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Selecting and Growing Indoor Tropical Houseplants

Plants that naturally grow in warm tropical environments can be well suited to indoor growing conditions. However, not all plants will do well indoors, and selecting the right plant for the right place is important for the long-term success of growing tropical plants inside your home.

There are several factors to consider when selecting tropical plants for your home.

1.) Light

In general, most tropical plants grow best in indirect, bright light. Some plants like direct sunlight, and will do well against a south facing window, whereas other plants prefer to be placed 5 – 10 feet away from a sunny window, where the light is diffused.

Full sun indoor plant – Joshua Tree

In the case of very sunny spots in the home, look for sun loving plants like hibiscus, bird of paradise, ponytail palm, date palm, Joshua Tree, croton, jade, and cacti. Any areas that receive more than 2 hours of direct sunlight will likely damage plants that prefer indirect light. If a location is too sunny for a plant you will see leaf-scorch where leaves lose their colour, and turn yellow, white, or in some cases brown and crispy.

Leaf scorch on Hoya species.

When a location is too dark to grow, a plant will show signs of etiolation (left) where new growth appears stunted. This new growth will be small, pale, and leggy. With etiolation, you will see skinny, long, yellowish white stems and leaves that reach towards the brightest light source. Plants that tolerate low light levels indoors include snake plants, dracaena, aglaonema, zamioculcas, and pothos.

(etiolation – left versus normal growth – right)

The happy medium for most tropical indoor plants is bright, indirect light. If you’ve got north or east facing windows, your plants will need to be close to the windows to receive enough light. If you’ve got south or west facing windows, you’ll have to place the plants slightly back from the windows, and you may have to draw curtains during the brightest hours of the day to filter the light. Keep your eye out for symptoms of growing in too low, or too high of light, and make small adjustments to see how your plants respond.

2.) Maintenance

Look for low-maintenance plants! Unless you’re hoping for a challenge, select plants that are recommended for indoor growing. And if you’re a beginner, select plants that can handle a bit of neglect. For example, snake plants, ZZ plants, Pothos, Oxalis, Aloe Vera, Ivy, Spider Plants, Peperomia, and Money Trees. These plants are tough; if you forget to water them, or if you don’t feel like repotting and pruning them frequently, these are the plants for you.

Top watering Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica)

3.) Watering

Overwatering is the number one reason that indoor plants die. We’re all guilty of it, we get a new plant that we love, and we want to see it grow, so we water it every time we think it needs it. The problem with this is that most plants start to decline rapidly when their roots stay wet for too long, in horticulture, we say that most plants hate having their feet wet. Roots need oxygen to grow and to take up water and nutrients, when the soil is logged with water, the roots can’t take up water, and plants start to wilt and die. Knowing when and how much water to give your plants can be a tricky thing to gage. Here’s some tips and tricks to become and expert at watering your plants.

Step 1.) Set a watering schedule in your calendar – most indoor plants need to be checked once/week to see if they need water, but maybe only need to be watered every two weeks depending on how much light they receive and how big their growing container is. The bigger the pot, the more water it holds and the brighter the location, the more water the plant will use.

Step 2.) Use a soil probe to check the moisture levels in your soil. Some probes have moisture indicators built in that tell you whether the soil is dry, moist, or wet. You can also probe the soil with your finger to feel the moisture levels. If the soil is wet or moist, wait until the following week to water, if the soil feels dry and sandy, it's time to water.

Soil moisture probe

Expert tip: if the soil is still wet every time you check it, try using less water or moving the plant into a slightly brighter location. It's best to let the soil go dry between waterings.

Step 3.) Try to water your soil evenly and consistently, pour slowly, moving around the edge of the pot. Stop pouring and wait until you see water coming out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. As soon as water comes out of the bottom of the pot, you can stop watering.

Expert tip: an easy way to give your plants the right amount of water each time is to bottom-water. Bottom watering involves filling a deep bowl or dish with water and placing the potted plant in the bowl. When bottom-watering, leave your plant in the bowl for 5 – 10 minutes to allow water to move from the bottom of the pot up into the soil through the drainage holes. Note: your plant will need to be in a plastic grower pot or some other type of pot with drainage holes for bottom watering to work properly. Don’t forget to take the plant out of the bowl, otherwise you could end up suffocating the roots!

Bottom watering Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides)

Satin Pothos (Scindapsus pictus)

4.) Fertilizing

Most indoor plants will go through a dormancy period during the winter months. Days are short and light levels are reduced due to do the position of the sun, and during this time, indoor plants won’t grow very much. Fertilize your plants sparingly during the winter, this means that every 6 - 8 weeks you can add the recommended dose of fertilizer to the water that you give your plants. You’ll likely see growth slow down around mid-late November, and it will start to pick back up around mid-late March. Once April rolls around, it's time to fertilize more frequently – this means adding fertilizer to your water every 2 – 4 weeks. Remember to always follow the water to fertilizer dilution ratios on the label.

If remembering to add fertilizer to your water is not your thing, you can also use slow-release fertilizer pellets. These formulas are developed to slowly release nutrients for your plants over a 3 – 4-month period.

Expert tip: Look for a fertilizer formula with balanced levels Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K), N-P-K. The N-P-K levels are typically listed like this: 5-4-2. Look for a fertilizer that has all three of these essential nutrients. Your fertilizer should contain macro and micronutrients. Aside from Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, plants need varying amounts of Sulphur, Magnesium, Calcium, and trace amounts of Boron, Manganese, Iron, Copper, Molybdenum, Chloride, Zinc, and Nickel. Plants that grow naturally outdoors have access to these nutrients in their surrounding ecosystems, however, indoor plants don’t, so we need to make sure we’re providing them with the nutrients they need to grow.

Heat, light, water, and nutrients can all be limiting factors in the growth of your indoor plants. The best way to learn about how to grow indoor plants successfully is to start doing it! You’ll learn along the way and hopefully you’ll have fun with it!

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