Tips from ‘Plant Doctor’: How to choose indoor plants and help them thrive

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

We’ve spent a lot of time indoors for more than a year, and maybe you’ve added a bit of nature to your home with new house plants. Hilton Carter, a.k.a the Plant Doctor, owns at least 200 plants. His most recent book is “Wild Creations: Inspiring Projects to Create Plus Plant Care Tips & Styling Ideas for Your Own Wild Interior.” He talks to KCRW about tending to plants and choosing them in the first place. 

Don’t over-tend your plant

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Carter has warned his Instagram followers to avoid helicopter plant-parenting. 

“Just because you are at home and you're going to be around your plant more often, it doesn't mean that it needs more care. It still needs what you were already giving when you're out at work or while you were traveling.”

He says to keep in mind that plants react differently to seasonal changes, which includes shifts in temperature and the amount of sunlight streaming inside. Those changes could look like leaf loss in the fall or a struggle in growth. 

Hilton Carter owns at least 200 plants. Photo by Hilton Carter © CICO Books 2021.

Don’t buy a plant solely on looks

Carter estimates that half of plant buyers don’t know enough about how to tend to their newly purchased leafy friends.

“The thought process: It's a plant, it needs sunlight, it needs water. Boom, I got it. I put it in my home. And I think a lot of folks found themselves struggling through that.”

Before even considering what plant to buy, Carter recommends analyzing how much light a plant’s prospective spot will get. 

“Know that spot, and then based on the light that spot in your home gets, then find plants that can then thrive in that spot,” he says. “Don't just make decisions based on the fact that a plant is now super trendy, or you just really love the color and the shape of the foliage, or you were told that it's a low maintenance or an easy plant.”  

The hottest plants of spring 2021

Although he does not recommend buying a plant due to their popularity, Carter says “designer plants” are in right now. Those can feature striking color variation and line quality. 

Currently, the trendiest plant is the polka dot begonia, which he says can be spotted all over social media, in magazine spreads, and on TV. 

The polka dot begonia (begonia maculata) features white dots on its leaves. Photo by Shutterstock. 

Carter also has the birkin philodendron in his home right now. 

“It's a beautiful, lovely vine-like plant. It starts its growth with these white leaves that unfurl and then as they mature, they develop more green in them.”

The birkin philodendron starts with white leaves that unfurl and become green as they mature, says Hilton Carter. Photo by Shutterstock.

In his bedroom, Carter has a rojo congo. “It's a really hardy plant. So it's difficult to bump into it and knock a leaf off or damage a leaf. It can really hold its own in your home. And I have one right now over my bed hanging in a plant hammock. So it's a really lovely plant.”

A rojo congo plant sits above Carter’s bed. Photo by Hilton Carter © CICO Books 2021.

For the hottest California summer days, Carter recommends desert plants, such as cacti, succulents, and zz plants. It’s possible to house more tropical plants, such as ferns, but it’s crucial to bring the tropical climate into your home. He recommends investing in a humidifier or a mister, and finding spots in a home that aren’t in the direct sunlight. 

“The one thing to do is to try to always mimic what your plant gets when it's in its natural habitat when it's out in the wild. … You can go across the board with any type of plant. [But] you're gonna have to do the work to make sure it can then live in the space that you have for it.” 

Cacti and succulents sit near a window. These desert plants are ideal for hot summer days. Photo by Hilton Carter © CICO Books 2021.



  • Hilton Carter - interior designer and the author of “Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants”