Until very, very recently, I killed most plants I tried to nurse to vibrant, or even mediocre, health.
But if you can figure out how to keep them alive, plants give back. Tovah Martin, author of many books about houseplants, explained to the Washington Post that the current plant trend (Millennials love them and they make #ripe fodder for Instagram) has “a lot to do with people hunkering down. A houseplant is therapeutic. It gives you something to nurture.”
Plants are therapeutic in very literal ways, too: researchers from Yale School of Medicine and Kansas State University found that after surgery, patients who had plants and flowers in their rooms had lower blood pressure and reported feeling less pain, anxiety and fatigue compared to those who didn’t have plants around.
That finding also applies to situations outside of hospital rooms. Keeping plants indoors can yield stress-reduction benefits similar to those you get when you’re outside enjoying nature, according to a report from Washington State University. The report even cites a study that found that participants working on a computer were less stressed, as measured by blood pressure, when there were plants around.
In a world where we’re increasingly spending more time looking at screens, having green around is a welcome break—and boost—for our brains. Scientists have been increasingly interested in how our brains respond to electronic clutter, and examining ways to mitigate how that clutter can drain our attention span and memory. Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that people working in a room with plants performed better on a test measuring their attention capacity compared to people who did the task in a room sans leafy greens, as Scientific American reported. And a 2010 study from Cornell University supports these findings, as researchers found that participants with plants in their office space were more attentive.
That means having a plant in your home or workspace is giving you a lot more than just decorative flair (although a 2008 study from the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, found indoor plants reduced stress because of how good they look).
Then there’s the whole air-purifying thing: NASA has extensively studied how certain plants remove air pollution from indoor spaces, and in a 1989 NASA report, environmental scientist B.C. Wolverton wrote, “if man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system,” also known as plants.
In addition to all the health, productivity and well-being benefits, plants are relatively cheap, make for great decorations and are supposedly easy to take care of.
Thankfully, there’s a way for all of us to improve on our keeping-plants-alive game. As Christopher Satch, who leads plant science and education at the popular New York plant store The Sill, told me via email, “plant care doesn’t have to be hard at all.”
But for the many out there who struggle to keep even cacti alive, here are some tips on how to be a better plant parent, along with some suggestions for easy-to-care-for greens to get you started.
Step 1: Be realistic
“Choose a plant based on how often you can care for it,” Satch told me. If you’re just starting with plants or have a bad track record, skip the ferns (they like “a lot of attention,” according to Satch) and go with a succulent instead.
Step 2: Lights, camera, keep your plants alive
“Light is food for plants—they don’t eat anything from the soil,” Satch wrote. Certain plants want all the sun (referred to as high light, or bright light) while other plants want medium light, which means “dappled sunlight, or bright, indirect light from outdoors,” like from a north-facing window. Low light means everything else, Satch wrote, adding that “even 5 feet away from a bright window would be considered low light.” It’s important to remember that any indoor plant is getting less sunshine than an outdoor plant because outdoors, “light comes from all directions, whereas indoors, light only comes from one direction.”
Step 3: Pouring water on your plant and hoping for the best isn’t the move
You can over-water or under-water your plant, so it’s important to do some a little research about what sort of moisture your new friend prefers. A helpful tip Satch gave me is to “let the plant soak up a saucer of water in addition to watering from the top,” and then pour out the excess water from the tray a day later. He adds that you shouldn’t water again until the soil is dry.
Step 4: Apparently, fertilizing is a thing
Satch said to use a fertilizer of your choice once a month, but only from March to September.
So which plant is for you?
I can personally vouch for this one: my neon-green pothos plant has been growing strong for months, and is the most vibrantly colored of any of my plants. The pothos is super easy to take care of, Satch told me, adding that they look great hanging, can grow long vines and prefer medium-low light and a weekly (or when the soil dries) watering.
Good news: this plant can go for weeks without water, “so it’s a good choice for forgetful plant parents, or plant parents who are busy,” Satch said. He also described the plant as upright and loyal (which is just the sort of personality I want my plant and dogs to have) and added that these plants will get pretty big if given sunlight. Normally, snake plants prefer low light, and only need to be watered once a month or when they start to wrinkle.
Aloe grow big—and fast—in full sun, Satch told me. They want lots of sunlight, but not that much water: about once a month, when the soil is dry or the leaves start to curl. When their leaves curl, it means they’re thirsty, according to Satch, which makes it super easy to monitor their care. Plus aloe is a panacea for the body: it can soothe burns and other skin conditions and work as hair conditioner.
I can also vouch for this one, because it’s still alive in my apartment. Like aloe, this plant lets you know when it wants water, as it will dramatically droop. It wants low light, and a weekly watering.
Bird’s Nest Fern
This plant “prefers dappled sunlight but can tolerate lower light,” which makes it perfect for beginners who “overwater or are too doting on their plants,” Satch said. They prefer medium-low light, a weekly watering or when the soil is getting close to dry. Even better, you can “spritz them every day all over.”
Now, time to embrace all the good that green can bring to your space—whether you’re a seasoned plant professional, or a fledgling plant parent just trying to keep your child afloat.