On She Goes

So Fresh & So Green: Keeping Houseplants Healthy When You’re Not at Home

The best low-maintenance plants ever.

Amy Lam
Amy Lam
August 1, 2017
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The days of living out of suitcases and half-unpacked moving boxes when I’m home are long gone. I’m a true “nester” these days, focused on creating a small sanctuary for myself, eternally searching for the softest quilt, hanging just-right curtains, and filling my home with all the indoor plants. You don’t need a forest-green thumb to keep houseplants, even if you’re a constant traveler who’s not at home—it’s all about choosing the best easy-to-maintain greenery or plant pots.

My house is filled with more than two dozen plants, adding warmth and color to my space. And I talk to them sometimes, which is totally normal, right? When I’m away from home, my first choice for keeping my plants healthy is to ask a friend to drop in to water them. But when that trusted friend isn’t available (I can’t leave my key with just anyone), my plants have survived an entire month without watering. So how do I keep my plant buddies happy—and alive—when I’m away?

The “scaley” trunk of a ponytail palm.
photo by Amy Lam

It begins at the plant nursery when you’re picking out the plants for your space. Ask the folks working at the shop to point you toward drought-tolerant plants. Also, some plants come with an informational tag that includes watering suggestions. My default rule is to look at the stem of the plant; if the texture looks like the dried “greyscale” mess that infects people in Game of Thrones, then it’s a solid plant that won’t shrivel up if you miss a watering or two. My favorite is the ponytail palm, which has a bulb-shaped trunk to store water and actually prefers if you neglect it because it can die from being overwatered.

A couple small succulents.
photo by Amy Lam

Succulents and cacti are top picks for low-maintenance plants. Many of these plants are native to dry, desert environments, and are hearty and do beautifully with little water. My house is full of jade and Haworthia plants in all shapes and sizes. Although they prefer bright, direct sunlight, they can survive in a gray climate (and will require less watering too). One of the best things about succulents is that they’re easy to propagate if you ever want to spread your newfound plant love by sharing a cutting. All these babies need are soil that drains well and a windowsill.

Philodendrons, big and small.
photo by Amy Lam

Not all drought-tolerant plants are desert babies. Get you any variety of a leafy green philodendron and you’ll be surprised at how well they grow. If you’re someone who’s forgetful or will be away from your home for longer periods, plant the philodendron in a self-watering pot, or a pot with a tray where it can sit in a little water.  Some plants are sensitive to overwatering, but philos will tolerate sitting in water and a little drought. Unglazed terra-cotta pots look great but are porous; philos do better in plastic or glazed ceramic pots if you can’t water them regularly. Don’t be alarmed when you return home to a droopy, sad philodendron; it’ll perk back up when you resume your regular watering schedule.

Another hearty and goody, the ZZ plant.
photo by Amy Lam

There’s something about returning from a long trip to a home full of happy plants that is very lovely and keeps you centered. Just remember to give them a good soak and place them in an area with good, indirect light so that they get just enough sun but not so much that they’d dry up quickly. You’re going to be a certified globe-trotting, plant-loving traveler before you know it.