The Magic of Houseplants
When I first started tending houseplants, I was tasked with keeping hundreds of them healthy and thriving for a retail store. Needless to say, I was totally freaked out.
I had gardened before but I felt house plants required a different level of attention. Prior to that I hadn't even been able to keep my poor aloe plant alive. I felt I just didn't know what they needed. All my best guesses seemed to make the situation worse. Do I repot you? More fertilizer? More water?
It took me a bit of time, and I'll admit, I killed my fair share of plants before things began to look up. The subtle shift that began to happen was when I started listening to and being in relationship with the plants.
I started talking to them, giving them encouragement, and asking questions. I began noticing things- new growth that wasn't there before, slight changes in coloration, leaves and stalks bending toward the light.
I started to notice how they responded to my care and began doing experiments to see which plants liked what. I went from feeling in the dark, to being an empowered caretaker for these plants. What I got in return was a feeling of connection and stewardship that I yearned for.
At the time I had just made the transition from living in the woods to moving back to a big city. I was constantly overwhelmed with the frazzled energy of city living and I yearned for the peace of nature. The house plants I was caring for helped me tune in and find connection during a time when I was feeling so helplessly disconnected.
And that's the magic of house plants. Even us city-dwelling folk who don't have homesteads in the woods can tune into the magic of plants. We can listen and nurture and feel connected to these living beings.
T E N D I N G
Below are a few ideas and thoughts I've cultivated over the years of caring for houseplants. My hope is that this inspires anyone who is looking for connection + stewardship with the green world in the form of tending houseplants.
L O C A T I O N
When deciding on adding more plants to your home, choose the plant based on the location in your home you have in mind, not the other way around.
Dark corner of your bathroom? That sun-loving succulent probably isn't going to be very happy, just as a moisture-loving jungle plant isn't going to be thrilled with direct sun exposure for several hours a day. Choose the place in your home and work backwards from there. Do a quick google search based on the light exposure and humidity. Notice if there are drafts or vents pointing toward the area.
O B S E R V A T I O N
Observation is a powerful tool. Observe your plant when you bring it home for the first couple weeks. Are the leaves perked up or drooping? Is the color changing? Is there new growth? If there is a problem, these subtle signs tend to grow louder the longer we wait. If a plant is not looking so happy, it could be a few things. First, some plants go through an adjustment period when they move and you just have to ride it out. Second, it could be too much or too little light for them. Third it could be a watering issue. After you observe, do a little research to see if you can figure out what may be causing the issue.
Prior to being a patient observer, I felt like any houseplant I had would go from zero to one hundred. I would bring it home, check on it occasionally without really noticing the small things, then come to find it one day looking haggard. Then I would start the slow spiral downward of overwhelm, frenzy, denial, guilt, etc. When really all the plant needed was probably to be given better soil drainage or moved to a place with more light. The point being that observing the small things first can tell us a lot about what may be going on so we can take action early.
W A T E R
This one may seem obvious, but there is an art to watering plants. Different plants like different amounts of water. Know if your plant wants the soil to be consistently moist at all times, or if you need to let the soil dry out between watering. Not sure whether it's time to water? Get your hands dirty. Feel down into the soil and see if it's wet or dry.
My favorite way to water my plants is to bring them all into the bath for a plant party. The shower mimics rain and also lets the plants drain properly. I'll often do several rounds of watering and draining so the roots can get a good amount of water without getting too soggy.
If your plant is yellowing and dropping leaves despite regular watering, you may be giving it too much love. Don't be afraid to take your plant out of the pot to check out what is going on down there. More often than not, I've pulled plants out of their pots to find that water was gathering at the bottom of the pot and the roots were starting to rot. This brings me to my next point-
D R A I N A G E
Drainage is so important, most plants need it in some form or another. There are a few ways to ensure the plant is getting proper drainage. I will often keep them in the nursery pot and put it in another pot to ensure good drainage. If I choose to repot, then the ceramic or clay pot must have a hole. If it doesn't my next option is to put a thick layer of sand or gravel at the bottom. This way, the remaining water will flow through the soil and collect at the bottom without the roots sitting in it. If you choose to do this, you just have to be mindful not to overwater too much. The water that flows through will slowly get reabsorbed back into the soil.
Most of the time when plants that are dying despite regular watering, the issue can be traced back to poor drainage.
H U M I D I T Y
If you are watering regularly, checking the soil, observing new growth, but noticing the mature leaves are turning brown at the tips, that is most likely a humidity issue. This is especially the case with ferns, but I've noticed it across the board. Most houseplants are adapted to thrive in a rainforest, think warm and wet.
Try place your plants above a tray of water and pebbles. The constant evaporation of the water will create a humid environment for the plant to thrive.
Regular misting is also helpful, but the key is really creating a constant humid environment. A terrarium is especially useful for ferns because it traps and holds moisture. Humidity is really the #1 thing in my opinion that makes the difference between survival and thriving.
S E A S O N A L C A R E
Even though most of us live in houses that are insulated from huge temperature shifts, house plants still feel the effects of the seasonal change.
Late Spring and Summer are the main growing seasons. You can expect to see some new growth, even some blooms. Plan on upping your watering game and incorporating a liquid houseplant fertilizer depending on the plant.
Late Fall and Winter are when plants start to go dormant. Plan on slowing watering way down and moving any plants inside that will not survive the lower temperatures.
Accept the fact that your beautiful bromeliad might lose its bloom, your pothos may stop vining out, and your money tree might stop shooting out new growth. It's an impossible expectation to keep growing and blooming all year along, and it's normal for growth to slow down as the colder months settle in.
H E A L I N G I S P O S S I B L E
Have you ever brought a plant home with high hopes, only to then watch the plant's slow decline? And while you go through several stages of panic, denial, guilt, more denial, hopelessness, and every emotion in between, avoiding your plant with downcast eyes when you walk into the room, your poor plant continues withering in a helpless state of decline?
I may have had that happen.
Sometimes it's hard for us to believe that a situation will ever get better because of where we are right now. This is the biggest lesson I've learned from my plant friends: no matter how ratty, bedraggled, and sad things may seem, don't lose hope! What truly amazes me is how often a simple act of care can turn these situations around.
One of the first times this happened was when I was taking care of a huge Aglaonema that was getting worse for the wear. It's drooping and yellowing leaves were getting sadder by the day. Determined to turn things around, I did some investigating. I noticed the soil seemed very wet, so I cut back on watering, moved it to a spot with a little more light, and trimmed back some of the dead growth. Within weeks it had perked back up and started blooming beautiful white flowers!
So even if that fiddle fig is down to it's last leaf, or the money tree is plagued with spider mites, that plant is still alive and has the potential for healing.