As a healthcare professional, I do have a penchant for keeping things alive. For the most part, I do great with people and pets, but when it came to plants I was a 007 with a license to kill.
How does a person with multiple advanced clinical degrees in keeping people alive, consistently kill plants?
It was a head-scratcher for sure.
But because I do love nature and wanted to bring some of that into my home, I set out to understand plants.
It has since become a pretty cool, stress-relieving hobby that brings me daily joy.
The first thing I did was get this book, and it completely changed my understanding of plants.
What I came to realize, is that the number 1 thing you can do to take great care of plants is not to stick to a rigid watering schedule as the internet may suggest. Instead, it is to simply observe them with the goal of understanding their needs.
Like an intubated patient in an ICU, we can become observers of our plant patients for changes in status as well as provide nutritional and environmental support for optimal health.
Plants are the same.
Just like pets or pediatric patients, plants do not talk, at least not in the traditional sense. But what I found what that a good history and physical exam tells me everything I need to know to give great care.
House Plant Basics
You already know that plants need sun, soil, and water to survive. You have probably already heard of the wonderful health benefits of having houseplants such as better air quality, lower stress, more beauty & even improving depression anxiety & high blood pressure.
What matters most when you choose your plants is that like choosing a pet to bring home, you just have to choose a plant that matches your level of dedication, experience & the conditions of your home.
So if you’re a new pet owner, it’s probably not a great idea for you to get an ocelot as your first pet, right?
Similarly, opting to start with very needy plants like most carnivorous plants, i.e a venus fly trap that needs distilled water, a humidity chamber & for you to feed it flies, is a recipe for failure.
So let me teach you how to pick the right plant for you.
How to Pick the Right Plant for you
First, figure out what kind of plants can easily thrive in your home environment.
No, I’m not going to suggest you go get a science kit and measure the light, humidity in your home.
There are apps for that!
I use the Planta app. I have no affiliation with them except I am a devoted user because it really helped me understand plants.
This app will help you measure the light conditions in your home & your level of commitment & will make plant suggestions based on what will thrive in your space.
You can use the app’s light meter to measure light quality in whichever room you want the plant to go in, but I suggest doing it in different places by windows because sometimes the place you want the plant in at your house may not necessarily be the place that will be best for the plant.
Other cool features of the Planta app I enjoy is that it also
✔Identifies plants pretty accurately with your phone camera
✔Reminds you when to water & fertilize
✔Has this thing called Dr. Planta that will help you troubleshoot problems & learn to diagnose certain conditions and diseases. If that doesn’t work you can reach out to them via email and they will literally walk you through anything.
Choosing your Plant
Once you measure the light in your home with the app- it will spit out suggestions for you.
If you’re a beginner, I would start with super low-maintenance plants that fit your level of dedication, experience, and condition as suggested by the app.
If you have pets or kids that may eat the plants it’s very important you choose non-toxic plants or make certain to keep them out of reach. The app will also tell you if the plants are toxic or non-toxic on some, but you can always do a google search too to be certain.
Make sure you love the look and feel of the plant & that it sparks joy in you before deciding to bring it home.
Plants I Recommend for Beginners
Everyone will who recommends plants for beginners will mention snake plants, succulents, and cacti, but I want to give you some out-of-the-box options that I think are even better for beginners than those listed above.
The reason I think the following suggestions are better for beginners than hardy snakes, succulents, and cacti- is because they are more interactive plants that will engage you a lot more, & help you understand how to care for them better. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are more high maintenance.
But I believe it will be more fun for you to see a plant respond to you in a relatively short amount of time with easy, proper care. It's super rewarding!
Snakes, cacti, and succulents are nice, but they tend to be more stoic plants, at least for me took a bit longer to get to know well and they are more long-game type plants instead of the more instant gratification type plants I’m about to give you.
Watching houseplants move, grow & change over time is such s great stress reliever and joy sparker! Honestly, they're like little friendly aliens that live with you!
Below is my list of easy, unique & beginner-friendly plants.
I’m a huge fan of peace Lillies as starter plants not only because they have gorgeous dark, green leaves that make any decor pop, but also, they talk! Kind of. They talk in the way they let you know when they need water because they will droop.
They’re kinda drama queens because they will literally faint when they're thirsty. Ideally, you won't want to wait until they wilt or leave them wilted for too long because this distresses the plant, but it's ok to let it speak to you as you get to know it.
It’s a great plant to get to start to really become attuned to perceiving and understanding the needs of plants.
These trailing plants are fan favorites because they’re really beautiful and they are well-behaved. I can always count on my pothos to be thriving no matter what the other plants are going through.
The best part about them is their gorgeous color variations. They come in a vast variety of solid & mixed colors & are pretty inexpensive. In fact, in Florida, they grow so easily in the wild that they are referred to as Devil's Ivy ( though they are not in the ivy family), because of their persistence to grow in almost every environment.
I have seen these grow in a windowless room at a hospital- which shocked the crap out of me. I definitely would not recommend any plant, no matter how low light it is advertised as, be without light.
ZZ stands for Zamioculcas Zamiifolia, this plants scientific name. These hardy plants are very resilient and beautiful. They only require watering about once a month or so, & they’re just grateful little plants that will be happy with you with minimal attention. They come in green and dark brown/black. I'm particular to the dark one, also known as the Raven ZZ with darker leaves because it looks expensive and rare (it's not), & I love the moody vibe it gives my space.
For me, ferns are rockstars hidden in plain sight. Most people that are into more exotic plants may not go for ferns, but there are some really cool ones I’ve discovered that are out of the ordinary but make really great starter plants.
I've fallen for my crocodile fern here on the left. If you notice its leaves really do resemble the scaly & armored, reptilian skin of a crocodile. So cool!
The hurricane fern below is also on my list. I have its close cousin the bird's nest fern, which is equally gorgeous and easy, but without the cyclonic pattern of the hurricane one. Maybe its the science nerd in me, but It kinda reminds me of flushing a toilet & the Coriolis effect lol
What do you think?
Honey, the Scindapsus Pictus Exoticas are supermodels. They are one of my all-time favorites. These babies are a favorite of mine because they behave like Pothos in the sense that they are easy, hardy & inexpensive yet their foliage is stunning in a completely different way than the others They come in varying degrees of silver spots. I mean 😍😍😍😍
I currently have 2 of these & will probably get more. They are just so gorgeous & the leaves can get really huge if you give them a pole to climb. It's a fan favorite trailing plant for sure.
Where to get Plants
I like starting way simple and cheap. In fact, cheap plants are my favorite types of plants. Now that I've gotten good at keeping them alive I feel confident in purchasing much smaller plants that tend to be more inexpensive, & growing them out myself. It's extremely rewarding, I must say!
Try big box stores or your local nursery to start.
This way you can see and feel the plant and inspect it for obvious health problems. Getting plants online is good too, but quality can vary greatly, plants can suffer a lot if not packaged carefully & it requires some know-how to recognize & treat some of the issues shipping can cause.
Walmart, Trader Joe’s & Home Depot have beautiful plants. They also have really sick plants, so just watch for signs that the plant is sick.
You can easily tell if a plant is happy. A shiny plant with good coloration with signs of new growth is a good sign. Similarly, you can easily tell when a plant is unhappy. They will have discolored or infected leaves, bugs crawling in the soil, or evidence of bugs under the leaves- webs, white, black or brown dust. Sometimes they just plain look like crap & there's no other way to describe it.
Employees of the big box stores typically are not well versed in plant care & identification. They are not usually good resources to help you pick a plant that's right for you as they are typically just sales associates not plant experts.
Local nurseries are also wonderful & the staff is much more knowledgeable and can help you pick the right plants because they are very involved in plant care & often have their own plants at home too.
If you are a beginner, I would steer clear of ordering plants online since there are just too many variables that you may not be equipped to handle as a plant parent newbie.
Concepts that will make you a great Plant Parent
🌿 Water based on need, not timing. The humidity conditions in your home will change based on room location, time of day, season, heating, cooling, etc. So one very important thing that helped me not kill my plants was to stop watering plants on a fixed schedule & assess conditions before watering. This is pretty easy to do & there are a few methods of doing this, but I’m going to give you my tried and true method.
I highly recommend the use of a soil moisture meter/ hygrometer so you don't have to guess when plants need water. simply water when the hygrometer reads dry & the soil dries out completely.
🌿Plants hate having wet feet. Just like your feet would get infected and macerated if you lived in a swamp plants get root rot. So overall, it’s better to let the soil dry out completely rather than overwater.
Examine your plants like a patient cuz overwatering kills more plants than under-watering.
🌿There is no such thing as a live plant that needs no light. All plants need light because See the way photosynthesis is set up.... Lol So if you have no light you may invest in grow lights but that’s a whole other complication you don’t need to start out. I’d recommend just using the windows you have if you’re a beginner.
Southern facing windows will have the most light, followed by east and west facing. Last is north & the least ideal of them, but its still very possible to grow plants near them. I have a north-facing window where my plants do equally well.
🌿 Plants go into shock when their environments & conditions change abruptly. Know that plants need an adjustment period of 1-2 months when you first bring them home, so give them time. I try and pick plants whose conditions at the plant store I can easily replicate in my home as far as light, humidity, and proximity to other plants. *plants bunched together increases humidity.
Tips to support your plant through the adjustment period
Do not fertilize for 2 months at least, since they typically have either been recently fertilized at the store or come with slow-release fertilizer already. It takes about 2 months for all that to run out. Overfertilizing can cause root burn and can kill plants instantly. So careful when setting up the fertilizing schedule on your plant app- that you take this into consideration.
Do not water when you bring home unless it needs it. If surface soil is not wet, use a hygrometer to be sure.
Do not change the soil or mess with the roots, until you're out of the newbie stage & are more comfortable with repotting and handling roots and all that- because roots don't generally like to be messed with.
You may remove dead or sick leaves to stimulate healthier growth, but if trimming healthy parts of the plant, do not do more than 10-30% at a time. A big chop of a plant parts may worsen the shock, especially if they're sick or already have few leaves.
🌿Bottom Water a few times until you get the feel of how much water your plant needs instead of free watering on the top. Top watering every other or every second watering occasionally is necessary to wash away salts and stuff but as a beginner, I want you to get really good at getting to know what volume of water your plant likes and bottom watering will give you a good feel for it.
🌿If you have other plants make sure to Quarantine your new plants when you bring them home. Plants can have harmful pests, some of which are microscopic, that can easily be transferred to your other plants. I have lots of houseplants so I have an intake process in place for quarantining new plants because I’ve gotten infestations and learned the hard way. It's enough to have the new plants in a different room or at the very least a safe distance away.
🌿Be willing to experiment. Basically, be willing to kill some while you learn what kind of plants you can get along with. Sounds crazy to say but sometimes losing patients- even when doing everything within your power to prevent it, makes greater clinicians. As your comfort level with plants evolves, it’s ok to get curious about higher-maintenance plants if you’re up for it. It’s ok if you sacrifice a bunch for the learning experience. Every plant hobbyist kills plants all the time, even professional growers! I do it all the time, & it helped me learn so much. You can’t make them all happy.
Plant parenthood is very rewarding once you get the hang of it. For me, it has brought so much joy in bringing nature closer to my home and heart. I view plants as their own little beings with different needs, triggers, personalities, and language. You will too someday.
It has definitely become a very enjoyable hobby that brings me child-like wonder, peace, and an outlet to offset the toll of working in medicine. It continues to teach me patience & that growth doesn’t happen unless the conditions are right.
I can’t say that learning this from plants was the reason I walked away from a toxic surgery job, but it definitely made me question whether my surroundings were impeding or stunting my growth. It’s a beautiful reminder nonetheless.