8 Hardy Houseplants for Inattentive Gardeners

Starting in my freshman dorm with a cactus that I watered to death, I have waged a war of destruction against perfectly innocent houseplants. Succulents, cacti, palms, Chia Pets—all have perished at my hands.

Houseplants pbs rewireThis personality flaw is especially apparent when I visit my childhood home. My mom’s perfect houseplants—she has a succulent display that would strike envy into the heart of even the most creative Pinterester—are a reminder that a busy life is no excuse for all the plant killing I’ve done.

If I want to get in on the millennial houseplant trend, I need to get it together. Besides, I have a theory that filling my living space with plants in time for winter could help combat the bummed-out feelings I get during the season.

So, what am I doing wrong? That was the question I asked Lisa Philander, curator of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences Conservatory, and Jess Heimer, horticulturalist and house plant buyer for Mother Earth Gardens in Minnesota.

Water and light are what most people who kill plants mess up, they said.

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My mom is too modest, so here are my brother’s succulents.

Plants need to be watered when their soil feels dry to the touch. Yes, even cacti and succulents, Philander said, which she recommends keeping outside in the summertime. A smaller plant in a smaller pot needs to be watered more frequently than a larger plant in a larger pot, because it will dry out faster, Heimer said.

Your pots need holes in the bottom so water can drain out. When it comes time, water a plant until “it pees,” or when the water comes out the bottom of the pot through the holes, Philander said.

But don’t overwater, either. Depending on the size of the pot, don’t add water unless the first half-inch to one-and-a-half-inch of soil feels dry, Heimer said.

If a plant needs lots of light, that means you need to be able to read a book in the room in the afternoon without turning on the light, she said. Do research into what kinds of light your plants need and use that as a guide.

Try these plants

Cacti and succulents are often touted as hardy plants, and they’re certainly popular right now. But there are other plants that are even harder to kill.

If you want to try (or try again) to keep some houseplants alive, but want to do it with training wheels on, here are the plants Heimer recommended:

1. Sansevieria

Houseplants pbs rewireThis plant, often called “mother-in-law’s tongue,” topped both experts’ list of lowest-maintenance plants. Philander said this one is perfect “if you’re a murderess.”

This plant is not picky about how much light it gets, making it a good fit for a dimly lit apartment. And depending on how much light it’s getting, you may only need to water this one once a month, Heimer said. Plants that are getting more light need more water.

2. Aglaonema

In a perfect world, you would be paying close attention to the needs of your plants. In reality, you might forget to water them once or twice.

This plant can handle it.

“They can dry out between waterings and they can deal with shade and bright light,” Heimer said.

3. Calathea

Don’t let this one dry out, but it can deal with pretty low to medium light.

4. Ficus elastica

This plant, often called the “rubber plant,” is easy going as long as it gets to live in bright light—refer to the reading tip at the beginning of this article. You might think your place gets great light because it has lots of windows, but trees and other buildings that block the sun can negate that, Heimer said.

5. Dracaena

This spiky guy only needs medium light, and doesn’t like soggy soil. It can take a while for its soil to dry out after a watering, making it a low-maintenance choice.

6. ZZ plant

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ZZ plants. Photo courtesy of Mokkie via Wikimedia Commons.

Another one you only need to water once a month!

7. Philodendron and pothos

Both of these need mediumish light and look pretty as hanging plants or up on a shelf draping down. They can tolerate drying out between waterings.

8. Dwarf palm

If you’re looking for a tropical vibe, the dwarf palm fits the bill and is hard to kill. It can deal with anything from shade to bright light, and you’d likely be watering it every two to three weeks.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.