5 mistakes everyone makes with house plants

Be a better plant parent and commit less houseplant homicide with this beginner's guide

Mistakes everyone makes with house plants
(Image credit: Getty)

I've been attempting to grow house plants for 20 years and I am just getting good at it. So it was with some shock that I discovered that cultivating plants has ‘blown up‘ on ’the TikTok’ and is now actually quite trendy – 'straight fire' and 'way hap' as today's young people put it. There is even a new and slightly gross term to describe this trend: being a 'plant parent'. Yeesh. 

This home horticultural boom, like the surprising recent popularity of Le Creuset, the best ebikes and small dogs with flat faces, is something I have to put down to a) lockdowns and b) young people being totally unable to buy a house and compensating by indulging in a kind of mum and dad cosplay. Still, if it gives me the chance to lecture plant parents on how to look after their plant 'children' then I'm all for it. If you know a lot about growing house plants, please go away now. I'm sure most of the advice I'm about to give is old news to you.

These, then, are the mistakes everyone – including me, repeatedly – make with house plants. Let's all be better plant parents and put an end to house plant homicide. These 5 tips barely scratch the surface of the myriad ways you can accidentally ruin plants, so expect a ‘part 2‘ very soon… 

1. Overwatering your plants

Dead plant, killed by overwatering or possibly under-watering

A dead plant. But was it killed by overwatering or under-watering?

(Image credit: Getty)

Yes, I said overwatering. 

Now, one of the most frustrating things about growing house plants is that if you don't water them enough, they go brown and shrivel up. And if you water them too much, they go brown and shrivel up. Seriously, what the hell kind of a half-baked system is this, Mother Nature?

The difference between these two sick states is that if you under-water a plant and it starts to look poorly, 90% of the time you can rescue it by watering it. If you overwater a plant and it starts to look poorly, you have to all intents and purposes already killed it. You can't suck excess moisture out of the soil and anyway the damage is already done. The rot has set in; sometimes literally.

There is a way to avoid overwatering and it is to water plants only once per week at most. If you want to be more 'scientific' about it, you can shove your finger as deep into the soil as you dare and see if it is dried out, and then water. Whether the soil on top is dry or not is largely irrelevant, so don't go by that. Anyway I find it easier, although rather time-consuming – to water everything once per week, on the same day.

Give the plant enough water that it starts to run out of the bottom of the pot and then leave it to ‘soak’ for a while. I usually go 10-15 minutes, because I gangster like that. Then remove that excess water, let it drain, and remove any further water that comes out. 

And this brings me on to another crucial error that some people make…

2. Keeping your plants in a pot with no holes in the bottom

What, are you nuts? Why would you do this? Never do this, unless you are Monty Don or something. Even then, probably not. Ideally you want to not just have holes in the bottom of your pot but also some sort of matter – bark chips or clay balls – to lift it off the surface of the plate, tray or pot holder beneath it. 

3. Thinking all you have to do is water your plants

Mistakes everyone makes with house plants

(Image credit: Getty)

While I was shocked to discover that house plant ownership was now an on-trend pastime, I was much less surprised to learn that the most popular plant among this new cadre of green-fingered wannabes was the monstera, aka the Swiss cheese plant. Why? Because this plant, which is frankly butt-ugly, is also almost impossible to kill. It doesn't need lots of care and attention to keep looking its best because 'its best' is really not all that attractive anyway. If you're this way inclined, some other retro/crap houseplants that will appeal to you are the spider plant and yucca palm. They are also all-but un-killable. 

Even a monstera can benefit from having its dust-magnet leaves wiped occasionally. More delicate/less hideous plants can require everything from wiping, spraying and fertilising to pest control, pruning and special lighting that mimics sunlight. Everything short of a bloody massage, in short. So if you're thinking of getting serious with your house plant collection, keep in mind that it will become rather time consuming.

4. Over fertilising

Baby Bio bottle

(Image credit: Baby Bio)

This is a newbie mistake that is similar to over watering. You’re anxious to care for your plant. You know plants like water and Baby Bio, Focus and other brands of house plant feed. Therefore the more you have water and feed them, the happier they’ll be. Right? Wrong, very wrong. Look at it this way. I like trifle. But if you give me trifle every day, including force feeding me with it when I don’t want it, I’m not going to be your friend.  

Always read the instructions on fertiliser – Baby Bio suggests ‘5-10 drops in half a litre of water,‘ which is a tiny amount – and feed plants sparingly. Usually not at all in winter and no more than once a week in summer, and for most plants, less than that. Otherwise your soil will become choked with salts and your plants will hate you. 

5.  Having too many plants

Mistakes everyone makes with house plants

Calm it down, mate

(Image credit: Getty)

It’s a matter of taste of course, but for me, this guy has too many big plants. Less is more. You’re generally better off pairing some medium-sized plants with small ones in a space, with maybe 1 big statement plant in your larger, well-lit rooms. Otherwise it ends up being too much work to maintain, and your home starts to resemble a jungle. 

Duncan has been writing about tech for almost 15 years and fitness ever since he became middle aged and realised he could no longer rely solely on his boyish good looks. He used to be on telly loads, but an unfortunate incident put a stop to that, so he now largely contents himself with telling people, "I used to be on the TV, you know."
Pre-lockdown Duncan was widely regarded as the best-dressed man ever to work for T3 – admittedly not saying much. Post-lockdown he is looking forward to wearing clothes other than shorts and hoodies again very soon, assuming he can still fit into them. He currently writes about cycling, fitness tech that isn’t too heavy, and all things kitchen and home related.