Like a vining philodendron, my path to becoming a “Plant Lady” was long and sometimes twisting.
My mother has a certifiable green thumb. Our home always had plants of one kind or another. I mostly ignored them, occasionally to her chagrin. Even today, she boasts one of the largest crotons I’ve seen in real life (she used it as a makeshift Christmas tree last year!), and she has managed to not only keep alive the key lime tree I gifted her some years ago, but she has produced fruit from it.
When I moved into Midtown Harrisburg in the early 2000s just after college, my mom showed up with three plants—a golden pothos, a heartleaf philodendron and an umbrella (or Schefflera) tree.
Though I didn’t know much about plants (I rejected most of my mother’s hobbies as a child only to go all-in as an older adult. See also: gardening, cooking), these were seemingly simple enough to keep alive.
All three made the move to my second apartment, about five years later, where the umbrella plant made its demise after my roommate’s cat used it as a litterbox.
Fast-forward another four or so years, we moved to our current home, and the pothos and philodendron came along, albeit as afterthoughts. The philodendron was placed on a high shelf and promptly forgotten about. RIP.
However, the golden pothos thrived, even when my manner of care was, “occasionally toss in the remnants of last night’s water glass as you pass by.”
That golden pothos is now more than 20 years old and has fostered many offspring, as they are notoriously easy to propagate—even for a novice.
Somewhere along the way, as the transition to embodying my mother continued, I accumulated a few more houseplants here and there. Mom was always good for a plant birthday gift—like a colorful croton, my beloved zebra plant (which I’m propagating for my sister’s birthday this year), and random succulents. This year, she replaced my Schefflera tree, which I’m thrilled to have back a decade-plus later.
I started buying them for myself, too. First, it was just picking up something interesting during our annual garden-get at Ashcombe. Then, I discovered Hilton Carter, a now three-time plant book author, and his fondness for the fiddle leaf fig. I wanted one, too. I now have three.
Today, I have somewhere around 50 plants, give or take, depending on who’s cooperating. I’ve saved plants from the brink, but I’ve also lost many to pests, root rot and just plain neglect.
Do not let plant death dissuade you from owning a houseplant or 10. Every plant parent has killed their fair share of plants.
Experts extoll the virtues of plant ownership. Join a plant-focused Facebook group, and you’ll read inspiring tales of lives transformed, perhaps not solely by simply owning and caring for a plant, but its role as a purposeful and rewarding hobby.
Last year around this time, my anxiety was sky-high so I took a day “off,” disconnected, and repotted my plants. It was both relaxing and productive. Much like working in my outdoor garden, houseplant-tending forces me to take a break and rewards me for the time with new growth and cuttings I can share with friends.
At its base, caring for houseplants, like any plant, can be simple. Consider light, water and food. It helps to know what kind of plant you have, so ask (too often the tag at the store simply says “foliage”—not helpful), or snap a photo and upload to Google or any of the many plant apps that now exist.
Plants need light and water most, but you have to figure out how much and how often. Overwatering tends to be more problematic than underwatering, and thirsty plants will give you notice. They can be dramatic that way. Only use pots with a drainage hole, or drill your own. Most plants want a decent amount of light, but direct light can also burn leaves. Sheer curtains are a friend.
Misting helps tropical houseplants feel more at home. Group them together to increase humidity and temperature. Have succulents? They prefer dry air, bright light, and let them get very dry between watering. When it’s time (leaves will often pucker slightly), give them a nice drink, then let them drain. Bottom watering (putting the pot into a tray of water and letting the roots suck up what they need) is also a convenient way to make sure these get all the water they need—and not too much. Just be sure not to leave them in the tray for longer than 30 minutes or so.
Houseplants are prone to pests, unfortunately. I personally find fungus gnats to be the devil. Neem oil, sticky traps and Katchy, a little indoor-safe infrared fan/zapper, can work together to eliminate them.
Be careful of potting soil—let it dry out for a few days before using (some people bake it in the oven, but I am not qualified to endorse that!).
Thanks to the upward trend in houseplants over the last few years, there are endless online resources, too. Shop any number of online plant shops, and you can join an email list or read blog posts about individual plant care, shop tools and more.
There also are countless online communities, like Facebook groups, dedicated to plant parenthood, or specific types of plants, like Monsteras (also known as the split-leaf philodendron). A friend of mine is in a “rare plant” group, where members often sell off cuttings of hard-to-find exotic plants for hundreds of dollars.
Where to Buy
I’ve purchased plants from Amazon, from Aldi, and a friend gifted me a “houseplant of the month” subscription, which ensures I am always flush with green plants. You can find houseplants nearly everywhere these days, including warehouse clubs, big box home improvement stores, grocery stores and hardware stores.
The best places to buy, however, are local, where the on-site plant experts can share their knowledge and recommendations. I do most of my plant shopping from Ashcombe Farm & Greenhouses in Mechanicsburg, Highland Gardens in Camp Hill, Floral Bouquet at the Broad Street Market in Harrisburg and Midtown Harrisburg pop-up shop, The Vintage Vine HBG.
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