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Venture into plant parenthood with these simple tips from a pro plant dad in the UAE. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

My coleus sapling with her magenta leaves sat prettily on the window sill for about a month. I named her Paulie, after the friend who gifted the potted plant to me. I’d check on her first thing in the morning, water her using a makeshift ‘can’ made out of a plastic water bottle and nervously count her leaves. I did everything Google told me to, but Paulie did not survive the summer. In fact, I think I might have drowned her.

It’s a mistake many a green plant parents make. Harly Sabater, a proud tender of his own urban jungle at home with 10 years of experience, tells Gulf News that he still considers himself a serial over-waterer. One thing about plants is that they cannot talk; they much rather show-and-tell, drooping at odd times when you thought you had been going by the books.

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Harly Sabater. The Abu Dhabi expat touched down in the Emirates from the Philippines in 2010, then gradually transformed his living space into an urban jungle that reminded him of home. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

So we looked to Harly’s long years spent in trial and error for answers, with a cry for help: How do we keep our house plants alive? The Abu Dhabi expat, whose villa brims with about 350 indoor and outdoor plants, readily breaks out into no-nonsense beginner tips for us.

Why should I bring plants home?

Tending to potted friends day after day sounds tedious. Add watering schedule to the lengthy list of errands and the whole parenting business loses its appeal. Why, then, has the world become obsessed with cultivating green indoor spaces? There’s more to this than Instagram’s one-off feed trend or a plant collector’s conquest.

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Harly Sabater's living room. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

“Numerous studies show that plants do have a calming effect on us,” said Harly, 36, who works in healthcare. “Working in a demanding industry, I find it nice to come home to a peaceful, calming environment, just seeing lots of greenery, all healthy and thriving.”

De-stress with plants
A 2015 study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology notes how tending to indoor plants supresses the fight-or-flight response in young adults, even stabilising their blood pressure. Another proves how merely looking at greenery can induce positive emotions like comfort and relaxation, published in the American Society for Horticulture Science in 2016.

Plants are the obvious balm to a life spent in concrete jungles. We’re indoors more often than not, exiting one building to enter another by the end of the day. Ask yourself – when was the last time you smelled the wet Earth and fresh blooms?

“I think it’s a really good idea to accessorise your house with plants – it’s an easier way of making your surroundings more beautiful, instead of buying decoration pieces to fill up empty spaces,” he added.

'But I live in a small apartment…'

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Harly's work space features a propagation shelf with humidity boxes. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

Rest assured, you can still get the most out of plants, even if you parent two. That’s how Harly started out, in a small apartment and a couple of plants for company.

“All plant enthusiasts start small…. Maybe it’s a plant that they received from their friends or family. And then once you see it thriving, you’ll be encouraged to add another one. We call it being bitten by the green bug – there’s no turning back, you’ll be hooked,” Harly said.

A studio apartment or even your room would be better off with a touch of green. As long as you have good lighting and temperature, says Harly, you’re good to go.

And plants can go anywhere; in your bathroom, the corridor, the entryway and even across walls. But décor hacks can come later, when we’ve levelled up. First, let’s begin with the basics of parenting a potted house plant.

9 plant care tips for beginners

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Harly advises bringing in plants to fill up the awkward blank spaces at home. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

1. Get plants that are easy on the pocket

You might have to sacrifice a few saplings on the way as you experiment. Remember, learning what works best for the variety you own will take time. There are several key factors besides watering that play into keeping greens alive – from aeration to soil health.

“For people who want to create their own urban jungle, I suggest they start small with inexpensive plants. And regardless of the price, you will learn something from each and every one,” advised Harly.

2. Get plants that like the UAE’s sunshine

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The plumeria plant and its flowers with predominantly white petals love to sunbathe. Image Credit: Unsplash/Olivia Krueger

Plant care tutorials and guides are aplenty online, but most adhere to a different locality. We live closer to the equator, where the sun shines nearly all year round. So the idea is to look for species that naturally flourish in sunny climes, rain or shine.

“The UAE’s favourites are bougainvillea, plumeria and desert rose. These love the sun and periods of dryness. They do well in winters, too, as long as you don’t overwater them,” said Harly, who has a soft spot for tropical greens like Alocasia and Monstera that love the humidity. Some of these live in carefully altered humidity boxes on a shelf of seedlings in his work study.

Tip: Harly says indirect sunlight serves plants the best – the longer they’re exposed to indirect light the better.

3. Finding the right pot

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Harly's terracotta pots in the backyard. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

We can’t build humidity boxes just yet, but we can make sure the home we’ve given our sapling is just right. Check the pot your plant has come in – does it allow air circulation? Investing in décor pots is a no-no because they don’t come with drainage holes.

Harly recommends terracotta, a clay-based porous pot that lets your plant breathe. The base must be perforated with holes to allow excess water to seep through, preventing root rot. “It’s easy to drown your plant otherwise,” he added.

Tip: If you think terracotta compromises your interior look, slip the pot into a slightly bigger décor pot of your choice. Remember to drain the latter as well.

4. Keep an eye out for the temperature

“I always say when you’re comfortable, they (plants) will be comfortable,” said Harly.

True enough, steep drop or rise in temperatures at home can cause plants distress and keep them from growing well. “As long as they’re not exposed to direct cold or heat, they will be fine,” he added.

5. Invest in an airy potting mix

Potted plants need a special medium to grow in; your garden soil or plain topsoil will not do the trick. Called potting mix, it’s usually anything but soil. An organic composition of coir or coconut husks, peat moss, perlite (white granules), woodchips and vermiculite, the hairy-looking mix makes your ‘soil’ airy.

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Soil amendments like perlite, wood bark and coir in your pot serve your plant far better than plain topsoil. Image Credit: Supplied/Harly Sabater

Everything else can prove too dense for a plant inside a compact space, which can quickly become saturated. If you’ve gone ahead and bought garden soil, add in amendments to keep it aerated, just don’t water as often. This also applies to the ample sand around us, that we might be tempted to throw into the mix – don’t.

“From personal experience, the sand we have makes the soil very heavy and waterlogged. It retains moisture for longer,” said Harly.

Perlite is this white granule material; use a lot of it, it’ll make the soil very airy and other things like wood bark or woodchips and vermiculite, which is yellow in colour.

- Harly Sabater, Abu Dhabi-based expat with 10 years of house planting experience

“Perlite is this white granule material; use a lot of it, it’ll make the soil very airy and other things like wood bark or woodchips and vermiculite, which is yellow in colour,” he added. “With the plants being soilless, I can water them every day without overdoing it.”

Tip: Harly says a good way of knowing your plant has come in a good mix is by watering it. If the ‘soil’ dries in three days, then it’s healthy.

6. Let the water drain

Too much or too little of water, and your plant is on its last breath. I’m guilty of watering Paulie more than two times a day. To my panic-stricken eyes, she looked thirsty and her soil a tad dry.

“People tend to overwater because they think water keeps a plant alive. Everyone agrees that overwatering is the number one plant killer,” said Harly.

People tend to overwater because they think water keeps a plant alive. Everyone agrees that overwatering is the number one plant killer.

- Harly Sabater, Abu Dhabi-based expat with 10 years of house planting experience

While watering frequency will depend on the species, the composition of your soil mix, temperature and sunlight, the root cause of a mushy soil is always poor drainage. It should be moist and have periods of drought. A good preventative measure is to:

  1. Let all of the excess drain every time you water. Carry the pot to the sink or bathtub and let it run for a few minutes till there is no trickle.
  2. Let the mix dry over a period of two to three days before watering again.

7. Replace potting mix, when needed

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Repotting with fresh potting mix can rescue the roots from rotting. Image Credit: Pexels/Teona Swift

Say your ‘soil’ refuses to dry after three days – you’ve either overwatered the plant or the mix is not airy enough. You can still save your plant by discarding the waterlogged mix, says Harly. Transfer the sapling to a clean pot with new potting mix.

Harly adds that you can even toss in a few pumice stones, which will absorb excess moisture away from the roots.

8. Add a dash of nutrients

Besides soil amendments and water, plants can get that extra oomph with fertilisers. As they grow, they sponge up essential nutrients in the soil, so replenishing these might do the trick for you.

The most essential of plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (otherwise known as NPK on the back of most fertilisers). If your leaves look pale and yellow, the plant might be nitrogen deficient. A dark and dull foliage could mean low phosphorus, and crisp tips plus yellowing is seen in plants with low potassium.

I use organic fish fertiliser in liquid form – the plants love it. It’s a little smelly but has a lot of organic material from the sea.

- Harly Sabater, Abu Dhabi-based expat with 10 years of house planting experience

“I use organic fish fertiliser in liquid form – the plants love it. It’s a little smelly but has a lot of organic material from the sea,” said Harly.

Harly dilutes the concentration and adds it every three to five waterings or at least once a month.

9. Prune for bushier growth

Some foliage can surprise you with flowering, and then suddenly, your plant is shedding leaves. What you may not know is that these blooms can slow down and even kill off your modest potted plant. Flowers leech all the goodness for themselves, leaving the stems looking sparser.

You have to literally nip it in the bud to keep the energy supply uninterrupted: “If you want bushier leaves, then you should remove the flowers,” said Harly.

Note: Article was first published in August, 2022