I’ve always assumed the fates did not grace me with a green thumb or a talent for plant care. In college I marveled as my best friend (and roommate) rescued ailing houseplants left on curbs in our college town. She coaxed them back to health the way people tend to baby birds. Our apartment was a jungle, and she made it look easy. So when we graduated and moved to different cities, I tried to acquire my own leafy menagerie. The plants I brought home seemed to hate me, and they proved their point by promptly dying.
This was tragic, for sure, but it wasn’t a surprise. I ignore dirty dishes, the laundry, and dust bunnies for weeks when life is busy. Then, in the quiet spells, I emerge to restore order until it all unravels again. Few plants can withstand such a haphazard love.
I assumed I was destined for a plant-free life. But over the past few months, homebound due to the pandemic, I’ve started to wonder whether it has to be that way. Aided by my aforementioned best friend, Malinda Allen, who launched Allen Botanical Matchmaking to help people find plant love, I have more confidence.
“Pretty much anyone can get indoor plants to thrive,” Allen tells SELF. It’s just a matter of choosing the right ones. So I asked her and two other experts for their best tips so people with plant-killing tendencies can grow a garden.
1. Don’t buy plants based on looks alone.
“A surprising number of people see a pretty plant for sale and buy it without even knowing what kind of plant it is,” Allen explains. But your brand-new plant may require living conditions you can’t provide. It’s a bit like getting a pet without knowing whether it’s a dog, a cat, or a bunny.
Before bringing a botanical companion home, do a quick internet search on its name, or ask the staff at the plant store for more information. Doing this will help you be (somewhat) sure you can fulfill its needs—whether that means direct sunlight, daily misting, or a level of humidity not present outside the tropics.
2. Assess your space.
Instead of having grand ideas about the rare plants you want to care for, it’s better for you to “really be able to describe [your] space extremely well” when evaluating which plant is a fit for you, Allen says. So before bringing home a plant, take stock of your environment. Spend a few minutes sitting in the spots that your plants will inhabit to examine the space, Summer Rayne Oakes, author of How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart, tells SELF.
The most obvious feature is light. Take time to assess the intensity and direction of your light, and notice whether it’s obstructed by anything outside. Southern exposure “is the most ideal, brightest light you can get,” Christian Esguerra, who doles out plant-care tips to his 188,000 YouTube subscribers as Crazy Plant Guy, tells SELF. “That gives you the most options for the types of houseplants you can bring in.” But you can still find plenty that prefer lower light, he says—like the snake plant (Sansevieria), which will flourish in almost any environment.
Temperature and humidity are also critical. Most indoor plants come from subtropical regions, and except for cacti and its cousins, like aloe, they haven’t evolved to deal with significant shifts in temperature, Oakes explains. Many plants won’t thrive in front of a super-drafty window or over a radiator, even if that’s where your best light is.
3. Figure out your plant personality.
Your plant shouldn’t just match “your home environment but your personality and lifestyle,” Esguerra says. Allen goes a step further and compares plant partnership to dating. Ask yourself: Do you feel you need to be always working on the relationship? Would you rather meet for a regularly scheduled rendezvous? Do you value your independence? Or do you want to give your attention to that special someone all the time?