From Spotlight: Hack Your Home

10 Strategies to Stop Murdering Your Plants

How to care for house plants so you can have a lush indoor landscape.

variety of well cared for Indoor houseplants in a stylish home living room with vintage furniture
Image: FollowTheFlow/Getty

"Stop her before she kills again!"

Hear that? That's your jade plant whispering to your bamboo palm every time you approach the windowsill.

If you're guilty of accidentally murdering your beloved houseplants, it's not too late to stop the cycle! Whether you tend to neglect your greenery or drown it with too much water, here's how to care for houseplants.

#1 Don't Listen to the Internet

Not every site vets its advice as carefully as (ahem) others. Just say no to these popular internet ideas to water your plants:

  • A damp sponge in the bottom of the pot.
  • Melting ice cubes.
  • An upside-down bottle filled with water.

No, no, and no.

"Most houseplants die because they're overwatered," says Judy Feldstein, a freelance author specializing in houseplants and author of "Don't Feed Me to Your Cat! A Guide to Poisonous Houseplants."

The damp sponge and drip systems are bad ideas, Feldstein says, because "if the soil stays moist all the time, no oxygen can get into the soil, the plant roots can't breathe, and then they'll rot, and the plant will die."

As for melting ice cubes, most plants have the same attitude toward water as Brits with their beer — room temperature, thank you very much.

Related: These Plants Will Perk Up Your Mood and Banish the Winter Blues

#2 Watch Your Water Content

"You don't have to use bottled or distilled, but don't use water that's passed through a softener; it's too salty," Feldstein says.

If you've been using softened water and your plants seem fine, it may be that you've chosen hardier plants — or not enough time has gone by. Softened water has sodium in it, and over a long period of time can build up and be toxic to your plants. If softened is your only option, create a reservoir at the bottom of the pot with rocks where the salt can collect, or periodically leach out the sodium with an alternate water source, like rainwater.

Municipally added fluoride and chlorine can take their toll, too. "If your water contains a lot of fluoride or chlorine, fill your watering can and allow it to sit out overnight," says Feldstein. "The chemicals will dissipate, and you can use the water."

#3 Be More Afraid of Overwatering Than Underwatering

You love your plants. But just like your grandma trying to hard-sell you a third serving of lasagna, sometimes too much love is just too much.

Overwater and you'll kill your plants. "Underwater, and your plants' leaves may droop and yellow, but you can save the plant once you water it," Feldstein says.

How much is too much? If you pick up the pot and it's lighter than it looks, chances are the soil's dry. If you've got a large plant that you can't lift, just stick your finger in the soil about an inch. If it's not damp, it's watering time.

But don't go overboard. Some plants need more water than others. Succulents, for example, don't need much. Thin, delicate plants might need more water. Temperature, sunlight, even pot type (a clay pot will suck moisture away from your plant) all affect watering needs. Bottom line: Learn as much as you can about your plant.

Some signs you might be overwatering:

  • Young and old leaves fall at the same time.
  • Root rot shows up as mushy, brown, possibly odorous roots are in pot bottom.
  • Standing water is in container underliner.
  • Flowers become moldy.
  • Leaves develop brown, soft, rotten patches and fail to grow.

If the soil stays moist all the time, no oxygen can get into the soil, the plant roots can't breathe, and then they'll rot, and the plant will die.

Judy Feldstein, plant designer

#4 Feed Them Coffee and Egg Shells

Try mixing coffee grounds or egg shells into the soil. Yup. Garbage. Store-bought potting soil has all the nutrients your plants need, but about once a year, calcium-rich egg shells can give plants a great boost (do it too often and you'll change the soil's pH balance). Clean off the icky stuff, let them sit out to dry, then crush them to a coarse powder. Pour that around the base of the plants, and water.

Coffee grounds have nitrogen — yummy for plants. Different plants like a different amount of coffee, just like humans. To get a sense of how much to use, start with a teaspoon a week mixed into the soil, and then increase the amount until your plants stop showing signs of improvement. Then it should be good to go for a while.

#5 Keep 'Em Separated (from Your Pets)

Cat got your mother-in-law's tongue? Hopefully not, because that plant can make your cat sick, and being eaten doesn't work out well for the plant, either. Feldstein recommends the following to keep cats away:

  • Put orange or lemon rinds on the soil. (They don't like the smell.)
  • Spray spicy cayenne pepper on the leaves.
  • Place crumpled tin foil on the soil. (Cats aren't fans.)
  • Put camphor balls in the soil if you're brave enough to risk smelling like your grandma's closet.

"You might also give your cat a grassy plant of his own to play with," Feldstein says. Yes, there are grasses you can grow just for your kitty. Typically a mix of oat, rye, barley, and wheat grasses, says the Humane Society. Introduce them to their own grass and play with the leaves to pique their interest.

#6 Go Easy on the Fertilizer

Dilute your plant food. Too much fertilizer is worse than no fertilizer at all. “Fertilizers contain salts, which can build up in the soil," Feldstein says. “It will burn the roots, and the tips of your plant leaves will go brown. Dilute the plant food one-half to one-quarter the recommended strength."

#7 Give Plants a Haircut

You know that light, airy feeling you have after a haircut? Your plants love it, too. Just because your spider plant is long enough to ring the room doesn't mean it's healthy. Pruning houseplants helps them grow stronger and more lush.

Prune dead leaves, limbs, and flowers at the beginning of the growing season or after the plant has flowered. While a few plants don't need pruning, most are happier when they're all spruced up.

Related:  Best Indoor Plants for Cleaning the Air

8. Park Them in the Right Place

Location, location, location. All plants need some amount of light to grow — whether sunlight or artificial light. But direct sunlight "will burn their leaves," Feldstein says.

Before setting your plant in a spot, place an object there and check brightness by watching the object's shadow. Intense light creates a more defined shadow.

The direction the sunlight is coming from can make a difference, too. Even plants that thrive in lots of sunshine may not be so happy in a west-facing window come spring or summer, when the sun is most intense.

And be aware that some plants, like ficus, can be so sensitive to cold air that placing it near the entry might aid its demise every time someone opens the door.

9. Know When to Repot

Sometimes your plants will get too big for their clay britches. When that happens, it's time to repot.

To find out if your little one is ready to graduate, gently remove it from its pot. "If the roots have taken on the shape of the pot, it's time to move to a larger pot," Feldstein says. The new container should be about two inches wider and a couple of inches deeper than the old one.

"Then, don't feed the plant [with fertilizer] for at least six weeks after repotting so it has time to acclimate. And, remember that now that the pot is larger, it'll take longer for the soil to dry and you won't have to water as often."

10. Choose the Easiest Plants to Grow

If you truly believe you're the Norman Bates of plant owners, there's still a way to enjoy the beauty and benefits of plant life in your home. Try plants with thicker leaves and stems; they'll need less water. Think jade and aloe. Other easy-care plants include dracaena, pothos, and heart leaf philodendron.

And then there are air plants, tillandsia, which still need to be watered, but grow without soil, getting all their nutrients from the air. In general, says Feldstein, "buy plants that are so easy to care for that if you forget about them for three weeks, they'll be fine."

Related: The Best-Smelling Houseplants

Author photo of writer Stacey Freed
Stacey Freed

Stacey Freed writes about homes, design, remodeling, and construction for online and print national trade and consumer publications, including "Better Homes & Gardens." Previously, she was a senior editor at "Remodeling" magazine. Follow Stacey on Twitter.