Houseplants bring life to our indoor environment, and caring for them can bring both joy and challenges. To answer how to pick the right houseplants for your home and how to best look after them, joining me this week is Jane Perrone, the host of “On the Ledge,” the No. 1 houseplant podcast on Apple Podcasts.
Jane is a freelance journalist who specializes in plants and gardens, and the former gardening editor of the British national daily newspaper The Guardian. She lives in Bedfordshire, England, and her writing is regularly found in The Guardian, The Financial Times, Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design Journal, among other publications.
In addition to hosting her “On the Ledge” podcast, Jane is crowdfunding the publication of a book titled “Legends of the Leaf,” featuring profiles, histories and care tips for 25 houseplants. (joegardener listeners can use code LEAF10 for 10% off pledges)
As Jane points out, many people began collecting houseplants during the pandemic, and they are approaching their first winter with indoor plants, which is a challenging time. Now is a key moment for people trying to keep their houseplants alive as the days get shorter, the heat switches on and humidity plummets, Jane says.
How Jane Perrone Became an Authority on Houseplants
Thinking back to childhood, Jane can’t remember a time when she did not have houseplants. She was born in the mid-1970s, another time when houseplants were in fashion, and her father was an enthusiastic self-taught gardener. She recalls picking up houseplants at Woolworths and second-hand sales and filling her bedroom with them.
Though she loved plants, Jane did not consider a career in horticulture. Instead, she found herself drawn to news journalism since she was first included in a school magazine.
But by the early 2000s, Jane was feeling burned out by the busy news cycle. While she was on maternity leave, the position of gardening editor at The Guardian opened up, and she switched gears. As she puts it, her personal hobby and her professional career collided. She went from breaking news to working on The Guardian’s Weekend magazine.
Jane also co-hosted The Guardian’s “Sow, Grow, Repeat” podcast before leaving her full-time position in 2017 to work as a freelancer, and she continues to present to gardening clubs.
When she launched “On the Ledge” in early 2017, it was the first of what would soon become many podcasts dedicated specifically to houseplants. Her podcast has grown a large listener community that spans both the United Kingdom and North America.
Why Houseplants Have Become So Popular
Even before the pandemic led to people wanting more greenery in their homes, houseplants were skyrocketing in popularity. Jane has a few thoughts on why this was this case.
One driving factor is living space. Jane says it’s harder for the younger generation to own their own homes, so they often live in rented accommodations with little or no outdoor space. Even for those who do buy homes, new houses where she lives in England have tiny yards with little room for gardening outside. Those who wish to raise plants have little choice but to grow indoors.
And then there’s Instagram — the photo-sharing social media app where many millennials find gardening and style inspiration. Jane says it’s much easier to take an attractive photo of a houseplant than a plant in the garden, and she believes Instagram is responsible for the sky-high popularity of aroids, philodendrons and monsteras.
Online communities, such as Jane’s podcast listeners, have been built around a shared love of houseplants. Among houseplant fans are sub-communities for people who love hoyas or ferns, for example, and those who love to make aquascapes and share photos and videos of their work.
Creative people are always coming up with new ways to arrange, display and propagate houseplants, so there is always something to see.
Indoor Gardening With No Outdoor Experience
Jane’s listeners range from 12-year-olds getting into houseplants for the first time to botany professors with life-long experience, but the majority came to raising houseplants with no prior experience gardening outdoors.
Jane has noticed that newbies don’t have the same preconceptions that somebody familiar with outdoor gardening does. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
She notes that experienced gardeners know that pruning a plant will stimulate growth, so pruning should be timed carefully, and they can apply the same principle to indoor plants.
What houseplant hobbyists don’t know about outdoor gardening, they make up for with enthusiasm.
Buy the Plants That Excite You
Aroids are having a moment right now, but that’s not a reason to buy one, according to Jane. Rather than seeking the plants that are the most popular, Jane advises following your own passion and what excites you.
One of Jane’s favorite plant families is the Gesneriads. The African violet is the poster child of the Gesneriads, but there are other members of that family that she loves that are not trendy at all.
Jane has also long loved hoyas, but now that hoyas are growing in popularity, the prices are being driven up. Similarly, monsteras have become incredibly coveted, and the prices are through the roof.
So why buy popular and expensive plants when you can find plants that match your personal taste and don’t cost an arm and a leg?
Choosing Houseplants You Can Care For
Sometimes, people who don’t have the experience and knowledge to look after a difficult plant buy one anyway, at great expense. Jane counsels her listeners and readers to think carefully before spending a lot of money.
Many of us will fall in love with a plant at the garden center and decide that we have to have it with no plan for where it will go in our garden or home. Jane says in an ideal world we’ll put our rational hats on and ask, where should this plant live? That is often a matter of learning the plant’s light needs and where in your house those needs can be met.
The plant tag may offer help, but sometimes houseplants will simply be labeled “foliage plant” with no care instructions. A good garden center or plant shop will have staff who can help you.
If you have a solarium or another sun-soaked room, then go ahead and buy the plant that loves sunlight. But if you live in a basement apartment with limited light, find low-light tolerant plants that will naturally thrive in your home environment.
Jane says you should do what you can to pick plants that will have a greater chance of success, but it’s also okay to kill some plants — because that’s how you learn.
Growing Houseplants From Seed
Propagation methods for houseplants vary from plant to plant and can include growing from cuttings, divisions or offshoots. Jane likes to encourage a really cheap way to produce many plants: Propagating from seed.
There are a number of plants that are very difficult if not impossible to propagate from seed, but many can be grown from seed quite easily.
Seeds for houseplants can be collected from the plants you already own, or they can be swapped for or purchased. For very little investment, you can have many plants to keep or swap.
For instance, Jane grew Episcia — a trailing plant with hairy variegated leaves and little red flowers, also called the flame violet — from a pack of seeds that she bought for a few pounds. (Remember, she lives in the U.K.) She said it was a really great experience raising the plants from seed.
Cacti and succulent seeds are readily available, but growing them requires patience. It may take a couple of years before they reach a decent size.
Many of Jane’s listeners report successfully growing Monstera deliciosa (a.k.a. swiss cheese plant or split leaf philodendron) from seed they got from Chiltern Seeds in the U.K. One packet of seeds cost just a few bucks, while a Monstera deliciosa plant in the garden center can easily cost between $20 and $50.
Jane says that even if planting seeds does not work out for you, you’ve only lost a small amount of money — and the seeds that do work out are tremendously rewarding.
Be Cautious When Buying Plants Online
There are new plant sellers appearing online all the time, including some who are just trying to capitalize on the popularity of a particular plant. The sellers will have varying degrees of expertise, and you may not get the product and quality that you were expecting.
Before purchasing a plant online from a seller you have no history with, do your research and ask other buyers what their experience with the seller was like. It’s not just small sellers that can be unreliable, Jane warns. Mass producers may not offer the personal service of small sellers.
Houseplants from specialist growers with long histories may be pricier than grocery store houseplants, but you will save money in the long-run because the plants will be healthier and last longer.
The Biggest Mistakes in Houseplant Care
When houseplants fail, it’s often because they did not get enough water, or they were overwatered. But there are other mistakes we make that are less obvious.
Houseplant keepers tend to watch what’s happening at the leaf level rather than at the ground level, Jane points out. When someone asks for her help identifying what’s going wrong with a plant, she tells them to take it out of the pot and inspect the roots.
Once you look at what’s been going on beneath the soil surface, it can become immediately obvious what’s been stressing the plant: For instance, the roots are dry, waterlogged, or pot-bound, or there are pests in the soil.
Roots need air as well as water, so if they are sitting in water in the pot, the roots could be suffocating. Often, decorative plants are sold in pots without drainage holes, and it’s only when we take the plants out of the pot that we realize the pot’s been collecting water that has no place to go. Jane says a wilting plant may look like it needs more water when, really, it’s been drowning.
Jane advises using all of your senses when inspecting plants. In addition to what you see and feel, take note of how the roots and soil smell. A slimy smell can indicate the roots are waterlogged.
And look at the undersides of leaves as well. That’s where many pests tend to hang out.
One indicator of spider mites — which Jane considers to be one of the worst pests — is that plants begin to look dull. But a sure sign of spider mites is white grainy stuff found under the leaves on the midribs. That stuff is the shedded skins of spider mites, and if you find it, intervention is needed. The mites may also leave yellow or brown spots where they have fed. By the time you see spider mites’ webbing, the plant may be too far gone.
That brings us to another common houseplant mistake: Failing to quarantine new plants.
Spider mites, mealybugs and other pests can come home with a plant from the store and then spread to your healthy plants. New purchases should be kept away from other plants, preferably in another room entirely, for a few weeks before they are allowed to mingle.
Jane recommends investing in a magnifying glass or loupe to look for insects that are difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye. Even then, insects can be lurking in the cracks and crevices of plants, so don’t skip quarantining.
How to Treat Spider Mites
Under a magnifying lens, you may find tiny crab-like red spider mites crawling around on your plants. Jane says treating spider mites requires persistence.
The first thing to do is to increase the humidity around the plant, because spider mites prefer dry conditions. For a bad infestation, a really effective way to increase humidity is to put the whole plant in a plastic bag to retain moisture.
The next step is to wipe down the plant’s foliage daily with a damp cloth, especially the undersides of the leaves.
It’s a long game, but the spider mites will be defeated, Jane says.
How to Treat Fungus Gnats
Fungus gnats are small flies that lay eggs on the growing medium of houseplants. Their larvae, with white bodies and black heads, munch on fungus, algae and roots. While the larvae won’t kill plants, the swarms of tiny black flies are annoying and unsightly.
Common advice for controlling fungus gnats is to let the soil surface dry out or to sprinkle cinnamon on it. But Jane says neither of these methods will work long-term. What she recommends is a biological control: Adding beneficial nematodes.
There are many species of these microscopic worms, but the nematodes that are effective against fungus gnats are Steinernema feltiae, which work by feeding on the gnat larvae. Jane applies these nematodes twice a year to get ahead of infestations before they start. They come in a yellow powder that is diluted and then watered on the plants.
Another biological control is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti), a bacteria that kills the larvae of mosquitoes and fungus gnats. The product Mosquito Bits (corn cob granules coated in Bti) can be sprinkled on the soil surface to introduce the bacteria to the larvae.
How to Treat Mealybugs
Mealybugs are white scale insects that prefer it warm and moist. They feed on plant juices and spread plant diseases, so it’s important not to let them get out of control.
While there are biological controls for mealybugs — such as Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, a beetle known as the mealybug destroyer — they are not all that practical for use on houseplants.
Jane recommends cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol, and a lot of persistence. Dabbing the individual mealybugs with alcohol will kill them, but this is not a one-and-done task. You will need to repeat the process each day or so until all the bugs are eliminated.
If keeping up with mealybug control is taking the joy out of owning a plant, Jane says not to feel bad about throwing it out and moving on.
Springtails? Don’t Freak Out
Bringing plants indoors can mean bringing bugs inside, and those bugs could be good, bad or neutral. One beneficial bug that raises concerns but is nothing to worry about is the springtail.
Springtails are arthropods with six legs and a pair of antennae, and they serve as a clean-up crew for organic matter. In fact, some growers who specialize in terrariums introduce springtails to the contained environments to keep things tidy.
So Long, Peat
When peat bogs are dug up to get peat moss for soil amendments and potting mix, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, Jane notes.
Gardening professionals in the U.K. are also waking up to the fact that there aren’t many peat bogs left there, she says. Jane’s stopped using peat moss or peat-based mixes altogether.
While it’s thought that carnivorous plants, like venus fly traps, must be grown in peat, Sean Higgs of Floralive Carnivorous Plant Nursery in the U.K. has developed a peat-free growing medium named Thrive. So there is really no situation anymore where peat is a necessity.
Jane is trying a number of different peat-free mixes and encourages her listeners to do the same. She says we can’t make more peat, and many ecosystems rely on the peat bogs that are being destroyed.
Do You Need to Change the Pot and Potting Mix?
Houseplants are often cultivated in nurseries under high-light conditions to maximize growth so they will look great and be snatched up by consumers.
When you bring a plant home from the nursery, where it was living in absolutely perfect conditions, you may have a honeymoon period followed by a dip in its condition.
The light conditions that you can achieve at home probably can’t match nurseries. Additionally, the potting mix and plastic pots that the plants came in may not have sufficient drainage.
Aroids and ferns and similar plants may do well for many months in the original growing medium, Jane says. On the other hand, cacti and succulents, particularly string of pearls, should be repotted immediately.
Cacti and succulents should grow in a medium with quick drainage and little organic matter. There are potting mixes made specifically for cacti and succulents, and perlite or grit can be added for even more drainage. Also, going from a plastic pot to a terracotta pot will allow moisture to be wicked away when the roots are wet.
When Repotting, Much Bigger Is Much Worse
When potting up plants, moving to a pot that is twice the size of the original is not advisable. Plants should be potted up gradually, like from a 4-inch pot to a 5-inch pot, rather than jumping from 4 inches to 8.
The reason why larger pots are not better, Jane explains, is that the plant will be surrounded by lots of new potting mix that its roots have not reached yet. When the pot is watered, the moisture will sit in that mix that lacks roots and will never be absorbed by the plant. The roots will not enjoy sitting in damp surroundings.
Some plants will be better off having their roots trimmed and potting mix refreshed in the same pot, rather than being moved up a size.
Many plants make great houseplants because in nature they grow in small crevices and don’t require a lot of room for their roots, Jane says, and that’s one more reason why bigger is often not better.
‘Legends of the Leaf’
The idea behind Jane’s upcoming book, “Legends of the Leaf: The Story Behind 25 Iconic Houseplants and the Secrets to Making Them Thrive,” is to identify where common houseplants come from, how they live in their natural habits, and how they came to live in our homes. Further, she will explain care instructions to help the plants thrive.
Jane says there’s a lot of information on the internet about houseplants, but not all of it is good information. She is planning a well-researched book with concrete information.
She is working with an illustrator to provide original illustrations for each of the 25 houseplants that she intends on including. The list is still in progress, and she is taking suggestions.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Jane Perrone, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the Play button in the green bar.
I have gotten into the houseplant craze myself — I have about 40 plants on dedicated shelves with LED lighting filling a wall of my office. Do you collect houseplants too? Share your favorites with us in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
“Legends of the Leaf” by Jane Perrone – joegardener listeners can use code LEAF10 for 10% off pledges
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.