We’re not sure why, but Perth plant people are 100% obsessed with tropical indoor plants—so obsessed that we've trawled eBay and Gumtree in search of a variegated Monstera and seriously considered purchasing it even after finding out they cost about 500 big ones for a plant cutting.
Whatever the reason, we can’t get enough of the likes of those holey Swiss Cheese plants (Monstera Adansonii), Calathea, Alocasia and even those cute little Fittonia.
And yet, you only have to belong to one of the many indoor plant Facebook groups to know that we struggle big time to keep them alive and thriving here in Perth. So, we decided it was high time we brought in an expert to tell us how we can create a humid environment in our homes that these sweat loving plants will thrive in.
We’ve enlisted the help of Katie Stephenson from Perth’s very own online indoor plant delivery business Green Assembly to share her tried and tested hacks for creating the indoor jungle of your dreams. So settle in and get ready to become a tropical plant pro (and, let's face it, probably order another 20 or so potted plants from her amazing online store).
The first thing Katie always say to people about tropical plants like the Swiss Cheese plant or even the must-have fiddle leaf fig is that they tend to require a little bit more care and effort than some other hardy plants like a ZZ (Zanzibar Gem), which will basically grow in a cupboard. But once you know the specific needs of any plant and spend just a little bit of time observing it each week to make sure it’s happy, it becomes easy! So here's everything you need to know.
SET THE (PLANT) SCENE
Before investing in a tropical plant, you need to be realistic about the amount of light and the general environment of your home or office. If you’re living in a dungeon apartment with only one south facing window then, first of all, move immediately, and second, even if you leave your shower running all day for humidity, you’re never going to be able to keep a tropical plant alive until you move out of that hell hole.
Ditto if you’re thinking of putting a tropical plant like a Calathea on your desk in your office building. With constant air conditioning running and heavily tinted windows, it’s unlikely to thrive.
The good news is, that unless you are that poor soul in the dungeon apartment, most of us can find a spot inside our home, in a courtyard or on a balcony that can be adapted to suit tropical plants—huzzah.
GET THE LIGHT RIGHT
As with all indoor plants, natural light is key. Most tropical plants like the Swiss Cheese, Calathea, Alocasia or Fittonia require bright but not direct sunlight. Think north facing windows or even west facing if it has an awning to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the plant.
Picture their natural environment in the rainforest or jungle—they are below tall trees that block the sun shining on them directly but allow plenty of light through so that they can photosynthesise and create their own energy.
When you’ve found a brightly lit spot for your new tropical friend, the next thing to consider is the air and temperature. Again, imagine their natural environment—it’s hot and humid. Most of our homes are temperature controlled with air conditioning in summer and heaters in winter which makes the air super dry, leaving next to no humidity for indoor plants. Or maybe you live in an older house with floorboards and there's a constant draft coming through, making it freezing cold all winter long—sorry, but your warmth loving green goods are not going to stay happy for long.
Stop telling me how shite my house is and tell me how to make it comfy for my plant I hear you say! The great news is that plants actually want to survive no matter what, so there are simple hacks you can use to even temperatures and add humidity.
Make sure your tropical indoor plant is kept clear of heaters and air conditioners and think about adding some humidity to the air. You can nab a reasonably cheap humidifier on eBay and set it up next to you plant which will make the world of difference to the moisture in the air.
If that sounds too hard for you, you can fill a deep tray with a layer of pebbles and water, then place your pot on top, ensuring it’s not sitting in water. This will create humidity in the air surrounding your plant. Grouping plants together also helps to create extra moisture in the air and gives your home more of a jungle vibe.
Spritzing is also super helpful. And no, I don’t mean the Aperol kind of spritz (although I highly recommend one of those during your weekly plant maintenance sesh). Just grab a dirt cheap spray bottle from Kmart and keep it near your tropical plant, so you remember to spray him. You could spray several times a day, and he would love you forever, so just do it whenever you remember.
GET THE FOUNDATIONS RIGHT
Next up is your soil. Think of the soil your indoor plant lives in a bit like a fish tank, it needs to be clean, have a supply of food and space to move.
The ideal potting mix for tropical plants is one-part soil, two parts peat moss and two parts perlite. This will ensure the soil is free draining and won’t hold excess water (which can cause root rot) but also won’t dry out too quickly causing brown leaf tips.
Perlite, which is a form of amorphous volcanic glass (it looks like styrofoam) that will allow water to drain through the soil and improve airflow freely. Which basically means that your plant's roots can grow and move as they need to. You can pick up a small bag of perlite in most garden centres relatively cheaply, and as it’s super light, it’s easy to store. Perlite is perfect for those plant lovers who tend to overwater and can be used in any indoor plant soil mix.
Peat moss—literally dead and decomposed moss—holds moisture and nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be leached out over time. If you are prone to under watering your plants, then adding peat moss to the soil mix is a great way to counter the neglect.
A quality, clean soil also means disease and pest free. The easiest way to ensure this is to use a premium potting mix that hasn’t come from another plants pot! Re-using potting mix is the fastest way to transfer nasties from one indoor plant to another. Baileys premium potting mix is a good one that can be found at most garden centres.
Of course, if you buy your tropical plant baby from Green Assembly, it's potted in only the best soil, so you won't have to worry about any of that until your plant has grown so big it needs repotting.
HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE (BUT NOT TOO OFTEN)
Right, so you’ve found the perfect spot, created a humid environment and used an ideal soil mix for your tropical plant. The only thing to do now is water him every second day, right? WRONG!
You should only ever water any plant when it needs it. A tropical indoor plant only needs to be watered when the top one to two inches of soil is totally dry. That means you need to check the soil at least once a week by sticking your finger down into the soil or use a handy moisture metre stick to do the ‘digging’ for you.
As tropical plants tend to be a tad more sensitive to things like additives in the water we recommend leaving a jug of water out overnight so that the chlorine evaporates (the harsh additives in our tap water will cause the tips of many tropical plants to brown fairly quickly) or you can use distilled or rainwater.
The average 20cm diameter pot would need about 400ml come watering day, which in summer might be every week and in winter maybe every 10 days, it all just depends on how long it takes for the top one to two inches of soil to dry out entirely.
Here at Green Assembly, we add a slow-release fertiliser to all our potted plants that will last them a good six months and we also water just before delivery with diluted Seasol all of which is going to set your plant up for growth in the warmer months. Our fave slow-release fertiliser is Langleys Troforte (for pots and plants) which we use on all our plants and you should too—seriously this stuff is miracle-working and will encourage healthy new growth spurts.
In between that, you'll want to use good ol’ Seasol every second time you water in spring and summer. Just make sure you dilute it at almost half the rate they recommend on the bottle—that goes for most indoor plants, but especially when used on tropical plants or you'll end up causing leaf burn.
And that’s it! It may seem like a few steps, but if you set your indoor plant up correctly from the get-go, you will find that they are easier to maintain and get fresh new growth all the time.
Want more? Check out our guide to keeping plants alive for serial killers.
Design credit: Sarah Law