What To Do With a New Plant When You Bring It Home

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Wondering what to do with a plant you impluse bought or received as a gift? Fear not! Here's helpful advice from plant pros.

During the pandemic, houseplants became wildly popular. It seems like everyone started softening their interior décor with ferns, succulents and cacti. In March 2021, Garden Center Magazine polled 250 garden centers and discovered houseplant sales grew by 18. percent year over year.

First-time plant owners should be open to learning. “If you’re going to be a plant person, you’re going to kill plants,” says Connor Harbison, owner of Atlas Urban Farms, a hydroponic garden installer. “Anyone can be a gardener, and I often tell people who protest that I’ve killed way more plants than most people, but I’ve learned along the way.”

If you’re one of the many people raising houseplants for the first time, here are some tips from the pros on how to treat your new plants with love and care.

Should I Re-Pot Indoor Plants After Buying?

Harbison suggests examining the soil. Are roots overcrowding the soil? Are they poking out of the bottom? This means the plant yearns for more room in a larger pot.

Even if it looks like the plant needs more room, wait a few months to re-pot. “Adding one more stressor after it’s been tossed around in trucks and different environments wouldn’t be suitable,” says Debbie Neese, a horticultural expert at Lively Root, a San Diego plant nursery.

Trees.com master arborist and houseplant expert Stuart Mackenzie recommends upgrading their pot size gradually.

Supplies to Have on Hand

To trim and prune flowers or dead leaves, Harbison uses the same pair of shears on all his plants. Each snip not only makes a plant look more “even,” but helps it grow.

“Skipping this step can make plants ‘leggy’ and ‘floppy,’ ” says Dr. Gladys Mbofung-Curtis, plant scientist for Garden Safe. Adds Neese: “Keep [shears] sterilized by wiping an anti-bacterial wipe over the blades so diseases aren’t spread from plant to plant.”

A watering can or mister is a must, but don’t use water straight from the tap. “Fill your watering can or mister, then let it stand overnight to let additives like fluoride and chlorine dissipate before your water,” says Mbofung-Curtis. “Some houseplants are sensitive to these chemicals. It might cause browning of leaf tips.”

A plant meter eliminates guesswork about when to water. Instead of sticking your finger into the soil, plunge in the meter’s prongs. “The problem with just using your finger is you can’t get down deep enough to where the roots actually are, and then you get a false reading,” Neese says. “This device makes it scientific.”

For transplanting, a waterproof and leakproof mat goes on any table. Clean-up is easy thanks to corners that unsnap.

How to Acclimate the Plant

Because a plant will quickly adapt to a new environment, there’s not much you need to do. “(Plants) aren’t babies and they’re not pets,” Harbison says. “They’re just doing their thing [while] sitting there. A plant’s not going to die in three days.”

Harbison views plant caring as a three-way balance of sunlight, water and nutrients. You never want one to dominate. “If there’s full sun, you need water,” he says.

Light is crucial in the new setting. “Place newly purchased plants in bright areas for at least three or four weeks,” says Mbofung-Curtis, “and then move them to their final location.”

The best thing you can do is research the plant’s desirable indoor conditions. “If you’re bringing it from another household, replicate the conditions it was successful in,” says Mackenzie.

Check for Pests

While you hope it won’t happen, a plant could already be infested with pests when it arrives at your house. Examine leaves for holes or jagged edges along with discoloration, would indicate pests at work. Bugs also like to hang out on stalks and stems. “A magnifying glass is helpful to look for pests on your plants or in the soil,” says Mackenzie.

Says Neese: “You want to inspect to get ahead of any infestation. One or two pests, you can handle and treat immediately. [Any more than that and] they’ll have a feast on your plant, sucking up the juices and causing a fast death.”

If you find pests, start treatment ASAP. An alternative to Garden Safe insecticidal soap, commonly sprayed onto plants, is Neem oil. “It smells bad but it does kill pests,” says Harbison.

Find the Right Spot

There’s a tendency to pop plants on a windowsill or directly in sunlight. Even if it’s what a plant species needs, that’s probably too much light. “It gets blasted in the sun,” says Harbison. “Put it back [from the window] a little bit.”

Find the best spot by moving the plant around often. You’ll quickly see where it does best. “Is it becoming droopy or are the leaves changing color?” asks Harbison. If so, it might be time for a new location.

Whether you live in Arizona or Maine, sunlight patterns are similar.

“Northern exposure receives the least light and heat, and Eastern exposure receives direct morning light,” Neese says. “Southern exposure is brighter, and in the winter when the sun is lower will give lots of light. Western exposure gives off more heat. Move the plants away from the window two or three feet so the exposure doesn’t do as much harm.”

Do I Really Need to Fertilize?

Most plant experts say fertilizing is optional. “Ones that don’t need it as often are cacti, succulents and palms,” says Neese.

For those that do, it’s typically done every three months or so, depending on the plant. “The secret to fertilizing indoor plants is to apply small amounts of fertilizer during the most vigorous growth phase: the spring and summer months,” says Mbofung-Curtis.

If you’ve had the plant for months now and haven’t fertilize it yet, don’t fret. “Most soil you buy has nutrients in it [already],” says Harbison.