Create an Indoor Green Space for Better Health

Science says plants make people happy—by reducing stress, boosting your immune system, and more

Plants sitting around an at home office Photo: Tanya Paton/iStock

Even if it ain’t easy being green, it’s worth it to try. Being around plants has been shown to give us an array of benefits.

According to a 2019 study in The Lancet, researchers found that access to green spaces is associated with better mental health, benefits to the immune system and to metabolism, improved pregnancy outcomes, a reduction in cardiovascular disease, and reduced premature mortality.

“The color green reduces stress in your central nervous system,” says David Rojas, an assistant professor in Epidemiology at Colorado State University who co-authored the Lancet. However, a painted green wall or green-colored painting doesn’t provide the health benefits of having plants at home.

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You don’t need to spend a ton of time among plants to reap the benefits, according to Kathleen Wolf, a social scientist and researcher for the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. “At about 20 to 30 minutes, you achieve the peak benefit in whatever green setting you choose,” says Wolf. “An hour sheds the bad mood and experiences you brought to the space.”

If you find yourself unable to make it to a green space outside on a regular basis, consider creating one indoors. “From an environmental psychology perspective, you can create a space that mentally feels away,” says Wolf. “You want to create a feeling of being physically in a different location. You don’t need that great of a space.” 

In addition to the benefit of having plants to help de-stress, gardening is a relaxing physical activity for both children and adults. Moving pots and bags of soil, carrying watering cans, and lifting plants onto shelves make for a great non-strenuous workout. Everyone who’s had a hand in keeping a plant healthy can also be proud of how the plant looks while appreciating it for its aesthetics.

If you’re wondering whether plants help clean the air, the answer is possibly, but don’t expect them to work miracles. One recent study in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology found you’d need 10 to 1,000 plants per square meter for there to be an impact on lowering VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, in the air, and that depends on the level of concentration of VOCs in your home. The study didn’t cover other types of air pollutants. There is also evidence that bacteria in soil help filter VOCs from the air. So having potted plants could be a one-two punch to indoor air pollutants.

All it takes is one plant to start receiving benefits, says Rojas. To create your own indoor green space, here’s what the experts suggest you do, in the order of importance.

Snake plants

Photo: Grumpy Cow Studios/iStock Photo: Grumpy Cow Studios/iStock

Pick a Plant, Any Plant, That Is Easy To Maintain

How do you know a plant is easy to care for? Both Rojas and Wolf suggest going to a local nursery and asking for options based on how much light you have and how much physical space you can allow for a plant.

You can also check the care tag that comes with a plant to see what kind of light it needs and how often you should water it. For instance, the sansevieria plant (also known as the snake plant) grows well in low light and doesn’t require frequent watering. If it’s unclear from the tag how to care for a plant, there are a number of guides online at the National Gardening Association that provide more detail. You can also buy plants online; just be sure to check the care instructions in the description.

You can increase the variety of plants you can keep indoors by getting a plant grow light, which can cost as little as $8 at stores like Home Depot and Walmart, or on Amazon. These bathe plants—like sun-loving succulents and desert plants—in the amount of light they need to stay healthy. So you can grow a great green space even in a dark room.

Choose Plants Based on Where You Live

Keep in mind when you shop that plants are generally harder to maintain when they’re not native to your area. They often require more care, which could mean more water, and possibly fertilizer and other chemicals to keep them healthy. Using chemicals adds to indoor pollution, so you’ll want to keep them to a minimum.

Again, Wolf suggests talking to workers at a local nursery to see if there are native plants that also do well indoors. “There are seasonal temperature changes, humidity, and light differences depending on where you live, even indoors,” says Wolf.

For example, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, you could opt for a piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii), a native option that doesn’t mind being potted up inside, provided you find a spot with bright, indirect light and no direct sun. If you live in Southern California, you could try the common lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) in a bathroom window, as it likes humidity and some light. In the Midwest, wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) do well in containers and also don’t mind being somewhat in the shade.

person tending to potted plant

Photo: Pekic/iStock Photo: Pekic/iStock

When You’ve Mastered Caring for Your First Plant, Add Variety

“Different plants introduce more bacteria into your microbiome,” says Rojas. "Microbiomes" refers to the variety of bacteria in your gut which can improve everything from your digestive health to your immunity. The more diverse your microbiome, the healthier it is.

The microbiome is present on our skin, digestive tract, lungs, and other external tissues, Rojas says. “Touching plants and soil can help, but you’ll also get bacteria through inhalation or ingestion.”

Rojas points out that you may want to curb how often you wash your hands to maximize the benefits from plants. “If you wash your hands, you will remove those microorganisms that you touched and those you naturally have in your skin,” says Rojas. “Washing your hands is essential to prevent infectious diseases. But doing it too often will also remove the good microorganisms that protect you.”

Person potting plants

Photo: Sarinya Pinngam/iStock Photo: Sarinya Pinngam/iStock

Make the Area Around Your Plants a Comforting Space

Wolf suggests adding comfortable seating to make it a welcoming spot in your home that you want to spend time in. “Create a place that you can become a part of,” says Wolf. “You can create an interior-scape. Each of us finds fascination in different plant textures and flower colors and growth. Think, what is a composition that I can build around me?”

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Home Content Creator Haniya Rae

Haniya Rae

I​’m interested in the intersection between design and technology​—whether for ​drywall or robotic vacuums—and how the resulting combination affects consumers. I’ve written about consumer advocacy issues for publications like The Atlantic, PC Magazine, and Popular Science, and now I’m happy to be tackling the topic for CR. For updates, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@haniyarae).