How to keep your favourite houseplants alive (and Instagram ready)

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Alice Vincent
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With the ride of Insta-lifestyles, it’s never been trendier to be green-fingered. A smattering of succulents and a tumbling ivy can do wonders for your interiors, meanwhile it's proven that having a plant on your desk at work can actually be beneficial to your health. But most of us would be lying if we didn’t end up mourning the brown shed leaves of our leafy friends more often than we watched them flourish. So, with that in mind, we’ve sought the help of Telegraph gardening columnist and author of How to Grow Stuff, Alice Vincent, to lead the way with our new photosynthesised lives...

For something that inspires such good-natured calm and is (wrongly) thought the preserve of the elderly, gardening can be bloody terrifying. It can be really difficult to know where to begin, and –  when you do start looking – everyone wants to tell you about different types of soil and acidity values and landscaping. I know, because I’ve been there, staring into the delightful green abyss of a garden centre and feeling a deep sense of overwhelm.

And yet, in three short-ish years I’ve learned enough to write a gardening book. Admittedly, I wrote How to Grow Stuff because I couldn’t find anyone talking about plants in a way that I could understand, and it’s definitely aimed at beginners. But the fact of the matter is that I’ve taught myself about how to keep plants alive, how to grow them from scratch and how to get away with breaking some of the rules. So you can certainly learn how to do it too.

You might, however, need a few pointers. So here’s where to start with houseplants - some of the most tolerant and stylish plant pals around.


Otherwise known as the squishy-looking plants that have been making a tremendous comeback over the past few years, usually in a concrete pot and frequently on Instagram. Succulent nerds will know that there are hundreds of different varieties available, but the good news is that many will survive - and even thrive - if you follow the basics.

Where to put them:

Somewhere bright with access to natural daylight. A windowsill is good, especially if it’s not too hot - if you find that your succulent leaves start to turn brown, this may be because they are getting scorched by the sun.

Where not to put them:

Some succulents will grow into weird shapes if they’re deprived of light, and others won’t enjoy being somewhere damp. This is not a bathroom plant, nor one to jazz up that dingy corner.

What to do with them:

Contrary to popular belief, succulents need drainage - try to make sure you buy one in a pot that has a hole in the bottom. Or, better, buy one in a plastic pot and put the whole thing inside a larger, more attractive container. Otherwise, the water has nowhere to go and its roots rot, and that’s when your plant dies.

Succulents are binge drinkers: they like to get a proper soaking and then be left well alone until their soil has completely dried out. Then they’ll want another session. Use a jug or glass to water them with rather than just a casual mist - this will encourage the healthiest root growth.

The one thing that kills them:

Overwatering. Succulents thrive in dry, sandy climes. People see plants and they think they need watering endlessly - succulents really don’t. If their leaves turn mushy or pale, you’re watering too much. Give it a break and wait until it’s dried out. If you want to show love, get a pen or pencil and gently prod the soil, this will aerate it, which is good for the plant, and makes you feel like you’re doing something horticulturally loving.  

Pothos / Philodendron - A.K.A glamorous tumbling vines

These are the names of two similar-looking groups of plants which look gorgeous tumbling out of macrame hangers and draped over bookshelves. Varieties include devil’s ivy and marble queen (both pothos), heart-leaf philodendron and pink princess - a philodendron that is as fabulously Instagrammable as it sounds.

Where to put them

Both pothos and philodendrons put up with a frankly ridiculous amount of neglect. However, you might as well start things right. They ideally want to be somewhere where they can see the sky, even if that doesn’t mean direct light (I have a pothos hanging in a corner next to a window) and enjoy the warmth, as they’re used to tropical forests. But you can pretty much stick one anywhere - they’ll live in artificial light, too. Just make sure you’ve got room for it to spread its vines, as these can grow long and quickly.  

What to do with them

Pothos and philodendrons will tell you when they’ve not been watered, because their leaves will look really floppy and sad. When they’re well-watered, they’ll be perky and have shiny leaves. They can survive with relatively infrequent watering, but make sure you get one in a pot with good drainage - ie, a hole that lets water run through - and give it a solid drink every week or so. There’s no need to water it unless the soil is dry, but if you feel like doing something the occasional mist will give it the humidity it loves.

The one thing that kills them

It is a genuine challenge to kill them, but if you ignore them for several months, or water maniacally for any stretch of time, they will probably die.


That gorgeous, full-leaved basil plant you picked up for a quid in the supermarket? Here’s a spoiler: it wasn’t meant to last. If you grow basil from seed, you’ll find it’s unlikely to have as many fellow stems hanging out in its pot as a shop-bought one, and this is because a lot of small plants are grown together to give lots of herby goodness for the customer - but only for a short period of time. After that, they compete for light, food and water and will eventually die. So it’s not you, it’s fate. However, there are means to rescue it - or at least keep it alive for longer than a week.

Where to put it

Basil hails from the heat of Asia and the Mediterranean, so it likes it hot and sunny. Make sure you keep your basil on a windowsill inside, and if you’ve got one in the summer months, treat it to a sunny spot outside.

Where not to put it

Anywhere dark, cold, dingy and overly moist.

What to do with them

Basil is possibly the number one plant I see overwatered - to the extent of mould production, usually. Remember, they like hot, dry places. The supermarkets will keep the soil super moist to keep that foliage looking great in transit and on the shelf, so the first thing you should do when you get it home is check the soil - and if it’s damp, leave it well alone.

After a few days, your basil may be starting to look a little peaky, so water its soil thoroughly and let the water drain out of the pot. That will do it for another week or so. Basil plants can make a remarkable recovery from being on the brink of wilty death - just make sure you give them a good drink.

Pick from the top of the plant, pinching off the big leaves and leaving the baby ones - and tiny nubs where new ones will form. With their big leafy siblings out of the way, these little’uns will put out new shoots, meaning a bushier plant for you.

The one thing that kills them

Darkness and overwatering. If in doubt, touch the soil - it should be dry before you water.

Alice Vincent is the author of How to Grow Stuff: Easy, no-stress gardening for beginners, and a journalist for The Telegraph. She sticks loads of plant photographs on Instagram: @noughticulture.

Images: iStock