Smarter: 🌿How to Stop Killing Your Plants

Split monstera leaf on pink background, yellow on one side green on the other Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

The number of people buying plants skyrocketed during the pandemic. But just because you’ve purchased a ton of plants doesn’t mean you always know what to do when they’re struggling. This week, I’m discussing ways to be a better plant parent that don’t involve singing to them. I’ll also talk about what an ounce of dark chocolate and an apple have in common, and whether you should wash chicken before you cook it.

THE BIG STORY: 'You Grow, Girl'

One of the proudest moments I had as a plant parent was when my first indoor plant, a New Guinea impatiens that I named Ann Perkins because of its perky leaves, flourished last spring. In a few months, Ann Perkins grew by more than half of her initial height and seemed to produce a dewy new leaf every time I wasn’t looking.

Those were the honeymoon days. And then came summer. My plant didn’t respond well to the blaze of the summer sun. Paranoid, I started to water her—in hindsight, way too often. Checking on her every day became painful as I watched her slowly collapse from the heat and my frantic, likely misguided attempts to resuscitate her. I remembered crying when I finally decided that she wouldn’t survive and cleared out her pot, leaving one stem to dry out and keep.

Get Smarter About Houseplants & More

Call me melodramatic, and I’ll call it parenting. (I’m not saying it was good parenting.) I do believe, however, these are moments every plant parent can relate to, both the joys of seeing a plant thrive and the grief when a plant dies. There are also the emotions in between and the stress of not knowing what you’re doing wrong when your plant looks unhealthy.

So to help any first-time plant owner out there who’s still trying to learn how to take care of their plants, I’ve asked plant shop owners and workers, plant experts, and Instagram plant influencers about the most common mistakes beginners make and how to avoid them, and about the easier, more accommodating plants that beginners can start with.

What are the most common mistakes?

1. Misunderstanding your plant’s lighting needs.
Several experts I talked with mentioned that plant owners often forget to give their plants sufficient light. And just because a plant is tolerant of low light does not mean that it will thrive in such lighting conditions. 

🌱tip: Most houseplants do best in bright, indirect light. Generally speaking, west- and east-facing windows offer bright indirect light and are well-suited for most tropical houseplants, says Lindsay Pangborn, a gardening expert at online plant retailer Bloomscape.

🌱tip: Check how much light your space actually has. Taking note of things such as the direction your windows face and the amount of light coming in will help you avoid buying a plant that has lighting requirements you can’t meet.

🌱tip: Imagine the plant’s natural habitat. Whenever you are confused about how much light your plants need, look up where their natural habitat is and that might give you a better idea of how much light they usually receive.

🌱tip: Group your plants by family, advises Chris Raimondi, horticulturist and president of Raimondi Horticultural Group, an interior landscape company based in New Jersey, as plants in the same family will have similar lighting needs.

2. Overwatering your plants (sorry, Ann Perkins, I definitely did this).
Overwatering is extremely common as new plant parents might be sticking to an overly rigid watering schedule that leads to them flooding the soil with water, which could cause root rot and the leaves to turn yellow. 

🌿tip: Underwatering is safer than overwatering. “When you’re confused about how much to water, always err on the side of not enough—underwatering is a much easier problem to fix,” says Olivia Z. Cote, the social media manager of Urban Garden Center, a plant store in New York City.

🌿tip: Adapt to your plant when it comes to watering. Most plants like to have the soil dried out before you water them again. Instead of adhering to a strict watering schedule, you can stick your finger in the soil to gauge the dryness or use a water meter, suggests Jira Sai, owner of Plant Corner NYC.

🌿tip: Drainage holes are your friend. When you water your plants, pour slowly and stop after the water trickles through the holes, Pangborn suggests. The drainage holes will allow excess water to drain from the pot and prevent root rot. Make sure to remove any excess water that has accumulated in the saucer as well.

3. Being a helicopter plant parent (I feel attacked.)
Plants are much more resilient than we think and could benefit from a little bit of neglect. As experts pointed out, sometimes less is more.

🌲tip: Practice “mindful neglect.” Instagram-famous urban gardener Nick Cutsumpas says allowing your plants the space to experience stress as they adjust to a new environment is important. Plants are slow and “the opposite of instant gratification,” Cutsumpas says.

🌲tip: Don’t beat yourself up for losing a plant. Interior stylist and Instagram gardener Kamili Bell Hill says she likes to joke that “you never know exactly how to take care of a plant until you’ve killed it at least twice.” You might make mistakes in the process, but “if you learn from the mistakes you made, then it’s not so much a loss as just an opportunity to grow. Pun intended.”

Snake plant, American Baby Rubber Plant, and zamiokulkas flower

Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

DOUBLING DOWN

Which plants are good for beginners to start with? Here are some recommendations. (My Consumer Reports colleague Anna Kocharian, who has written a lot on plants and plant care, has a few others.)

Snake plant: Often the go-to recommendation for novice plant owners, the snake plant is tolerant of low light and is forgiving when you forget to water it.

ZZ plant: Like the snake plant, the ZZ plant is a succulent that requires very infrequent watering. “If you kill a snake plant or a ZZ plant, I would be very surprised,” says Julio Garcia, president of NY City Succulents, a plant shop based in Astoria, New York City.

Ponytail palm: A sun-loving succulent with long, hairlike leaves, it needs watering only once every few weeks because it stores water in its trunk. 

Bonnie spider: Recommended by Garcia, the bonnie spider, which enjoys some humidity and can tolerate low levels of light, is a great choice for people looking for a bathroom plant. 

Parlor palm: An easygoing plant that has been cultivated since the Victorian era and is very resilient toward indoor conditions. Just don’t blast it with direct, intense sun, Erin Marino from online houseplant retailer The Sill advises.

Bonus tip: Here are a few plants that, despite their popularity, might be challenging for beginners: fiddle-leaf figs (require just the right amount of bright light and are, well, fiddly about their watering preferences), variegated monsteras (expensive and need more light compared with regular monstera varieties), calatheas (tap water-sensitive), and ferns (oh, man, they need a lot of humidity).

QUIZ

Let’s see how good your knowledge of stain removal is—which type of stain do you think toothpaste can help get rid of?

A. Ketchup on upholstery
B. Makeup on carpet
C. Blood on clothes
D. Water rings on wood

Answers at the end of the newsletter—make sure you don’t peek!

Chocolate in foil wrapper

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

BY THE NUMBERS

What do an ounce of dark chocolate and a 6-ounce apple have in common?

Surprisingly, they contain about the same amount of fiber, which is around 3 to 5 grams.

Turns out, dark chocolate has a pretty good amount of nutrients. In addition to fiber, an ounce of dark chocolate can contain 203 mg of potassium, same as a half-cup of cooked broccoli. Cool. Going to start an exclusive meat-and-dark-chocolate-only diet now*.

*Only joking. Vegetables are nice, too.

THE GOOD STUFF

Knock knock, ram’s here.

@consumerreports We test door locks for strength—so you can keep annoying relatives (or whoever else you choose) *out* this holiday season 🔒. #doorlock #lock #oddlysatisfing ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

ASK AN EXPERT

Question
How can I stay warm if my power goes out during a winter storm?

Answer
Here are some ways you can stay warm so you don’t freeze your butt off, according to CR’s home writer Paul Hope, who’s also a passionate DIYer.

Get a generator. Even if you’ve already lost power, you shouldn’t lose hope. It’s worth buying a portable generator, which will be enough to help power a space heater and charge your cell phone. If you have trouble finding a generator in a home center or power equipment dealer, try places like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, or a local RV or boat dealership. 

When you use the generator, make sure you avoid running it in an enclosed place and keep it at least 20 feet away from your home to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Use a fireplace or other heating sources. If you don’t have a fireplace, try a portable propane heater designed for indoor use. But only in an emergency, and be careful to keep it on a hard, fireproof surface and away from children, pets, or flammable materials. Because propane heaters produce carbon monoxide, make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are working and keep a window slightly open for ventilation.

Seal window and door leaks. It’s important to keep out cold air, so try sealing your windows and doors with caulk or weather stripping. If you can’t get ahold of these materials, you can use duct tape and clear plastic sheeting for windows. For drafty doors, try draft guards or towels and blankets. 

Camp indoors. If you have tents or sleeping bags, you can consider camping inside your house as they will help keep you warm, especially at night. To keep the space warmer, have your family gathered in a shared space. The more people there are, the greater the collective heat.

Dress for warmth. Wear loose layers instead of one heavy layer, and make sure you stay dry. Nothing makes fighting against the cold worse than moisture.

If you have a question you want to ask an expert, email me. I’m all ears!

THE SHORT ANSWER

Should you wash your chicken before you cook it? Well, no.

QUIZ ANSWER

The answer is D, water rings on wood. If you see a pesky water ring on your wooden table that is hard to remove, try rubbing a dab of non-gel toothpaste in the direction of the wood grain and wipe it with a clean cloth. 

And if you want to test out more of your knowledge about stain removal, here’s another fun quiz to try out so that next time you, for example, spill mustard all over your shirt like a bad Jackson Pollock, you don’t have to panic.


"When I sing to my plants, they ask me to stop."



Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."