photograph by iStock/kosobu

When it comes to choosing houseplants, most of us have it backward. Bryce Lane, a North Carolina State University horticulture professor, gardening instructor at the North Carolina Arboretum, and star of the 11-season, three-time Emmy-winning UNC-TV show In the Garden with Bryce Lane, admits that he, too, has gotten swept up by a gorgeous houseplant in the past — only to watch it wither away in an inhospitable environment. That’s why he preaches the cardinal rule of indoor gardening: Start with your location, not your plant.

“Look at where you want to put the plant, and evaluate the light,” Lane says. Instead of paying for artificial light, find a sunny spot next to a window. He suggests then taking a day or two to observe the amount of natural light beaming in.

Think of your plant’s new home as falling into one of three categories — high, medium, or low light. A high-light environment gets direct sun for six hours. “That would be a southern- or southwest-facing window with no outdoor obstructions,” he explains. Medium-light environments get some morning and some afternoon sun — usually about two to four hours. Low-light environments are usually close to north- or northeast-facing windows, places that see an hour, max, of direct sunlight.

Keep lighting top of mind when you purchase your new housemate. “If you have a high-light environment, consider plants that thrive in arid, desert regions — like a jade plant, agave, or succulent,” Lane says.

Popular medium-light plants include different types of weeping ficus or umbrella trees. “If you want a flowering houseplant, the African violet is great for medium-light areas,” Lane says.

For low to no light, Lane suggests a prayer plant. “Or a cast-iron plant — a fitting name for a plant that thrives in tough environmental conditions,” Lane says. Brown-thumbed gardeners can’t go wrong with a peace lily, which start to droop when thirsty but can easily be revived with a drink of water.

Houseplant enthusiasts also shouldn’t overlook soil type and watering best practices. “Number one: Purchase reputable potting soil. Don’t ever plant a houseplant in outdoor topsoil or garden soil. I like Miracle-Gro’s moisture-control potting soil,” Lane says.

Number two: Make sure your pot has a drainage hole so excess water can escape.

And speaking of water, don’t water too frequently — but when you do, go ahead and quench your plant’s thirst. “For any container plant, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, you’re better off waiting to water than to water too soon,” Lane advises. Follow the plant’s directions, and, when the time comes, water to saturate.

How do you know it’s saturated? “Pour water into the plant until the saucer fills up. Then pour the water in the saucer out,” Lane says.

If all else fails, reconsider your light. “Sometimes a houseplant will start to fail, and people respond by watering and fertilizing more,” Lane says. “If it doesn’t have enough light energy, you can fertilize all day long, and the plant won’t respond.” So go ahead, let the sunshine in.

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Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.