ALL IT TAKES is a scroll through Instagram or a perusal of Pinterest to know that indoor plants are The Thing these days. Walls of air plants. Succulent centerpieces. Enough fiddle-leaf figs to fill a forest. Sadly, though, many a good plant has withered and died in the hands of a rookie botanist striving to be au courant. Plants are often tucked away in dark corners, potted in the wrong soil mixtures or simply overwatered. Which is why, to help us pick the right (read: hardest to kill) plants for our indoor gardens, we turned to one of the best in the business. Shannon Tipton, co-owner of Electric Ghost—a purveyor of a pretty incredible collection of tropical plants, succulents and cacti, among other things—shares some of her tips and tricks for welcoming our new roommates into comfortable, cozy homes. Because when it comes to thumbs, they don’t get greener than hers.
The fiddle-leaf fig’s claim to fame might be its lush, violin-shaped leaves, but it’s also the fact that this humble tree tends to thrive indoors. “But it’s really finicky,” says Shannon. “It’s the one that I have people come in with most questions about.” Overeager customers tend to water the plant too much, which leads to death by root rot. “If you have a saucer that sits under the pot, elevate the pot with rocks,” Shannon says, explaining that it’ll help water seep out of the drainage holes easily. Not only will that help water drain faster, she says, but it’ll also create ambient humidity perfect for tropical plants.
This stout, miniature-treelike plant is a succulent, which means that it’s a sturdy, water-storing varietal that is—bonus!—easy to care for. “That’s one of my favorite plants,” Shannon says, noting that when the jade’s fleshy, shiny leaves start to lose their luster, she knows it’s time to water her other succulents. Because jade plants love keeping their feet dry, it’s important not to go crazy with the watering can. To whip up a fast-draining soil mixture the plant would thrive in, Shannon takes a block of coconut fiber and lets it soak in water. When the block expands to five times its size, she cuts it with perlite and some rocks. “Perlite acts as air pockets within the soil,” she says. “That way, the soil doesn’t get too compact and crush the roots and stay wet. It lets it dry out.”
These slow-growing succulent clusters are excellent accent plants, primarily because they’re small and unfussy. Growing in a rosette form, their leaves are thick, fleshy and striped with pearllike dots. “People think that they need the brightest light possible, but they can actually get sunburned,” Shannon says. “So they are pretty good indoor plants behind a window when they are not getting scorched.” Much like other succulents, they demand a fast-draining soil mixed with sand, and ample time between waterings.
Growing long and tall stalks, monsteras, often called “Swiss cheese plants,” can be striking—a pop of the tropics in a living room—and their bloom is theatrical. Over the course of two days, when new buds appear, they unfurl in a spiral form into leaves and change color from lime to dark green. The trick with monsteras is to give them just the right amount of water. They are fond of light and even produce a fruit shaped like an ear of corn. “It takes a lot of light to get them to produce that,” says Shannon. “It’s possible, but difficult.”
The Devil’s Ivy, with its heart-shaped leaves and vinelike stems, is a smart fellow. It can be trained to climb walls and wrap around things such as curtain rods. And because these plants are suckers for humidity, Pinterest-ers have been using Devil’s Ivy to decorate showers—a trend called “green bathrooms.” Although the plants are shade lovers, it all boils down to preference. “If you grow them in bright, indirect light, they become a little more yellow,” she says. “Leaving them in low light, they get more of a dark-green color.”
Among indoor plants that produce a colorful, dramatic flower is the bromeliad, whose sword-shaped leaves fan out around a central tube. (In its natural habitat, the bromeliad uses its tube as a cup to collect rainwater.) When its bloom cycle comes to an end, the mother plant wilts and dies, but not without leaving behind offsets for us to propagate. Since plants like bromeliads absorb oxygen through their leaves, spraying them with water helps wash away dust, creates ambient humidity and keeps them cozy.
Tips from Shannon on keeping houseplants happy
“I put my finger in the soil, and if it feels dry and powdery, then I water the plant. For tropicals, it’s about a knuckle deep. For cacti and succulents, about two knuckles. Make sure to cut back water during their dormant period in the fall and winter. Since they’re not growing as much, they’re not using as much water, so they tend to sit in it more. Also, I like to fill up my water pitcher 24 hours before I need to water and let it sit out overnight so the chlorine evaporates.”
“I go with soil from a garden center; then I just cut it with some things that I like—different barks, mulches, perlites. They allow for a better drainage. Since the plants are inside, you want to make sure the soil has adequate time to dry out between waterings. You don’t want the roots to sit in moist soil.”
“Getting a pot without drainage holes is just setting yourself up for failure. A lot of the times, if [the pots] are ceramic, you can drill your own holes. Also, since repotting can be traumatizing, when picking a pot, make sure the plant will have enough room to grow. Add about 2 inches to the circumference of the plant.”
“You don’t want to fertilize until spring and summer. We use Superthrive for our cacti and succulents, as well as Jump Start, which you can get at Good Earth.”
“A lot of plants have an adjustment period. This is especially true with the fiddle-leaf fig. When they buy one and bring it home, people think they’ve killed it immediately. But it’s really just adjusting! It takes about three months to adjust to your schedule, your humidity and your light.”