I love growing houseplants and here is how I avoid killing them (usually)

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

House plants on a window sill
(Image credit: Duncan Bell)

I've been growing house plants for 20 years now, and I finally seem to have reached the point where I don't kill them. I am too lazy to wipe leaves down – putting them under a low-pressure shower works okay for getting dust and crud off the leaves – but I do all the repotting, and the watering and the feeding  and it really doesn't take all that much of my time. It is also kind of therapeutic, especially after years of accidentally ruining plants and being surrounded with sad, brown-looking specimens that were too weak to fend off bugs and infections. 

The worst mistake I ever made with a plant was to knock over a potted cactus and attempt to catch it on its way off the window sill. Please, I beg you, do not ever do this. Receiving dozens of tiny wounds simultaneously can make you nearly faint, like receiving one large, proper wound. And on that occasion, the pot still smashed anyway. Sad times. In ascending order, here are the other mistakes I've made when trying to grow house plants. Avoid all these, and you will be more of a plant parent and less of a flora killer. 

1. Buying crap plants in the first place

Mistakes everyone makes with house plants

Buying very established plants is a safe but expensive way to shop

(Image credit: Getty)

I am pretty good at avoiding this when shopping for myself now. The bad news is, other people still gift me plants, and then we have to have an awkward conversation where I am trying to appear grateful, rather than saying, "Why have you given me a dead plant as a present?"

The things to look out for are so obvious. Yes I know British people hate to make a fuss in a shop but if the plant has any crispy or brown leaves, odd-looking patches of colour on the leaves, droopiness (in non-droopy plants), either move on to the next plant, or ask the shop guy, "How can I revive this wack-looking plant?" 

Most importantly, if you observe any kind of mould, or any insects that appear to have come from the soil of the plant, move on immediately. Unless, of course, you prefer being a plant doctor to a plant parent, like some kind of Mother Theresa of the Shrubbery.

The other thing you should absolutely do is have a spot in your home in mind, and ask, "how much light does this plant need?" If it's for your windowless bathroom, for instance, it will almost certainly die unless you get a plant so shade-loving, it is basically the goth of the plant world.

If the shop guy doesn't know the answer, there's always the internet, but make sure the advice you get is from the same country as you're in. I thought for years that it was hard to grow aloe vera indoors, but it turned out that advice was from an American website – seriously, aloe grows like giant hogweed in most British homes.

2. 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…

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

What, are you nuts? Why would you do this? Never do this. 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. 

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

Mistakes everyone makes with house plants

Yes, you really are supposed to do this

(Image credit: Getty)

I was shocked to discover, recently, that house plant ownership is now an on-trend pastime, popular on TikTok. I was much less surprised to learn that the most popular plant among younger house plant fans is 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 unkillable. However, even a monstera will benefit from having its dust-magnet leaves wiped regularly. 

More delicate 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.

5. 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. 

6.  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. 

To be fair, that is what my home is increasingly like, but do as I say, not as I do.

Duncan Bell

Duncan is the former lifestyle editor of T3 and has been writing about tech for almost 15 years. He has covered everything from smartphones to headphones, TV to AC and air fryers to the movies of James Bond and obscure anime. His current brief is everything to do with the home and kitchen, which is good because he is an excellent cook, if he says so himself. He also covers cycling and ebikes – like over-using italics, this is another passion of his. In his long and varied lifestyle-tech career he is one of the few people to have been a fitness editor despite being unfit and a cars editor for not one but two websites, despite being unable to drive. He also has about 400 vacuum cleaners, and is possibly the UK's leading expert on cordless vacuum cleaners, despite being decidedly messy. A cricket fan for over 30 years, he also recently become T3's cricket editor, writing about how to stream obscure T20 tournaments, and turning out some typically no-nonsense opinions on the world's top teams and players.

Before T3, Duncan was a music and film reviewer, worked for a magazine about gambling that employed a surprisingly large number of convicted criminals, and then a magazine called Bizarre that was essentially like a cross between Reddit and DeviantArt, before the invention of the internet. There was also a lengthy period where he essentially wrote all of T3 magazine every month for about 3 years. 

A broadcaster, raconteur and public speaker, Duncan 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."