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How to be a good plant parent: Expert tips for caring for your houseplants (plus 10 picks that are hard to kill!)

Houseplants are like people, so if they are not cared for properly, it will start to show. We find out the dos and don’ts when choosing the right indoor greenery to suit your home

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“People tend to overwater and to not understand where in their house to place plants so that the light suits them."

“People tend to overwater and to not understand where in their house to place plants so that the light suits them."

Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant. This hipster favourite grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant. This hipster favourite grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

The zamioculas zamiifolia plant, with its difficult-to-pronounce name, is often just called a ZZ plant.

The zamioculas zamiifolia plant, with its difficult-to-pronounce name, is often just called a ZZ plant.

The strelitzia reginae is a South African bird of paradise plant. Its dramatic flowers look like an exotic bird head.

The strelitzia reginae is a South African bird of paradise plant. Its dramatic flowers look like an exotic bird head.

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“People tend to overwater and to not understand where in their house to place plants so that the light suits them."

How are you with plants? Because I’ve never met one I couldn’t kill, usually within days of it entering my house. To make matters worse, my taste in greenery runs to the exotic, which means the plants I take a shine to are more expensive. But when you continually kill off pricey houseplants, there comes a point where buying more feels like chucking money out the window. During lockdown, with a lot more people working from home, houseplants had a bit of a moment. But unless you know how to care for them, odds are that not many have survived.

So what’s the secret? According to Sam Smyth of Urban Plant Life on Cork Street in Dublin, the two top causes of ‘planticide’ are overwatering and underlighting. “People tend to overwater and to not understand where in their house to place plants so that the light suits them,” he says. “The issue is that every plant is going to be a little bit different and you need to know what will suit that plant.”

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Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant, is a hipster favourite. It grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant, is a hipster favourite. It grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant, is a hipster favourite. It grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

Urban Plant Life is the only garden centre in Dublin city centre, making it a unique port of call for city dwellers looking to bring some greenery into their house or apartment. Smyth got started 30 years ago in the plant business, renting greenery out to offices, based on the idea that plants help clean the air. “Basically, Nasa did a report that conclusively showed the benefits of having plants around you where you live and work. Now, it’s totally normal to find them in workplaces, but that wasn’t always the case.”

Smyth believes that Urban Plant Life has the best selection of houseplants in the country. Most other garden centres concentrate on outdoor plants, but his focus is on indoor greenery, making him an ideal person to ask how best to choose and how to keep them alive. “The thing you have to remember is that all plants are basically outdoor plants. Just because we choose to keep some indoors doesn’t mean they’re adapted to it. So we have to replicate the outdoor experience for them, based on what part of the world they’re from. Tropical plants, for example, have to be kept in conditions that match those they are adapted for.”

The issue is that the conditions that human beings like to live in — indoors where it’s warm, dry, it doesn’t rain and it’s not windy — are almost the exact opposite of what plants want. We also tend to heat our homes in the evening and not during the day, which is again the opposite of what many plants expect from nature.

“All plants are a bit different, but most like a cooler evening and warmth during the day. Cacti and succulents just require a little water and they like lots of light. So a windowsill or conservatory can be perfect. Others don’t like so much light, usually because when they grow in nature they prefer to be under the canopy of other plants. So some palm trees hate too much sun and get scorched easily, while others love it. Location in your home is a big deal in terms of controlling temperature. Most tropical plants like a minimum temperature of around 12 degrees. Any lower than that, they’ll be unhappy and get diseases.”

All very well, but how is the novice plant parent supposed to know what variety of plant likes what light and water conditions? “For a lot of people, it can actually start with your mammy. Mothers tend to know how to keep houseplants, so it’s always good to ask their advice, or you might have another family member who is interested in gardening. After that, you can ask the staff in your garden centre or where you buy your plants, and then you can also buy a book or go online.

“The main thing is that you do need a bit of knowledge to go with your collection of plants. Just owning them isn’t enough. Plants are basically like people, in that if you don’t look after them, feed them and water them and otherwise make sure they have everything they need to stay healthy, then they won’t.”

Sam Smyth’s top ten ‘hard to kill’ houseplants

1. Dracaena Kanzi
This has stiff, glossy leaves that look painted with shades of green and white. Small, compact and dense, it’s easy to care for. Needs indirect light and water when the top 2-3cm of soil is dry.

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2. Monstera deliciosa
Also known as the Swiss cheese plant, this hipster favourite grows large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves. Likes bright, indirect light and moist soil.

3. Spathiphyllum ‘Alana’
Sometimes called the Peace Lily, this plant offers great contrast between dark-green leaves and stark white bracts. Needs semi-shade and shouldn’t be let dry out.

4. Ficus elastica Robusta
Better known as the rubber plant, this offers broad shiny leaves that are dramatic. It’s a retro, 1970s-looking plant and it filters air excellently. Needs bright, indirect light and moist soil.

5. Strelitzia reginae
The South African bird of paradise plant is fashionable for good reason — its dramatic flowers look like exotic bird heads. In summer, it can go outdoors but it’s also happy indoors as long as it’s warm. Grow in direct light and water when the soil feels dry.

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The strelitzia reginae is a South African bird of paradise plant. Its dramatic flowers look like an exotic bird head.

The strelitzia reginae is a South African bird of paradise plant. Its dramatic flowers look like an exotic bird head.

The strelitzia reginae is a South African bird of paradise plant. Its dramatic flowers look like an exotic bird head.

6. Zamioculas zamiifolia
With its difficult-to-pronounce name, this is often just called a ZZ plant. From East Africa, it’s kept mostly for its foliage. Likes indirect light and water every 2/3 weeks.

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The zamioculas zamiifolia plant, with its difficult-to-pronounce name, is often just called a ZZ plant.

The zamioculas zamiifolia plant, with its difficult-to-pronounce name, is often just called a ZZ plant.

The zamioculas zamiifolia plant, with its difficult-to-pronounce name, is often just called a ZZ plant.

7. Musa acuminata ‘Tropicana’
While you probably won’t be able to pick bananas from it, the banana plant can grow up to 2m tall in the right circumstances. As a houseplant, it has a lot going for it, chiefly the great-looking leaves. Likes indirect light and soil to be kept moist.

8. Philodendron
A classic houseplant, this is a highly adaptable plant that will work well in most homes.Grow in indirect light and water every two weeks.

9. Aglaonema
This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

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This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

This plant is perfect for beginners as it is robust, tolerates draughts and likes indirect light.

10. Ficus benjamina ‘Exotica’
Also known as a weeping fig, this plant is popular. Place away from radiators and direct sunlight, and water when it starts to dry out.


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