Ask The Plant Doctor: You Have Questions About Your Houseplants, Cee Has Answers

Hello!I’m Cee (they/them) and I’ve been the Technical Director (ie: the tech department) for Autostraddle for about 8 years now. In addition to that, I run a queer web development agency based out of Portland called Dapper Digital.

On the side, one of my biggest lifelong interests is plants. I would have been the fifth generation in my family to go into the floral industry if I hadn’t gone into tech. The company my great-great-great aunt started back in the 1800’s was called Crowl Fern Co and it was the official city florist for NYC’s street Christmas decorations. They also were the official florist for some presidential inaugurations but sadly I do not know which ones. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I spent a lot of my youth in my grandparents’ fresh flower shop and my dad’s wholesale floral shop learning a lot about flowers. To this day I love flowers and plants, and have been keeping houseplants for 25 years now. I currently have over 100 plants inside my house! I’ve gone through phases of different types of plants I like to collect – from orchids, to cactus and succulents, and now I’m into hoyas and philodendrons, mostly. I often propagate plants and try to grow from cuttings.

I wanted to do this open thread because I realize that a lot of folks are getting into houseplants now and may have some questions about the best way to keep them happy! I’d love to use some of my knowledge to help. Or maybe you just want to talk about your cute plants and show me pics of them. I’m excited either way and I’ll be around all day to talk plants with you.

If you want help diagnosing your sick plant, just upload a pic of the plant close up and tell me what’s wrong. It also helps me a lot if you let me know where you live and how much light the plant gets (how far from the window, and ideally which direction the window faces). I can also talk houseplant pests too if that’s a problem for you (it’s been a huge problem for me this year).

Show me your plants! Tell me which is your favorite one and why.

I’d also love cute selfies of you with your plants! SEND ME PLANT SELFIES!


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I'm the tech director for Autostraddle, which means I oversee all the tech-related stuff and do anything from coding the website to keeping the servers online. I also enjoy finding ways technology can make it easier for our writers to work.

I also run a queer/trans web design and development agency in Portland called Dapper Digital.

Apart from Autostraddle, I really enjoy making things, breaking things and then fixing them again, taking pictures, getting outside, making food, working on my house and garden, and travel.

they/them.

Cee has written 18 articles for us.

146 Comments

    • Toxicity:
      I’ve heard calathea, peperomia, spider plants and boston fern are non-toxic. You should google any plant before you bring it home to be sure though.

      Most toxic plants aren’t deadly, they just might make a cat feel a bit sick to the stomach for a day or so. I’ve certainly seen my cats eat some monstera or fiddle leaf and be fine.

      The plants you really absolutely want to stay away from though are bulbs – that includes lily, narcissus/daffodil, hyacinth, and tulip. Do not bring these plants (or flowers!!) into your home. Pothos is supposed to be pretty bad too.

      • I don’t recommend keeping all your plants at cat-level, but for what it’s worth, my cats have at times chomped on my golden pothos, zz, monstera, pepperomia, and money tree and have always been fine. They tend to pull the leaves off, or just chomp little teeth whole into them, before spitting it out. Results may vary if your cat tends to actually consume things rather than just attack and spit. I’ve heard that in general, cats are more attracted to plants with small leaves that tend to bounce around, and are more likely to leave bigger plants alone that they don’t view as playthings. Giving my cats a catnip plant, or some basil, or cat grass as their own little “garden” tends to keep them happy and they’re more likely to leave the other stuff alone. They know tend to chomp on the plants only if I’m ignoring them too much bc they know it gets my attention!

    • Stopping cats from eating plants:
      I use bitter apple spray or hot sauce on the leaves of the plants that the cat is chewing. I find with cat training, if it comes from you (ie: spraying the cat with water or yelling at it), the cat will just wait until you’re not around to do it. Better the plant taste terrible!

      Also, cats want to eat plants because in the wild they eat some grasses and fiber for digestion or maybe it’s just fun for them. Maybe get your cat some cat grass?

  1. I have a sad palm! I feel like I never water her at the right intervals and she is subsequently almost always pretty droopy while I also live in constant fear of killing her by over-watering. She’s had growth in-progress (sticks? that are alive and green but whose fronds/leaves have never unfurled)for the several years I’ve had her, but to my knowledge, none of them have ever resulted in new happy fronds. She also has some… gunk on her that I wipe off with a damp cloth when I remember to. I acknowledge this is a lot. Help me help her thrive!



    • Hello! I am not 100% sure but it looks like there may be a mealy bug situation happening there. Is the gunk you wipe off kinda fuzzy/sticky and white? Have you ever seen any white round bugs walking around? Or do you ever have ants nearby? They tend to stick together. On the second pic, there’s some white fuzz on the right side which looks like mealy bug residue to me. Mealy bugs also tend to eat new growth so that could be why those new fronds aren’t unfurling – they’re being eaten!

      Take a closer look and see if you can find any bugs! They’re kinda small, maybe half or quarter the size of a ladybug.

        • The amount of water really depends on the amount of light. A plant needs both light + water to make energy, and there’s a delicate balance of the two. 1L of water a week would drown a palm not getting enough light, or it would starve it if it was getting too much light. So it really depends on placement in relation to light source, how much light you’re getting (how close you are to the equator), what season you’re in, and how humid your air is/how fast the potting soil dries out. I will water my plants when they seem thirsty, and I think parlor palms like it a bit on the dry side. Maybe wait until the soil feels dry half way down the pot and then give it a good drink until the water runs freely out the bottom. Don’t overwater these guys. If the soil feels damp, leave it alone. If it’s still damp a week later, try giving it more light.

          Regarding the mealies, you absolutely need to use some pest control on them or they will kill your plant. I recommend Safer Soap. You can get pre-mixed ones too but I get concentrate b/c I have a lot of plants. If after 2x it does not work I’d try Spinosad spray.

    • Hi Sarah! Peperomia can take medium light but to thrive they want more! If you’re in a place like Oregon for example, I’d just leave the little guy right in the window. Direct light won’t hurt it up here. If you’re somewhere where the light is more intense, I’d move away from direct hot sunbeams. I will leave my peperomia in the window here for most of the year but move it away in the middle of summer when the window feels hot.

  2. I have a Christmas cactus that seems happy enough but never blooms anymore no matter what instructions I follow. Same deal with a hoya that has produced exactly one (1) cluster of flowers in the 12 years I’ve had it. Any ideas?

    • Hi Chandra!

      Tell me a bit about their placement in your home — how close to a window and which direction the window faces. Do you leave the shades open all day? Also what kind of pot they’re in and if you’ve ever repotted them. And do you fertilize?

      I stalked your profile & it says you’re in BC, is that still correct? If so my initial guess is that you probably need more light. I grow a lot of Hoya and I have them blooming all year long under artificial lights. If they’re not under lights they’re hanging directly in my west window because I live in Oregon and like BC we don’t get a ton of light! I would not do that if I lived in LA as they’d burn.

      Let me know! I want to help get your plants to flower for you :)

      • Hi, thanks for the reply! Yep, still in BC. The cactus is near an east-facing window (the only options in my apartment are east or north unfortunately) that I leave the blinds open on. The hoya is definitely not getting much light where it is, so that’s probably a big part of the problem.

        They.. are both still in the cheap plastic pots they were in when I took them over from a former roommate :T so yeah, they could probably stand to be repotted. I always forget to think about it until the winter when it’s too cold lol.

        • To be honest, I don’t grow christmas cactus myself so I’m not totally certain about their preferences, but I am a huge fan of hoyas and most of them don’t like repotting much and prefer to be root bound. My suggestion for your hoya (do you know what kind it is?) is to move it to that East window near the cactus.

          If you do repot, you’re right, wait until it’s warmer. I always repot in late Spring. And I wouldn’t move up in sizes much for the hoya. If it’s been in the same pot for that long it might be out of nutrients so a little very weakly diluted fertilizer might help.

          • Looks like hoya carnosa from an image search. It’s up high because it has some really long tendrils but I’ll try to get it closer to a window. Thanks for the tips!!

          • Carnosas love to be root bound, lots of light, not too much fertilizer, and to be kinda on the drier side, almost like a succulent.

    • In my limited experience with christmas cactus, I was able to get it to flower when I accidentally simulated “winter” for it by leaving it outside for too long into the fall. Not sure if that was just dumb luck, though.

        • I believe you really do have to force dormancy to get Christmas (or Easter or Thanksgiving) cacti to bloom again. I’ve had my Easter cactus literally closed in a dark closet since late December and I won’t let it out until March. I’ve read that once you do that, you can start watering and fertilizing and letting it back into sunlight and then it will bloom again. Fingers crossed that it works!

  3. Hi Cee and plantmasters ! I have a large number of plants and love them, and I’m thinking of trying to grow comestible plants indoors.
    Is that possible in your experience? Indoor potatoes: myth or reality?
    I’ve been replanting the root parts of onions and leeks, but we don’t get fully grown plants, just thin dill-like stems (still use them as herbs).
    Does any veg grow without full sunlight ?
    Cheers ! :)

  4. It may have to do something with my local, but I am partial to cactus plants. The other week I was at Lowes & nearly bought a couple of cactus house plants, but sadly it was a real plant, but with fake paint on it or some rubber flower attached to it that was a real turn off. I’m also partial to those octopus plants that are carnivorous & the related venus fly trap. I had the mini version of those before, but I don’t think either one ever ate any flies. They did last for a year, before dying due to I think lack of natural light, I think. It probably should have been on my windowsill.

    • Every time I see those painted/glued plants at the big box stores I feel so bad for them. I want to buy them and wash them off and save them, but then it tells the shops that they’re selling and they should make more… I’m so torn!

      • I very much feel you on this. Like I saw a bunch that was already had the paint peeling off, which I don’t think is good for the soil. Plus, after a few weeks as the plant starts growing I feel like it is going to be similar to a person with blue hair, their original color starts popping up near the roots.

  5. How do you get an orchid to flower again? Everyone in my family is resentful of orchids because they’re usually in bloom when you buy them and then never flower again. I’m told that the plant itself seems healthy (it grows new healthy leaves) and they water it about once a week. Not sure about sunlight conditions but I think they’re usually in a place that gets indirect sun.

  6. Oooh, I have another question.
    Have you ever had to treat your house, or seen treat the flower store, against fleas / bedbugs by smoking, and does it affect the plants?
    We’ve once had to move 130+ plants outdoors in case the insecticide affected them, and I’d love not having to ever do that again. But I’m not sure how their soil would react.


  7. Hi Cee and plant people! Any tips on plants that are easy for total beginners to tend and not kill? I live in Scotland and I’m nervous of plant keeping, I now actually do have a tiny garden space but it’s so rainy here and dark in winter. There must be a plant that thrives in these conditions?

    • Hey Susie ! I’m not Cee but I’m a plant person ? Maybe it’ll help ?

      It’s so awesome that you have a garden space, be it ever so tiny :) One way to see what thrives in your conditions would be to look at what grows in the woods and fields in your region – and plant similar stuff.
      I love Ivy as an outdoors plant (a climbing vine, for walls and fences) and an indoors plant ( a falling vine, for hanging by windows). There are so many sorts and color, it’s hardy and fine with shade.
      It might not be too late to plant tulips and daffodils outside for the spring ! They’ll take care of themselves and bloom when they feel it’s time.

      Indoors, spider-plants and peace lilys make the most of what light there is, and are very easy to care for.
      Get yourself invited to your neighbors’ and check what plants they have, then copy that ;).. or leave with plantlets ! If you collect plantlets from people who live in similar conditions, those should grow fine in your home.

      Best of luck !!

    • Hi Susie! I replied to your comment in the other thread but I’ll copy the reply here too!

      People seem to think Pothos are easy to care for! I don’t seem to have good luck with them for some reason but you could try that! ZZ plants can handle low light too and you only have to water them like once a month, and they’re pretty cool looking IMO!

    • I have a bunch of different indoor plants and the easiest one for me is the snake plant. My snake plant is thriving in my office even though it’s a low-light environment where several other plants that were supposed to be easy have died.

  8. I have never ever in my life been able to keep plants alive before. Then I got a succulent from the Hold Me Closer Tiny Planter panel at A-Camp 2 years ago. It’s still thriving! In fact it’s trying to escape it’s mason jar confinement!.
    the positive experience I had with this succulent made me take a gardening class and even acquire some plants! So far I have killed a bokchoy and a basil but am doing okay with an Aloe Vera, another succulent and a Mother in Law’s Tongue.
    So thank you, Cee, for making me discover gardening and plants. Your ancestors would be proud

    • Hello!
      Propagation can be quite easy or more difficult and it really depends on the type of plant. Some of the easier plants allow you to just cut a piece off and stick it in dirt and you magically get a brand new plant. Some are more finicky and require a lot more attention.

      The general rule of thumb with propagation is to cut a plant between the nodes and either start in water or place directly into soil, and do so during the growing season (Spring/Summer).

      As far as growing things you eat, I’ve taken spring onions with the roots still attached from the grocery store and plant the white part after I eat the green parts and grow more! That’s fun and you get more onions :)

  9. Hi Cee, I’m not sure what’s going on with my carnation. I’ve had it since last spring. It got really hot over the summer and it lost all its flowers and never flowered again since. Now it looks like it’s hanging on to life by a thread but I don’t know if that’s because it’s still winter and it’ll perk up again next month, or if it’s just,well,dying. Any thoughts?

  10. I’ve got a sad dieffenbachia that wilts despite trying things like, drying out the roots after I nearly drowned it (I still can’t tell how much water it likes/should get) abs moving it to different places in the house to see if it likes the light there better.

    • Hi Andrea!
      I fixed your image link for you.

      Your plant does look very sad! I has no leaves! Because that new growth shoot coming out the side there looks like it’s dying and the soil looks very wet I’m going to venture a guess that it’s root rot. I’d take the plant out of the pot and take a look at the roots. They should be firm and not squishy. Let me know what you find and we can go from there.

    • I’m here to bring some hope because I almost killed a diffenbachia this way, she was also a stump and now she grew and is getting some leaves!
      I left it out of soil in a paper towel to dry up for a couple of days and then got it back to new dry soil. Good luck!

  11. Any insight into Calathea? I live in Southern California and I have had luck with pothos/monstera/pepperomia/succulents here, but I cannot for the life of me get a calathea to stay alive. I had a rattlesnake and a medallion and I think a pinstripe last year and they all withered and died. I kept them close together and gave them a mini humidifier and they were not in direct sunlight, but the leaves would just one by one shrivel up and die. I eventually gave up and composted them, but I would like to be able to try again one day. I read that it might be the water? That they needed to only have distilled water? Could that be true? It seems…wasteful to buy distilled water in plastic jugs just for a plant. Has anyone had plants that require this? Or has anyone had less finicky calathea? I don’t know if it was a humidity problem or the water thing.

    • Hi Jess,
      Honestly I kill calathea too. My record with fastest dead plant was a calathea white fusion – I had it for less than two weeks. And I really don’t kill plants often!

      I heard they like lots of humidity too and I live in Oregon — we have humidity! It could be the water? Some folks harvest rainwater or leave tap water out overnight so the chlorine diffuses before watering their finicky plants. I’m honestly too lazy for that. And I disagree with buying bottled water for myself and I surely would not buy it for my plants.

      Maybe someone else has better luck with them and can weigh in?

      • Maybe they are just difficult! I totally agree re: not buying bottled water and also being too lazy to let chlorine diffuse out of tap water myself. If it ever rained here I would maybe try to harvest some but alas! Perhaps this kind of plant just needs more humidity and care than I can currently give. They’re just so pretty!

    • I have a few calatheas and the only one that isn’t finicky is the peacock calathea. It’s thriving and has never had any issues. The other two are sensitive to pretty much everything haha. I give them distilled water and kelp fertilize on occasion. The distilled water is indeed wasteful but the few times I gave them filtered tap water instead several leaves shriveled. Collecting rain water may be the best option. I used to use a humidifier but they seem to do better when I mist them and keep a tray with pebbles and water under them. They also do better when kept in the pot they came in.. I think because they need a smaller pot to establish their roots.

    • One more thing! How much sun do you mean but out of direct sunlight? Some will burn easily and don’t need much sun at all. Mine seem to do better when they’re not in a window vs being in a window that doesn’t get direct sunlight

    • Hello,
      It really depends on if you’re a heavy waterer or not. Succulents store water in their leaves, and prefer to let their potting medium dry out. If you overwater, they’ll die.

      Terra-cotta and other un-glazed pots will allow the soil to dry out faster because they’re still porous, so they’ll wick the extra water away. So it really makes it a bit easier to not accidentally overwater.

      That said, I have a row of succulents on my windowsill in glazed pots without drainage and they’ve all been alive for 6-10 years. I just don’t overwater them.

    • Hi Kaly,
      Congrats on your healthy phalaenopsis! If it’s blooming you’re doing something right :)

      Once a phal is done blooming, it’ll either rebloom on that same spike (yay! but unlikely!) or that spike will turn brown and brittle and dry (more typical). If the latter, go ahead and cut it off at the base. It’ll make a new spike for you hopefully soon.

      The root looks happy! Leave it alone. They’re epiphytes, which means they kinda grow on trees, so their roots are always looking around for more sources of water. It’s normal.

      If the leaves or roots look a bit wrinkly, give it more water. I like potting these guys in sphagnum moss myself

  12. Hi! My Pachira aquatica is slowly losing all of its leaves 😞 I’ve had it for less than a year and got it from Ikea and it did great in the summer, but now it is really trying to die. I don’t water it much and it’s in a mostly shady spot, and recently it lost all its big leaves and desperately sent out a bunch of baby leaves, which… are dying. Help?!

    View post on imgur.com

  13. Hello! I have this lovely prayer plant that used to have bright red/pink veins. Over time it’s new growth doesn’t have that color. And it’s growing strangely out to the sides only. It puts out a bunch of new leaves so I know it’s somewhat happy, but I feel like there’s something I could be doing better for it. It’s in bright indirect light and gets water about every 10 days when it feels dry. Thanks!

    • Hello!
      I have a few questions which might help me diagnose your issues:

      1) Your profile says you’re in Portland, is that true? (Me too!) I’m just trying to get an idea of how much light we have to work with :)

      2) Do you know which direction this window faces? And do you leave that sheer curtain drawn all day?

      3) How old are those smaller duller colored leaves?

    • Yep, Portland 👋 so I suppose “bright” can be a bit of an overstatement. Window is north facing with a sheer but the whole west wall is a sliding glass door that’s uncovered and let’s in a lot of light.
      The smaller leaves are maybe 1-2 months old.

      • Yes Portland “bright” light in the winter is… not really a thing. Your North window will get the least amount of light and you’re probably halving that light with that sheer curtain drawn. Unless it’s less than a couple feet from the West doors it’s probably really wanting some more light.

        I’d try to leave that sheer curtain open all day in winter at least, or move to a sunnier spot for this season. The plant would probably be okay there in that spot for the 4 months of brighter light we get up here.

        I move all my plants right up to my west facing windows and put grow lights on them for winter because our light is so pathetic and they suffer otherwise.

  14. I got plant questions but I feel more like it’s a farming question if you can’t answer it no big deal.

    Is basil something I can just keep growing if I take counter measures against the extremes of Louisiana weather?
    Or it something I should just harvest without thought to continued survival of the plant itself?

    Any herb plants ya think could survive all year round? Be it in a window box or outdoors.

    • Hi Lex!
      Basil is an annual so I think even if you kept it warm it would probably come to the end of it’s life cycle within a year or so. I just buy new basil starts in Spring. Are you just trying to have fresh herbs all year? You could try growing one indoors for the colder season.

      I’m not sure how cold it gets where you live. Do you know your USDA Hardiness Zone? If you can get that zone number for me I can give you a list of herbs that’ll be fine all year long outside. I can leave my sage & rosemary outside here in zone 8b all winter fine, and those tend to grow quite large and last several years this way.

      • It’s either 9a or 9b but we do get freezing temperatures a couple times a year but what seemed to murder the herbs was the record high temperatures we had this past summer. Had a years old chive plant die it was startling.

        Would like to try for fresh herbs all year but weather round here flip flops all winter and the heater is very drying making indoors tough too.

        I can cope with basil needing to be harvested and re-started. Was too worried about killing it if I took to many leaves for a recipe but if it’s just going to die anyway makes that concern moot. Thank you.

  15. Hi! I have another prayer plant question for you. This is Leaf Ericson, who I acquired in college when he was lush and vibrant, and who I fear I’ve been slowly killing ever since. In the past, he’s thrived in a west facing window and done terribly in a south facing window with strong sunlight. He’s currently under a skylight in the northeast corner of the house. I water him about every 7-10 days, and have experimented a few times with giving him plant food, to little success. I want to help him grow dark and leafy again! Thank you for any advice!

    • Hi Carrie! Are you sill in N Carolina? If so, I believe what you’re seeing here is too much sun. It’s not a thing I normally say to folks! I notice that the new growth is coming in a nice dark green and the older leaves look almost bleached out. If it’s under a skylight in N Carolina, it’s getting pretty intense sun all day long. Maybe try moving it to a place a little less bright. You can get a light meter app for your phone too if you want to get really precise. I’d look up the LUX or Foot Candles that’s recommended for Maranta and try to find that spot in your home. Don’t forget to take the light reading several times throughout the day on a sunny day. :)

  16. Hi there. I have a ZZ plant that I just got from a friend as a housewarming gift. I was watering it a few times a week, but it never retained much water. It just immediately flowed out of the holes in bottom of the planter. Then leaves started getting yellow. I stopped watering, thinking I might have been overdoing it. Didn’t water for maybe two weeks then let it soak in the tub for a little bit the other day. The soil is completely dry to the touch (again, not retaining water) and leaves are yellowing again. Not sure what I’m doing wrong!

    • Hello! ZZ plants don’t like a lot of water. I only water mine about once a month. They have rhizomes under the soil which fill with water – they can go a really long time without. Yellowing is likely overwatering. It’s okay if the water drains out a lot — it means the potting medium allows for drainage, which is good for a plant which doesn’t like a lot of water like this one. Cut back to every other week at most and give your plant a little more light (but not direct) and that should solve the problem.

  17. Hi! I’ve had a smaller peace lily for 3 years and it’s been great. Even after wilting it comes back. So I thought to purchase another. I did. A bigger peace lily. However, after a few days home it began to be droopy. I repotted it. Later I was told u shouldn’t have. Tho now it’s been a few months and it’s still quite droopy. I’ve watered, not too often. I’ve moved it out of direct sunlight.

    I have a pic tho unable to upload here.

    Halp!

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