It’s common for plants to come with all sorts of instructions for care. Some of these instructions are bewildering, contradictory, and sometimes outright wrong. If you often struggle to keep your houseplants alive, check out these care tips that apply to any houseplant. 

Know exactly what type of plant you have

One key to keeping houseplants alive is making sure that you know exactly what houseplants you have. You may know, for example, that it’s a succulent, but do you know the exact species and variety? You might know that you have a snake plant, but do you know that there are a few different varieties of snake plant that are common household plants, and that snake plants are actually succulents?  

If not, try to find out. Different species can look similar, but can have vastly different needs as far as plant care. Even different varieties of the same plant can thrive in different conditions. 

Understand its natural habitat 

Most plants come with a list of often bewildering instructions. But essentially, you can break these all down to: where does this plant grow in nature? 

Take a cactus, for example. Desert soil is rocky, sandy, and loose, and doesn’t hold on to moisture for very long. Deserts are bone dry most of the time, with occasional intense rains and floods. That’s why a cactus needs soil that’s loose, sandy, and rocky, and in a pot with good drainage. That’s why it needs an occasional soaking and then to spend a long period completely bone dry – because that’s exactly what happens in its natural habitat. The quickest (and basically only) way to kill a cactus is to let its roots stay wet for too long.

On the flip side, let’s look at an orchid. That’s a plant that’s typically considered high-maintenance and easy to kill. But they’re actually way hardier than people think. Orchids are jungle plants. They’re epiphytes, which means they don’t grow in soil. Instead, they grow on tree branches, and their roots pull in nutrients and moisture from the air and rain. This means they’re used to having some airflow around their roots, and will quickly rot if they are sitting in water or in soggy soil for very long. They’re also used to being in the bright but shaded understory of a large forest. All the mysteries of orchid care – plant them in bark, not soil; plant them in a special orchid pot with holes in the side; give them bright but indirect sunlight – start to make sense when you understand where and how they grow in nature. 

Pay attention to it!

Yup, that’s one of the biggest secrets of plant care. I don’t mean constantly dote on it. In fact, most houseplants thrive on a fair amount of being ignored. What I mean is, periodically, just look at the thing. I mean, if you’re buying a houseplant, it’s hopefully one that you enjoy looking at, anyway, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Does it look healthy? Is it turning brown? Does it have weird spots on the leaves? Check the soil. Is it bone dry or sopping wet or moldy on top? 

Spending a couple minutes a week just paying attention to your plants and being genuinely curious about what’s going on with them is going to help you care for them and keep them healthy much better than spending hours reading detailed instructions. Troubleshoot problems as you notice them. 

And as you accumulate more plants and get more experience, before you know it, all that paying attention will make you an expert at keeping your plants healthy.