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As plants grow bigger, they may need to be repotted. Some plants thrive with crowded roots while others struggle when they're clumped. If roots have started to stick out of the bottom of the nursery pot, replace the soil as you move the pot size up.

We’ve all been there. You receive a plant as a gift from a friend or family member and think to yourself, “How am I supposed to keep this alive?” Have no fear. These Columbia plant parents have established their roots and are ready to share their best plant care tips.

MU student Bella Oltremare received her first plants as housewarming gifts from her grandma and continued her collection of succulents. “After that, it was just kind of an obsession,” Oltremare says. “Every time I would walk into a store, I would be drawn to the plant section, and I would have to buy one.”

Oltremare discovered that succulents aren’t as indestructible as they’re cracked up to be. The plants kept dying. So, she decided to focus her green thumb on houseplants instead. For many people, this is the moment when they realize they need some guidance on how

to reliably grow their collection. Vox compiled a step-by-step guide to help you turn over a new leaf and bloom into a well-informed plant parent.

1. Consult plant experts

Oltremare has about 20 plants and highly recommends joining plant parent Facebook groups to learn how to care for them. “It’s a genuine group of people commenting, and whenever someone comments and others are saying relatively the same thing and it’s all from their experience, I trust it a lot more than a random internet source,” Oltremare says.

Columbia resident Natalie Pepoon says local plant shops are also a wealth of knowledge. “They’ve helped me try and figure out where plants should be in the house,” Pepoon says. “I have a south-facing window, so most of my plants are in that room, and I wouldn’t have known (to put them there) without them.”

Consulting local plant experts can be as easy as striking up a conversation with plant shop employees when you’re checking out. Ask questions such as “What kind of light does this plant need?” or “How often should I be watering this?” This is a good place to start.

2. To water or not to water?

One of the toughest lessons when becoming a plant parent is that watering schedules don’t always sync up. Although some plant parents have a specific day to water their plants, such as “Watering Wednesdays,” other plant parents meticulously monitor individual plants to check moisture levels.

Pepoon has about 40 houseplants and says she checks her plants once a week to see if they need water. “If they’re damp or I can stick my finger in it and have dirt come up, I will skip watering that week and wait until the next week,” she says.

If picking a specific watering day or checking each plant individually isn’t for you, there are a handful of plant care apps that can eliminate part of the guessing game. Pepoon recommends the PlantIn app because it allows the user to take a picture of their plant to identify it. The app provides in-depth plant information, care instructions and will tell you if it’s safe for pets. This feature is key to helping you avoid having plants that are toxic for dogs or cats.

3. Take a leaf of faith

Another tough road to navigate is saving a plant once you notice it’s taking a turn for the worse. With the right combination of research and tender love and care, healing your plants is possible.

Like the app PlantIn, Oltremare uses the PictureThis-Plant Identifier app to help diagnose her sick plants. Users can scan the leaves of the plant and get tips on how to adjust the watering schedule, position of the plant and fertilizer levels. Every plant is different.

“I think it’s so funny how the whole process of being a plant owner is literally just trial and error,” Oltremare says. “Sometimes all the plant needs is to just be moved to a new room.”

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Propagating plants is a great way to grow your collection without over-spending. Using a clipping from a healthy plant with strong roots will ensure the new sprout grows strong, too. 

4. You grow, girl

A fun way to grow your collection without breaking the bank is to propagate. This is typically done by cutting off part of an existing plant and placing it in water so roots can start to grow from the stem. It’s important to take clippings from a plant that is healthy and well established. Oltremare recommends propagating pothos plant clippings because they grow easily and can stay in water without needing to be repotted. Columbia resident Chloe Fischer recommends cutting the stems so there isn’t much excess. “Grow your propagations in water for much longer than you think,” Fischer says. She also recommends placing your propagations in a clear container, positioning it to receive an adequate amount of sunlight and replacing the water frequently.

If you want to move your propagation from water to a new pot, wait until there’s an abundance of root growth. If the roots aren’t developed enough and are too frail, the plant won’t grow in the soil.

5. Pot it like it’s hot

Just like water schedules that don’t sync up, different plants need to be repotted at various stages and times of growth. Although snake plants prefer crowded roots, pothos enjoy room to grow and struggle when the roots start clumping together.

A good way to tell whether a plant needs a new pot is checking to see if the roots are sticking out of the drainage holes. If you can’t see the bottom of the plant and are trying to figure out whether or not to give the pot an upgrade, find out how long the type of plant typically grows before needing to be repotted.

If the plant does need to be repotted, Fischer recommends choosing a pot that is one size larger than the current pot and has drainage holes. If a pot doesn’t have drainage holes, the excess water will sit at the bottom of the pot and cause the roots to rot, which can kill the plant.

“Make sure the soil is completely dry before removing the plant from the pot and very gently squeeze your soil so that the dried soil breaks up and falls out of the roots,” Fischer says. “Then, you can place it into new nutritious soil and make sure you water it immediately after.”

6. The circle of life

With all the different phases of our lives, sometimes plant parents need to make the hard decision to reduce their collection. Fischer had a large plant collection but had to downsize when it became too hard to care for them.

Fischer urges fellow plant lovers to not let your plant collection become a jungle — aka too much to handle. As you decide which plants to give away, feel free to keep the ones that are best for your space and you feel confident taking care of. Because she doesn’t have an abundance of plants to give away anymore, Fischer propagates her existing plants and gifts them to friends and family.

“But that was one of the original reasons I became a plant owner — so that I could share with other people,” Fischer says. “I enjoy giving away plants to people.”

Whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned plant veteran, the journey to becoming a plant parent is full of successes and failures, and these Columbia plant parents are rooting for you.

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