By Dan Pogust
Distraught over a dead plant? Don't give up! As I explained in our last two entries, I truly believe that there is a plant for everyone, and the best way to figure out which plants like you is to try growing members of different plant groups. In this article, I have grouped plants based on similar care requirements and I provide levels of difficulty within each category. While this may not be true of everyone, I would recommend starting with one of the plants suggested in one of the "Level 1" sections. If that works for you, try one from "Level 2" of the same type. On the contrary, if the "Level 1" plant didn't do too well, try a different category of plant. I've also avoided using common names, because when you stop by one of our favorite local garden centers with a plant in mind, the experts can easily help you.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
If you don’t have too much light in your home, but you really want to grow plants indoors, lowlight are the plants for you. You don’t need grow lamps and you rarely ever need fertilizer. These plants are great for filling up the darker regions of your house, especially because of how quickly they can multiply. Just make sure you never overwater them. They will do fine with underwatering, but overwatering will really put the nail in their coffin.
Level 1: Aroids
Pothos, philodendrons, and anthuriums are all fantastic houseplants because they’re rarely ever bothered by pests and they don’t really care if you forget to water them for a week. Many aroids are vines, so they can be trained like ivy up your wall, or across your ceiling.
Level 2: Begonias
Begonias may have pathetic flowers, but their foliage is often spectacular. The diversity of colors, patterns, and shapes is mind-boggling and gives the houseplant hobbyist hundreds (if not thousands) of options.
Level 3: Clivia
Clivias are South African bulbs that are closely related to amaryllises and hippeastrum, but I placed them in the third tier because they are more challenging than one might assume. Clivias require a chilly (6 weeks of 40F with no water) dormancy period which can sometimes be challenging to simulate. Just make sure wherever it is it barely gets any light; Clivias can (and will) sunburn in the most unattractive ways.
If you have a couple sunny windows in your house, but you really can’t be bothered with watering once a week, or fertilizing once a month, xeric/desert plants are for you. They may be slow growers, but sometimes you luck out with sporadic blooms throughout the year. These plants are used to neglect and abuse by mother nature, so you have nothing to worry about (except overwatering).
Level 1: Pincushion cacti
I’m not a cactus person but I know a lot of people absolutely love them. Cute, small, and terrifyingly spiky, pincushion cacti are great if you want to use a cup or mug or jar as a planter. Soak the media once a month and no more. These plants will consistently look good. Just make sure you didn’t accidentally buy a fake cactus!
Level 2: Succulents
Succulents are a little more challenging to care for because they want to be watered every one to two weeks. Crassulas, aloes, and jades store quite a bit of water in their segments, but they can still be dehydrated easily.
Level 3: Caudex plants
The most advanced group of plants in the desert section are caudex plants. Caudexes are bloated woody trunks that can be found on many South African and Australian trees and shrubs. The trunks are known to store massive quantities of water to prevent dehydration. I place these plants in level three because they can be quite finicky. If you grow Euphorbias, Pelargoniums, Sarcocaulons, Adenias, or Adeniums, make sure you don’t overwater or overfeed them, because they store everything in their trunk.
Food for Thought
If you’re a serial overwaterer, but you don’t want to have to worry about figuring out what fertilizer you should be using, swamp plants are the plants for you. All you have to do is collect rainwater in a bucket and throw your potted plants in the bucket in full sun. If you don’t have a porch or a backyard, or really prefer to have the plants inside on a windowsill, grab a bowl and dome distilled water instead.
Level 1: Papyrus
Some of the easiest swamp plants. Just throw a pot of them into a pond or bucket of water outside and they will go to town. Papyrus is a fun, aesthetic, fast-growing plant, great for beginners. You can’t overwater these because they should always be sitting in water.
Level 2: Temperate carnivores (Venus fly trap, Serracenia)
Carnivorous plants are curious and fun plants to grow, but they can be a little challenging. Great for windowsills or even in a bog out in your garden. Venus fly traps, Droseras, and Serracenias are a great place to start for the budding carnivorous plant grower. These are more temperate carnivorous plants and are nearly indestructible as long as you follow a few very simple rules: 1. Never let the soil dry out; 2. Never fertilize them; 3. Only use with rainwater or distilled water; 4. Grow in full sun.
Level 3: Tropical carnivores (Nepenthes, Pinguicula)
While some carnivorous plants can be extremely easy to care for, others can be quite challenging. Nepenthes and Pinguiculas are some of the more difficult carnivorous plants to grow (surpassed only by Heliamphoras and Cephalotus (Level 4)). While the plants mentioned in Level 2 won’t have a temper tantrum if you don’t use exclusively distilled water, these will die if you use anything but. It is important that these plants are constantly wet, but are /not/ immersed in water completely. These carnivorous plants are also more sensitive to temperature and humidity, which means often you must keep an eye on a thermometer.
Honey I Shrunk the Plants
If you don’t have a lot of room and don’t want to invest in grow lamps or new pots and dirt, these compact windowsill miniatures are the plants for you. They grow well on a windowsill or on a sunny porch, but they do exceptionally well even just under basic fluorescent lights you might find in an office. These plants love to have their roots constricted and they will often bloom better when that is the case. The only time you should give them a bigger pot is when they break the old one.
Level 1: Spider plant
A tried and true favorite of those who think they have a black thumb. Plant your spider plant in some cactus soil (or really whatever soil you have), water it once a week, and put it anywhere in the house. Ideally spider plants would be the most happy in a window, but as long as you don’t overwater it, it really couldn’t care less. Keep it in a small pot; the more constricted the roots, the more plantlets and flowers you’ll get. “Plantlets?” When the tiny lavender flowers fall off, the parent plant extends hanging runner roots with small plantlets attached. These plantlets can be removed and planted in another pot.
Level 2: Gesneriads
Similar to spider plants in they love to be constricted, gesneriads require a bit more light and care. Kohlerias, African violets, Sinningias, Gloxinias, Primulinas, Columneas, etc. love a good tight pot and any sort of lighting you can provide. Even with regular office fluorescent light, most gesneriads will bloom their heads off if you care for them properly. Water them once a week /from the bottom/ (to prevent leaf rot) and give them a nice well-balanced meal (20-20-20) once a month. You’ll know when your plant needs to be repotted when the tuber or rhizome cracks or bends the pot it’s in. Some gesneriads require a dormancy period, so researching your plant’s growth habits is important.
Level 3: Bonsai
Bonsais are some of the most challenging compact plants to care for. You need extreme precision, patience, and creativity to make sure the plant is healthy at all times. Bonsai take years to grow and even more years to make look good. Controlling root and branch growth, using wire, natural sunlight, and special fertilizer are integral to having a beautiful and well organized tree. To give bonsai a try, start with extensive research on the art form and the tree you are considering.
Wallflowers and Other Verticals
If you are crafty and don’t have a lot of space or time to fuss with pots and dirt, epiphytes are the plants for you. Epiphytes are plants that extract nutrients and water out of the air, meaning they do not require soil or conventional containers. Most epiphytes grow naturally in the nooks and crannies of trees and woody plants, surrounded by moisture-retaining moss. The best way to care for an epiphyte is to imitate its habit as closely as possible, which makes them perfect subjects for mounting to plaques, which can be hung on your wall.
Level 1: Ferns
Nearly indestructible subjects for mounting, making them great for someone who does not have too much time on their hands. Ferns prefer weekly to bimonthly waterings, but you can water them as infrequently as once every two months (although I would not recommend this). Ferns don’t need to be fed much, but every time I mount one (or remount one) I throw bonemeal into their soil before wrapping it in sphagnum moss. If you grow these outside, they love banana peels. Make sure to mount them on a wall that gets a decent amount of indirect sunlight, and just shove them in the shower or a sink for 10 seconds for their weekly/monthly soak. Water them less to keep them from getting huge and out of control.
Level 2: Bromeliads
Also nearly indestructible plants, often I find myself asking whether or not they are a really convincing fake plant or a not very well executed real plant. You don’t even need soil for bromeliads, you can literally just use superglue to attach them to driftwood and bark. Weekly soakings and the occasional misting. The most well known bromeliad houseplants are Tillandsia, or air plants, which can be kept happy with extremely basic care. I really had to think about whether ferns are easier than bromeliads, or vice versa, but I’ve killed 10 bromeliads and only 3 ferns, so that’s really my only basis for this distinction.
Level 3: Orchids
Orchids are hard. No matter how many Trader Joe's orchids you get, they’re all going to die or never flower again unless you know exactly how to care for them. The best way to grow epiphytic orchids is the same way you mount ferns, but without soil and bone meal. Sometimes you don’t even need to use moss… they just… stick to stuff. Make sure that you don’t mount a terrestrial orchid (Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium, Phaius, Pleione, etc). Instructions on how to mount orchids can be found online, but we will be posting a blog post with step-by-step instructions, in the upcoming months. If you use moss on your mount, water the orchid every other day; otherwise water every day. Epiphytes can be watered by tucking them under a faucet for a bit. Make sure that the water is warm, no one likes a cold shower!