Episode 105: five houseplants for beginners

Starter plants: (left to right): pothos, ZZ plant, jade plant, dragon tree and aspidistra are all great plants to try growing when you’re new to raising plants indoors. Photographs from Flickr (left to right) by Carl Lewis, Nelson Pavlovsky, jjacek, Bryan Chan, and NC State Extension Garden.

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I love delving into the details of growing houseplants, but this week I’m going back to basics, looking at five houseplants that any newbie grower can get started with. Judy Feldstein of Houseplant411.com joins me to discuss the plants and offer up some tips on their care. Plus, I answer a question about spiny growth on forest cacti with the help of expert Mark Preston.

This week’s guest

Judy Feldstein ran her own interior plantscaping business in the US from 1975 to 2007. Now she offers houseplant growers advice on her website, Houseplant411.com, and she’s also the author of two books: Don’t Feed Me To Your Cat: A Guide to Poisonous Houseplants, and the recently published Don't Talk to Me I'll Grow Better: A Guide to Easy Care Houseplants.

Crassula ovata ‘Hummel’s Sunset’. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Here’s the top five houseplants for beginners that we discuss….

Crassula ovata, aka the money tree

This is an ideal plant for a sunny windowsill, growing into an impressive tree over time. It’s popular in Asia where it’s believed to be a plant that attracts wealth. Make sure you give it lots of light and feed with dilute houseplant feed - or use a specialist succulent feed. Cultivars include the colourful ‘Hummel’s Sunset’, variegated ‘Lemon and Lime’, pink-flowered ‘Pink Beauty’ and the curiously twisted ‘Hobbit’, ‘Gollum’ and ‘Ogre’s Ear’.

Dracaena ‘Sunshine’. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Dracaena marginata, aka dragon tree

Dracaenas are often denizens of shops, cafes and offices because they are so easygoing and will get by with very little care. Their added bonus is that they drop leaves as they go, so any damage is soon history.

The downside of this is they can become leggy, but there is an easy solution to this: cut off the top section, re-root and the remaining cane will sprout a new head, too.

Cultivars include the colourful ‘Tricolor’ and the more recent and event more vibrant ‘Colorama’, as well as ‘Sunshine’ which has a yellow stripe down the centre.

Epipremnum aureum, aka pothos or devil’s ivy

Despite its ubiquity, this plant is toxic to humans and pets due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves, so keep it away from nibbling mouths.

Warning out the way, there are lots of positive to this wonderful vining plant: it can be allowed to trail or climb, and comes in a wonderful array of cultivars. Chuck it in deep shade and variegation will fade, but the plant won’t die unless you leave the soil waterlogged. Choose between the species with its gold-flecked leaves, or cultivars ‘Neon’, ‘N’Joy’, ‘Marble Queen’ and ‘Golden Queen’.

One of the fascinating things about pothos is we only get to see the juvenile, heart-shaped leaves when the plant is grown in our homes, but the adult foliage gets huge. Check out my video of the plant at RHS WIsley on my facebook page to get an idea of the scale it can reach…

Zamioculcas zamiifolia, aka the ZZ plant

This is a wonderfully reliable foliage plant with stiff architectural stems that requires very little care and attention, as the large rhizomes can store plenty of food and water to keep the plant going during lean times. Look after it well, however, and this plant will grow much faster! Lots of bright light, a bit of sun if available and watering once the soil starts to dry out will keep this plant looking good year-round. Do note, however, that like pothos, it is poisonous to humans and pets.

There’s one widely-available cultivar, ‘Raven’, with dark purple foliage, which needs the same care but is slower growing than the species.

Aspidistra elatior, aka cast iron plant

This is a great plant for cold, draughty hallways: they can survive deep shade and will only really complain if subject to full blaring sun. And the negatives? They do grow quite slowly (but will probably outlast you!) and are relatively expensive to buy. There are various variegated cultivars available, including white-tipped ‘Asahi’, dotty ‘Milky Way’ and stripy ‘Okame’.

Question of the week

I’d had a couple of queries like the ones below, asking about spiny growths on forest cacti: people wanted to know why their plants were throwing out such different growth from the rest of the plant, and whether they should be concerned about it. I didn’t know the answer, so I knew it was time to get in touch with forest cactus expert Mark Preston for some advice.

Mark Preston’s answer was this:

The spiny growths in the pictures are exactly that, it’s effectively a reversion to a more juvenile growth form.  Lots of the epiphytic cacti grow with a greater number of ribs, as seedlings, and these gradually reduce to the adult number as the plants begin to mature.  (NB: a flat stem is just a stem with only two ribs …)  On plants which have already been showing their mature growth form, these spiny/juvenile growths tend to appear when the plants are under abnormal stress, eg prolonged periods of inadequate watering, or inadequate light, etc.  If and when conditions improve – assuming the plants survive - so the growths will generally then develop back into the more adult forms again.

So that’s the mystery solved! If your plant is producing these growths, it’s a cue to find out what exactly is stressing them out: start out by listening to my forest cacti episodes with Mark Preston, episodes 84 and 85.

Want to ask me a question? Tweet @janeperrone, leave a message on my Facebook page or email ontheledgepodcast@gmail.com.


Join me at Lullingstone Castle in Kent in the UK on September 21 and 22 2019 for Cactusworld Live where I’ll be doing a live recording of On The Ledge and holding a listener meetup: there will be a giveaway of OTL merch, too, for one lucky listener, so don’t miss out!

The following weekend I’ll be at the Garden Museum on Sunday September 29 for their Houseplant Festival: I’ll be helping out with the houseplant clinic, and there’s also the chance to take part in workshops and browse an awesome range of stalls from some of my favourite houseplant shops!

Listener Scott Cain of  @boyswithplants  sporting an OTL tee.

Listener Scott Cain of @boyswithplants sporting an OTL tee.

Merch alert! 15% off!

Want to bag yourself something cool to wear on your next houseplant shop crawl, and support On The Ledge?

Get yourself over to the OTL merch shop, where everything is 15% off until the end of the day of August 4 2019 if you use the voucher code SUMMERSUN15.

There’s a great choice of T-shirts in different colours, cuts and materials, baseball caps, hoodies, bags, mousemats, badges and more! (There’s even a T-shirt with my original logo just for the OTL completists out there!) I’ve been really pleased with the quality of the items I’ve bought, and I hope you will be too, but do let me know what you think!


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This week's show featured the tracks Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy Drops and Oh Mallory by Josh Woodward. Ad music is by the Heftone Banjo Orchestra with Whistling Rufus. All tracks licensed under Creative Commons.

Logo design by Jacqueline Colley.