Not everyone is adept at caring and maintaining a house plant. Let’s stop right there: a plant is a living, breathing being that needs to be cared for in a certain way. Just like dogs and birds and people, they have a particular diet and need light like we need high speed internet. I think where most people go wrong is they get a plant, stick it by a window and water it when they remember. Most plants (except for a few which I will mention in a minute) will not take to this kind of care and will die.
However, the benefits of having indoor plants far outweigh any sort of maintenance they need. They clean the air in your home (and in some cases, toxic fumes like formaldehyde and benzene). They are shown to improve you mood. They’re pretty! What’s not to like? Now that I live in Los Angeles and have a small area for an East/Southeast window garden, I’m taking advantage. Even if you have very little direct sunlight in your space, I’ll give you some options for plants that can thrive in those conditions.
A disclaimer first: My post will contain plants that are beneficial to people. I have not looked too deeply into whether or not these plants are poisonous to animals. If you’re looking for plants to add to your home and want to make sure they’re pet-safe, try the ASPCA website first. They keep a list of plants that are poisonous to dogs and cats. Some of them you can simply keep on a shelf or in an area away from pets, but some are just not great to have around in homes with pets and should be avoided.
And yet another “before we get started” bit: when I say “water” I mean distilled, room temperature water. Most plants hate chlorine and a lot of the stuff in your tap water. To keep your plants happy, use only distilled water or well-filtered. Depending on your water source, you can fill a bucket with tap water and leave it outside for 24-hours. This will rid your water of fluoride. Personally, I don’t think this would work for Los Angeles water so I’d recommend a Brita filter. Chances are, your indoor plants don’t need buckets of water at a time so this is a good solution that won’t have you buying distilled water by the gallon. Also, don’t use chilled water. Let it sit for a little while before you water your plants.
My Top 5 Houseplants
Let’s start with a Snake plant. In terms of its functionality, it’s one of the best plants to have in your home. NASA tested a variety of plants for their ability to produce oxygen and filter harmful fumes, like formaldehyde and nitrogen oxides, and the snake plant was very high on their list. This plant hardly needs any water (and will rot if you give it too much). In the winter, you can get away with watering it every two months. These plants like well-drained soil, so make sure there’s a hole at the bottom of your pot so the plant can drain properly. You can find them at any commercial nursery and your local hardware/home store will probably have them. These plants produce oxygen at night which is when your air quality is at its worst, so sometimes it’s called a bedroom plant. I’ve included a TED talk at the bottom of this post that was presented by a man living in Delhi who had his lung capacity greatly reduced due to their pollution problem. He calculated how many plants you would need per person in order to provide enough oxygen to clean the air and was able to restore his lung capacity and cure his respiratory ailments. It’s pretty amazing and definitely worth watching.
If you just absolutely have to have a plant with some color, then the African Violet is the way to go. As with most flowering plants, they’ll need a little extra care in order to get blooms. Otherwise, they’ll survive as a green plant. African violets like sunlight but not direct sun. A window that gets a few hours of sunlight a day will do. Water them when the soil is dry to the touch. They also need a pot with drainage. To get the blooms, use a “balanced” fertilizer, which means equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Sometimes they’re called “20-20-20″ fertilizers. Avoid anything that says, “bloom-booster” because they’re usually not great for African Violets. You’ll use the fertilizer as directed every time the plant needs watering. See? A lot more work than the snake plant but these plants can be a gorgeous addition to your home.
Indoors and outdoors, succulents grow well in Los Angeles. They require almost no water and tolerate drought conditions. Your typical cactus is considered a succulent. At your local greenhouse, they are usually grouped together with other cacti. You’ll find that plants are grouped by the kind of care they need, so when you find groups of plants kept indoors, you’re probably in the right place for houseplants. You can find succulents in abundance at your local IKEA and almost every garden center. A popular succulent is Aloe. Be warned: not all aloe is safe to use on your skin. It must be a specific variety and has to be harvested right away, so I’d advise against going to Home Depot, picking up an aloe plant and slathering it on your sunburn. If you’d really like an aloe plant to harvest medicinally, do your research or contact a specialty greenhouse and ask for advice. Succulents do well in terrariums and a quick search on Etsy or Pinterest will give you some great ideas for creating your own. Succulents can come in pretty exotic varieties but the care is pretty much the same for all of them: well-drained soil and sunlight. Using terracotta pots is probably your best bet for succulents. Too much water will kill them and terracotta will allow for better drainage.
One of my latest additions to my indoor garden is an air plant. They are also called Tillandsias. Be careful because the name is misleading. While these plants do pretty well in “set it and forget it” conditions, a little care will allow them to thrive. These plants belong in the bromeliad family (the same family as orchids) and that might scare you off. All the really need is a little humidity and a swim! These plants are indigenous to tropical environments and will attach themselves to whatever they can find: the side of a tree, a stick, very little soil, etc. and therefore don’t have a complex root system. This might sound like a parasite but all they really need is a place to anchor themselves and they’ll do fine. Even a shot glass with some gravel in it would work. They like a bright room but not as bright as a southern exposure, so a window facing east or west will help. If all you have is a southern exposure (lucky you!) then place it off to the side or behind a bigger plant so it doesn’t burn.
If you want your air plant to grow and thrive: Los Angeles is sunny, but dry. These plants need humidity. Spraying them with distilled water isn’t enough. About once a month, dunk them in water for an hour and let them dry on your dish rack before returning them to their home. Because of this, start with a plant the size of a rose so you aren’t having to care for a huge plant. And since the water and air in a rainforest isn’t the same as an urban city, they’ll need some fertilizer. Most orchid fertilizers will work. I recently purchased some bromeliad fertilizer and it seems to be working well. I only used a pinch (since my air plants are pretty small) and added it to a spray bottle of distilled water. Most plants like to be fertilized during their growth period and that’s usually in the spring and summer months, but double check so you’re not overfeeding. If your air plant is getting a lot of love, it can live upwards of eight years!
If you want your air plant to just grow a tiny bit: give it a place to sit, stick it in your bathroom next to a window and call it a day. Maybe spray it with water once in a while if your bathroom is particularly well-ventilated. You plant will live but it won’t grow that much. Air plants can have very long life spans but under these conditions, I’d say it would only be a year or two. I found my air plant at a flea market, and you can find them all over Etsy in pretty glass containers.
The plant I have the most experience with is the Dracaena. It was one of the first purchases I made when I moved to Los Angeles. Five years later and she’s still kicking! The particular variety I have is the dracaena fragrans. Under the right conditions, this plant can be the size of a tree! Since we moved to our new place, the dracaena has been sitting in a east/south facing window and I think it’s been getting too much sun. Plus, I made the common mistake of thinking the brown leaves were due to lack of water so I over watered them. After going to my local greenhouse, I learned that I had it in too much sun and was giving it too much water so the roots were rotting. How do I save this plant? They instructed me to get it farther away from the window. To help with the water issue, they said to get a kebob skewer and poke a bunch of holes into the soil so it could air out. After 10-14 days, I could water it again. I now have a reminder in iCal to water my dracaena every other week. Plus, now I have another plant that doesn’t have to be plastered to a window.
Greenhouses and nurseries in Los Angeles:
Thanks to Rolling Greens in Culver City, I can probably salvage my Dracaena. The only other greenhouses I’ve been to were inside Lowe’s and Home Depot. Like I mentioned previously, I purchased my air plant at a flea market, specifically Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. I noticed that the same vendor is present at the Long Beach Antique Market.
Lastly, here’s a TED talk relating to plants that are good for oxygen production.