Too much water, too small a planter, less light, much stress—you got the beautiful houseplants but didn’t anticipate the problems. We got gardening and landscaping artist Adrienne Thadani to shed some light on why your houseplants seem to be dying on you and what you can do to keep them happy
Bringing in houseplants to beautify interiors is one of the easiest ways to create a relaxed, cosier and healthier home. But what’s not easy - keeping them thriving. Most of us underestimate just how much attention and care plants need, and how much research and scheduling helps. We reached out at Adrienne Thadani, an Indian-American gardening and landscaping artist, and an authority on such matters. As co-founder of organic farming and landscape consultancy Thrive Garden Design Studio, Thadani has turned several spaces green since she moved from Washington, DC to Mumbai a decade ago. Her projects include Mumbai-based Soho House and the newly opened restaurant Americano, and organic farms of The Table and the Good Karma in Alibaug as well as a number of non-profit initiatives such as Fresh & Local, Flyover Farm and Home Matters. When it comes to houseplants, Thadani points out where owners often go wrong and what they need to do to avoid killing them—inadvertently of course.
1. Not accounting for adjustment issues
When you visit nurseries to choose plants, you’ll see that they are kept outdoors, have access to ample sunlight and are cared for round the clock. So, when you bring them home, plants end up feeling shocked. “They take time to adjust to the new environment and the schedule that the new owners follow,” says Thadani.
Make them feel at home
Give your plants time to adjust. Looking into the plant’s species and variety will help you understand what the plant needs—not just in terms of its moisture needs and growth spurt, but also how the seasons affect its lifecycle. “Being knowledgeable about your plants will help you create the right environment and placement for it.” A healthy plant, after all, is a well-adjusted plant.
2. Not paying attention to stress signals
Most people go about their plant care in a clockwork, mechanical manner, but it’s extremely important to look out for warning signs. “They function a lot like humans. When our immune system is down, we pick up illnesses. Similarly, if you see your plants affected by pests, bugs or changes that aren’t explained by the season, it means that they are ‘stressed out’ and need to be looked after.”
Give them a sense of community
“If you’ve missed the warning signs (excessive drying) or the onset of a pest invasion, move the plant aside. Wash and dry it off before you put it back in a plant gang or cluster. Creating a cluster is healthy because it allows different varieties of plants to interact with each other while creating and maintaining their own micro-environment.”
3. Overwatering the plants
While water is a basic need, Thadani suggests tweaking how we think of it. “Replace the idea of water with ‘moisture’. Plants don’t need to be watered every single day and some can make do with being watered just once a week. In fact, overwatering is a common practice that unintentionally kills plants. Then, there’s also the problem of chlorinated water that comes in our taps.”
Water in measured doses—and only when required
“Check if your plant needs water by scratching the surface of the soil and pushing a finger a couple of inches deep. If the soil is dry there, water the plant. Alternatively, if you keep a disc or plate under the planter, check if that has dried out. If it has, water your plant. Don’t drown the plant or douse it like a fire—you might wash away good nutrients in the soil. Play it safe and consider frequently spraying water because at the end of the day, what plants need is moisture. This also keeps roots active, and they get stronger when they grow to look for water.” Thadani suggests a simple way to de-chlorinate water: “Fill a bucket of water and keep it overnight (indoors, in a bathroom or outdoors) with only a mosquito net covering it. The water will be free of chlorine by morning and ready to use.”
4. Not using the right kind of soil
It’s common for the clay in the soil to become hard, especially if you have overwatered the plant in the past. “It’s common to see a thick, compacted kind of soil in plants as a result of erosion. This kind of soil affects the health of your plants. The ideal soil is light and airy, almost sponge-like,” says Thadani.
Feed it soil that nourishes
“The best soil composition uses coco soil (fibrous coconut husks) and dried leaves. This also becomes one half of the food for the plant. The other half is compost. We always recommend using vermicompost, as it combines nutrients that are excellent for plant growth. The best way to use [vermicompost] is as ‘top dressing’—with a chopstick, poke holes into the soil, then simply place the compost on top and water over it as needed.”
5. Not adjusting for the seasons
Air should be interpreted as ‘good ventilation’ and sunlight need not be direct, especially during the warmer months. “Even if your houseplants are perennial in nature, they still react differently in each season. For instance, most plants typically flower in the summer, grow lusher in the monsoon and dry out in the winter. And so, owners need to adjust their plant care seasonally.”
Bring them into the light
“Ensure your plants are engulfed in ample sunlight. Having white or light flooring helps light bounce around and allows the plant to absorb sunlight from every dimension. If your plants are indoors and in air conditioning, move them frequently (during the nights, perhaps) to an outdoor space to ventilate them. A critical change to make is watering during the monsoon. If your plants have access to natural rainfall, simply water your plants less frequently and only when needed [as suggested in #3].”
6. Not letting plants grow to their full potential
Every plant grows over time; if you feed the plant the right amount of water, its roots move around looking for water, which helps them grow stronger. “Plants end up overgrowing their existing pot or planter often, needing more space. Not moving it to a bigger container can severely stunt the plant’s growth.”
Give them room to grow
“There are some obvious signs of the plant outgrowing its holder. One is that your planter or pot may crack under the pressure of the root; the other is that it exhibits the ‘root-bound’ phenomenon; i.e., the root begins to coil and spirals to the surface of the soil. Give it some TLC and move the plant to a larger planter, since it’s looking to make a break for the better.”
Every plant, much like every living being, is unique and its needs, equally diverse. If you’re thinking about purchasing a houseplant, be prepared to go all out, be completely committed to its care, invested in its health—and now, thanks to Thadani, armed with more knowledge.