Life With Plants

A relationship with a houseplant is a symbiotic one: you give it a sunny spot in your home and water it, and it takes the carbon dioxide from your every breath to give you oxygen and a little corner of chlorophyll-induced green. However, taking care of a plant is hardly simple, and requires that you take the time to learn about its quirks as much as it requires you to acknowledge your own. I’ve taken in a fair number of leafy friends into my living quarters over the years, and they’ve taught me more than a few lessons.

One of the most common houseplants is the Peace Lily, and it is easy to see why. For those of us living in Vitamin D-deficient situations, Peace Lilies are tolerant of less-than-stellar levels of light. They require neither specialized soil, particular humidity conditions, nor specific watering schedules. Furthermore, they grow quickly, sending out pleasingly deep-green leaves and stems capped by white petals that look like delicate hoods. One day, after finding a shelf of them at my local grocery store, I carried a new companion back to my dorm room, a bag of groceries in one hand and a little bundle of green balanced in the other. Like many newly-purchased plants, this one was root-bound, meaning that the roots were crowded and pinched in a plastic pot that it had filled with the rapidity that a toddler’s toes quickly outgrow a pair of little shoes. After a two- or three-month long adjustment period, during which I spent all too much time staring at the plant and during which it stoically acclimated to the new light patterns of my room, I obtained my first clay pot and a bag of soil that was several times too big for the job of re-potting, determined to free it from the confines of its old home. It was clear that the cluster of leaves I had purchased was, in fact, two very close but still separate plants, so the plan was to split them in half and give each half its own pot—voila, more room. Added bonus: more plants.

I remember taking my materials out to a short wall along the campus lawn one afternoon weekend. Unfortunately, my timing was less than ideal. Not because of the weather, which was sunny and warm, but because at precisely that moment, the campus’ professional landscaping crew was working on the shrubs on the other side of the lawn. The concept of doing anything to a plant with them in sight was almost enough to make me scuttle back indoors, but not quite. Trying to hide my activities behind a paper grocery bag, I flipped the pot over and wiggled the root ball from the pot. I then proceeded, with much awkward struggling, to hack at the root ball to yield two tortured plant halves. I think I caught one of the landscapers snickering at my amateur attempts. But in the end, one plant became two, and that was the story of the first time I re-potted a plant.

I think that if I had stopped there, that plant pair might still be with me. However, I proceeded to shower water and fertilizer and so much attention onto the poor creatures that they began to wilt with exasperation, their little hoods moping and the leaves hanging listlessly. Then pesky little gnats began to take residence, attracted to the moisture-rich soil that resulted from my overly-enthusiastic watering. Finally, the roots began to rot, and no matter how much water I provided, the plants were unable to drink any more. After nearly all of the leaves turned a mottled yellow and fell off, leaving behind a couple of stumps of brown bits, I finally bid farewell to my sickly friends and dumped them unceremoniously into the kitchen trash.

Since then, I have been careful to give my plants some personal space. I have also picked up a few tips for making sure that my plants don’t drown: 1) plants like wet feet, not wet ankles, 2) drainage holes in pots might mean you have to buy saucers, but they do wonders for getting rid of extra water, and 3) stick your finger up to your second knuckle in the soil, even if you hate getting soil under your nails, because if your finger tip comes out damp, it’s too soon to water. No matter if you last watered your baby two weeks ago. If your friend says he or she (or it) doesn’t want to drink, don’t force it.


Despite what that unfortunate story might make you think, the Peace Lilies were not actually my first plants. My first plant was a little arrangement of bamboo, the kind you can buy at a Chinese grocery store. The simplest ones are composed of just a few little stems and leaves tied in a neat bundle in a little pot, but they can also be large and elaborate and somehow trained to grow in spirals so that you can hang ornamental trinkets from them. Mine was of the former variety, a little gift from my mom to brighten up my undergrad apartment. The bamboo came in a pot that held pebbles, water, and not much else—in other words, no soil. Therefore, to get vital nutrients, the bamboo required feeding in the form of liquid fertilizer. I think it took me about half a year before I even realized that liquid fertilizer existed, and I never did feed it. In the end, it grew just a tad, and the new leaves it put forth remained somewhat pale and translucent, until I graduated and the plant returned to my mom. When I visited my parents six months later, my neglected roommate was barely recognizable. It had bulked up with three times as many leaves and experienced what could have been called a growth spurt, if it were a temporary phenomenon rather than a permanent state. I suppose that while plants don’t like fuss and aren’t needy when it comes to survival, a little attention to detail can do a lot to make it feel like part of the family.

When I moved to Boston and found what I thought of as my first ‘grown-up’ apartment, I suddenly wanted to own an indoor tree. The apartment was perfect for it: twenty-odd windows in a second floor unit, ten-foot ceilings, and enough windowsill realty and floor space to coexist with my roommates’ and my furniture without taking up too much room. Without a car and lacking the confidence to navigate the streams of aggressive Bostonian drivers in a rented Zipcar, however, a trip to the closest nursery wasn’t going to be easy. To console myself, I bought a plant from the Trader Joe’s down the block and set myself to making friends with it. It had a woody stem (did that count as a trunk?) and large, variegated leaves fringed with yellow and red. I didn’t keep the plant tag with its actual name for long, and in my mind, it became the Rainbow Plant.

This name, it turns out, would cost me my dignity as a proud plant mother. About a year or two later, when one of my roommates and I had started creating something of an indoor jungle, we had a few friends over at our apartment. We spent awhile showing off our specimens, and ended with my Rainbow Plant, which, at that point, had slowly but steadily grown out of two pots and was tall enough that it had to sit on the floor rather than a side-table or windowsill. It was, in some ways, shaping into a tree. A friend asked me what the name of the plant was. I frowned, then said without thinking, “I think it’s called a Rainbow Plant.” My roommate burst into laughter, then got it under control and said with a half-straight face, “That’s just what we call it. I think it’s a Croton.” Our guests all enjoyed a round of laughter at my expense, but the Rainbow Plant didn’t seem to care. And it’s still with me, at least.


My first foray into raising an actual tree began with an experiment with avocado pits. My roommates had heard that you could start your own avocado tree farm with a few pits, some toothpicks, and a few containers half-filled with water. After consuming the creamy green flesh of our supermarket avocados, we jammed a few toothpicks along the equator of each seed, balanced them in small yogurt containers, and poured in enough water so that they were halfway submerged. Then we waited. Meanwhile, we named them Brad Pitt, Pitbull, and Armpit.

It took more than a month for the first pit to put forth a tap root. A month or so later, it begin to send up a shoot, and shiny, dark green leaves emerged. By then, it was late spring, and it seemed like an excellent time to move it into a pot of soil and let it feel the sun and the breeze outside on our balcony.

That turned out to be the wrong move. For one, avocado plants can keep growing in their water baths for months and months, because all of the nutrients they need are in that huge seed, so moving it to soil was somewhat pointless. More detrimentally, squirrels are prevalent neighbors, capable of climbing wooden balconies, and fanatical consumers of nuts and seeds. The plants lasted all of two days out there in the wild before I woke up one morning to a sorry pair of plants, dug completely out of their homes, and the pits almost completely gnawed away.

I would say that plants are friends, not food, but as an avid vegetable and nut consumer, I have to say that I see the squirrels’ point.


The story of my lemon trees is a much happier one. I was on the phone with my mom when she mentioned that she had saved a few lemon seeds and was trying to get them to sprout. They would be purely ornamental houseplants, grown for the beauty of their leaves than for any penultimate fruit-producing capabilities. The next time I bought a lemon, I decided to try the same. The first time, I placed two or three seeds on a bed of damp paper towels, carefully watching for sprouts. Unfortunately, the sprouts that greeted me were not baby lemon trees but mold spores, so I tossed them out. The next time, I took all twelve or so seeds from the lemon, quickly washed them off, and buried them in a pot full of soil, hoping that I hadn’t started a lemon seed graveyard. I was absolutely delighted when six brave sprigs popped up a couple of weeks later.

Today, I only have three lemon plants. However, it isn’t because the other three have succumbed to illness or death. They may be stunted by their indoor growth conditions, scraggly due to inadequate sunlight, and a little unwieldy because they aren’t well acquainted with the breeze, but I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who wants to have a little tree to themselves. The sibling plants have spread out across the neighborhood, brightening the windowsills in friends’ homes and offices. Perhaps one day, one of them will be planted into the ground and produce fruit and seeds. Who knows where they will travel then?

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