When you’re scrolling through Instagram these days, it’s not at all unusual to see house plants livening up all your favorite home shots. But when Hilton Carter‘s photos pop up in your feed, it’s different. You’ll feel the urge to immediately stop scrolling, double tap, and then dive into a mindless Instagram rabbit-hole of his plant-filled world. More-is-more would be an understatement here — the Baltimore-based author and plant stylist has over 200 plants between his home and his studio, and the lush greenery filling your phone screen will almost certainly make you green (ahem) with envy.
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Whether you’re just getting started on your plant-parenting journey or you’re already achieving all your #plantgoals, Hilton has some great advice for finding the right plants for your space and caring for them properly at any skill level. He also shares a smart hack for letting a potted plant thrive in a vase without a drainage hole, like our new Shape Studies vases. Read on below, and check out his new book Wild At Home for even more tips!
Photography by Landon Vonderschmidt
How did you first get started working with plants?
My journey in greenery started slowly. I wanted to add a bit of life to my space, and also to block the view of people walking on the street below me in my home. I moved to the French Quarter in New Orleans in 2014, and I had these really large windows, and decided I needed to get some plants to block the view outside. The first plant I purchased was a Fiddle Leaf Fig that I named Frank. I thought I could start bringing in more plants slowly, one at a time – I’m joking. More like four at a time! And that was it. I loved the idea of taking notes on plant care and how I went about my process, and then about three years ago, I started sharing my ideas on social and that’s how I ended up here today.
What should you keep in mind when figuring out which types of plants will work for you?
First of all, you need to understand directional light. What direction are your windows facing? Which plants work best in that particular type of light? Southern-facing windows are the best — that’s what most plants will love and thrive in. You’re never going to get direct light with Southern facing windows, only indirect light. Eastern-facing windows will get direct light, but only in the AM. Some plants can tolerate direct light, but only morning direct light. Others can’t tolerate Western-facing windows, because the afternoon and evening light is really hot and can really damage a plant. And then Northern light is really on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to brightness of light — again, it’s still indirect, but it’s going to be lower than Southern light.
Once you figure out where the light is facing, you need to take into consideration what’s outside those windows. I live in a space that’s further back from anything right next to my window. If someone lives in New York City and has Southern facing windows, I might say, oh good, that’s the best! But then I’ll see that there’s another building right beside it: Southern facing a brick wall. It’s not the same! So you’ll have to take all of that in and understand what you have. You can assess that just by looking. You can get a light meter to help you understand if you have bright light or low light, but if you’re facing a brick wall, you can just see. What plants work best in the light? Take that information to your nursery or plant shop and they’ll help you out.
Then, you need to think about where you’re going to place these plants. I had someone in one of my book signings recently tell me, “I brought this rubber tree home, I know what it needs, but the leaves are falling off.” And I looked at the picture and I said, “Why don’t you put it next to the window with the bright light?” And she said, “Well that’s where my couch is!” Something’s going to have to happen here – you’re going to have to move your couch, or you’re going to kill your plant. [Laughing] A lot of people don’t realize when shopping for plants that they’re going to have to make decisions based on the care and the life of the plant. They’re going to bring in whatever makes them feel good, but at the same time, they need to think about the life of the plant and what works best for it.
And then the last important thing is that you need to know what type of person you are, and what type of care you have in you. So maybe you’re someone who travels a lot, or someone who is forgetful, or you’re new at it you don’t know what your care level is. Then you don’t want to jump straight into a fern or a Fiddle Leaf Fig because those are kind of finicky, and you might want something that’s more low maintenance. The first thing many people see is something they find sexy, beautiful, appealing, whether it’s the color plant, the shape of the foliage, it’s so beautiful! And they take it home and have have no idea, one, what kind of plant they have, and two, what kind of care it needs. And then they’re DMing me, why is my plant dying?
How do you use the Shape Studies vases? They look great, but they don’t have a drainage hole, so most people probably don’t know that there’s a way to pot plants in them.
There are so many vessels like that – a lot of the ones that are so appealing and so amazing don’t have drainage holes, which prevents you from overwatering your plants. You can always drill a hole in the bottom, if you feel like it, but I advise folks to use the method of measuring out the stones to create a buffer zone at the base of the vessel, so that all the water can sit in that space and never touch the roots once it filters through.
To create that buffer zone, before you start potting the plant, you need to have a layer of stone and a layer of horticultural charcoal. So use a ruler, and at the bottom, 1/10th of the pot should be stones and 1/10th should be charcoal.. basically 20% is buffer zone. You’re going to need to understand how much water is going into that plant so you’re never overwatering. No one has superpowers – when you’re playing around with vessels and planters that don’t have drainage holes, you have to know for a fact how much water is going into that pot. If you want to be able to trust yourself and trust what you’re doing, you should measure it out.
Take a measuring cup and you pour water into that vessel on top of the stones and charcoal. Once it sits basically on top of that charcoal, that’s the amount of water you need. Let’s say you’ve poured one cup and it gets you there, so now you know that a cup of water is exactly what you need. Once it goes through the soil and through the roots, you’ll know that only a cup of water will go through the base of that pot and it’ll never go beyond that. So if you always water that plant with a measured out cup of water, you’ll never overwater that plant. Keep in mind that you might have to change it up based on the time of year and how much sun is hitting the plant.
If you’re having issues, one major sign that something is wrong is yellowing leaves, which means there’s too much water sitting at the base. Or dry brown spots on any leaves, which means you’re not watering it enough. If you’re ever concerned, take a chopstick or a skewer and stick it through the soil, like you would a cake. If you put it in and pull it out and there isn’t any dirt clinging onto it, you’re good to go, it’s time to water. But if you stick it in and there’s mud or dirt and soil holding onto that dowel, you should probably just chill out and let it dry out.
How To Use A Planter Without A Drainage Hole:
1. Measure your vessel with a ruler.
2. Fill 1/10th of the pot with stones and 1/10th of the pot with horticultural charcoal.
3. Using a measuring cup, pour water until it just covers the stones and charcoal.
4. Note how much water you poured, so you can pour that same amount every time.
5. Add soil and plant as normal!
What are some of your favorite plants of the moment?
My favorites of the moment would have to be Ficus Audrey and the Verigated Rubber Tree. Why? The Verigated Rubber Tree is one of those plants that, color-wise, is very cool. Pink, green, it’s got its own type of camouflage look to it which is very cool. Once you start seeing it, it’s hard to avoid it. It’s one of the hardier plants – you can place it in a high-traffic place and the leaves won’t just break off. It loves indirect light, it can also take direct light, and it’s one of those really cool plants that I think can work in most homes.
The Ficus Audrey is great because it already comes with a name, and I tell people to name their plants, so the Ficus Audrey is named Audrey. It is the cousin of the Fiddle Leaf Fig, which is my all-time favorite plant, and it’s just a beautiful plant. Foliage-wise, it’s really nice. The leaves are really small, not like the Fiddle Leaf Fig, it grows about 5-6 inches at the largest, and they’re like these little paddles. They remind me of a tree that you would definitely see outside, and when inside, it just transforms the place completely. It has a white trunk and branches, and once it matures it becomes brown like a normal tree, and it’s just beautiful. Having those sort of small details is what I kind of gravitate towards.