Expert Tips to Keep the Gorgeous But Notoriously Difficult Calathea Alive

A Calathea (peacock plant) before and after: Left December 2021, and Right March 2021

@Shelleys.indoor.jungle

If you’re a plant lover and you come to London there are several places you’ll want to visit: Kew Gardens and the Barbican, and Columbia Road Flower Market, which is where my Calathea story begins. 

It was a sunny day so a visit to the flower market would be nice activity. (This was a few years ago, before my plant journey began). Towards the end of the day vendors heavily discount plants and flowers as they would prefer not to put them back on their trucks. Which is how I ended up with a Calathea as one of my first plants ever. I was drawn in by the 5 pound price tag (and it was a pretty big plant).

It was dead within two weeks. 

This was how I learned the hard way that Calatheas are high-maintenance plants that are not for novices. They are basically divas and if you don’t give them what they want, they will die. Quickly.

Needless to say those two weeks were the beginning and end of my experience caring for a Calathea—I’m permanently scarred (I've since grown my indoor calathea-free jungle to more than 70 plants).

But, there are better plant parents out there than me who have tried and failed and tried and succeeded with their Calathea. I spoke with Shelley Caruana (@Shelleys.indoor.jungle), who shared four tips for caring for Calathea so yours doesn't end up in the trash like mine.

1. Humidity Is Key

Shelley has a humidifier running near her Calathea constantly. Ideally you want at least 50% humidity but 60% is ideal. If you don’t want to buy a humidifier you can try grouping plants together, putting your Calathea in a greenhouse (you can buy a dome to cover it to trap humidity if you don’t have room for a greenhouse), or placing a tray of pebbles covered in water underneath it. 

Calathea with crispy edges

@Shelleys.indoor.jungle

Managing Humidity

It’s always going to be hard to maintain the perfect level of humidity for tropical plants in your home (especially in the winter when heating is on), so you may have to live with some crispy leaves. If your plant gets too crispy remember that you can always cut it back—it will help promote new growth and make the plant healthier in the long term. 

2. A Watering Schedule Is Way More Important Than You Think

Shelley shared an eye-opening tip: Calathea “have really sensitive roots. They will EASILY rot, if overwatered," she said.

"But! Whilst you should let them dry out between waterings you, leave them an extra day and they immediately start crisping up. I think this is the trickiest part of calatheas and I've learnt to live with having some crispy leaves, better than them rotting and dying completely."

The Instagram photo of a Calathea vs the real-life look at the same Calathea with lots of crispy leaves

@Shelleys.indoor.jungle

Finding the balance between wet and moist soil is really tough so as always stick your finger into the soil up to your first knuckle to see if it needs water (if a lot of soil comes off on your finger, that soil is wet; if your finger is dry, grab your watering can).

3. When You Repot, Don’t Loosen the Root Ball Too Much

A dying a calathea. Left: January 2021 and Right: March 2021
This calathea went from thriving in January 2021 to dying in March 2021

@Shelleys.indoor.jungle.

Speaking from her own experience, Shelley said, “They also don't love their roots to be messed with when repotting. Whenever I remove all the soil, they decline before bouncing back.” Instead of taking all of the soil off the root ball when repotting, simply loosen it a bit before moving it to a bigger pot filled with some new nutrient dense soil.

4. They Want Light but Not Direct Light

A Calathea in September 2020 (left) and in February 2021 (right)

@Shelleys.indoor.jungle

Calathea are often considered a low-light plant but from my own experience (aka sticking it in a hallway that only got three hours of light a day) I wouldn’t stick to this religiously. While they definitely don’t want direct light (it can not only burn their leaves but bleach them too), they do need light to thrive. “If you give adequate light (never direct hit sun, they burn), figure out a consistent and correct watering routine, and provide adequate humidity—you won't have a perfect calathea but you will have a lot of new growth!” said Shelley.