The Plant Doctor Is In: How To Not Kill Your Plants
Our own plant enthusiasts weigh in on some common questions and misconceptions that every budding plant owner wants answers to.
It seems like almost everyone is into plants lately—we don’t need to delve into the reasons why. But whether you can tell your varieties of monstera apart or you’re just starting to test out your green fingers, we’ve all made mistakes when it comes to our collection.
And since plants can’t speak, we’ve done the next best thing: we’ve asked some plant parents in our community about the pertinent questions that are on every budding plant enthusiast’s mind. They might not exactly be doctors, but these plant enthusiasts are pretty much the next best thing.
1. Geraldine Guo, a Digital & Innovations Manager working at Aperia. Geraldine has been sharing about her plant journey on her dedicated Instagram @furtosynthesis since 2018.
2. Tan Jing Xiang, a young executive in his early 30s working at Capital Tower. Jing Xiang has been cultivating plants for the past year and counts his paludaria of small flowers and plants, wild grasses and epiphytes as favourites in his collection.
3. Cynthia Chua, who also works at Capital Tower is a veteran with 15 years of experience in plants and prizes her orchids the most.
Q: I’m hoping to buy my first plant soon! What are some warning signs I should look out for to make sure the plant I bring home is healthy?
Geraldine (G): First, check the leaves. They should be perky and supple, not droopy and soft. Then, check the underside of leaves—most mealy bugs and spider mites tend to hide there!
Jing Xiang (JX): Look out for pests, weeds, leaf chlorosis (where leaves are pale/yellow), fungi, bacterial spots, and broken plant parts.
Q: If my plant is from a commercial store, do I need to re-pot it?
Cynthia (C): Let your new plant acclimatise to its new environment for two weeks first. After this adjustment period, you can then decide to leave it as-is or repot.
JX: The answer isn’t that simple—it depends on what the plant requirements are, watering frequency, and where it would be placed. Different types of soil help to meet different requirements.
G: If I find bugs on the plant, I would re-pot it when I get home. You’ll never know if the roots are already infested.
(For more tips on whether to re-pot or not, check out this link here.)
Q: I’ve noticed that some plants are potted with charcoal instead of soil —why is this so, and how do I care for these plants?
G: Charcoal absorbs excess water from the roots of your plants and increases drainage, and is great for plants that are susceptible to root rot. I personally don’t believe in using charcoal as the only substrate, but as part of the overall mix. For example, I would mix charcoal with cocopeat/gardening soil.
C: Charcoal is naturally anti-microbial, with a great capacity to absorb impurities and other toxins, helps protect soil and roots from bacterial and fungal growth. For plants potted in charcoal, water them daily.
Q: I’ve always wanted to be a plant parent, but I don’t have too much time to spare. Can you recommend some plants that are easy to take care of and quite fuss-free?
G: Sansieveira/snake plant/mother-in-law tongue—looks great aesthetically, and does not need a lot of water. I have one in my bedroom and I only water it once every two weeks. There’s also pothos/money plant. No soil? All you need is a pot, and water—pothos root very easily in water! Just remember to change the water every two to three days.
Q: I’m hoping to keep an office plant, but my office is air-conditioned and there’s not a lot of sunlight. What plants are suitable for such an indoor setting?
C: I would suggest spider plant and fittonia.
G: The plants I mentioned earlier could work. That being said, a plant is a living thing. Just as we need water, food, and air, plants need water and light to grow. If you cannot provide this for the plant, then an artificial plant could be more suitable for your lifestyle.
JX: Epipremnum aureum, nephrolepis exaltata, raphis excelsa, ficus lyrata, and airplants—however, all plants do need water and light.
Q: Being a plant enthusiast can be an expensive hobby—do you have any tips to save costs on my collection?
G: You can buy cheap and good quality plants these days from neighbourhood supermarkets (or even convenience stores like Cheers). Another cost-saving way to acquire new plants is to find friends who also own plants—then do plant sapling/cutting swaps.
JX: Boutique plant shops tend to be over-priced, so I’d recommend buying from wholesalers like World Farm.
C: Use recycled materials as plant pots. You can also make your own plant food and use fish tank water to water your plants.
Q: I’ve heard it’s important to use fertiliser, but I’m not sure where to start. What are the types of fertilisers available and how should I use them?
G: Generally, there are two types of fertilisers in the market—inorganic and organic fertilisers. Inorganic fertilisers are made in the lab (i.e., synthetic). Organic fertilisers have minimal processing, and typically come from animal manure and compost. They come in two forms—solid and liquid versions. Over-fertilising can kill your plants, so always follow the instructions on the packaging. You can also make your own horticultural anti-bug spray—all you need is a spray bottle, a bit of liquid soap and plant oil! There’s also plenty of information on the internet on homemade fertilisers using scraps from the kitchen.
JX: I would suggest using a slow-release fertiliser. As the name implies, nutrients are released slowly for plant absorption. The generic red/green/blue chemical fertilisers dissolve very quickly, and would leach out of the media with every watering.
Q: If the tip of my plants are wilting, can I cut them off?
JX: There’s no simple answer to this, really. One must identify the cause of the wilt—bacterial rot (stem, root, leaf), or lack of water in the media. If it is the former, depending on the severity of the issue, you might have to dispose of the entire plant. If it is the latter, submerge the potted plant in water for 1–3 mins until the wilted part has perked up.
Q: I’m worried that I might be over-watering my plant! How can I know if my plant is receiving too much water?
C: Some signs to look out for: the soil is wet and green algae appears; leaves feel soft and limp; both young and old leaves fall from the plant prematurely, and buds fail to open.
G: The easiest way is to check is to stick your finger into the soil till the soil is near your knuckle. If it feels moist then you shouldn't need to water.
JX: Keep the media moist, not wet. Moist is a well-spun shirt fresh from the washing machine, wet is a shirt that was rinsed but not spun.
Q: I’ve heard that plants go into shock when you move them—is this true? How do I tell if my plant is in shock, and how do I acclimatise my plants to a new location?
G: Yes, especially when the plant is still young. Factors include temperature, sunlight, airflow. When a plant goes into shock, its leaves may droop, wilt, or turn yellow. It's a biological process, so there isn't a way to prevent it. If the plant likes the location, you can tell after a few days. The leaves will be perkier, and the stem will be upright and strong.
JX: It depends on the plant’s requirements—if it is a shade-loving plant, it should never be placed under full direct sunlight, and vice versa. If the plant you bought can tolerate full sun, but was placed in a semi-shaded area in the nursery, it would be best to place it in a similar area in your home before moving it to receive full sun.
C: To help your plant acclimatise, try moving it to its new environment for a few hours a day and watering it less often for two weeks before moving it there permanently.
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