Ask a (Local) Master Gardener: Help me help my houseplants!

  • Houseplants, unlike garden plants, are completely reliant on their owners for sunlight and nutrition, but they repay the effort by producing a number of benefits in return.   Sagar Simkhada/Dreamstime/TNS

For the Gazette
Published: 1/16/2020 1:51:23 PM
Modified: 1/16/2020 1:50:30 PM

Q: I am a brown thumb with houseplants. Is there one I could try that might survive me? —R.S., Whately

A: Yes, R.S.! There is hope. As owner of 46 houseplants of 22 different varieties — my daughter states my desk is a jungle — I will vouch for that. First, here are a couple questions for you, then a few suggestions.

The questions: What light do you get? What personality do you have? I find light and water are the two main culprits of indoor plant problems.

Let’s start with light. Pick a window where you want a hint of zen. How many hours of sunlight shine through it during a clear sky day? Is it blocked by trees or buildings? What direction does it face? Ha! That can be a tricky one. For starters, recall the sun rises in the east. If you have a smartphone, use a compass app to find out.

Most plants like south-facing windows, and many enjoy east or west. North is low light. Bright, indirect southerly sunshine — no direct rays touching leaves — for a few hours daily is the most common type needed in my experience. Low-light plants typically adapt to inner room locales. Read the plant labels, and buy one that matches your location’s light conditions.

Why would I ask about personality? Because the fate of your leafy friend depends on it. Are you meticulous by nature or not? Do you schedule things by calendar or by instinct? Be honest! Some green guests have a wide watering tolerance range while others, not so much. Pick a plant that can handle your level of commitment to consistent, or inconsistent, watering.

Here are a few forgiving plants that typically work in most conditions:

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia; hence the “ZZ”): an easy-care architectural specimen. Adaptable to average indirect light in east- and west-facing windows and interior low light. Pair it with a zippy container for extra aesthetic oomph.

Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya): White, red or pink sprinkles on deep-green foliage. How to have color without a bloom. South, east, west exposure. Good alone or as a colorful underplant accenting a taller, all-green plant.

Zebra Plant (Haworthia fasciata): Small, very durable succulent with bumpy white stripes on deep green upward thrusting stems. Good individually or lined up in a windowbox-type container.

Peperomia (Peperomia): Terrific leaf textures and forms ranging from deep purple rivulet-like grooves to jaunty striped green spades. Plant a few together — they like the same conditions — for a complementary container grouping. Good in terrariums.

Snake Plant/Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria): Personally, I love my mother-in-law, but the name still stands. Numerous stripe pattern options. This bold-leaved genus pairs dramatically with whitewashed terracotta. Very forgiving.

Wondering if your plant is safe for pets? Check out the ASPCA website’s pet care plant list at

Good luck, R.S. Thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be selected and answered per week.

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