Six Popular Plant Care Myths Debunked

At your accounts, you are the plant expert.

You can take advantage of the opportunity to spread good will by answering questions on plants from the people around you. But if you haven’t spent a lot of time on the forums or reading through houseplant books or sites, you may not know of the prevalence of outdated practices, misunderstood processes, and downright misinformation. You are in a unique position to explode these myths wherever they crop up and bring the enlightenment of professional plant care to the muddled masses.

Here, in no particular order, are the most common myths you’re likely to confront.

1. Drainage Material

This one just won’t go away. I don’t know how many times I’ve read information from supposedly well informed and practiced sources that advises starting the potting process by placing a layer of “drainage material” in the bottom of the pot – pot shards, gravel, crushed brick – whatever. In reality, all this does is reduce the amount of soil the roots have for colonization and raise the level of perched water in the pot. People tend to worry about the soil falling out of the drainage hole, which we know it doesn’t do. If they can’t seem to let that concept go, they can simply place a small piece of screening over the hole.

2. Misting

Over and over, plant books and advice providers of all types mention how plants should be misted twice a day, daily, or at least once a week. What a crock! People need to understand that in order to raise the humidity of the air surrounding a plant, it would need to be misted at least every 10 or 15 minutes around the clock. Even that would raise the humidity only a few tenths of a percentage point. Commonly available houseplants get along perfectly well on whatever humidity is happening at the moment. If people have plants that truly require high humidity, they can try a number of approaches – dishes of water, increasing the number of plants, a humidifier, or a special environmentally controlled enclosed space. In any case, misting just ain’t gonna cut it.

3. Evaporating CHLORINE

Years ago, people (well, some people) would let the water for their house plants sit in open pots overnight, to allow the chlorine to evaporate. In the last 10 years or so, however, water treatment facilities started using a form of chlorine that doesn’t evaporate. So allowing the water to set overnight is a useless practice. More than useless, it’s counterproductive, because allowing the water to evaporate only concentrates the chemicals. Most common foliage plants aren’t affected by the chemicals in the water. For the few that might be (i.e. janet craigs, spider plants come to mind), people can use bottled water or recycled rain water if they want.

4. “Fixing” New Plants

People have the idea that growers use cheap materials and cost-cutting procedures, much like Chinese toy manufacturers. As soon as someone buys a new plant they want to rush it home and repot it into “good” soil, and “feed” the starving little thing. Frequently they also put it into a big attractive pot, likely without any drainage holes. These are probably the worst things folks could do, other than pouring on a quart of water and setting the plant in a dark corner. Try to help them understand that growers actually use the healthiest soil* and plenty of fertilizer for the best possible growth. Plants can stay in their pots at least for a year, some almost indefinitely. Also, they don’t need fertilized for three months to a year, depending on the light they’re in. This is also a good time to acquaint them with double potting, so they can use their nice ceramics and designer pots, and still have beautiful plants.

*Exception is orchids, which should be repotted into orchid mix and a basket-type container ASAP, if people want to keep them growing.

5. Moisture-Managing Soil

There are a number of packaged potting soils on the market, some supported by major advertising campaigns, that tell people their plants need a special soil to “manage” or “retain” moisture. These soils have moisture retentive additives and create a soil so heavy and soggy that most houseplants struggle to survive. (This can be a good opportunity to explain testing for moisture level). Unless the plants are in containers on sunny patios, these soils create more problems than they solve. I like to recommend a soil-less mix. If that’s not available, a good compromise is packaged cactus soil mixed with perlite in a ratio of 2:1 or even 1:1.

6. Rooting Cuttings

I love to give people cuttings whenever I can. Whether it be pothos, philodendron, or ags, it’s such an easy way to make people happy. Usually, those cuttings end up in a cup of water on the desk. Many people don’t know that cuttings can also be rooted in soil and that some plant cuttings won’t root at all if they’re not in soil. You might take a minute to explain that roots grown in water are different than roots growing in soil. When a cutting is rooted in water and then placed into a pot with soil, it has to grow roots all over again.

Answering plant questions for people quickly became one of my favorite parts of being a plant tech. I hope that you feel the same way and that owners and supervisors are encouraging this practice.

Marlie Graves, known as The Ficus Wrangler, has been keeping plants beautiful, training techs and relating to clients at half a dozen companies for 30 years. She studied creative writing and psychology in college and went on to start an independent film company with her first husband. She decided to focus on plants full time after completing the NYBG Horticulture School interior landscaping course. Marlie is retired, operates "The Ficus Wrangler" YouTube channel, contributes regularly to several houseplant forums, and is working on a plantcare book based on professional methods.

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  • Clem C

    Marlie, great stuff! In addition to participating on the Interiorscape forum, I also contribute on some houseplant groups, and these are the most frequently discussed topics there. There is so much misinformation out there today due to “instant experts” online that some people still refuse to believe these important concepts even when confronted with scientific research. Thanks for reinforcing these ideas.

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