How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid
(Illustration: Loni Harris)

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

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As lockdowns ease, and people begin to dip their toes back into normal life, the Covid-era houseplant bloom risks wilting into a pile of brown leaves.

“One of the reasons people got interested in house plants over Covid is that they were suddenly home all the time, looking for routines and rituals,” says Emily L. Hay Hinsdale, the author of the forthcoming book Never Put a Cactus in the Bathroom (Tiller Press, $18).

“They need to keep on a watering schedule, keep on pruning and dusting and fertilizing, and make sure it becomes part of their new routine as their quarantine status changes,” continues Hinsdale.

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

For many who just learned to water properly, it might come as news that proper plant regimens include pruning, dusting, and fertilizing. Particularly if you’ve had a plant for nearly a year now and it seems to be doing … fine?

But many problems are slow to develop. Dust can build up, effectively suffocating the plant. (Look for yellow, drooping leaves—or, you know, check to see if it’s dusty.) Fungus can grow on a plant’s stem and leaves. (Look for patchy, blotchy leaves.) Roots can slowly but surely break up to the surface and out of the bottom of the pot. (Get a bigger one, stat.)

You’ve been doing a manageable job until now. It’s time to get ready for the long haul. 

Hinsdale insists that keeping healthy the flora you’ve jammed onto windowsills and office desks and kitchen shelves “shouldn’t be overwhelming.” Remember, she continues, “there are some pretty simple things you can do to keep your plant alive.”

Start From the Soil Up

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

You bought a plant. It was already in a pot, so all you have to worry about is water and sunlight, right? Maybe not, says Hinsdale. “Soil has nutrients when you put it in there, but after a while it’s not good anymore,” she says. “It really varies on the plant, some need to be repotted to refresh soil, and some you can get by with some fertilizer.”

What doesn’t vary is plants’ need for some kind of fresh soil on a fairly regular basis. 

For the unlucky apartment owner whose one-bedroom doesn’t include a potting shed, dumping out a pot full of dirt and filling it with slightly wetter dirt might represent an insurmountable hurdle.

But Hinsdale says there are workarounds. “You can get by with some fertilizer,” she says. “It’s specific to species, so there’s an orchid fertilizer, a citrus tree fertilizer—all kinds.” (Whatever the category, she recommends diluting it beyond the manufacturer’s directions; less is more when it comes to fertilizer.)

There’s a final option: With larger plants, “sometimes what people do is take out excess soil from around the roots and replace it with fresh soil,” she says.

Actually, Maybe Start With the Pot

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

“My daughters bought succulents from Trader Joe’s recently,” Hinsdale says, “but the pots don’t have holes, so the succulents are going to die.”

If you are in the same boat—namely, if you have purchased a plant whose water can’t drain—chances are it doesn’t have long for this world. “When you pour in water and there’s nowhere for it to go, you’re not just getting the soil wet,” Hinsdale says. “It’s just sitting around the roots of your plant, and they’ll start to drown, and rot.”

The good news is that there’s an easy fix: Just put your plant into a pot that does have some form of drainage. Or drill some holes into the pot you’ve got.

Pick a Spot That Works for Both of You

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably kept (most) of your plants alive. But there’s a good chance they’re not thriving, and there’s an even better chance that this is because they’re not in the right place in your house.

You probably bought a plant that came with a tag that said “low light,” “medium light,” or “bright light.” Low light means that it will get less than four hours of sun, medium requires four to six hours, and bright light usually means more than six hours of daylight.

There’s no one-size-fits-all guide to tell if your plant is getting too much or too little light, but take the case of the highly popular Pothos plant: pale leaves mean too much sun; no leaf variation means it’s not getting enough. If you’re unsure as to what’s best for your plant, snap a photo and do an internet search. There is ample guidance available.

Ferns work great in the bathroom, because they need humidity. Herbs work great in rooms such as kitchens that have a lot of light. (Convenient!) Cactuses need to be in as dry an environment as possible. And so forth.

Most Plants Are Not Designed for Monsoons

How to Keep Your Houseplants Alive After Covid

“Overwatering is probably the most common mistake people make,” says Hinsdale. “They just end up adding water every time the soil looks slightly dry, and most plants can’t tolerate that much water.” Similarly, misting is great for some plants (ferns, orchids) and not ideal for many others. “Take an African violet,” Hinsdale says. “You can’t get water on its leaves; they’d turn brown.”

The top-line takeaway, she says, is: “This is a living creature, so you need to be routine in your care for it, just as you would a pet.” 

Well, maybe not a pet. Hinsdale is quick to acknowledge “it’s not the end of the world” if, despite all your efforts, the plant dies.  “Some plants don’t make it,” she says. “Keep trying, and make sure next time you pick one that fits what you have to offer.”

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