What would you define as a plant emergency? Maybe it’s wilted leaves or root rot. Or maybe you’re just craving some new vibrant greenery but have no idea where to start. Regardless, Nick Cutsumpas, better known as @farmernick on Instagram, is here to help with some of his top houseplant tips.
In the latest episode of Good Together, Cutsumpas and Laura Wittig, Brightly’s CEO and co-founder, discuss everything you need to know about how to be a good plant parent. As a full-time plant coach and urban farmer, Cutsumpas’ mission is to give people the knowledge and confidence they need to create their own green spaces in the pursuit of regenerative environmental action and justice.
So what exactly does a full-time plant coach do? Well, Cutsumpas designs houseplant, agriculture, and landscape installations. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, and Goop, and now he’s here to share his best houseplant tips with you.
The Best Plants for a First-Time Plant Parent
For starters, let’s discuss which plants are the best for beginners. “There’s three that I sort of call a ‘holy trinity’ of beginner plant parenting,” says Cutsumpas. “The snake plant, the monstera, and the bird of paradise.”
But before you rush off to your local plant shop, Cutsumpas recommends taking the time to assess the conditions of your home. “I don’t like putting plants in the categories of low, medium, or high-maintenance because it all depends on your environment,” he says. “What could be high-maintenance for you could be low-maintenance for me.”
We’ll talk more about the best conditions for plants later, but for now, continue reading to get the low-down on these generally low-maintenance plants.
1. Snake Plant
Cutsumpus says making a snake plant unhappy is nearly impossible. “The only way you kill it is if you overlove it,” he says. That’s right: You can, in fact, overlove a plant.
“When we have pets or we have children, they cry, they bark, they let us know when they need something,” says Cutsumpas. “Plants are silent and they need you to be more proactive. And sometimes taking a step back is more important than constantly watering or loving your plant, because plants can do it themselves.”
So this plant doesn’t need constant attention? Amazing. It can also thrive in a variety of conditions. “It’s a low-light plant that can tolerate brighter light and lower light conditions,” says Cutsumpas. “And it’s such a great starter plant for anyone who’s really unsure of themselves.”
Next up is the monstera. You know, the plant you’ve probably seen grace your Instagram feed one or two or 500 times.
“This one is cool because it’s got beautiful fenestrated leaves and it’s something that looks jungle-like and very exotic-looking,” says Cutsumpas. “It hails from Central America and Costa Rica and has such a distinguished look to it, but is relatively low-maintenance.”
Monsteras will do well in low light, but they’ll really thrive in medium to bright indirect light. Just make sure you don’t leave them in a spot that’s too sunny or you may risk burning the leaves.
3. Bird of Paradise
Meet the last of the holy trinity: the bird of paradise. “When you think ‘lush tropical vacation,’ [a bird of paradise] is what you think of—these big, gorgeous, full-looking leaves,” says Cutsumpas.
Luckily, it’s also pretty low-maintenance. “I have one in my bedroom right now and it’s under a grow light, but it gives me very little trouble,” says Cutsumpas. “I water it once every 7 to 10 days or so.”
Common Mistakes First-Time Plant Parents Make
Now you know which plants to look for, but what happens once you get your new plant home? Then what do you do? Or more importantly… what should you not do? According to Cutsumpas, you definitely shouldn’t introduce it to any other plants in your home (at least not at first).
“The first thing—even before the watering—that I always recommend is quarantine your plants,” he says. “You don’t know necessarily if that plant has something, whether a disease or a pest, that could spread to the rest of your plants. So I always put mine either pretty far away from the rest of the gang, or maybe even in the bathroom.”
If it looks like your plant is remaining healthy and shows no signs of pests after a few days, you can move it to a more central part of your home. Once there, though, don’t make the mistake of overwatering—the other common mistake Cutsumpas sees.
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“Don’t worry so much about sticking to an exact schedule. Sometimes those watering schedules get you in trouble,” says Cutsumpas. “If the care card says you need to water every 7 to 10 days—but it was cloudy every single day or there was construction next door, and you didn’t get the light there—then you’re going to end up overwatering your plant. You were focused on a schedule versus what’s actually happening.”
Instead, one of the best houseplant tips Cutsumpas has is to check in on your plants—daily, if possible. Feel the soil and see if it’s damp. He simply sticks a chopstick into the soil, and if it comes out clean, that means it’s time for a watering. “I just try to react to the conditions and what the plant is telling me,” he adds.
Do I Need to Fertilize My Plants?
Once you’ve got your plant situated and properly watered, it’s time to think about how you’re feeding it. With fertilizer, that is. Fertilizer essentially acts as food for your plants, and according to Cutsumpas, this food is crucial for your plant during its peak growth period. That’s similar to the way food is crucial to humans during their peak growth period—aka puberty.
“If you think back to when you were in puberty, I know myself, I couldn’t get enough food out of the fridge at all times,” he says. “And, basically, the plant is pulling nutrients from the soil. That soil eventually will become depleted, and the plant is going to look there and go to its ‘soil grocery store’ and be like ‘hey, where’s the food?'”
To avoid this plant food famine, you have to fertilize. To determine when it’s time to start, Cutsumpas advises that you observe your plant’s growth.
“If you notice that it’s been growing a lot for a couple years, and all of a sudden it stops growing, it might be time to start fertilizing,” says Cutsumpas. “I usually start around April first or so. And do it every 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the plant. It’s definitely a practice you need to consider, and your plants will certainly thank you for it.”
How Do I Find the Right Light for My Plants?
When it comes to light, Cutsumpas says “being aware of what’s happening outside of your home is just as important as what’s happening inside of your home.” He advises using a compass (or a compass app on your phone) to determine the kind of light exposure your home gets.
“Southern is best. It’s the brightest, most direct light,” he says. “Then you’ve got east, which is a little bit more gentle—that morning light, which is very soft. You’ve got the west, which is the afternoon sunset light, which is a little bit more harsh, and then north, which is pretty indirect.”
How to Grow Plants Without a Lot of Sunlight
Good news: It’s totally possible to successfully grow plants even if your home isn’t blessed with quite as many windows as you might like.
“Just because you have indirect light—or you’re on the first floor, so you don’t get a ton of light—it’s not the end of the world,” says Cutsumpas. “The LED grow light technology is so good nowadays that you’re able to, what I call, ‘activate’ different areas of your home for growing.”
To do this, he recommends replacing standard light bulbs in your lamps or light fixtures with grow lights—specialized bulbs that provide the type of light needed by plants.
If replacing bulbs isn’t an option for you, Cutsumpas has one other trick to offer. “Another fun hack I always love is actually buying two of the same plant and switching them out in different areas of your home,” he says. “For example, take a ZZ Plant, which is very hearty and low-light tolerant, and only needs water once every 2 to 3 weeks. Let’s say you have limited real estate by your window. You buy two of the same plant, same exact pot—whatever you want to do—then every two weeks, you just switch them out every time you water.”
This trick will have your friends wondering how on earth you have thriving plants in your windowless bathroom. (We won’t tell if you won’t!)
You’ve learned a lot of houseplant tips in this story. But on a final note, whether you’re filling your home with plants for the aesthetics or simply because you’re looking for a new hobby, it’s important not to forget that plants are, at the their core, part of the environment. They purify the air, they help produce oxygen, and they’re a great way to get your feet wet in the world of eco-friendly living.
“You look at my Instagram, and yes, there’s a lot of plants there,” says Cutsumpas. “But I’m an environmentalist at heart and plants are stepping stones to living a more eco-conscious, low-waste lifestyle.”