Don’t have a green thumb? Can’t get houseplants to survive? Fear not, with a little knowledge and good choices, you can find success with your houseplants. Read on to discover low maintenance houseplants and care practices to dip your toe, or thumb, into gardening. 

First, consider three essential variables: plant selection, light, and water. While other factors like soil, fertilizer, space, temperature, and humidity can have an influence on the plant, they are less critical than these three. 

Sure, there are many choices of houseplant varieties available from local nurseries and garden center, but I recommend a succulent for start out. Succulents do not die if you forget to water them; they tolerate most soil conditions and can grow under most light conditions. One succulent, the jade plant, has beautiful waxy leaves and a tree-like stem that can almost look like something from a bonsai garden. You can place a plucked leaf in moist soil and produce another jade plant. 

Another common succulent is aloe. Most varieties tolerate adverse growing conditions, and you may be rewarded with a cluster of red or yellow flowers. An aloe plant will spread, even within a small pot, so you can easily split off a plant to share with a friend. Of course, most of are familiar with the healing properties of some aloe varieties, especially for soothing burns. 

Probably my favorite succulents are the kalanchoes, sometimes called “mother of thousands” because of the appearance of tiny, rooted baby plants along the edges of the plant’s leaves. The plantlets on the serrations of the plant’s leaf edges drop off, literally by the thousands, and can start another kalanchoe plant. I have known people who have forgotten to water their kalanchoe for four months, and the plant survived. I have also seen a kalanchoe that fell into an outdoor water feature and lived through the summer. 

A spider plant is a good choice and widely available in green or green-white striped varieties. These tough plants are beautiful and thrive even with a lot of abuse. They can produce white flowers, but the real attraction is the spiderling plants that hang below the parent plant, making a hanging basket a good display choice. These little plants can be clipped from the mother plant and placed in moist soil for a crop of spider plants to share with friends. 

Other great choices to gain confidence include Christmas (or Thanksgiving) cactus, philodendron, African violet, and lucky bamboo. None of the plants recommended are expensive or require much space in your house and do just fine in an environment with temperature and humidity levels that are comfortable to us. Lighting, however, is crucial to survival for a plant, and quality is just as important as the quantity of light. Supplying the plant with the correct type and intensity of light will improve the odds of healthy houseplants. 

If you are fortunate, you have a sunny spot in your home for your houseplant. Sunlight is called “full spectrum” light since it is a mixture of every color of light. However, sunlight can be very intense and can easily damage a plant that is exposed to too much sunlight. Before placing a plant in a windowsill, check to see if the area gets too warm or too cold. Is the sun broken up by an outside tree or by a curtain to keep the plant from intense direct sunlight? Place the plant there for a short time every day, gradually lengthening the time in the sun to “harden off” the plant. Set the plant where it receives diffuse sunlight for part of the day and not too near the window to overheat or to chill. 

An alternative to sunlight is to provide an artificial light source. Grow-lights are great and can provide full spectrum light that mimics sunlight. These bulbs are widely available at local garden centers; however, they can be expensive. “A less expensive solution for a balanced light quality” said Dr. Leonard Perry, of University of Vermont Extension, “is to use both incandescent and cool white lights, or cool and warm (appearance, not temperature) white tubes in a fluorescent fixture.” Consider putting the lights on a timer that on and turns off at approximately sunrise and sunset. 

Watering a houseplant is simple, If it is dry, water it. If it is not dry, then do not water. Push your finger into the soil to determine if it feels wet, damp, or dry. Some people water on a weekly schedule that works for most houseplants. 

However, depending on ambient humidity of the air in your house, your plant may need to be watered more or less frequently. Also, it is crucial that your plant pot has drain holes to allow excess water to escape and a dish to catch the excess. Water until the soil is saturated then empty the overflow dish. I have friends who put their houseplants in the kitchen sink to give them a good watering each week. Once the plants have drained, they are returned to their dishes in the windowsills. 

Once you have found some success with a low maintenance plant, you will have confidence for more challenges. 

Don’t forget to send your gardening questions to ‘Ask the Hort Agent’—advice from Sharon Flynt, Scott County Extension Horticulture Agent, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Mail them to Sharon Flynt, Agent, 1130 Cincinnati Road, Georgetown, KY 40324 or send your email to We may have your answers right here in ‘The Garden Spot’. Remember, whatever your gardening interest or reasons, the UK Scott County Cooperative Extension Horticulture Program is designed to provide useful, up to date, research-based information free of charge to assist you with your gardening or operational needs. 

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