My relationship with plants has been a mercurial one. Once a bright-eyed young flora fanatic, I degenerated into a shameless plant-killer. It’s taken a pandemic to reform me. I’m not proud of my botanical body count, but I’m on a mission to make things right, one potted plant at a time.
Learning With Mom
As a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I’d tag along when my mother made her rounds at local nurseries during the spring and summer months. I paid keen attention to the names and predilections of each flower and shrub she’d point out to me. Then, once our new purchases were in the ground, it was my job to water and weed the peonies, azalea bushes, zinnias, hostas and all the rest. I took that responsibility seriously, trooping dutifully through swarms of mosquitoes and sweating through blistering heat.
Losing Interest as a Teen
Trying Again in College
Fast-forward several years later and I’m a college junior. I received a Christmas cactus from my then-boyfriend (now husband) who assured me it was impossible to kill. I placed that oddly beautiful gift in the bathroom window of my attic apartment, figuring that a well-lit window was all I needed. Sadly, I could barely take care of myself at that stage of my life, let alone tend to any other living thing. The fuschia-colored flowers dropped off, one by one, and I figured it was much easier to toss it than to try to revitalize it.
Caring for Plants + a Newborn = Disaster (for the Plants)
Another plant didn’t come my way until I became a mother. With a newborn fresh on the scene, I found myself housebound way more often than I was used to. This was around the time that succulents became the trendy décor of choice. I ambitiously placed a couple small echeveria on my kitchen window sill. From what I’d heard, they were sturdy and durable. Apparently, my stubborn subconscious took that as a challenge.
Let’s just say that I turned out to be infinitely better at nurturing a child than a plant. Between sterilizing bottles, changing diapers and keeping track of those ever-elusive matching baby socks, I had no energy left to worry about a green thumb.
So, You Have to Water Them?
Whenever my little family trio would move from one rented house to another, I’d try and try again. From cacti to air plants to a latticed passion vine I felt certain I could master. Always, the results were the same. I just couldn’t seem to nail that whole “regular watering schedule and proper light exposure” thing. When we finally bought our Los Angeles home, a friend gave me a crocheted succulent as a gag housewarming gift. Yup, my perennial plant failures had become my brand.
Starting Again — and Thriving
Consider 2020 the year of my official re-branding. At present (and I just walked from room to room to verify), I am keeping 28 different houseplants alive. I’m talking: Philodendrons, Pilea and a handful of different Sansevieria. A Pinstripe Calathea on my office desk. A five-foot Fiddle Leaf Fig—the ultimate hipster status plant—in my bedroom. And, of course, a thriving Christmas cactus in the laundry room. If there’s an available patch of natural light in my house, best believe there’s something green sitting in it. Some people grew sourdough starters while quarantining; I opted to grow plants.
My first success story was a Maranta —aka, “prayer plant”— that I got from my barber/friend Kenny, who has a knack for grooming both people and plants. Now that we’re friends outside of the barbershop, I regularly scroll his plant-filled Instagram stories, taking inspiration and leaving ‘heart-eyes” emoji comments. He practically lives in a greenhouse. During a recent socially-distant visit, he gave me clippings of that other of-the-moment plant, Monstera, as well as all the care instructions I would need.
My other potted roommates have come from Trader Joe’s, IKEA, sidewalk plant sales and Folia Collective, a neighborhood plant mecca with a handy online how-to guide.
My collection has grown so large that my husband has had to install shelving in a couple of rooms just to accommodate them all. Added bonus for keeping them alive so long: I get to pick out pretty new planters whenever my green dudes outgrow their previous ones. That’s a win-win, for a shopaholic like me.
No longer aloof or negligent, I now squeal with delight when a plant reveals a surprising new flower that I didn’t even know it could bloom. I’ve devised watering schedules for them all and I faithfully prune and dust their leaves as needed. I consult random YouTube videos for tips for dealing with brown spots and weird little insect interlopers. I also play music for my plants. (Don’t ask me about the science behind it, but they seem to respond best to a mixture of Dorothy Ashby, Prince and MF Doom.) Last week, I even went so far as to order my mother-in-law some birthday plants from The Sill, hoping my fervor would be contagious.
Turns out, all I really needed to make the transformation from “herbicidal maniac” to “green goddess” was a few months of mandated confinement and abject boredom. This experience has been quite the soothing balm in this grisly year.
You may have noticed that my personal growth has revolved around house plants only. Reviving the outdoor gardening I loved so much as a child will have to wait until temperatures start to dip below 100. Until then, I’ll proceed on my (air-conditioned) path to botanical righteousness.