Q: I’m going to be a senior in high school, and have been interested in plants recently. I’m hoping you can point me in the direction of a low maintenance plant that would be good for a beginner. I just want to avoid choosing a plant that needs a lot of work or is really expensive, only to have it die from neglect due to my hectic schedule of varsity tennis, sailing and college applications. It would be an indoor plant, probably being situated on my side table two feet from a window (not direct sunlight).
How great that you are getting interested in plants! I understand that as a student money is tight and you do not want to spend your wages on a high-maintenance plant that is too difficult to keep. At the same time, my advice to any beginner is to find a middle ground between playing it safe with the run-of-the-mill tropicals that everyone else buys, and finding an easy-care plant that truly interests you. I think that a lot of beginners neglect their plants because they are boring plants to begin with, or because they were thrust on them as gifts and were not their style. Fortunately, I can steer you in the direction of some plants that are unusual and fun, yet extremely forgiving about growing conditions.
Broadleaf Thyme aka Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)
I put this one first because it is truly unkillable. I have put mine through a range of poor conditions and it can handle just about everything except the cold. This unusual, succulent plant is grown as a culinary herb in the tropics, which makes sense as it can thrive where nothing else will. I love it because it is tough, but also gorgeous and fragrant to the touch. The leaves are soft, textured and sticky with a strong resinous fragrance. I’m not a big fan of using it in the kitchen, but that smell is nice to have on hand through the darkest days of winter as a reminder of summer. Broadleaf thyme likes heat, but prefers a sheltered spot away from a bright window or direct sun. It is not picky about soil or water, but does best in rich potting soil made for tropical plants. Look for a variegated type with multi-colored leaves if you want something more exciting.
Mother-in-Law’s-Tongue aka Snake Plant (Sanseveria)
This tough-as-nails plant is popular in restaurants and malls for a reason – it will persevere and even thrive just about anywhere no matter how harsh or extreme. This is a really diverse group so don’t feel you have to stick to the tall gold and green variety that everyone has. Some are patterned and really look like snakes standing upright from the pot and others are colorful with thick leaves. Sanseveria cylindrical looks more like a cactus or desert succulent, and there are even dwarf varieties that will bring some color and life to a small student desk. Grow it in soil that is prepared for cactus and succulents and allow the soil to dry out before watering again. These plants prefer partial sun, but will tolerate darker spots.
Elephant Ear Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe beharensis)
To be fair, this entire group (genus) is made up of pretty cool, succulent plants, but if I had to choose one, I would go with the elephant ear. This soft and touchable plant features velveteen triangular-shaped leaves that are silver on the bottom with a light copper shading on top. It grows easily in cactus and succulent soil that drains very well. It prefers sun but will tolerate lower light levels. Since over-watering is its demise, allow the soil to dry out before watering again. I only water mine once a month in the winter, which is perfect for students who tend to have the heaviest workload then.
African Violet (Saintpaulia)
African violets are easy to come by and easy to grow as long as you remember to water the soil and not the leaves. Watering directly on the leaves tends to make them go brown and rot. They like bright but indirect light so a spot away from the window is the way to go. Grow them in soil that is specially prepared for African violets and allow the soil to dry out between waterings. They prefer to grow for a long time in the same pot and will flower more often if you neglect them a little bit. The best African violets are the most garish, with absurdly colored leaves and strange shapes. If garish isn’t your thing, but color is, I would also recommend their botanical cousins, kohleria and sinningia. Their flowers tend to be a little more striking than African violets.
Garden authority Gayla Trail is the creator of YouGrowGirl.com.