A crash course in responsible plant parenting for indoor and outdoor plants

This is what is takes to be the best plant parent - even if you're not naturally green-fingered.

how to look after plants
(Image credit: Getty Images/Mint Images RF)

If you’ve recently taken a dive into horticulture as new hobby, or during the lockdown have committed to bringing a fresh new set of plants into your home, you might be struggling with exactly how to look after them now.

As the interest in place to buy plants online goes up, so does the amount of people wondering how to look after their new sprigs – so you’re not alone. If you’re not a seasoned gardener, then you might bit a little confused as to why your wonderful green-leafed houseplant is sprightly one minute and yellow the next, or why your tomato plants seem to be calling it quits. You might even be wondering which houseplant you should buy, or how you can get into some of the latest gardening trends now that garden centres are open.

Luckily, you don’t have to worry for much longer because we’ve got the experts in.

From basic advice on how to look after your houseplants and everything you need to know about the trickier variations like orchids to how to look after tomato plants, our experts have you covered.

How to look after outdoor plants and become a pro gardener

Sharon Jervis is the founder of Beefayre and an expert on bees, wildlife and gardening conservation. For looking after plants in your garden she suggests, “Always think about your visiting pollinators when selecting flowers for your garden, remember mauve and purple/blue plants offer the highest amount of nectar and pollen for our bees, lavender, comfrey and borage! They are literally champagne on tap for your bees. Anything to support endangered species it worth it in any garden.”

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She adds, “Some plants can be easier to look after than growing vegetables and fruits. Wildflowers can be a good option for messy but colourful abundance. Always read plant instructions as they tell you how frequently to water and whether to plant in shade or sunlight. Keep flower tags nearby to where you plant them if you are likely to forget. Even the smallest of gardens can be converted to a haven easily!”

When should you water outdoor plants?

how to look after plants

Ellen Mary is a plant expert and horticultural radio show host. When it comes to how often you should water outdoor plants, she says, “Watering depends on the weather and your soil. If you have a sandy soil it may need more water but a good mulch can really help. When you do need to water, ideally early in the morning or late in the evening is best to allow your plants time to absorb the moisture before the soil dries out again. If you have lots of slugs and snails I would recommend watering in the morning.

“Easy plants to care for outside are herbs such as Rosemary, Lavender and Mint (although you might want to pot mint as it’s quite prolific). Also for drought tolerance plants such as Verbena borariensis - which is also great for pollinators - Lupins, Agapanthus and Geums.

If you have a small space and are growing in containers, remember that the compost will dry out much quicker than in a garden bed and will need frequent water and feeding to replenish the compost so your plants can continue to bloom.”

How much sunlight do outdoor plants really need?

Ellen, who also hosts her own gardening podcast, says that the best way to ensure your plants are getting the right levels of sunlight is to pick the right plant for the right place.

As she says, “If you have a sunny spot, pick plants that thrive in sun. Or if you have a shady spot, you’ll need plants that thrive in shade such as Hosta’s, Heuchera’s and Epimedium - otherwise your garden plants may not grow as well as you would like.

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“The other point to think about is your soil. Knowing your soil type really helps to understand what plants can grow and where. Soil testing kits are super easy and cheap to buy. Plus its a bit like a scientific experiment!”

How to look after tomato plants

Sharon says, “Tomato plants need lots of water and support as they grow; their stems carry quite a bit of weight as they as they develop their tomatoes fruits! So best to look for wooden or bamboo support frame later down the line.

“Plant them as young seedlings, deeply, and remember to fertilise and feed with tomato feed, they respond well and lots of sunshine, food and water - a bit like us humans really!”

What about indoor plants? Here’s how to care for some of the trickier houseplants out there…

How much sunlight do indoor plants need?

Liam Lapping from Flowercard spoke to woman&home about the best ways to ensure that you’re your plants are getting just the right amounts of sunlight, and not frying in the sun.

He says, “All houseplants need natural sunlight to survive, but how much sunlight plants need, depends entirely on the individual plant - so try a quick Google to find out the needs of your indoor plants.

“To ensure your house plants receive enough natural sunlight, turn off your light to see how much natural sunlight fills the room where your houseplants live - plants cannot feed off bulb light, so make sure your room is receiving enough light. For plants that need a lot of sunlight, placing them by large windows is a great way to ensure they receive the light they need, while shade-loving plants can sit in corners of rooms or on shelves, for example.”

Liam continues, “Another tip for ensuring plants get enough sunlight is to use a compass on your phone to work out which direction your windows are facing. With the UK being located in the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing windows are the best bet for ensuring maximum light exposure.”

How often should you water plants?

Michael Perry is a horticultural expert with almost 20 years experience. He says, “Basic care for houseplants is simply not to care for them too much! Most people over water their houseplants, killing them kindness. Or, they’ll be sharing watering tasks with a partner or a friend, and the poor plant ends up getting double watering.”

Instead he recommends, “Watering from below, by a saucer, which acts as a reservoir and the plant then drinks up only what it need.”

Knowing when to water indoor plants can be difficult, with every style of houseplant having different watering needs. As Liam says, “When it comes to watering your indoor plants, this will also vary depending on the type of plant you have, though most plants need watering every 2-4 days.

“As a general rule, smaller plants will need more frequent watering than larger plants, and those sat in sunlight will also need watering more frequently - if in doubt, feel the soil!

“Most indoor plants will thrive in moist compost in spring and summer-time but just be careful not to over-water your plants, as water-logging can be fatal! Pots with drainage holes will allow excess water to drain out, and prevent any wet compost.

How to look after orchids

how to look after your plants

They’re famously a tricky houseplant to care for, but Michael - also known as Mr Plant Geek - says that orchids actually only require minimal care. He says, “An orchid will be happy with just a shot glass of water per week, and a position of bright indirect light. That means somewhere that is light, but away from a sunny window. A sideboard would be perfect!”

How to look after a peace lily

“Peace lilies can be real divas when grown as houseplants,” Michael says, “Avoid sharp changes of temperature at all costs. You should also only water when the surface of the compost dries out.

“Keep them out of super hot sun too!”

How to look after a bonsai tree

Much like many other houseplants, bonsai trees should be placed in a position of bright indirect light and kept moist at all times. As Michael says, “As the soil is quite shallow in the container, this can be difficult, but a saucer of pebbles underneath should increase humidity, and allow you keep it topped up.”

What are the best houseplants?

If you’re new to houseplants, or struggling to keep your current ones alive, it’s best to start off with some houseplants that are made to survive in challenging conditions.

Plant expert and owner of Root Houseplants, Lisa Needham recommends the following houseplants for those who aren’t too good at keeping theirs alive.

how to look after your plants

  • Sansevieria zeylanica, otherwise known as the snake plant. Lisa says they have “beautiful upright blades which don’t require a lot of attention, prefer a bright spot but can handle a shadier spot.”
  • Zamioculcas zamiofolia, known as the Zanzibar gem. “Glossy paired leaves on strong stems, no fuss required, does it’s thing and looks great!”
  • Monstera deliciosa, also called the Swiss cheese plant. Lisa says, “This plant likes bright indirect light and can dry a little between waterings and it will grow and grow! It puts out new leaves fairly frequently so makes you feel great and reassures you that you got this, you’re a plant parent!”

That’s what we like to hear. From outdoor to indoor plants, this is how to look after your plants and be the best plant parent you can.

Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness as well. Everything from the best protein powder to dating apps, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.