For a little over two years, I’ve kept a pothos plant, aptly named Plant, at the corner of my desk at work. It was gift from an editor in my first few days on staff, and it’s been with me ever since. It thrived under the harsh fluorescent lighting in our old office, and when time came to move to a new, sunnier space, I cradled Plant in my arms for the 7-block walk to its new home.
The new office’s enormous windows were a welcome change, and for a while they suited Plant and I just fine. Every Friday I would carry Plant and its increasingly long vines to the office kitchen where I would water it.
In hindsight, I think I overdid it with the watering because now Plant is dying. Its once bright green leaves are now a sickly yellow, and one by one they’ve begun to fall off. I sometimes come across old photos in my phone of Plant in its youth and sigh. Poor Plant. I’m sorry I failed you.
In an effort to prevent future plant death, I called Brian Sullivan, vice president for gardens, landscape and outdoor collections at the New York Botanical Garden. He talked me through where I went wrong with Plant, and what we need to know to get it right next time.
Consider your surroundings
Sullivan says a plant owner must consider the office environment, from lighting to temperature to humidity.
In terms of lighting, consider the light sources available to you. Do you have a window? If yes, which direction does it face? South-facing windows get the most light, north-facing get the least. If you’re dealing with fluorescent light, that works too. Many office plants, ferns for example, thrive in lower-light settings. Consider these questions before researching the types of plants that benefit from your office’s level of light exposure.
Now let’s get into temperature and humidity.
“Just like people have different temperature needs, plants do too,” Sullivan says. “A lot of plants do not like to have a super hot, dry environment, so you want to be conscious of the humidity and ways to increase it.”
One simple method Sullivan suggests: Fill the bottom of a round tray with small rocks or pebbles, add water and place the potted plant on top. As the water evaporates, it will increase the humidity around the plant. Easy!
Unless you’re the proud owner of an actual greenhouse (if so, congrats!), you are likely purchasing your plant from a store. But where from? Sullivan’s rule of thumb for buying is to consider the environment where the plants are kept and cared for. Nurseries and garden centers are pretty safe bets, as are well-maintained plant shops and corner stores.
“One of the things I think about a lot is, who cared for the plant before I bought it?” Sullivan says. “Did it live in a healthy environment before it came to me?” If the answer is yes, you’re off to a solid start.
Something to note: Tropical plants (which do well in indoor settings) hate changes in temperature, so choose a warm day to transport your plant from the store to its new home.
Stop over-watering your plant
Now that your plant is moved in, let’s chat about watering. This, I have realized, is where I failed. As it turns out, your office plant does not need to be drenched so thoroughly that water is pouring out of its tray and staining your desk top and causing a headache for you, your office manager and the cleaning staff asked to tackle your water stains.
“They want to have some consistency of moisture, but not be soaking wet,” Sullivan says. “You want to stay in the middle somewhere.” Ideally, there should be enough water to trickle down to the roots and out into the tray beneath the pot.
Sullivan also suggests implementing a watering routine for your plants say, once a week on Friday evening before leaving for the weekend.
“These plants aren’t growing super fast, so they don’t have great needs for water. So, once a week checking them and watering them is usually sufficient,” he says. “If you’re doing it every day, that’s not great.”
Other things a responsible plant owner should know
Every two years or so plants should be repotted in a slightly larger pot with fresh soil, as dirt loses its nutrients over time. Roots can also get compacted at the bottom of the pot.
For ivy plants like mine, you can also root cuttings in water and plant them in new pots.
A few plant suggestions
Philodendrons: Tolerant of light conditions; Not super needy.
Ferns: Tolerant of being indoors.
Tillandsia: Also known as air plants; Don’t require soil; Can be soaked in container of water for a few minutes once a week. As Sullivan puts it, “A really fun one; the absolute easiest plant to keep alive.”
Jade plants: Common houseplant; Pretty; Easy to care for.
Go forth, buy a plant and take better care of it than I did.
BONUS: How to turn your kitchen into a tiny produce farm