Some people seem to have a “green thumb” — a natural affinity with houseplants that lets them grow anything, anywhere. I am not one of these people. The only way I can grow anything is by ignoring my natural instinct, breaking things down logically, and following a strict schedule. But my plants live a lot longer thanks to technology that helps take the guesswork out how much lighting, nutrients, and water my plants need.
Download light meter apps
Different kinds of houseplants thrive under different light levels, but if you’re not sure whether your living room ficus is receiving “bright, indirect” lighting or “medium” lighting, a light meter will help. These gadgets tell you exactly how many foot-candles or lux your plant is receiving, and databases like this one can tell you how much they need. You could pay around $US1,500 ($2,082) for a very precise spectrophotometer or buy one on Amazon for ten bucks, but for most of us, the best solution is to download one of many free light meter apps for your phone. Different apps have different features, so read up a bit, or just give a bunch of the free ones a try.
Buy a cheap soil meter
In caveman times, people checked the moisture of houseplant soil by poking it and saying, “yup, it’s moist,” but that doesn’t tell you what’s happening below the surface in the all-important rootball, and it doesn’t provide any information about your soil’s PH balance, which you need to know to fertilize properly. For that, you need a meter. There are a ton of them out there, but this Sonkir kit is a good basic choice that measures moisture and PH, contains a light meter, and gets excellent reviews online. And it retails for less than 25 bucks.
Use an automatic watering system
If you regularly over or underwater your plants, you should think about an automatic watering system to remove your fallible human hand from your home horticulture. There are all kinds of automatic home irrigation solutions, and many are surprisingly inexpensive. A USB or battery-powered system from sPlant lets you set different watering schedules for up to 10 houseplants, from a tiny sip for your ponytail palm, to full wet soil for your always-thirsty Cyperus.
Buy an indoor weather monitor
So you’ve got the soil PH, moistness, and light-levels perfectly dialed in, but are you providing the right humidity and temperature? To be sure, you need a hygrometer and a thermometer (or a combination thereof) to check. I suggest choosing one of these from Fischer Scientific — they’re pricy, but can provide accurate enough readings for scientific clean rooms and labs. Or you could go with this “home weather station” that connects with your phone and also measures air quality and ambient sound, in case someone is yelling at your plants instead of talking to them in a soothing tone like they should. If you pair one of these with a humidifier or de-humidifier, you can provide optimum indoor atmospheric moisture for your houseplants.
Use grow lights, if you want
The time has come to liberate our houseplants from the capricious whims of the oppressive sun! Instead of relying on a distant ball of fire, you can provide your plants with all their light, which makes you a god to them. There is a ton of information and debate online about the relative merits of fluorescent vs. LED vs natural light, warm vs cool lights, and way more, so I’m not going to wade into that stormy sea, but here’s a good, basic overview.
Invest in a hydroponic growing system
If you want to grow your plants hydroponically but have absolutely no idea what you are you doing, you can purchase entire hydroponic growth systems online for pretty reasonable prices. This Vivosun grow tent, for instance, costs only $US339 ($471) and provides adjustable LED lighting, a fan system, an air-filtering system and more, all in a light-proof mylar tent. If you want a perfectly controlled, sealed environment for your plants to be their best selves, it’s a good option.
Use time lapse cameras if you want to track growth
Your plant doesn’t just exist in space; it exists in time too, man. And nothing monitors the progress of your plant from a hopeful seedling to a brown, under-watered husk like a time-lapse camera. While your phone can provide time-lapse photography, it’s not a good solution, as you’ll need to to check Twitter. Instead, consider a dedicated time-lapse camera to point at your plants. You can spend thousands on a camera system or buy something perfectly serviceable for less than 50 bucks. This comparison article from bestreviews.com is a place to start researching.
Use an electrical predator to scare away pests
Motion-sensing electrical owls are designed to keep pests from messing with the plants in your garden, but there’s no law that says you can’t set one up to guard your houseplants too. This electric predator from Walmart looks like a great horned owl, and it’ll turn toward any motion it detects and emit a startling noise. You need a fake coyote and a fake goose, too. How else can you be sure?