We all start somewhere. There’s no shame in being a beginner, and even less in making mistakes. The only thing to shame people about is how judgey and rude many experienced growers can be towards newbies.
It’s also worth noting that often, the folks that are the most unpleasant are those who aren’t actually all that experienced themselves. There’s a difference between someone who has just one or two of a given species that they picked up a year ago, and someone who has been working with that species and others related to it for several years. That comparison also changes when it’s a person who has hundreds of plants (and has had them for years or decades), and someone with a handful they’ve picked up in recent months.
This isn’t to say that one person’s experience is more valid than another, but who would you want advice from? The person who’s taken care care of dozens or hundreds of plants for years, and has successfully (and unsuccessfully) grappled with the problems you’re facing? Or someone who’s new to the hobby, enthusiastic, but hasn’t necessarily dealt with the range of problems, solutions, and potential repurcussions of what they’re recommending?
In my case, my experience and view of this is influenced by my time spent working in the reptile industry. The view of experience and who to trust advice from changes when you consider reptiles, amphibians, or other pets. My experience with certain species numbered in hundreds of hours over the years I’d spent working in retail stores, then later managing breeding colonies of some animals. I’d cared for dozens or even hundreds of certain species over that time, both in the store and in my own home. I personally kept and bred some species, and often helped diagnose and treat mild to moderate issues with many animals before they needed vet care. A dedicated nursery owner, or someone with a large collection they’ve maintained for years, is similar: they’ve had to care for many plants for long periods of time, and have seen what does and doesn’t work. Some practices may work in the short term, others will lead to disaster. Examples in reptiles include feeding your lizard insects without providing additional supplements; sure, it won’t die right away, but without the supplements, it will die slowly. The same is true for growing a plant in pure leca and water without fertilizing somehow. It may grow for a while, but eventually, it’ll need more nutrients.
Fortunately, plants are less demanding than your average pet, so troubleshooting is a bit easier. Here are a few of the most common mistakes new plant parents tend to make, and how you can avoid making them yourself:
This Anthurium forgetii, like my other anthuriums, is doing its best by a sheltered south-facing window, despite all my efforts to convince it to grow under lights and farther away from windows.
Mistake 1: Getting a plant to fit a space, instead of looking at where a plant will thrive.
If you want to go the real estate agent route of buying things to look pretty until they die, then throwing the plant away, by all means, get what looks cute in a given corner. If you’re getting plants that you enjoy, or truly want to see them thrive, you’ll need to do more than just get a succulent that looks cute in that owl pot you found at Ross.
Spoiler: there are no plants that will be happy in your windowless center bathroom unless you give them a grow light.
When you pick out a plant, do some basic Googling. Look for sources on care that are written by experienced growers; for plants, much like reptiles, this usually means the website looks a bit out of date, has some non working parts, and is prone to talking about things in habitat as well as using latin names. Look for photos of mature versions of the plant you’ve chosen, or failing that, information about the natural habitat. You’re looking for clues about where they grow, what kind of light they need, water, and soil.
Generally, your succulents and cacti will need to be by a window, if not outdoors entirely. Grow lights can work for growing cacti and succulents indoors, but not all species will respond positively to the artificial light. Many of the Korean import succulents do well with grow lights, which is probably part of why they’re popular.
Some tropical plants need more light than others, and frankly, you should use a light meter or a light meter app to figure out the lighting in your home if you plan to grow anything fancier than pothos or ZZ plants. If you’re spending a chunk of money on a fancy tropical plant, it’s worth spending some time learning the light in your home and how it changes over the day.
More water makes for a happier aloe, but it won’t be as pretty.
Mistake 2: Watering
Notice that this is just watering, full stop.
That’s because for beginners, watering is legit super confusing. If you have no context or experience to fall on, what does “a little” water even MEAN?
Here’s my general guide for moisture, based on the super reliable “stick your finger in up to the first or second knuckle” measurement method:
- Soaking wet: You stick your finger in, and the soil squishes or squelches. It probably comes out with droplets of water on it, or you can visibly see water squeeze out of the soil around your finger. If you wipe your finger off on your shirt or pants, it’ll leave a distinct wet spot.
- Wet: You put your finger in, and it feels wet. You may have some moisture on your finger when you pull it out, but it’s not the squishy squelchy borderline muddy feel of the soaking wet soil. Like poking a cherry pie, it’ll feel wet and sort of messy. If you wipe your finger off on your shirt or pants, it’ll leave a wet spot.
- Damp: The soil still looks dark, similar to the darker look it probably had when wet, and when you stick your finger in, you can feel some moisture, but it’s only a bit. Should be similar to sticking your finger in freshly pressed coffee grounds, or similar to cooked rice. You can easily put your finger in, you feel some moisture, but when you pull it out, nothing really sticks to your finger. You can easily wipe it clean on your pant leg, and it probably won’t leave a wet spot.
- Dry, Loose/Normal: Depending on the type of soil, it’ll appear lighter in color than it did wet. When you poke the dirt, some particles might stick to your finger, and you won’t feel any moisture. If you jostle the pot, the top layer of soil moves, and it’s a bit dusty but not too bad.
- Dry, compacted: Distinctly lighter in color than wet soil, and it’ll be hard, if not impossible, to poke a finger in. Jostling the pot won’t move any dirt, and the soil may even be pulling back from the sides of the pot.
To add a different layer of complexity, how long a plant stays at a given moisture level also matters, as does the soil type. Cacti and succulents usually prefer to spend their time in the dry, loose/normal stage, and their soil should allow for the wet stage to progress to damp, then dry, in a matter of days or less. Meanwhile, tropical plants prefer to be wet to damp, with at most a day spent in the dry stage.
For succulents and cacti, it’s generally better to err on the side of dry, and don’t be afraid to use your finger to test the soil!
Another element of watering to consider is lighting: if your plants are being kept with artificial lighting sources, or the days are shorter, or they’re not in a particularly bright spot, they’ll process water at a slower rate than they would in optimal conditions. For succulents and cacti, this usually translates to less water, applied in quantities just barely enough to moisten the top couple inches of soil. For tropical plants, it tends to mean a fine line in how much water you provide. For species that prefer damp/wet soil most of the time, you can thoroughly flush the soil rather than trying to guess if they need a half cup or whole cup of water. Flushing the plant means continually pouring water at the top until the water runs out of the bottom, and should be complete through the entire pot the plant is in. I strongly prefer dragging my tropical plants into the shower for their flushes, and use the spray to wash off leaves and ensure that the entire pot of soil is flushed.
Flushing in this way also ensures the bottom of the pot doesn’t develop stagnant soil, which leads to rot.
But what about “butt chugging” or bottom watering?
This watering method involves setting the plant in a container of water, and letting the water absorb from the bottom up. This method is particularly useful for species that have delicate growth at the top, or a fine farina that you want to be cautious of. It can also be beneficial if you have compacted soil that almost never seems to absorb water throughout the entire pot, and you want to deeply water a particular cactus or succulent. For tropical plants, this can be a bit easier than a thorough flush every week.
However, this method should be balanced with flushing from the top at least every few waterings to flush out minerals, fertilizers, and other residual bits and bobs that take up residence in a pot.
Caveat: I do not grow any ferns, and can’t vouch for how this works for growing ferns. Begonias cannot be flushed with a shower method, and need careful watering to avoid getting too much water directly on their leaves for too long.
Even this pot, which had a built-in saucer for water, had drainage that didn’t really work well – the sideways drain hole didn’t let water properly flush out without a lot of effort. For a pot this big, it just meant draining didn’t really happen all that often.
Mistake 3: Using Pots with No Drainage Holes
I am guilty of this one!
When I first began, I definitely tried using pots that had no drainage holes. I tried using pebbles at the bottom “for a drainage layer”, and for a couple, I’ve tried using styrofoam. This did not work very well.
Now, you can make the whole no drainage holes thing work in specific cases and with specific plants and care styles, but if you’re a new plant parent who’s just beginning…that’s a whole lot of complicated that you’re likely to mess up because you’re human. If you’re new to plants in general, get pots with drainage holes, or just stick the nursery pot into it and use the hole-less pot as a decoration on the outside.
Why doesn’t adding pebbles or other material to the bottom of the pot as “drainage” work?
The crazy thing is that short term, plants you stick in a pot with no drainage will probably survive unless you overwater them. The reason that “drainage layer” idea doesn’t work is actually more to do with how soil absorbs and wicks up moisture. All that a ‘drainage layer’ does is decrease the amount of soil that is available to the roots without being ultra soggy. The ‘drainage’ actually creates a puddle of water sitting under the soil, being damp and moist and breeding bacteria and a disgusting swamp smell. What ends up happening is that the very bottom of the soil in your pot will be super wet, but the top layer will usually look bone dry. By not making the soil a consistent blend from top to bottom, and without a way for water to escape out of the bottom of the pot, your soil won’t actually wick moisture or distribute it well.
It might at first, but within a few weeks or months, things will go…sideways. And stinky.
I’ve actually pulled off non-drainage pots for a small handful of plants, all of which are pothos. They tolerate being left to go entirely dry, and when I stick cuttings in a pot with no drainage, I don’t include a drainage layer. I swap out soil at least every year, if not a bit more often. It’s a pain and I do not recommend it; just drill a hole or use a pot with drainage.