Choosing Your First Houseplant

Gardening is about raising something that doesn’t harass you. It doesn’t cry to be changed like our kids did when they were babies. It doesn’t whine to be fed like our dogs do. In their own quiet way, plants look pitiful, brown, and wilted when they need attention. They die just as quietly. No fanfare, no fancy burial ceremonies. The only real pressure on you to raising plants is the pressure you put on yourself.

Lots of people describe themselves as “plant killers.” Let me be the first to break the news: every gardener has killed plants. It’s actually part of the indoctrination. The trick is not to let it get to you. Yes, it hurts more if you’ve spent what you consider a lot of money on what eventually turns into a dead plant. But the key to starting is know yourself and choosing the right plant.

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Lover or Hater?

Are you the type of person who kills with kindness? Have you killed plants by watering them every day until they drown? Or have you killed plants by forgetting to water them and the next time you notice the plant it has shriveled up into a brown twig? It’s time to admit which one you are and then choose the plant that best fits you form of negligence.

Plants That Love Water

If you’re one of those people who can’t stay away from the watering can, you have plenty of options. Most of the choices, though, are known for their foliage and not for their flowers.

Pitcher plants are perfect for those who need a good visual way to tell if the plant has enough water. These carnivorous plants are native to boggy swamps and like to sit in standing water. This means that you don’t have to worry about drainage and that you only need a quick peek into the tray to see if it needs more water. Pitcher plants are interesting because they form stiff tubes filled with a sticky substance that traps insects. The plant actually gets its nutrients from the insects so you don’t ever fertilize it. Distilled water or rainwater is the only thing you’ll want to use if you want this plant to survive because minerals from tap water can build up too much and mean curtains for this plant.

Lucky Bamboo is another interesting plant that likes to sit in water. You can find these in most grocery stores and garden centers. They make a perfect housewarming gift because they are known to represent good luck and prosperity. You may see this plant in some Asian restaurants near the cash register due to this symbolism. Another important aspect of Lucky Bamboo, which is actually a bamboo in name only, is that it doesn’t like direct sun because it grows in the under story in it’s native environment. For this reason, think of this as a gift for someone who doesn’t have much natural sunlight in their homes. It likes a bright room but doesn’t want to be near a sunny window. If it’s planted in a clear container filled with pebbles, it is once again easy to see if it needs water. It does need some extra care such as periodically rinsing out the pebbles and adding very dilute nitrogen fertilizer, but this plant often thrives without this extra care. Water is the main thing to keep this leafy decorative plant alive.

The Baby’s Tear plant prefers a lot of water. Misting to provide extra humidity is also beneficial for this trailing plant with tiny leaves. In its native environment, it provides ground cover on the forest floor. As a houseplant it is often grown as a hanging plant or in a terrarium with an open top where humidity levels are naturally higher. Because it is adapted to growing on the wet forest floor, it doesn’t mind its soil on the soggier side.

Drought Tolerant Plants

You won’t find any of the water loving plants in my house because I’m more of a hater. I am notorious for under watering my plants so I quickly learned to pick the plants that would tolerate too little or sporadic watering.


Amaryllis is my go-to plant for anyone who forgets to water. Their long strap-like leaves emerge from large bulbs. They can send up one to three flower spikes a year and the flowers are large and spectacular. You will see these in all kinds of stores during the Christmas season. Many people throw out the bulbs once the flower dies back but it isn’t all that hard to get them to re-bloom.

I suggest getting multiple bulbs in case they all don’t re-bloom as you want. Some people fertilize the plant once the flowers are spent and then withhold water for a period of time to stress the plant into bloom. In my experience, planting them in the garden in full sun in the summer, fertilizing them well, and then repotting them after the first frost, is a method that also works. This method allows the leaves to die back naturally and go dormant. Once back in the house, amaryllis won’t need water for a few weeks. These plants are the first ones that I grew in our apartment successfully. They truly are an excellent and spectacular houseplant and are surprisingly easy to keep alive.

Christmas cactus would be second on my list for those who aren’t the best at watering their plants regularly. This is another plant that you see for sale around Christmas time. They act like succulents and are typically very forgiving when it comes to lack of watering because they can store water in their plump leaves. They have attractive pink, red, or white flowers that will rebloom every year with very little care. All they need to bloom is fewer hours of daylight. Once a week watering is enough to keep them going though they aren’t a true cactus. For those people who remember to water only once a month or so, Christmas cactus may not be the right plant, instead you may want to get them a true cactus.

Phalaenopsis Orchids would be my third choice for people who aren’t a fan of watering. I know that some may disagree with this choice because these plants do need some attention if you want them to bloom. I’m purposely including this relatively easy plant because people shouldn’t be afraid to pick one up and give it a try. Especially when you can find so many on sale for less than $10, they really can be an inexpensive experiment. And isn’t that’s what’s fun about growing plants? Seeing what works and what doesn’t? These orchids are adapted to growing on the branches of trees in the rain forests. They have aerial roots that like to be misted and they need plenty of drainage if you grow them in pots (the typical way you will buy them at the store) which is why most of these orchids are grown not in soil but in a medium with lots of pine bark that doesn’t hold a lot of moisture. These orchids like to be watered weekly or less, have their roots misted once or twice a week, and given a weak fertilizer each time they are watered. Other than that, just put them in a sunny window and watch the show. Supposedly these plants will bloom and then rest before blooming again a few months later. Depending on the plant, I’ve seen them bloom almost continuously. And the flowers last for longer than most houseplants. They really are worth cruising the sale racks for at you local store.

Dive Right In

Don’t hesitate to look up more houseplants that suit you own form of neglect, you will find a long list. Start with one and if that lives then add another. If it doesn’t live, just remember that the garbage can is nearby. Don’t look back. Move onto another kind of plant.

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