Become a perfect ‘plant parent’: Tips for plant care in the city

Tray Ling

Adding plants to your home not only beautifies your space, but boosts your mood, a welcome benefit amid the coronavirus pandemic, say local experts. “Maybe it’s a stretch to say having a plant on your work-from-home desk is going to improve your outlook for the day, but I think a […]

Adding plants to your home not only beautifies your space, but boosts your mood, a welcome benefit amid the coronavirus pandemic, say local experts.

“Maybe it’s a stretch to say having a plant on your work-from-home desk is going to improve your outlook for the day, but I think a lot of people would argue that it does,” said Lindsey Swett, owner of Niche, a boutique garden center in Boston and Cambridge.

“Anything that is growing, it gives you a sense of optimism,” said Julio César Román, owner of Micro Plant Studio in Boston. “That, for me, has been very beautiful.”

Ahead, experts offer five tips for caring for plants at your home.

1. Consider the sunlight in your home.

The amount of sunlight in your home should guide your plant choice, the experts said.

“Light really is one of the biggest things to consider,” said Swett. “And that will dictate what you’re able to do.”

Urban dwellings often have low light, so plants such as philodendrons and snake plants make a great choice, Swett said. Plants that do well in medium light or filtered light are peace lilies, starfish, and ZZ plants, Roman said.

If your space really lacks light, it’s worth looking into a grow light, which is artificial light that mimics sunlight, Swett said.

“There are tons of options,” she said. “Some are light bulbs that go into your lamp. There are companies doing really cool plug-in pendants that are really design forward or track lights that you can attach to your ceiling and highlight a whole wall of plants.”

Snake plants, philodendrons, ZZ plants, and pothos make great “starter plants” because they’re easy to care for, Swett said.

“We sell a lot of those,” she said. “Especially for people who come in and want to just get something but they aren’t sure what.”

It’s always a good idea to talk to your local plant expert about a plant’s needs before taking it home, the experts said.

2. Choose a non-toxic plant if you own pets.

Pet owners worried about their furry friends can choose from many non-toxic plants on the market, the experts said.

Plants great for pet owners include bird’s nest fern, spider plant, peperomia, bromeliad, money tree plant, calatheas, pileas, string of hearts, and fittonia, Roman said.

No matter which plant you choose, if your pet is curious and/or very active, think about choosing a hanging plant or placing your newly acquired plant on a high shelf, he said, so your pet doesn’t get into it.

3. Understand your plant’s water needs.

If you travel frequently or aren’t home a lot, a low-maintenance plant like a succulent is best, Roman said. Succulents are plants that store water in their roots, stems, and leaves.

“They are easy care because you don’t have to water them as much,” Roman said.

String succulents — string of hearts, string of pearls, string of bananas, and string of dolphins — are trendy right now, Roman said.

You can ask your local plant expert for a plant that can be watered biweekly or monthly, Swett said, such as snake plants, cactus, and aloe.

Though there are some special circumstances, a good rule of thumb is to water your plants weekly, not daily, Swett said. When your plant isn’t getting the proper amount of water, it will often show signs of distress, the experts said.

“Some plants, when they are over watered, the leaves will turn yellow,” Roman said. “If they are under-watered, some leaves will start to turn droopy.”

“People can overwater without realizing it,” Swett said.

If the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot it may be dry, she said, and if the pot is very heavy, it may be full of water.

You can measure the wetness of your soil using a toothpick for small plants or wooden chopstick for larger plants, Roman said. Use a grab-and-go or takeout chopstick rather than one with a finish on it, so the tool is absorbent, he said. Poke towards the middle and all the way down into the soil, but be gentle so you don’t harm the root system, he said.

“Turn it left and right,” Roman said. “If it comes out dry, that means it needs water.”

4. Pay attention to when your plant needs repotting.

A plant’s roots hold clues for when you should repot it, the experts said.

“Usually when a plant needs to repot, there’s several things you can tell,” Roman said. “The plant becomes rootbound, and what that means is the root has gone around and around the pot and is now coming out the holes or above the pot,” he said.

Examine the soil as well, he said.

“The other thing is, you’ll start to see a reduction of soil that’s mostly just root system and not so much soil,” Roman said.

When you repot, you typically want to get a pot that’s 2 inches bigger in diameter, Swett said. If you go too big, you could smother your plant with too much soil and water, she said.

Want to save money on a bigger pot? Ask your local plant expert for a plastic grower’s pot, which many give away for free since they have them in abundance, Swett said. You can then dress it up by dropping it into a pretty basket, she said.

5. Feed your plant.

Most plant soil contains plant food, Roman said, but it deteriorates after a while. Plant food replaces what the plants are eating, he said.

Feed your plants plant food at least twice a month, Roman said.

“For the most part, you do want to feed plants,” he said. “What you don’t want to do is overfeed them.”

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