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Plant Care

plant care tips

This page provides general information about plant care for people who are new to plant ownership. Information covered on this page includes:

For more in-depth information about plant care, check out the Additional Resources page where you will find books, websites, and helpful videos. 

Plant Propagation

Plant propagation is the process of creating a new plant from an existing plant. The two main types of propagation are sexual and asexual. Sexual propagation involves two parent plants to produce a seed that can be germinated to create a new plant. Asexual propagation allows us to create a new plant from just one parent plant using techniques such as division, cutting, and layering. Not all propagation techniques will work for every plant species. Finding the most reliable propagation method depends on correctly identifying the plant species. 

These are some of the well-known and popular methods of creating a new plant.

Divisionsplitting a plant by separating the crown or root ball. The plant is removed from the pot or dug up and a sharp knife or garden spade is used to separate the root ball. Plants that grow in clusters or clumps, such as Calatheas and Peace Lilies, are ideal candidates for division.

Cuttingsusing a sharpened knife or pruning shears to take a leaf, stem, or root from a parent plant. The cutting is then placed in water, soil, sphagnum moss or some other growing media to develop roots and form another plant. A rooting hormone can be used before the cutting is placed in the growing media to increase the likelihood of it forming roots. It is important to correctly identify the plant species to know which part of the plant to cut.   

Air Layeringthis technique is popular with plants that have a soft wood stem such as fiddle leaf figs. A shallow cut is made on a stem of the plant and the woody outer layer is pried away to create an opening. This slit is then wrapped with a moist growing medium such as sphagnum moss which is held in place using foil or plastic wrap to keep it moist and in place. Over a period, roots will begin to form from the slit and the stem can be severed from the mother plant to create a new plant.

Germinating Seedsthis process involves sprouting a new plant from seeds. Seeds are placed in a warm and moist environment to encourage sprouting and then moved to soil once they have sprouted. A common seed germination technique is to place seeds on a damp paper towel inside of a Tupperware container. This container is then kept in a warm place away from direct sunlight (such as the top of a refrigerator). The consistent, low heat is a major factor in the success of most seed germination.

It is important to correctly identify the plant species in order to select the best technique for successful propagation. The plants that are currently on display in the propagation station are a mixture of plant division and plant cuttings that are rooting in either water or soil. Some plants can remain in water for a long period of time after developing roots.

Soil and Potting Mix

A basic need of most plants is well-draining soil, but what does that mean? When soil is well-draining, it provides a good balance between aeration and moisture retention. It retains enough moisture for the roots to absorb while also providing space for oxygen to get to the root system. Well-draining soils is an ideal environment to develop strong and healthy roots.

Most potted and indoor plants will require more than just soil in their pot. To create well-draining soil, other growing media should be added to soil. Some common additions to potting soil include: perlite, vermiculite, sand, peat moss, bark, and coco coir. The purpose of these additions is to help with soil drainage and getting oxygen to the roots. Properly mixed soil will provide space for a healthy root system to develop. When soil is not well-draining, plants can develop root rot and other complications that may cause the plant to die.

Moisture requirements vary based on the genus and species of the plant. For example, succulents and cacti prefer soil with sand and bark added because they thrive in dry and arid environments. While Begonias will thrive in a potting mix that does not dry out very quickly because they are native to humid environments. Some plants, such as African Violets, also require soil with a certain level of acidity, but these are special cases. The best practice is to correctly identify the plant species and do a little research on their soil and water needs. 

Plant Fertilization

Fertilizer provides nutrients to help your plant grow and maintain its vigor. In addition to regular watering, fertilizer is how you feed your plant. Fertilizing is particularly important for plants grown in pots or containers because their roots only have access to nutrients from the soil within the container. Fertilizer comes in various properties such as liquid, granular, and pellets (slow release). The common ingredients found in most plant fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. For regions that experience seasonal changes in temperature, plants may go through a dormant period where they require little to no fertilization because they are not actively growing. However, South Florida’s climate is consistently warm and humid, so plants can continue to be lightly fertilized even during the winter months. Some plants (such as African violets) require specialty fertilizer. It is important to identify the plant and perform the necessary research to identifying the optimal fertilizing method and frequency for the plant.

Sun and Light Conditions

When it comes to growing conditions, adequate exposure to light is crucial for plant development. Light from either sun exposure or grow lights provides plants with the correct spectrum needed for photosynthesis. The lighting needs of plants will vary depending on the species and genus of the plant. Some common lighting requirements include direct sunlight, bright-indirect light, and low light conditions. For some plants, too much sun exposure can cause their leaves to burn. However, inadequate light conditions will slow the plant’s growth and cause the plant to wither and eventually die. Grow lights can be a great solution for homes or indoor environments that do not naturally provide the adequate light for plant growth and development. See our propagation station for an example of how grow lights can be used to help plants receive adequate light while growing indoors.

Watering

Since not all plants have the same water requirements, there is no unanimous recommendation for how often or when to water a plant. Factors such as the plant’s native environment, the type of soil used to pot the plant, and how much sunlight the plant receives will affect how frequently a plant needs to be watered. Checking a plant’s soil is the most effective way to identify if the plant requires water. Here are some quick ways to check if a plant needs water:

  • Insert your index finger knuckle deep into the soil. If your fingertip is dry to touch, it may be time to water the plant. If moist soil clings to your fingertip, the plant does not need any water currently.
  • Take a wooden skewer or popsicle stick and insert it about halfway down into the pot. After a few seconds, remove the stick from the pot. If the stick is dry to touch, the plant may need water. If the stick feels damp and has soil clinging to it, then the plant may not require any water currently.
  • Use an “Indoor Plant Soil Meter.” These compact devices can provide insight into the soil’s moisture level, soil pH, and detect the level of sunlight the plant is receiving from its current location.

If a plant goes too long without water, the soil may dry out and become compacted and hydrophobic (meaning it repels or does not hold water). One effective method to rehydrate a thirsty plant is bottom watering. This method places the plant’s pot in a larger container filled with water. The plant then absorbs as much water as it needs from the base of its root system. This method ensures that the plant is receiving water all the way down to the bottom of its roots. Some plant pots are self-watering, which means that a water reservoir is installed at the base of the plant pot to allow the plant to absorb water as needed from beneath its roots. This method is like bottom watering but does not require you to remove the plant pot from the watering bowl.

The last thing to consider is the type of water being used. Some plants (such as Calatheas) are sensitive to tap water. The minerals in the tap water may cause the plant’s leaves to become discolored or make the leaf tips brown and crispy looking. In this instance, the plant may require distilled or filtered water. Carnivorous plants, such as the Venus Flytrap, are particularly sensitive to tap and spring water and require distilled water exclusively. Researching the plant can provide useful insight on its water needs.

Plant Pots

Most plants are sold in a nursery pot that is suitable for the plant’s current size. The plant can remain in this nursery pot for some time or it can be moved to a decorative pot that is similar in size to the nursery pot. If the plant’s roots are growing through the bottom of the plant pot it may be time to rehome the plant to a larger pot.

When increasing a plant’s pot size, select a pot that is no more than 2 inches larger than the plant’s current pot. This means that if a plant’s pot is currently 5 inches in diameter, the next pot this plant is placed in should be no more than 7 inches in diameter. Plants that are placed in a pot too small for their root system may experience stunted growth or can become root bound. Plants that are in a pot too large for their root system may experience root rot and other complications that abound from having soil that remains wet for too long.