Learning how to help plants thrive (in 5 easy steps!)

It always (secretly, deep down) bothered me that I loved nature so much but I was so bad at cultivating plants, or even just keeping them alive and half wilted – I consider myself a nurturing person, maternal, caring, loving, so why didn’t those skills translate to these gorgeous plants? I accepted that not everyone has a green thumb, but my stubborn side didn’t want to let the dream die.

Vines, trees, and orchid

Then, at the farmers markets one day, my daughter made friends with a family of vendors from Bellingen (about six hours north of Sydney, on the beautiful North Coast of NSW) and spent the morning chasing their daughter around the rows of green, lush plants for sale. When it was time for us to go, they brought over a small ficus elastica and said it was a gift from their daughter. “I’ll only kill it!”, I protested, but they insisted, and I relented and brought it home, a short, sturdy little guy about knee-height. They gave me advice as to room placement (and amount of sun), and I googled care instructions; perhaps this was what most inspired me, seeing photos of wild rubber plants, towering as tall as trees, or smaller indoor ones, bringing such a gentle, cozy ambience to a corner of a pub or a reading corner in the lounge room. Ficus elastica plant

So it began, the road to learning how to help my plants thrive...

…or at least stop killing them! I always did say my main parenting goal is keeping my kid alive (so far so good!) - I suppose learning any new skill is a bit like parenting, or life in general (with much lower stakes!!).

So please, benefit from my experience and all the plants that have been sacrificed to get me to this stage. Here are my top 5 tips for improving your plant caring skills.

  1. Keep your expectations low and be honest with yourself about your limitations. I’m sure we all have our optimistic half started projects at home, like the stack of papers you’ll eventually review that we never get around to (and that make us feel guilty every time we notice it!). For my plants, the first lesson was that the garden bed at the back of my yard is verrrry easy to ignore. Be honest with yourself! Will you water them? If not, start with a cactus that is perfectly happy to be mostly ignored with only the occasional watering, or a small plant that you can keep in the kitchen or living room where you will see it each day and it be reminded to care for torch cactus with crazy spikes
  2. Schedule, schedule, schedule! With my kid, my friends tease me for being so strict with our schedules, but I know that being on my own, it’s easy for things to fall through the cracks unless I have good solid plans for maintenance. It’s the same with plants. When I first started, I just assumed I’d find a few minutes each day to nurture them, but all my minutes seem to be spoken for! Most plants need consistent care, and I found it helpful to set a daily time to check the plants – same time every day so you get into the habit of daily maintenance. First thing in the morning worked for me, right when I first wake up full of all the good intentions for the day. I’d take a little lap around the house, opening the curtains, letting the pup outside, and greeting and watering (if needed) my sweet little plants.
  3. Just like every human being, most plants have the same basic needs (sun and water) but wildly different specific needs (amounts of sun and water and attention) – make sure you are giving yourself the best chance by taking five minutes to research your specific plant’s specific needs. At the start, I just watered every plant every day. Cactus? Orchid? Soil swimming in water still? More water! But after several unnecessary deaths, I learned to pay more attention to their actual needs (and not my need to feel like I was doing something). The cactuses were definitely happier, and my Queen of the Night has just started budding! So just like with people, listen to their needs and everybody will be happier and do better.budding Queen of the Night
  4. Like when you start a savings/debt management plan or try to get in shape, small results can be very encouraging, so pick something that you will see tangible results in to keep you motivated. Watching my ficus elastica grow taller, having to re-home it into a larger pot and watching it grow taller still, eventually overtaking my kid - how’s that for progress? Waking up every day surrounded by nature in my own peaceful house made it worth investing the time required for upkeep. Once I saw my tomato seeds sprout, then grow into their own tiny little plants, gifting us these sweet and juicy homegrown tomatoes made me fall in love with growing food and really want to develop those skills. Of course the flavors were even more spectacular than the store-bought ones, but the feeling of pride in making a salad like this simple classic with the fruits of my labor is even more exciting. My sweet potatoes were smaller than I would like, but I even got a couple tiny ones to throw into my fave throw-together curry – very exciting!tangled sweet potato roots
  5. The toughest lesson for me, still, in everyday life, is how we sometimes need to reach out for and accept help. This one is still a lesson in progress. Do we all hate asking for help? It’s so easy to repeat, ad nauseum, to my child, that nobody is good at something on their first try, that practice is needed when learning any new skill, that we all need help sometimes, but accepting my own failures and continuing to try to learn a new skill is still such a challenge for me. Although I’ve managed to keep several plants alive, when I was gifted an orchid, I knew it didn’t stand a chance with my lackadaisical approach to plants, so I called my plant expert friend for advice. I did receive good advice, but RIP to that orchid (they are finicky little things!). I recently was gifted another orchid which is a bit unsure but, so far, a month later, it's still mostly alive. And my radishes? The first batch I didn’t water enough, and apparently the second batch I planted way too deep, so this weekend, after a short consult with my seed expert neighbors, I’ll be trying again. Third time lucky, I hope!
Kid dog tomato plant balcony

Salad story by

Susan Savage

Susan Savage

Food blogger / food writer

I love food! So naturally, I enjoy playing around with different flavors and textures to create healthy meals that nourish both myself and my four year old daughter. With a vibrant, colorful... Read more

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