Help your houseplants thrive by placing them in the right places

This story is part Tips for the houseCNET’s collection of handy tips for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Plants can make your home more inviting. But if you are a houseplant novice, keeping them alive can seem daunting. After all, they can’t tell you what they want or need, and a few browned plants are enough to make anyone feel like the angel of death for all things green. and leafy.

Fortunately, there are some approaches you can take to increase your chances of keeping your plants happy and healthy – and some houseplant philosophy to help you along the way. Part of the key here is making sure you put your plants in the right place.

On the one hand, even if it’s a bummer, you’ll probably kill a few plants. There are a number of trials and errors that come with learning about plants that are unavoidable. Some plants are more delicate than others, and general advice is often insufficient.

It’s also important to remember that, as easy as it is to think of plants as decorative items to add a bit of interest to a space, they are living things with needs – primarily metabolic needs. Think about what you learned in school back then. Plants make food through a process called photosynthesis. This means that they need the sun’s energy to absorb carbon dioxide and water and turn them into sugars and oxygen. Oxygen is released into the air and sugars are what the plant uses as food.

Here’s what to know about where you should (and shouldn’t) place your leafy friends. You can also consult four easy ways to keep your plants alive while you travel and how to grow your own herbs at home.

Read more: The best places to buy plants online

Bright windows, dark corners

No matter what type of plant you have, you’re going to be looking for a balance between the amount of water and sun you give it, depending on what the plant needs. This means that not all plants want to sit in direct light from a sunny window, and not all plants can handle being placed in a dark corner. Some plants often need water, others can do without it for longer. (For a deeper, no-nonsense dive into the science behind it, written by an engineer, The new parent of the plant by Darryl Cheng is a great read.) Often when people talk about low-light plants, as Cheng writes, they mean plants that “starve gracefully.” Less light means less food. Some plants may retain their appearance longer despite this.

When buying a new plant, research the environment it prefers, but also be aware that you may need to make changes.

For many people who are starting out with houseplants, there is a certain appeal to low-light plants. They seem harder to kill, they don’t need large amounts of light – although it’s important to remember that low light doesn’t mean no light.

Here are some suggestions for plants that don’t need to sit in your sunniest window.

snake plant

A snake plant sitting on a granite counter in a ceramic pot.

This snake plant hangs out in the bright, indirect light of my living room.

Erin Carson/CBS

Snake plants (there are many varieties) are hardy plants with leaves growing vertically from the ground. The leaves are a little stiff and the plant generally grows slowly, especially in low light conditions. This one’s not going to wilt. The great thing about snake plants is that they can handle a range of lighting situations, right up to full sun. They also prefer drier soil, which means you’ll be watering them less often. Granted, many people may struggle with overwatering if they are new to the plant world. Still, it’s hard to say water your plant a certain number of times per month. I keep my 4 year old snake plant a few feet away from a window in a mostly bright room and water it once a week.

Pothos

A pothos vine sitting on a granite counter.

There is a pot buried under the vines.

Erin Carson/CBS

Pothos is a classic houseplant. It’s a vine, so it can get long, and you can let it hang from its pot, if you want. It’s another one that can do with lower light, but again, keep in mind that lower light means it won’t grow as much. That said, you probably want to avoid putting your pothos in direct light. It likes moist soils. One way I’ve learned to tell if my pothos is happy is if the leaves look and feel springy and perky.

coffee tree

A coffee tree in a wooden planter on a granite counter.

This coffee tree looks perky after being watered.

Erin Carson/CBS

I wouldn’t call a coffee plant a low-light plant, but it’s definitely not one that will appreciate the beating sun of a windowsill. Bright, indirect light suits a coffee tree much better. Keep the soil of your coffee plant moist, but don’t drown it. One particularity of the coffee tree that I’ve come to appreciate is its drama – if it needs water the leaves will fall off, but they’ll bounce back pretty quickly after you give it a good drink. Ideally, he won’t have to sag down to let you know he’s thirsty, but at least it’ll give you clear communication if you forget.

For more plant tips, check out CNET’s picks for the best gardening and seed delivery servicesand how to plant a tree the right way.

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