Plant Talk with Danae Horst: Outdoor Planting

Plant Talk with Danae Horst: Outdoor Planting

“Is this an indoor or outdoor plant?” is a question I hear a lot. Inherently, all plants are outdoor plants- that’s where they live naturally of course- but plants don’t all have the same needs when it comes to their ideal environments and many people who are mostly accustomed to keeping indoor plants may feel more overwhelmed when approaching keeping potted plants outdoors.  

Green home with outdoor plants

What Makes A Plant Right for Outdoors?

The most important things to consider when deciding which plants to keep outdoors are the climate, light conditions, and care you can offer. Making a thorough assessment of your specific situation can mean the difference between a thriving plant and a struggling one, so start by thinking through the following factors: 


Plants have evolved with different tolerances for heat or cold, humidity, and other environmental factors. If you live somewhere it gets very hot on a regular basis, choose plants adapted for hot days like Yucca, Beaucarnea, succulents, cacti, etc. 

If you live somewhere it gets cold consistently (usually in the winter), you’ll either need to select cold-hardy plants (the specific plants that work best will depend on the ‘zone’ you live in/just how cold it gets in the winter), or plan to bring plants indoors for the winter. 

Humidity, which is water vapor in the air, is another very important factor for many plants. The majority of what we call ‘houseplants’ are plants that are native to naturally humid climates. If you take a plant that thrives in humidity like a fern or Anthurium and stick it outside in a dry climate, the plant will struggle without some kind of intervention, like a greenhouse with a misting or humidity system, so do some research into how much humidity a plant needs and be sure your outdoor conditions can offer that. Not sure how humid it gets where you are? Most weather data will include the humidity percentage or you can use a little digital meter that tells you how humid an area is. 

Other factors like wind, hail, extreme rain, long dry spells, etc should also be considered and it’s always good to have a plan for how to protect your plants in times of extreme weather events. You may want to figure out a space inside that everything can be moved into (even if just into a garage or shed temporarily), or develop a method to cover plants outside. 

monstera leaf

Light Conditions

Light is the single most important factor when it comes to keeping plants healthy. Like weather and temperature, the light situation you can offer plants depends partly on the climate you live in. Places like the southwest US, where it’s often sunny, make a great home for desert plants that are adapted to direct/full sun most of the day, but not so much for tropical plants that typically grow in the understory (at the bottom of the forest floor), shaded by the larger trees above. Likewise, a sun-loving cactus will likely be pretty sad under the mostly overcast skies of the Pacific Northwest. 

Beyond regional differences, the physical location of your porch, patio, etc will also play a big role in how much light your plants receive. Get to know how your home is situated as it relates to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), and understand how that affects the amount of natural light available. In the northern hemisphere, here’s what you can usually expect, based on the direction your outdoor space faces:

North: Very little direct sun other than maybe a tiny bit at the corners/edges in the morning or late afternoon
South: Lots of direct sun, most of the day
East: mild to moderate direct sun in the morning to early afternoon
West: very strong direct sun in the afternoon to evening

Your space may have a combo-exposure, in which case you’ll have a mix of the two types of light. If you’re not sure, or want an exact idea of how much sun a space receives, try monitoring it throughout one day and making notes of how the light changes throughout the day.

If you’re more accustomed to indoor gardening than to outdoor gardening you will need to learn to translate light terms used in care information in order to be sure you’re placing plants in the best spots for their needs. Here’s a brief cheat sheet: 

Full sun = Direct sun 
Direct sun outdoors will usually be much more intense than direct sun indoors, so plants that will receive direct sun for more than a few hours in the morning must be plants that can tolerate that intense light. Look for hearty desert species, shrubs, many flowering plants, and most types of herbs. Many native species are also ‘full sun’ plants, depending on where you live. 

Full shade = Bright Indirect/Bright Filtered
If you took a light meter reading of a fully shaded area outside, you may be surprised to find that the light level is similar to an area indoors that gets bright filtered light! Almost any plant that can be kept as a houseplant in bright indirect light will do best in full shade outdoors. Anything from Alocasia, to Philodendron, ferns, orchids, and more will be a good choice for a full shade space. 

Partial shade/Partial sun
This term is mainly used for outdoor gardening and you don’t see it on indoor care info often. It’s kind of in-between the two previous light levels- direct sun for part of the day, then shade for the rest of the day. This type of light is best for plants that can take some direct sun, but that can’t handle it all day long (or will just look better not getting blasted with the sun all day). Try succulents, Epiphyllum, waxy-leaved Begonias, Sansevieria, or Euphorbia. 

Cutting leaves


If you’re accustomed to caring for indoor plants, caring for outdoor plants may throw you a bit because there are some factors when growing outdoors that are distinctly different from growing even the same plant indoors:

Hot temperatures, dry air, and wind can all lead to soil drying out much faster outside than it does inside. Be sure to check your outdoor plants often in the hottest months (daily even during especially hot weeks), and as always- water each container deeply- ensuring the soil is evenly saturated all the way down. 

You might find outdoor plants have more insect pals than your indoor plants. Most of these are harmless to plants, and many can even be beneficial (preying on the more harmful plant pests), but you may still encounter the same harmful plant pests you do indoors, like aphids, mealybugs, thrips, and scale. The good news is that when plants are outdoors, many pest problems clear up on their own as beneficial insects do their work, or pests simply move on to other plants. If you do have a pest issue that doesn’t clear up easily on its own, you can use some of the same products you’d use indoors to treat the plant, but be sure to avoid any pesticide that can harm pollinators, animals, and other creatures. Systemic- a commonly used indoor pesticide, should never be used on outdoor plants as it’s very toxic to pollinators. Other pest treatments like Insecticidal Soap and Neem Oil are generally safe for outdoor plants, even for organic gardening (check the label). 

Pruning & Cleaning
You’ll be surprised to see how much faster plants grow when they’re outdoors. For plants that branch or vine, this may mean you’ll need to prune them back more often, especially if they’re placed near walkways or areas people use often. 
You should also be prepared for outdoor plants to not always look as pristine as indoor plants. Wind, insects, wildlife, and other natural factors can damage leaves; leaf litter from other plants can accumulate on leaves; and spiderwebs, dust and dirt can build up quickly. If the look of damaged leaves bothers you, simply prune them off. Dirty leaves are easily cleaned with a good spray down from the garden hose or you can wipe them off with a damp, soft cloth.  

Because plants often grow faster outside, you’ll want to make sure you’re keeping up your fertilizing routine. Ensure you’re using a fertilizer that won’t harm other plants, wildlife, or insects since it’s much easier for fertilizer to end up in the surrounding environment when using it on outdoor plants. I prefer an organic-material based fertilizer that will also help create healthy, living soil. If you’re new to fertilizing, the classic gardeners adage is “feed weakly, weekly”- a reminder that using a diluted fertilizer is the easiest way to avoid any damage to plants that too much/too strong fertilizer can cause. 
Once you’ve considered all of these factors, check the climate, light, and care needs of the plants you’re interested in and make your choices based on which plants are the best fit for what you and your outdoor space can offer. 

Planting a palm tree into a white pot

Choosing Pots For Outdoors

Now that you’ve figured out which plants you want to keep outdoors, you may be wondering- is there a difference between indoor and outdoor pots? The answer is kind of. 
Much like with selecting the right plants for your particular climate and conditions, some pots are better for certain situations than others, so there are a handful of things to keep in mind.  

If you’ve read my post on Understanding Plant Pot Options, you know how I feel about drainage- it’s essential to healthy roots, especially in situations where you can’t control how much water may be applied at once- like when it rains. Unless your outdoor plants are under total cover and won’t receive any rainfall, or you’re up for covering them up every time it rains, I find pots with drainage holes are best for all outdoor plants. You can even add holes to pots that don’t already have them and as long as the pot isn’t sitting on a surface that will be damaged by water, skip a saucer. 

Pots can come in a variety of materials, and most of them are fine for average outdoor settings, but when temperatures get more extreme- in either direction- some materials can prove problematic. 
For those where hot temps are common, when using plastic pots look for quality plastic or resin pots that can tolerate those higher temperatures without deforming.  
If cold temperatures and frost are common in your area, you’ll want to look for pots that are labeled as ‘frost proof’ since some materials can’t handle the stress of frost, or the cycle of freezing and then thawing out that can be common in winter. 

Cactus in terracotta planters

Weight & Mobility
If you’ll need to move your plants indoors over the winter or in instances of inclement weather, factoring in the weight and ease of moving the pot now will save your back later! Look for lighter materials like fiberstone, fiberglass, or plastic if weight is a concern, or place heavy planters on wheeled platforms made specially for easily moving plants. If you prefer to leave the heavy pots outdoors in seasons when the plants need to come inside, you can also opt to place the grower/nursery pot inside a decorative pot and then you only need to move the plant and that lightweight pot inside when needed. Some low cost plastic saucers placed under nursery pots will protect floors and other surfaces while plants are indoors. 

Though the choice of which plants to keep outside isn’t always straightforward, much as with indoor plants, the better you understand your space and the conditions you can offer your plants, the easier it is to pick the plants that will thrive!


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