to appropriately water your plant.

Watering Strategy

There are many factors that affect the water needs of a plant, including:

  • Light exposure

  • Temperature

  • Humidity

  • Soil type

  • Season (plants require less water in the winter compared to the summer)

  • Hanging vs. sitting (hanging plants dry more quickly)

You can certainly take into account each of these individual factors to create a perfectly dialed watering plan, or you can do what I like to call the “knuckle test”. It isn’t a perfect strategy, but significantly simplifies the process and keeps most plants looking good. Here’s how it works:

Stick your finger into the soil up to the knuckle (about 2 inches deep). If the soil is fully dry, water the plant. If the soil is wet or damp, don’t water the plant.


What I like about this method: It’s a good way to get to know your plant's water needs. The plant will tell you if it wants more water during the warmer months or less water during the winter months by how quickly it drinks up the water in the soil. Using this method, you will start to learn how your plants respond to water but it helps you avoid the trap of over watering when you are first starting with a plant.

Other Watering Tips

Your plant’s water needs change according to the amount of light your plant receives. As a chronic over-waterer, I have started using the following recommendations from the University of Minnesota Extension Office with success:


In environments with low or medium light, plants grow more slowly and use less water. Avoid overwatering by feeling the soil each week to check if the top 2 inches of soil are dry before watering.


In environments with bright light, the environment is warm, making plants dry out faster. Check these plants at least twice per week and water when the top 2 inches of soil are dry.


Finally, here are a few watering best practices from Treehugger:

Water Temperature


Cold water can shock your plants’ roots. Use room temperature water for ideal results. If you really want to give your plants their preferred drink, collect some rainwater and feed that to your plants when it’s time to water them.

Aerate the Soil

In nature, the soil surrounding plants is full of worms, bugs, and other creatures. These all help prevent dry pockets of soil from clumping together, they keep moisture evenly distributed, and they aerate the soil. To simulate this with houseplants, poke holes down into the soil from time to time. I use a pencil or pen for this. Ultimately, this helps water and air reach the roots.

Hard Packed Soil


I have one plant that has really densely packed soil in its pot. I don’t know how this happened in the first place, but now when I water the plant, water drains out of the pot's drainage holes almost immediately. When this happens, water is passing through the potting soil without absorbing enough water for the plant's needs. To combat this problem, water the plant very slowly so the soil has a better chance to absorb the water.

After Watering


For nearly every plant, you should slowly pour water over the soil until water comes out of the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot. After watering, walk away and come back 15 - 30 minutes later to drain the excess water sitting in the saucer. If your pot doesn’t have a saucer, water it in the sink so your plant can drain excess water without making a mess on your floor.



When I was in college, I won a decently large beer pong tournament. If you know me personally, that might be pretty funny to you. And if you don’t know me, you might be surprised to read the words “beer pong” in a guide about houseplants.


I’ll assume that you understand the rules of the game, but if not, feel free to consult the official rules from the World Series of Beer Pong (not joking). At the start of a normal game of beer pong, you have 9 cups that you can toss the ping pong ball into. Now imagine that your opponent has covered 5 of those cups with a lid. You can still score, but you have a lower chance of landing the ball in a cup on a given toss.


If you’ll allow me to go here, a plant’s leaf is sort of like a rack of beer pong cups, and photons of light are sort of like a ping pong ball. If nothing is obstructing the leaf, photons (the particles that carry light) hit the leaf and are secured by chloroplasts inside the plant’s cells. Now imagine that the plant has a bunch of dust on its leaves. Much like a ping pong ball tossed towards a rack of beer pong cups with lids, photons that strike a dusty leaf have a lower chance of being secured by chloroplasts and turned into energy. With less light energy, the plant creates less food and ultimately lacks the proper nutrition it needs to grow.


In beer pong, the solution to this problem is to tell your opponent to stop cheating and take the lids off of the cups. With a plant, the solution is to clean the plant’s leaves.


Here are 3 methods to clean your plant’s leaves:

Clean your plants in the sink or shower


If you have a spray nozzle or a detachable shower head, use light water pressure and lukewarm water to gently spray the leaves of your plant until the dust and debris is gone. Be sure to support the leaves with your other hand during this process so you don’t accidentally break or damage any leaves. Air dry the plant before returning it to its place in your home. Warning: some plant owners report that this process leaves hard water stains on their plant’s leaves, just like the stains on a water glass. If you find this to be the case, try one of the other cleaning methods below.

Use a microfiber cloth


If you want to quickly remove dust from leaves, take a microfiber cloth or towel to your plant. This is a great habit to get into each time you water your plants. Taking the extra 30 seconds to dust the plant’s leaves will ensure that it can absorb as much sun as possible in its space.


Wash Leaves with Soap and Water


I was surprised to learn that a soapy water mixture does not harm plants, and can actually provide a thorough clean for plant leaves. Create a mixture of ¼ teaspoon dish soap with 4 cups of lukewarm water. Use a soft sponge or microfiber cloth to gently wash away dust and grime from your plant’s leaves. Be sure to support the other side of the plant and take care not to be too rough with the leaves.



Pruning involves selectively trimming parts of your plant to encourage new growth. This process includes getting rid of damaged or dead stems, removing leaves to thin out sections of a plant, and giving large plants a more compact shape.

You can certainly invest in a pair of pruning shears to make pruning easy - the benefit is that these provide very clean cuts that do the least damage to your plant. Many avid plant owners argue that using household scissors can crush stems and damage plants. I personally use a sharp pair of kitchen scissors, and as far as I can tell I have not irrevocably damaged my plants. I have no doubt that pruning shears are worth the investment (they are fairly inexpensive), I just haven’t made that investment yet. Regardless, these are the steps you will want to follow to prune your plants:

Plan Your Pruning


It is very important that you prune your plants in the spring or summer. These times of year provide plants with the most sunlight, which allows them to recover more quickly. Some plants release sticky substances when they are clipped, so it is a good idea to put down a drop cloth to protect your floor, just in case.


Finally, thoroughly clean your shears or scissors before clipping your plants. Pathogens on the tool can infect a plant, so it is a good idea to run your shears or scissors through the dishwasher or hand wash them before pruning.


Make the Cuts


As much as you can, try to make sharp, clean cuts just before leaf nodes (smaller branches) or as close to the main stem as possible (larger branches).


Click here for a video demonstration of pruning. She uses a knife in the video, but the same concepts apply to shears or scissors.


Cut Wisely


Some plants cannot tolerate many cuts without going into shock, so experts recommend cutting 10% of your plant’s stems or less, unless you have a particularly hearty plant. Plan to remove any sick, decaying, or dead stems and leaves first. Then focus on crowded areas of your plant. When too many leaves overlap, the leaves don’t get enough air, yet the plant continues to send nutrients to these leaves. The plant will be better off with fewer leaves in crowded areas and have more nutrients to send to the remaining leaves. This also allows the remaining leaves to grow without having to fight for space. Finally, if your plant is growing too large for your space, you can trim leaves that are sticking out too high or wide.


After Pruning


Your plant will probably start to look a little droopy for a few days after pruning, but it should start perking up again after a week or so and should continue growing new leaves within a few weeks. Be sure that you are fertilizing your plant regularly to encourage growth.



Fertilizer is essentially a multi-vitamin for a plant. In fact, plants require some of the same nutrients that humans need to survive, like potassium and phosphorus. Fertilizing plants every 60 days or so is an important process for a plant’s growth and development.


Plants are very good at extracting nutrients from the soil. Because indoor plants tend to remain potted in the same soil for a year or two at a time, they eventually pull all of the nutrients from their soil and require fertilizer for a nutrient boost. Recently potted plants and plants in low-light do not need fertilizer, but it is good for most other plants to receive fertilizer starting in the spring and through the summer, when the most growth occurs. However, if your plant continues to put out new leaves in the fall and winter, feel free to continue fertilizing to replace the nutrients the plant used to produce that new growth.


It’s not important to buy any particular brand of fertilizer, but it is important to check in with the N-P-K ratio (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio). A good rule of thumb is a 3-1-2 ratio of nitrogen (N) to phosphorous (P) to potassium (K). This ratio is safe for the general growth of nearly every houseplant. You will also commonly find 1-1-1 N-K-P ratios, and these are generally fine for plants as well. However, depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your plant, different ratios of nutrients can promote different types of growth. For example, more nitrogen promotes leaf production and more phosphorus promotes flower and fruit growth.


There is not a huge difference between solid and liquid fertilizers - both deliver the nutrients your plant needs. However, liquid fertilizers tend to be more cost efficient and they can be easily diluted if needed. This is important because it’s always better to under fertilize than over fertilize. It’s a good idea to dilute your fertilizer when you first use it, unless you have not fertilized in over a year. Once you pick out a fertilizer, follow the instructions on the packaging and don’t be afraid to use less than recommended. You can always start to slowly add more fertilizer if your plant can handle it - just be sure not to use more than recommended on the packaging.

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Occasionally repotting houseplants promotes new root growth and introduces new soil (and more nutrients) to your plant’s environment. Faster growing plants should be repotted every 12 to 18 months, but slow growing plants can remain in the same pot for a few years at a time (as long as they remain fertilized). If you determine that it’s time to repot a plant, follow these simple steps:


1. Water the plant the day before you repot it.

2. Put your hand or fingers around the main stem, and securely support the plant. Then, invert the pot and tap the pot’s rim on a firm surface. The root ball should come out, but if not, gently run a knife between the root ball and the pot to seperate it.

3. Gently pull soil from the root system, starting from the bottom of the root ball. Aim to free up at least the bottom ⅓ of the roots.

4. Grab a new clay pot that is larger than the previous pot. Place a handful or two of fresh soil in the pot. Place the root ball (with the freed up roots) in the center of the pot, so the center of the root ball is 1 - 2 inches lower than the rim of the pot. Place soil around and on top of the root ball. Gently make the soil firm enough to hold the root ball in place, but do not tightly pack the soil. The roots need room to move and grow.

Note: Soak the clay pot for 24 hours before repotting so it doesn’t pull all of the moisture out of the new soil. 

5. Lightly and slowly water the plant until water comes out of the drainage holes. Do not water the plant again until the plant passes the “knuckle test”.


If you've read this guide and started to realize that houseplants are a little more work than you thought, join the club. I've been surprised to discover that taking care of plants is a skill, just like any other THING on My Next Thing. For that reason, it has been a joy to practice taking care of houseplants and notice my improvement over time. I hope that you grow to appreciate the challenges, discoveries, and small victories involved with taking care of indoor plants.

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