'Tis The Season

How To Become A Green Thumb Who Doesn’t Kill Their Plant Bébés

The ultimate beginner’s guide to growing a healthy garden of houseplants.

A woman helps her son water a plant in their home.
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I never thought I'd consider myself a green thumb, let alone a "plant mom." Then, last spring, a friend gave me a few clippings of her pothos plant to propagate. "All you have to do is stick these in a jar of water and replenish as needed," she instructed. "That's all?" I boggled. Hell, had I known growing a household plant was that easy, I would have done it years ago.

Well, as it turns out, propagating (the process of growing new plants via cuttings) is only the first step to becoming a green thumb. Either way, it was, by far, the easiest intro to plant parenthood I'd ever encountered. But as with any new hobby, I had doubts and questions. Tons of them. How do I know if my plant needs water? Which pot should I pick? WTF, why are there so many different types of soil? Great, the leaves are brown and wilted. I probably killed it.

My journey would have been much easier had there been a beginner's manual or an expert-backed handbook to cut through the confusion of conflicting TikTok explainers. So, here is my gift to you. Whether you're an aspiring or first-time plant mom, or a self-proclaimed plant serial killer (been there!), you can consider this your ultimate plant beginner's guide.

With the help of Life Garden Style creator and professional horticulturist Heather Markway, I'm covering everything you need to know about Planting 101. From potting soil and watering needs to understanding lighting and the best houseplants for beginners, you'll be able to call yourself a green thumb in no time.

What is the best potting soil for plants?

Did you know that indoor potting soil varies from outdoor soil? And that choosing the wrong type of soil mixture can limit your plant baby's access to water, air, and, most importantly, room to grow? This is one of the biggest mistakes beginners can make when gardening, says Markway. "When planting in a pot, always use a soilless mixture meant for containers. Never use topsoil or compost meant for in-ground — aka, outdoor — use," she explains.

According to Home Depot's Garden Center, soilless potting mixes are typically made from "wood products enhanced with ingredients that help aerate the soil and deliver fertilizer to the roots." Potting mixes are much lighter than the soil in your backyard.

The species of your plant will be another deciding factor. For example, Chinese money plants, spider plants, and philodendrons are considered moisturizing-loving houseplants. Meanwhile, cacti and succulents thrive in a coarse potting mix that drains sufficiently. "These plants prefer a more well-drained soil as they don't like to sit in water," explains Markway.

What are the best pots for houseplants?

As much as we love shopping for chic marble pots and kitschy, funny-shaped containers, sometimes function trumps beauty. The best pots for houseplants are made from porous materials such as terracotta, all-natural stone, or ceramic.

However, the most critical detail to look out for is drainage holes. "Your pots should always have some way for excess water to escape the plant roots," Markway advises. Plastic pots can be a secondary option — just be sure to double-check for those drainage holes!

How often do houseplants need to be watered?

Because so many plant species exist, the quickest answer probably lies on the plant's store label or via a simple Google search. That said, the best way to check if your plant is parched is to visually and physically assess the soil. "Insert your finger up to your second knuckle into the soil mix. If the soil feels dry and appears light in color, water your plant. If the soil feels hydrated and looks deeper in color, skip watering," Markway instructs.

Additionally, if leaves begin to droop or turn brown and dry, that's your plant's way of trying to ask for a glass of water. Conversely, mushy stems, molding soil, fungus gnats, and a "washed out" or yellowish appearance are signs that you're drowning your plant.

Between meal prepping, piano lessons, and parent-teacher conferences, it's easy to let watering fall to the wayside. Markway recommends setting a weekly reminder on your phone — albeit that doesn't necessarily mean your plants will need a drink.

"Check for watering needs weekly, but don't assume they need water every time. Hydration needs do vary from season to season and as the plant grows," she says.

How much light do indoor plants need?

Low, medium, and direct/bright light are all phrases used to describe a plant's specific lighting needs. Right off the bat, it's crucial to note that low light doesn't mean no light. "All plants need light to survive, just at different rates," says Markway.

A low-light plant simply means it doesn't bode well in direct sunlight. For these, you want to station them somewhere the sun can't directly touch its foliage. If you have a deep window sill or a window that faces direct sunlight, that would be the perfect place for bright-light greenery. These plants love to tan and feel the sun's warmth on their leaves (relatable, right?). In the middle, you have medium-light plants, which crave filtered sunlight.

Common signs of plant sunburn include "burned" leaf edges, discoloration on the leaves/stem, severely dry soil, and droopy leaves. Signs that your plant isn't getting enough vitamin C may come in the form of sparse growth, smaller-than-normal leaves, and saturated soil.

What are the best houseplants for beginners?

Now that you've graduated from Green Thumb University, it's time for the fun part: plant shopping! Take it from someone who's killed their fair share of plants — you don't want to oversell yourself. Nurseries categorize plants by level of difficulty for a reason. But according to Markway, snake, pothos, spider, and ZZ plants are some of the best options for beginners.

Here's everything you need to know about each.

  • Snake Plant: These can survive low-light levels but prefer bright light to perform at their best. It is preferred to let the soil dry out between waterings. Keep your snake plant growing densely in a container, as too much added space can overwhelm it. When your plant won't stand upright in its container, you know it's time to replant it in a slightly bigger pot.
  • Pothos: These will tolerate a wide variety of growing environments. They can live in bright, indirect light as well as low-light situations. They can be grown in pots of soil or vases of water. They're also super easy to propagate.
  • ZZ Plant: It can tolerate a range of light conditions. The ZZ plant can also handle neglect in the watering department, meaning you can water them thoroughly and then forget them for a few weeks before watering again.
  • Spider Plant: Named after the way their spider-like babies dangle from the mother plant, this plant is another adaptable, easy-to-grow option. The spider plant will flourish in well-drained soil and bright, indirect light. They don't like wet feet, so let the soil slightly dry out between waterings for best results.

Enjoy your journey to plant motherhood!