reading a plants needs

Indoor Plant Care: Reading a Plants Needs

The explosion in popularity of indoor gardening has had an unfortunate consequence – a rise in misinformation about indoor plants. The Internet has only compounded this problem with articles where the focus is not on the plants themselves, or the attitude of the gardener, but a list of buzzwords like ‘low-light’ or simple tricks ‘guaranteed’ to keep your houseplants alive. By simplifying indoor gardening to something more convenient and digestible for the want-it-now Internet users, this advice tends to achieve the opposite of what it promises. It’s unfortunate that many social media pins and infographics rely on this simplified advice, because indoor plant care is not that difficult to follow. Quite the opposite – it is easier to follow once you understand the basics, and is more likely to keep your plants alive overall. The goal is not to learn detailed, specific requirements for each plant (which becomes almost impossible to follow when you have a house full of plants), but reading a plants needs from the clues they provide and use that to replicate the ideal environment in your home.

The Home Environment

Although we have dubbed them ‘indoor plants’, it is pretty clear that your living room is not a natural environment for a plant. Houseplants can grow indoors because their natural outdoor conditions can be closely replicated inside our homes. I say ‘closely’ because home interiors seldom exactly match a plant’s natural conditions. Indoors, the light is usually filtered or obstructed in some way, or intensified by the glass of a window; not the direct or dappled light the plants are used to getting outdoors in their various natural environments. The plant’s roots are constricted within a pot, rather than spread out across well-draining soil that prevents rotting. Temperatures and humidity vary outdoors, while they generally stay consistent indoors to keep us comfortable. An outdoor plant is exposed to fresher air and better airflow than the stale air inside our homes. These differences don’t mean your plant will not thrive (as is clear by the thousands of #indoorjungle Instagram posts). However, it is important to understand the natural conditions the plants prefer and try to replicate them as closely as possible.

Reading a Plants Needs

How do you know what environmental conditions to replicate for which plants? Reading a plants needs from what it looks like is possible. The structure of a plant is like its own set of instructions, allowing you to recreate the right environment without learning specific conditions by heart. The leaves are a key starting point: broad leaves with a large surface area usually indicate the plant is used to lower light levels. The large surface area allows the leaves to get enough light from the dappled sun under trees in their natural environments. Large leaves, like those of the popular delicious monster (Monstera deliciosa), are often thinner too, as they are not required to hold a lot of water under forest canopies where the soil holds enough water.

By contrast, succulents have thick, juicy leaves that hold a lot of water. This is because they have adapted to their highlight and hot environment in nature, where the water in the soil evaporates quickly. The same can be said for plants with thick stems as they also store water. Leaf colour is also a good indicator. Typically, the darker the green, the less light the plant needs. Shade plants need to make the most of the little light they get in nature, so they have a higher concentration of chlorophyll B, making them darker in colour. To use succulents as a comparison again, you will notice that their leaves are usually lighter in colour. They are used to plenty of sun, so less chlorophyll is needed for energy conversions. Chlorophyll is also susceptible to damage when exposed to intense sunlight. In succulent leaves, the chlorophyll therefore concentrates in the centre to avoid damage, making the leaves appear less green.

A look at the leaves and stems of your indoor plants will tell you a lot about the conditions it needs. You can also determine a plant’s needs from the type of plant it is. The above explanation covers most modern popular indoor plants that are foliage centred, but there are a few other kinds on the market that don’t fit that category. A good example is the epiphyte – a plant that attaches itself to another plant, like a tree, or a rock. They don’t derive nutrients from the plants they attach themselves to – they only use them for support. In crowded environments, like rainforest floors, epiphytes adapted to grow on trees to survive rather than competing for moisture, nutrients and space on the ground. While they may not be attached to a tree when they are inside our homes, they need the same conditions for survival: humid air present, little watering (the leaves get most of the necessary moisture from the air), and a bit more light than the plants on the ground.

The same principal can be applied to flowering houseplants. To produce flowers, a plant needs a lot of energy, which means more light. More light typically means more water too, as the soil dries out faster. And so the environment principle applies to all the groups of plants you can grow indoors. Don’t spend your time painstakingly learning the individual advice for each plant you own. When you reach indoor jungle levels of plants, you’ll need an entire cabinet to hold all the plant-specific advice you can find on the Internet. By interpreting a plant’s needs from its characteristics, you can recreate its natural environment and provide far better, specified care than the simplistic advice some sites provide.


  • When choosing where to place your plants, creating an environment for optimal growth should always be your first priority.
  • The fiddle feaf fig (Ficus Lyrata) is one of the most popular indoor plants and can reach up to 3 metres tall indoors under the right conditions.
  • Succulents are touted as ideal ‘low-maintenance’ indoor plants, but their light needs are far greater than what most indoor spaces can provide, resulting in stunted growth or stretching.
  • When you have more than a couple of indoor plants, it is far easier to understand their basic requirements and intuitively adapt their environment rather than follow individual advice for each plant, which may not match your situation.
The Gardener