Turning a New Leaf: Keeping Houseplants Alive

Turning a new leaf: How I'm keeping my house plants alive

One night last week – an hour before Home Depot closed – I got the sudden overwhelming urge to buy a houseplant. No contemplation necessary – I dashed out of the house in search of one. I must have blacked out as soon as I got to the store cuz when I came to I was sitting in a jungle formerly known as Eli’s car.

Welcome to the jungle – Eli's car full of plants.

One plant turned into 5: a snake plant, a ZZ plant, 2 jade plants, and a larger-than-I-realized fiddle leaf fig. This was probably ill-advised given my track record. I once killed a jade plant & 2 succulents within just a few short months of owning them – so much for "indestructible"! This is all to say that my new plants are probably doomed, but I'm really gonna try harder this time to keep them alive. Starting by actually finding a home for each of them that suits their needs, rather than just putting them wherever I think would look prettiest in the room.

Indoor plants are just too good to give up on...they totally elevate a room with dimension, color, movement and life.  They’re especially great in small spaces that otherwise can start to feel claustrophobic & stale. I especially like tropical plants that trick me into feeling like I'm in Fiji about to go to the beach instead of in DC about to go to work.

Living in an urban, attached rowhouse kinda limits my options for acceptable plant real estate – there isn't much natural light & I like to keep the blinds closed while I'm at work for security reasons. On the bright side (ha!), 2 of the 5 plants I picked out promise to do just fine without a ton of sun, so there's a chance I can give the other 3 what they need. Here's a quick introduction to the newest members of our household and how I plan to care for them, as well as an honest assessment of their chances for survival. I know there are some expert gardeners reading this, so please chime in to let me if I’m doing OK or royally screwing it up!

Fiddle Leaf Fig (figs not included)

Fiddle leaf fig sunbathing in the guest room

I often second-guess my design choices – do I still like the color of the walls? were the built-ins the best way to go? who am I? where did I come from?–  and yet the moment I carried this guy over the threshold I was all, “I LOVE EVERYTHING.” No matter where I put him, everything around just seems to gel better. That must be why all my favorite designers & bloggers insist on them. That being said, after doing some research (which sounds much more exhaustive and scientific than “After googling it…”) I've decided to rename him to the Fickle Leaf Fig (AKA Mr. Fickle for short), cuz man is he needy! Here’s a quick rundown of his (many) likes & dislikes.

Lots of sunlight – but only the indirect kind.

Whoops – my house might fall under "cruel and unusual punishment" for a plant of his caliber. I do have a few dependable sunny spots that might work, but the only one that has enough available space for a TREE is the guest room/office. Eventually I’d like to bring more natural light into the house with skylights & glass doors, which could be Mr. Fickle's passport to travel the far reaches of the house. Until then, my mission is simply to keep him alive and ogle his beauty.

High humidity.

Lucky for Mr. Fickle, DC is a humid mess from May until October. Unlucky for him, it's now November. (wait, WHAT?!) I don’t plan on buying a humidifier, but I'll reconsider if the situation gets really dire. For now, I’ll just use a spray bottle filled with warm water to mist the leaves every few days like he’s Kim K. (Note to self: buy spray bottle)

Apparently vents are a silent killer of fiddle leaf figs everywhere. Too much air flow (hot or cold) can dry him out, so I’ve positioned him away from those. I’ve heard that in the summer months I can even let him play outside as long as I keep him out of direct sunlight – then he can truly appreciate all the humidity this swamp has to offer! 

Water somewhat sparingly.

Fiddle leaf figs prefer well-drained soil and should only be watered when the top inch of soil feels dry. As long as I remember to check, this shouldn’t be a problem. Of course there's an app for that, called Koubachi that I may have to check out. Watering is always the hardest part for me. My plants get sad and the experts say, “You’re either watering too much or not enough.” That’s like saying, “Your cat is either dying of starvation or he's morbidly obese…it’s hard to say. You could try feeding him more or less, but make the wrong choice and he's a goner!” Is that supposed to be helpful?? But I digress. I’m just gonna check the soil once a week by sticking my finger in the dirt to tell if it’s wet or dry, just like I do when I need to test if a cake is baked all the way. Also, I need to find a snazzy planter with the appropriate drainage holes.

Repot when the roots start to show.

I shouldn’t have to worry about repotting this winter, but next spring I’ll check the bottom of the planter for roots. If they start growing out of the bottom holes it's time to get a bigger pot.


The leaves on this guy are bigger than my head, and that's saying something! Just like anything else, they collect dust. Unlike my lamp, if Mr. Fickle gets covered in dust he can suffocate and die. That should be motivation enough to dust the house more regularly!

Chance of survival in my house:

Medium. Okay, more like medium-low, but a girl can dream, can't she?  I’ll keep you posted, hopefully with updates of how much fun Mr. Fickle is having and how he doesn't even mind me calling him fickle nor does he miss Cameroon at all! Cross your fingers, people.

Snake Plant

Snake plant laying low in the laundry room

Less luxurious & show-horsy than Mr. Fickle, but still very interesting, attractive and green. The snake plant (aka Mother-In-Law's Tongue) prefers a regimen that's more my speed.

likes indirect sunlight but can get on ok without it.

From what I've read it sounds like any amount of indirect light should be fine, so this plant has a lot more options in terms of finding a place to live. Let that be a lesson for picky people everywhere! For now I’ve set him by the back door in the laundry room, aka my favorite place to chill. I’ll probably move him when it starts to get really cold so he doesn’t freeze every time I open & close the door.

Water sparingly.

If this plant starts to turn yellow it means he's thirsty. I like that he promises to give clear signals – communication is the key to a beautiful relationship!

chance of survival in my house:

I like his odds!

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

ZZ plants are some of the lowest maintenance plants, so I've placed mine in a nook that only gets slight amounts of light. 

Yes, this picture is dark – welcome to my house. : ] I think this is the first peek of my hallway on the blog, and as you can see there ain't much goin' on yet. The ZZ plant is trying to change that and encourage me to put some artwork up on the walls... I hear you, ZZ Top, I promise it's coming.

Sunlight optional.

You may recognize this plant from all the times you pinched its leaves as a kid in the mall trying to prove to your friends that "yes, it is TOO a real plant!" He’s real, he's lush, he doesn’t need much – which is why he'll do just fine here. He even gets a very small glimpse of all the light Mr. Fickle is enjoying in the guest room, and that gives him hope for a better future. (clearly I've moved on from plants and am now waxing poetic about the 99%)

Water sparingly.

Like the snake plant, ZZ Top prefers well-drained soil and doesn't need to be watered much. In fact, I hear it’s better to forget to water than to overwater, and we know how good I am at that! 


If he dies I am officially the worst and should be banished to live in an old shopping mall that doesn't even have a Pottery Barn or mattress store to sleep in.

Jade plants

Jade plants like full, persistent sun

Despite my better judgement and the dead jade plant already weighing on my conscience, I bought 2 smaller plants. Their squishy-looking leaves are just so majestic, I can’t help myself!

sunlight necessary.

Jade plants like full sun. My last one (God rest her soul) was perched on the living room built-ins – close to the front window but probably not close enough. The front window doesn't get great light anyway, because it faces north and looks out onto our covered porch. I'm learning from my mistakes and giving these guys prime real-estate by all the south-facing windows my house can offer. I've got one on my nightstand (pictured above) and the other in the breakfast nook (aka the laundry room, pictured below). Since the temperatures are starting to drop I was careful not to place them too close to the window, where they could catch a cold and die. 

Jade plant getting sun in the laundry room

Water sparingly.

Are you noticing a theme here? Just like all the other plants I got, jade likes well-drained soil and infrequent waterings. I think I took this advice a little too close to heart last time...crystalized stems probably equal "thirsty" ... just a guess. That being said, you're supposed to water more in the summer and less in the winter, so for now I'll leave these guys alone and hope for the best. I mean, I'll give them a little water every few weeks.

fertilize every 3 to 4 months.

In the spring I'll add fertilizer to the soil to encourage growths, and then again in July or August. I definitely didn't do this with my last jade plant, and I think that expedited her swift decline.

Dust when dusty.

These guys are right behind the fiddle leaf fig in my new dusting routine!

Chance of survival in my house:

I'm feeling cautiously optimistic that my last jade experience was enough to scar me into properly caring for these little ones. Odds are decent.

So now you've met the whole fan-damily. I'll report back every now and then to let you know how they're doing, what they're wearing, and any grand adjustments I've made to keep them alive. If you've got plant advice, please lay it on me in the comments!