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Greenery Without Green Thumbs

Photo by Rob Karosis

Is your home lacking in natural sunlight? Are you too busy—or too absent-minded—to water your plants regularly? Got a sorry pile of dead twigs and leaves in a pot on your windowsill?

If you've answered "yes" to any of these questions, never fear. Fresh from a segment on Ask This Old House, plant expert Carrie Kelly of Mahoney's Garden Centers shares advice on houseplants that anyone can care for.

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)

While it's true that many orchids are difficult, the Phalaenopsis is not at all. Named for the delicate, wing-like shape of its flowers, the moth orchid will hold its arch of blooms for four to five months.

Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata)

The Madagascar dragon tree, also known as the red-margined Dracaena, is a popular indoor plant that likes low-to-medium light and tolerates irregular watering. When watering houseplants, be sure to soak the root ball thoroughly. Remember to let the top soil dry out in between watering (press two knuckles into the pot to test). One of the biggest pitfalls in taking care of houseplants is over-watering them. If it's been a cloudy week, the plant may still be moist from its last drink.

Warneck Dragon Tree (Dracaena warneckii)

The Warneck dragon tree has wide, blade-like leaves. It grows slowly, often like a shrub, and has attractive white stripes. Like its many Dracaena relatives, it will thrive without direct sunlight and will adapt well inside.

Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans)

Some Dracaenas, like the corn plant, grow in the form of a woody cane. The corn plant has long, wide leaves that arc from the stalk. Shrubs can be grown by rooting tip cuttings, and trees by rooting mature canes.

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

Commonly used in shopping malls and office buildings because of the low level of care it requires, the Pothos is a vibrant, green plant, often with white and yellow variegation. It will tolerate low light and irregular watering. More plants can easily be grown from its cuttings.

Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana)

The dens and parlors of Victorian-style houses are popular sites for the elegant, rich-colored kentia palm, also known as the thatch palm. Its scientific name derives from its origin on Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. A low-light lover, this plant gets more beautiful with age as each new leaf grows larger than the preceding one.

Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

lady palm houseplant

The lady palm has delicate, hand-like leaves with a texture like paper. Nice and tall, it will also send out suckers from the bottom that can be divided and repotted for more plants. Keep a close watch on the container, however. The expanding plant can burst right out of it. As a general rule of thumb, if you're wondering when to repot any houseplant, look at the roots. If you see roots crawling out the bottom of the pot, or if the plant is drying out more quickly than before, it's time to upgrade to a pot about two inches larger—and line the bottom with shards of broken clay pots to help the plant drain. Loosen the roots and add potting soil as needed. After repotting, give your plant a good soaking, as it has just gone through a trauma.

Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)

The jade plant is a succulent with fleshy leaves that will tolerate irregular watering and a range of sun exposure, from light shade to full sun. Like Pothos, jade can be grown easily from cuttings to propagate more plants. Indoors, jade plants can grow into small trees or shrubs as tall as five feet.

Hindu Rope (Hoya compacta)

With their scented flowers shaped like five-pointed stars, the uniquely shaped Hindu Rope makes a very attractive houseplant. It likes bright but not direct sunlight. The succulent leaves often have silver speckles and the nectar-rich flowers, which can range in color from pure white to pink, have a unique waxy texture.

And One to Avoid: Fig Tree (Ficus jacqueline)

The Ficus, or fig tree, is perhaps the most commonly requested houseplant, since it is often seen thriving in malls and office buildings. However, it's really not a good choice for a houseplant. Ficus trees are raised in full Florida sunlight. When brought indoors out of direct sun, their leaves often begin to shrivel and fall, making for a messy floor and an ugly houseplant. The reason they look nice in public buildings is because many businesses use plant services that rotate the plants outdoors at intervals.