How to shop for a plant that’s hard to kill

You love the idea of plants on the porch or perking up the windowsill.

But past experiences featured a thumb more black than green.

So how should you shop for plants that might be — how do we put this — hard to kill?

Robin Vice, who works in the nursery department at Lowe’s, is used to first-time plant owners coming in with fear.

She’s found that telling customers stories about their new green neighbors helps.

“This is a living thing, like your child or like your pet,” she said. “You have to kind of create a story of itself — it’s going to need this, and it’s going to need that. It can’t be completely forsaken once you put it in the ground.”

Just as you would with a pet, think through what it will need — light, water, space, attention.

“The microclimates of where these plants are going to be is probably the most important thing to discuss,” said John Diversey, a manager at Chicago’s Gethsemane Garden Center.

Here’s what experts tell “terrified” (in the words of Vice) new plant owners.

Start with the light; read the label. “The very first thing that they need to think about is what kind of sun they have,” Vice said. “Do they have sun all day? Is it completely in shade? (And) which way their house faces.”

Wherever you want to put a plant, take a Saturday and watch the light for a few hours, monitoring how much you have and where.

“Pay attention for a couple of days before you decide to shop, and then you’ll be able to know more accurately what will work and what you might as well not bother looking at,” she said.

Also, look at that label. Most plant labels will have zone information; the federal Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map is based on things like light, temperature and duration of exposure to cold.

“That little label can show you if the plant will last three weeks or if it will last 15 years,” Diversey said.

For example, Monrovia company plants have labels with a name, photograph and things like drought tolerance.

Cacti are popular for a reason. Yes, desert dwellers can be a good option.

“They don’t need a lot,” Vice said. “And they’re beginning to become very popular.”

But don’t think that their desert nature means you can just ignore them.

“Remember what it’s like where this little guy came from,” Vice said. “It is hot for days on end, incredibly hot and no rain, and then there’s a downpour, and then it’s incredibly hot again.”

Hop on the herb trend. Now that summer’s approaching, consider herbs to add into meals made from farmers market veggies.

“Rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon,” he suggested. “All those dry, woody herbs that give us that wonderful cooking.”

The dry herbs are the easiest, he suggested, because “they don’t require as much water, pruning and light.”

Also think chives, parsley and cilantro. “Herbs are pretty forgiving,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh my gosh, how could I grow these herbs?’ They have this great reputation of being so hard.”

But in fact, they might do well in a windowsill container, where they can get indirect light.

Collect plants with confidence. Don’t be like most first-time plant owners who underestimate their abilities. Consider getting more than one.

Vice suggests going with annuals. Maybe petunias, calibrachoa or marigolds. And if you’re considering a planter — think 2 feet by about 6 inches — mix it up.

“Look for plants that will do three things — something that will be tall in the pot, something that will be medium-sized and then something that will drape.”

For example, consider petunias and marigolds, then sweet potato vines or creeping jenny to drape down.

“They’re more resilient with the sun; they don’t mind it beating on them all day,” Vice said.

Don’t try to take too good of care of them. Again, think through the plants’ story. Don’t ignore them, but don’t drown them.

“I have some people who literally don’t know that you have to water plants,” Vice said. “Sometimes people have gotten so out of touch with nature that they just don’t realize you’re dealing with a product that wants a little bit of care.”

Adjust how much water with the weather. “Think about yourself when you’re out and it’s really, really hot and you’re sweating,” she said. “That’s what plants do. So the more heat they’re getting, the more water they need.”

And, she cautions, “once you have drowned a plant, you can’t come back.”

Finally, don’t be nervous about asking someone in a store for help. People like Diversey are there with the experience — and the enthusiasm — to help.

“Don’t be intimidated,” Diversey said. “Ask people. That’s why they’re there.”

Adds Vice, “I have people who come in absolutely terrified, and they write down every little detail. I tell them, ‘You need to enjoy this and relax.’ ”