House plant care: our top tips for keeping your plants alive

These house plant care tips will help you prolong the lifespan of even the trickiest species

House plant care
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If you're looking for house plant care tips, you've probably a) been given an exotic plant for Christmas, b) have had the unfortunate experience of killing a plant before, c) both. That makes it most of us, so more information on how to actually keep those beautiful tropical plants we all get given or buy actually alive for longer than two weeks. 

The good news is that most house plants have very similar requirements, apart from a few tricky exceptions (don't worry, we've got them covered, too). For more advice, including on styling your plants, read our ultimate guide to house plants.  

House plant care: watering

This, along with light, is the most important element of caring for your plants to get right. And while we all know that plants will die without water, many overwater without knowing it's a sure way to kill most plants. How to know you're overwatering? See if any of the following apply:

  • Your plant dish is full of water after you've watered it
  • The soil is always soaking wet, is covered in a white residue, and or/has mites hovering around it
  • Your plant is losing leaves that have yellowed first
  • The trunk of your plant is loose within the soil

The last two are particularly bad, because it means your plant has succumbed to root rot. You can try to salvage it by letting it dry out completely and then reintroducing water sparingly. As a rule, most house plants should be watered only when the top layer of soil has dried out. If you stick your finger in the soil and your nail comes out dry, it's time to water. 

Got succulents or cacti? Don't water them, ever. Instead, stand them in a dish of water for half an hour about every two to three months. If you have an orchid, you will need to drench its roots with water under the tap and then drain. 

House plant care: light

Where you position your plant will always affect how healthy it is, and some plants will die quickly if they get too much or not enough light. Always read the label the plant comes with, but as a rule, most tropical species (palms, ficus, cheese plants, and so on) like bright, indirect light, which means keeping them away from direct sun. 

Flowering species and cacti, on the other hand, love the sun and should be positioned as close to the window as possible to maximise the amount of light they're getting. Pelargoniums in particular are sun worshippers and will reward you with beautiful blooms if they get enough. Citrus trees also need a lot of light and do best in sunny conservatories.

House plant care: temperature

This one is quite simple: house plants hate sudden fluctuations in temperature. So, if you've placed a tropical evergreen next to a window that keeps getting opened in winter, it'll almost certainly die. The same goes for blasts of hot air, so keep them away from radiators, too. A quiet spot where temperature is constant is what most plants prefer. There are a few exceptions: for instance, if you're growing azaleas, they need to be overwintered in a cold garage. 

House plant care: moisture

Is your house plant looking a bit sad? Perhaps its leaves are wilting or aren't as vibrant as they once were. This could be because the air in your apartment is simply too dry. Visit a botanical garden and you'll notice that the air in the tropical greenhouses is steamy with humidity, and this is exactly what your house plants want. Mist them regularly or invest in a humidifier for the room they're kept in.

House plant care: repotting

One of the most common mistakes people make is never repotting their house plants. Fast-growing species such as ficus need repotting every couple of years until they reach maturity (usually when they begin to look like full-sized trees). And even slow-growing plants will benefit from having access to fresh nutrients in new house plant compost. Repotting is best done in the spring, just the plant begins to actively grow again.

  • Not sure you have enough light for a houseplant? These shade-loving plants don't mind  a room with low light