A short beginner’s guide to growing plants

Last Updated on 28. August 2022 by Victor Karp

Picture by Scott Webb

This article helps you getting started with growing plants at home. It is meant for people who never had a plant or didn’t have much luck with plants they bought or received as a gift.

How to pick an easy starter plant

Taking care of your first plant can be intimidating, especially if it grows very slowly or has complicated needs. If you pick one of these as your starter, you might get the wrong impression that all plants are this hard to handle and start to think that having plants is just not for you.

Pick a plant that is harder to kill than it is to grow it. You can either buy one from a super market or garden center or grow one from a seed (more on that later).

There’s an easy rule of thumb that tells you what a plant likes just from looking at its leaves:

  • plants with thick leaves grow slowly and like direct sunlight and warmth. Their thick leaves keep them from burning and store water to help in periods of drought. Examples are jade plants, aloes, and cacti.
  • plants with thin and small leaves need much light. Examples are mint, basil and tomatos.
  • plants with thin and large leaves need little light. Examples are the peace lily, monstera, or fern. They naturally grow in areas with little light and compensate for this by having larger leaves, so the little light that reaches them has a larger impact.

I suggest that you don’t pick a plant with thick leaves as your starter. They can be appealing because they only need little water, but they grow so slowly that they are not very interesting to interact with at first. Get a plant with thin leaves instead, they grow so fast that you can see their progress every day.

Beginner plant 1: The spider plant

Spider plants are my favorite starter plant that you can buy cheaply. They grow very fast and start making long, spindly stems after a while. These stems then produce enormous amounts of small ‘plantlets’. You can pluck them off and put them in a glass with water. These plantlets mature quickly and then produce more plantlets on their own. In a couple of months you’ll have more plants than you can buy pots for.

In some rare cases you’ll even have plantlets that grow their own stems while they are still attached to the mother plant.

A mature spider plant
A mature spider plant with countless plantlets below it. Each of these can be plucked off and grows into a new mature plant. Picture by Florian Wickern, taken from Wikipedia.

You don’t have to wait until the plantlets get as big as the one on the picture above. You can already pluck them off when they are much smaller. I usually pick them when their biggest leaf is around 12cm long. This is what they look like when they are small:

Spider plant plantlets
New spider plant plantlets. These are still young, letting them grow a bit more before plucking them off won’t hurt. Picture by Jamzze, taken from Wikipedia.

Spider plants are ideal for beginners because you can forget to water larger plants for a while. This is because their roots can get quite thick (around the diameter of your pinky finger) and store a lot of water. You can tell that a spider plant is too dry when its leaves begin to curl at their sides and lose saturation.

Here’s a picture of spider plant roots:

Spider plant roots
Spider plant roots. Picture by Wildfeuer, taken from Wikipedia.

Spider plants don’t need direct sunlight. You can put them on top of your dimly-lit kitchen shelves or into your small-windowed bathroom and they won’t complain.

Beginner plant 2: The peace lily

Just like spider plants, peace lilies can grow with little light. Their leaves can get quite big (over 60cm long and more than 20cm wide). They regularly grow large beautiful white flowers that have a pleasant sweet smell.

Contrary to spider plants, peace lilies only grow upwards and don’t take up much horizontal space. This makes them ideal for desks or window sills.

A peace lily flower
A peace lily flower. Picture by JJ Harrison, taken from Wikipedia.

Peace lilies give easily recognizable cues about their health: they don’t like direct sunlight and will turn yellow when they get too much sun. So if you do put them on a window sill, make sure to use a window that doesn’t let much light in.

Their leaves get limp and bend down when they start to dry out. They’ll bend down more the drier they are. They will recover in the span of a couple of hours after you have watered them.

It’s okay if this happens every now and then, but don’t be too careless. Drying out stresses the plant, and some leaves might not fully recover and die off.

Peace lilies don’t drop leaves, but their flowers and flower stems will wither and turn brown and crispy after a while. You can wait until they are fully dry and then cut them off.

They regularly grow new leaves, which come up from the ground in the form of thin green rods that unfold over time. You can propagate your peace lilies by digging them out and splitting individual stems off at the roots. You can do this with your hands or with a knife – it takes a bit of force to separate them.

Then put the separated plants into new pots. They take a while to heal and recover, and will start to make new leaves when they have settled in.

Growing plants from seeds

You don’t have to buy grown plants from a store. Growing plants from seeds is easy and has the benefit of seeing your plant grow from the very beginning. You can get many seeds just from buying the fruits and vegetables that contain them. Some of these seeds are sold as snacks themselves – make sure to buy unroasted ones, because roasted seeds are dead and can’t sprout. Here are some ideas for seeds you can try out:

Alfalfa, Apples, Avocados, Bell Peppers, Cherries, Chia, Lemons, Mangos, Oranges, Peaches, Potatos, Pumpkins, Strawberries (the small green dots on the red fruit are the seeds), Sunflowers.

Some of the seeds listed above can be prepared in some way to help them grow. For example, chia seeds can be soaked in water until they puff up. Mango seeds should be cut open, because the actual seed is contained in the wooden pit that you find inside a mango fruit. Avocado seeds should be peeled to reduce the risk of mold.

Easy beginner seed: Red bell pepper

Cut open a red bell pepper, take the seeds out and choose a couple of them that look big and healthy. The seeds germinate easily, so you’ll most likely get one plant for every seed.

A red bell pepper with seeds inside it. Original picture by Ave Calvar Martinez, taken from Pexels.

You don’t need a large pot for bell peppers. A small pot with a diameter and height of roughly 10-15cm is enough to grow a plant that bears fruit. Around 4 months after you have planted the bell pepper seed, the new plant will already have produced new bell pepper fruits. Keep the soil wet in the beginning so the growing seed doesn’t dry out.

Here’s a timelapse video on YouTube from Boxlapse that shows the entire growth process in a time span of 115 days.

Don’t worry when your bell peppers turn black after being green for a while. This is normal and happens before they turn red. You can see this color change in the video above at around 2:24.

You can grow new plants from your own bell peppers that you have harvested. This is better than always using seeds from bought fruits, because over a couple of generations your own plants will have adapted to the conditions in your garden/apartment/house.

How to deal with pests like aphids, whiteflies and fungus gnats

You might encounter pests like aphids, whiteflies or fungus gnats. You should take care of them as quickly as possible, otherwise they can overwhelm your plant and spread to other plants. Isolate infected plants and place them far away from healthy ones if possible.

If your plant has aphids or whiteflies, wash them off with a garden hose or showerhead. Repeat this reqularly (every 1-2 days) until the pests are gone. Consider removing leaves that are too heavily infested with whiteflies or whitefly eggs.

You can also use a spray flask with a mixture of water and a bit of vegetable oil and dish soap. This helps with destroying eggs and kills pests that managed to hide from the water. Keep in mind though that plants breathe with their leaves, so remember to wash them off later.

Fungus gnats like wet soil. Keep the soil as dry as possible without harming your plant. Yellow glue traps help very well against the small flies.

Don’t be discouraged if your plant dies

It’s sad when this happens, but don’t let it discourage you. Pests can easily overwhelm a plant, or maybe you didn’t provide the right amount of water, light and heat. Find out what went wrong, learn from it and do a bit better next time.

If your plant died from a pest, don’t immediately reuse the soil, as there can be eggs in it. You can destroy them by heating the soil in your microwave or oven.

Visit the Gardening main page for more Gardening tutorials.

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