Article by Mikayla Mann, Designed by Isabel Godoy
So you want to take care of a plant? Maybe you just potted your first succulent at the DSA Fall Festival, or maybe you saw the pretty cacti outside the Trader Joe’s on Foothill and couldn’t resist buying one. Well, you’re in luck — I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide of everything you need to know as a fledgling plant parent. After going through this checklist, you’ll be all set to raise plants of your own! I’ll begin with a bit of background on how I became a plant mother. My love for flora and fauna actually stems from my mom, who is an avid plant caretaker herself. We have shelves and shelves of succulents outside our house, many of which we’ve grown from other cuttings (more about that later). When I was a young teenager, I started tagging along with my mom to various garden festivals, and we would always come home with at least one box full of new plant babies. I found tending to my plants very calming and somewhat addictive, and from then on, I couldn’t stop! I find it so rewarding to nurture something and watch it grow happily under my care. Now, I’ll share my tips with you so that you can feel this fulfillment too!
1. Choosing your plants!
It’s a good idea to have in mind which plant(s) you want before you start shopping for them, so you can plan accordingly for other supplies (like soil, fertilizer, and pots) later. I mostly grow drought-friendly plants, especially succulents, cacti, and plumeria (a shrub/small tree with fragrant flowers, native to tropical America). I’m from San Diego, and these types of plants thrive around my home (and they will in Claremont too!). My choices are usually very subjective, based on how the plant looks. If given the option between multiple plants of the same kind, choose the one with the most “pups” (small budding plants that have sprouted from the larger plant) if possible.
2. Choosing your soil and pot.
For succulents and cacti, there’s usually a special soil known as succulent potting mix. If you can’t find that, a good rule of thumb is two parts sand, two parts potting soil, and one part perlite/pumice (from The Spruce, a home decor website). Make sure to choose a well-draining pot with at least one hole on the bottom — you don’t want your plant rotting from water sitting in the soil. It’s okay if your pot doesn’t have holes, but you’ll have to be more careful about watering (see the watering tip below). Feel free to experiment with all kinds of pots — there are some super cool ones out there, and you can decorate your own too!
Did you know you can propagate plants? No, not like error propagation — succulents can easily reproduce asexually via cuttings from a mother plant. If you want to try your hand at this, make sure you use clean shears to cut off a small, healthy-looking piece of your “mother plant.” Then let the cutting dry out for 4-5 days, which will allow the end to callus over so that it can easily form roots. After that, you can pot your plant! Start by filling the pot with a good amount of soil on the bottom, enough so that if you put your plant or cutting on top, it will stick out of the top of the pot. Then, dig a shallow hole in the center of the soil (using your finger or another tool) and place your plant inside. Make sure the hole is deep enough that the plant feels sturdy when you place it all the way inside. For small plants, this is usually about half a finger length. Support your plant with your hand while you fill the rest of the pot with soil. Throughout this process, make sure to lightly compress the soil with your hands so that it can hold the plant up while still providing some aeration for the roots.
First of all, make sure your plants get sun for at least 6 hours per day. There are infinite places for you to put your new plant, depending on whether you want to show it off, maximize sunlight, or anything else you have in mind. If you want to arrange displays of your succulents, a good book to check out is Designing with Succulents by Debra Lee Baldwin. I know people who have put plants on their dorm windowsills (Case windows are perfect for this). As an Atwood resident, I prefer to maximize the use of my balcony and arrange all of my plants and pots outside to show them off!
Don’t overwater your plants!!! I know some of you are very enthusiastic about taking care of your plants, but there is such a thing as smothering them with too much love. It is especially easy to overwater succulents and other drought-friendly plants, which will lead to root rot. Make sure to look up the watering guidelines for each of your plants. One good book I recommend for these tips is Succulents: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Designing, and Growing 200 Easy-Care Plants by Robin Stockwell. As a rule of thumb, it’s every 1-2 weeks for most succulents.
6. Troubleshooting (a.k.a. debugging for the CS-inclined).
Are you afraid your plant has gotten too much or too little water? If your plant looks mushy or black, it’s probably rotting. 😦 But some plants can be saved! If it’s just a leaf rotting, and the rot hasn’t started from the roots, then you can cut off the parts that have gone bad and save the rest of the plant. On the other hand, if the plant looks crispy and brown, it’s been underwatered. My main tip is to adjust your watering schedule accordingly and don’t freak out!
7. Debugging (literally).
Unfortunately, your plant will sometimes get bug infestations — some common ones I’ve seen are mealybugs, spider mites, and ants. There are guides for getting rid of each of these pests online (I recommend “Common Pests on Succulents and Easy Treatments for Them” on the Succulent Plant Care website), but a common remedy is to rinse the plants with a strong stream of water and spray (or rub using a cotton swab) alcohol on the leaves.
You’ve worked hard to bring your first plant to life — now it’s time to appreciate how far you’ve come! Congratulations; you’re well on your way to becoming a professional plant parent 🙂