Hey all, just a quick note to let you know my latest article on when to toss a houseplant is now available to read. In January, I achieved a small dream I had of getting an assignment from The Washington Post on this topic. It’s one I’ve often struggled with as a longtime plant lover. Maybe you do too.
For those of you who don’t have access to the Post, in the article I suggest you ask yourself a series of questions. They include assessing the health of your plant and your own plant care knowledge. Also, you need to be honest about the level of maintenance required, the plant’s history, and how happy it makes you.
I won’t go into all the details here since they’re in the article. But if you’re wrestling internally with when to toss a houseplant, I suggest you deeply think about how committed you are to it. As I say in the article, I’ve revived plants from near-death and have also had to say goodbye to beloved specimens that broke my heart to put on the compost heap.
In the end, you really need to imagine how you’d feel not having it in your home. If you wouldn’t mind too much, it may be time to say goodbye. Otherwise, try nursing it back to health. You never know what might happen. In any case, I wish you houseplant luck.
If you’re struggling through a stressful workweek, you may feel like you have no time to lower your stress. You’re juggling multiple tasks while your attention springs from one event to another. This is typical as we try to get through the avalanche of work that piles up. By Friday, we’re burnt out and ready for a change. But deciding what that change is can be tricky. Yes, you can plop in front of a screen with a show or video game, but that may only increase our stress. Yes, there’s shopping at the mall but shopping costs money. This is why I always fall back on an old reliable standby to destress from work: playing with my houseplants.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When I say “playing” with my houseplants, what I mean is fiddling with them. I arrange their pots on shelves and stands for a new look. I clean up their dead leaves and water their soil. Lastly, I transplant whatever looks pot bound. The plants reward me with not only a fresh look for my room, but a simple, relaxing endeavor.
The relaxation part is a subconscious event. It’s not anything I consciously think about as I’m doing it. But I gradually feel a sense of “coming down” from the hectic pace of my workweek. I slow my behavior toward a task that doesn’t have a big end goal. There aren’t a million things to do with houseplant care. It’s actually really simple. And that’s the playing part. Play has low goals, isn’t complex, and happens at a comfortable pace.
Science Says Fifteen Minutes Is Enough
What’s interesting is my little visit with a houseplant here and there reaps big rewards. Researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki helps us see why. He conducted a small study with young men in their twenties who transplanted plants during a break from stressful, computer-oriented work. The subjects worked for 15 minutes with a Vining Pepper Plant (peperomia dahlstedtii) over the course of three days. Their sympathetic nervous systems and blood pressure were monitored. He also measured these systems while the subjects worked at a computer task.
You can guess the results. During the plant-related task, the sympathetic nervous system activity was about four points lower than the computer-related task. Blood pressure lowered by six points. By contrast, sympathetic nervous system activity and blood pressure were both higher during computer-related engagement. Subjects reported feeling much more comfortable, soothed, and natural when working with the plants. They felt much less comfortable, soothed, and natural when working on the computer. It’s not too surprising. But this study scientifically proves the value of playing with houseplants, even for a brief time and with little experience.
Which Plant to Play With?
This weekend, see if you can make time to fiddle with a houseplant. Saturday morning always work for me. And the ritual doesn’t have to be long. It seems 15 minutes will do. And if you don’t have a houseplant, this study offers a good reason to buy one. You can spend as little as fifteen dollars, if you’re willing to start with a small plant in a four-inch pot. A pothos or snake plant are good choices. Set near a north or east-facing window and water every seven to ten days. On the weekends, take your time checking on it. Trim its brown leaves off, dust it with a damp cloth, turn it so another side faces the light. You may enjoy this soothing little activity so much that you’ll want to grow another and another and another until you create your own special plant playground.
Social media is jammed with dreamy images of perfect people with perfect houseplant collections, but the truth is just one houseplant can heal you from the stresses of the day. There are a lot of myths in those images anyway, some of which I’ll write about in a future post. In the meantime, consider choosing and growing one wee houseplant to reap its destressing benefits.
Which Houseplant is Best?
Not too long ago, I wrote a post on the five easiest houseplants to grow. These are the low-maintenance, starter houseplants that nearly anyone can keep alive. They’re tough and forgiving of most conditions. While these plants are enormously useful and I love all of them, I actually recommend, if you’re going to grow a plant for the mental health benefits, you choose a houseplant that makes your heart soar. That way you’ll be more inclined to take the time to care for it.
My First Houseplant
When I was in my early twenties, I roomed in a house with three other women. Above the sink on the window ledge was a glass block with a hoya vine in it. It was a beautiful variegated variety, though at the time I had no idea it was Hoya carnosa ‘Tricolor.’ I just knew it was gorgeous. I asked my roommates who owned it but no one claimed it. So I started caring for it.
About a year later when I moved out, I took the plant with me. It was a part of my life for the next 15 years (before the cat chewed it away), through three different homes, all kinds of good and bad events, sadness and happiness, triumphs and losses, and all else. All the while, the plant grew new stems and showed off its pretty pink, green, and white colors.
What that plant offered me the most though was stability. During the most stressful times of my life, I could always come home to it. It didn’t care whether I’d had a good day or a bad day, it was just there for me. It didn’t care whether I’d been at my best or worst. The plant simply gave me its beauty and silence. It softened the hard edges of my life.
Your First Houseplant
So if you’re interested in trying your hand at growing a houseplant, I encourage you to visit a nursery and buy the one plant you fall in love with. Which one takes your breath away? Which one sends a surge of wonder through you? Find the one you will always want to look at. As I’ve said looking at plants is a significant way to reduce stress. So which plant do you want to look at after you’ve had a tough day? That one is the one to adopt and give a forever home.
How to Decide
But with little to no experience, what if you don’t know which one makes you happy? Well, you must be drawn to one plant in particular. And if it’s a high-maintenance plant like a String of Pearls or an orchid, that’s okay. You’re only choosing one. And if you only choose one, then you won’t be overwhelmed if it takes a little extra care. That care builds your relationship with it and the ritual of loving the houseplant will ultimately heal you.
But you have to put in the time. If the plant needs a lot of light, then buy a grow bulb and turn it on for a few hours a day. If the plant likes a dry environment, make sure to put it in a sunny window. Get the right soil and container and set it in the right conditions. If you’re unsure about what those are, check out the internet. Google of course is a wealth of information. And if you’re too pressed for time with that, you can always contact me through this website.
Quieting the Mind
The point is to incorporate a little green life into your world. Use it as a momentary refuge. Turn off your screens and visit it in silence. Let your soul leave the chaos and chatter of the hectic modern world. As you look at it, remember its innocence and simplicity. Smile. Breathe a deep breath. Study its unique attributes. Its arrangement of leaves, its overall form, its colors. If it’s not a cactus and your hands are clean, gently touch its leaves. Yes, like petting. How do the leaves feel? Does it smell at all? It might smell like freshly watered soil. Take in its little green wonders. Relax into the moment. All it takes is one houseplant to heal. Then you’ll be a bit more ready to deal with real life again.
Photo by Veronique Trudel
Alocasia x amazonica, or Elephant’s Ears, makes a bold statement in a houseplant collection. It grows rubbery-looking, blackish green pointed leaves with white veination, creating an unusual, tropical look. I love Alocasias because, ironically, they’re so artificial looking. Their appearance goes against the idea that leaves are soft and papery. Sometimes even spooky. I think that’s so neat.
Some books rate Alocasias as difficult to grow but I disagree. If you’re willing to tolerate a few brown tips or here and there, you’ll probably be successful. The trick for me is not to overthink it but simply take care of the following three issues.
Alocasias like bright, indirect light. They’re understory plants of the rain forest in warm misty places like South Asia, Indonesia, and parts of Australia. So I keep mine in a north-facing window and it does well. They tend to get scorched if set in direct sun.
If you’re the type who overwaters house plants, then this is the plant for you. Alocasias like continuously damp soil. Some sites say it likes to dry out between waterings, but when I’ve let that happen, the tips brown. So what I do is use a half-portion of orchid bark mix and half regular potting soil. This helps the soil drain freely.
Moist Warm Air
Since Alocasias are native to the tropics, they don’t like drafty windows. Keep the room between about 65-80 degrees and the plant will be happy. And because they thrive in the tropics, they like moist air. So if you live in a northern state where the heaters are often on in winter, try running a diffuser or humidifier near the plant to keep it moist. Otherwise, the tips may brown.
Overall, this lovely plant offers some unusual interest and great architecture. Because it’s tall, arrange it with lower bushier plants that like indirect light like Peace Lily, African Violet, or almost any fern. And note, if you have curious dogs, cats, or kids, Alocasia is poisonous so keep it high enough and out of reach. And if some older leaves die back, just snip them off. The plant will continually renew itself.
The best thing to do is to set this plant in a place where you’ll often notice it and enjoy!
One morning this last fall, my friend Angela called to say she had some orphaned plants she wanted me to have because they needed a good home. You may remember Angela’s a dear friend who’s a container designer and regularly switches out arrangements for clients. In this particular instance, she’d redesigned some summer pots for fall and had a bunch of leftover babies.
Before I could blink, she was pulling into my driveway with a miscellaneous collection of pots and paper bags. The goodies contained bromeliads, crotons, a spider plant, and mandevillas. While I had some experience growing the first three, I’d never grown a mandevilla, outdoors or indoors. But I was game to give it a try.
What’s a Mandevilla?
For those interested, a mandevilla is a huge genus of vines that grow in tropical places like South and Central America. Some even grow in the southern United States. They can grow up to 15 feet, even higher given the right conditions. And those conditions are strong sunlight and warmth, which of course we don’t have much of during a rainy Seattle winter. But they can function as a houseplant.
The three mandevillas Angela gifted me all had the same strong darkish pink flower. Its trumpet-shape has inspired the common name, rocktrumpet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the cultivar. It’s somewhere in the black hole of Angela’s notes. But luckily I’ve been able to keep them alive well enough.
How to Grow a Mandevilla Indoors
Here’s what I’ve been doing that works.
First, I set it up in the sunniest window of my house, a south-facing living room window. It was okay there but after a few days, I put a grow light over it and it became much perkier. Its little vining shoots extended. It appreciated the bright light and extra warmth.
Second, I noticed some older leaves yellowed and dropped a couple weeks after I brought it inside. I discovered this was from the sudden warmth of dry heating vents that had started blowing in October. I cleaned up those dried yellow leaves and cut off whatever stems had dried out as well to deter pests. You can spot dried stems by their suppleness and color. Happy stems are always soft and greenish. Dried ones are blackish green or brown.
Third, I increased humidity near the plants. In one case, I misted the plant regularly. I actually don’t think misting is very effective but I didn’t have an extra diffuser so I sprayed the plant from a misting water bottle every few days. And sprayed liberally. You need to pretty much make sure the plant is soaked if you want the plant to absorb moisture before the droplets evaporate.
Fourth, I tapered off watering. I was watering lightly every week and now in the heart of winter, I’m watering about once every ten days. This has seemed to make the plant quite happy. And so far pests have not visited it even though mandevillas can attract pests if overwatered.
Fifth, in December, with less watering comes less light. I now turn on the grow light once every week rather than once every couple of days. It knows it’s winter and to be dormant. It’s not blooming and won’t for a while.
Heading into spring, I’ll let the season’s light do its work and turn off the grow light until next October. I’ll water every week again as the light strengthens. I’ll install trellises so its vines can latch onto a structure. And every month, I’ll add some fertilizer to see if it will bloom again.
We’ll see how things go. I might even put the plants outside in a hot sunny location. They thrived in Angela’s client’s garden so I might have the same luck. If those gorgeous flowers do bloom, the hummingbirds will surely visit and that will give me the best gift of all.