When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, I knew exactly where to find my mom between the months of May and October: in the yard. She’d be pulling weeds or fertilizing flowers or planting whatever went in the ground that time of year; or she might be harvesting tomatoes, edging the sidewalk or moving the sprinkler from one zone to the next. The result of all this dedication was a gorgeous yard that was a source of both fascination and mild jealousy among our neighbors, who would wave from their morning or evening walks.
“It’s like you’re a professional!” one might call out, possibly thinking about how much they’d paid a landscaper that year. My mom would tell them the truth — that she loved futzing around in the dirt and making things grow — and then get back to it. What she did not say, but what I have come to understand, is that her skills are a mix of self-taught knowledge and natural talent. Because my childhood chores included yanking dandelion weeds, raking leaves and generally playing gardener’s assistant, I smugly assumed that I would inherit her know-how, and that my own thumb would become green when I was ready to put it to use on my own.
Turns out, not so much.
Cultivating a yard is a distant dream at this point. For now, I’ll settle for being able to preserve my houseplants. There was the ponytail palm that went from bouncy to wilted in a matter of a week, and the cactus that dropped its spines before turning yellow and depressingly flaccid. Don’t even get me started on the bonsai that became infested by bugs or the gardenia whose vitality waxed and waned in ways that made me feel like I was trapped in an emotionally withholding relationship. It pains me to think about all the plants I have purchased that ultimately went the way of the compost bin.
There is, of course, a silver lining to all this potted death and destruction. These lessons have, however painstakingly, led me to become the kind of person who maintains a small bevy of greenery in her home. Here are the five greatest mistakes I made as I progressed from serial plant killer to someone who manages to mostly keep things alive — sometimes even thriving.
I set myself up for failure. I live in Brooklyn: land of freezing cold winters, scorching hot summers and radiator heaters that make controlling the temperature in one’s railroad apartment pretty much a fool’s errand. For some reason, these factors never occurred to me when I started picking out plants — I just looked for things that were pretty. If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it would be “start simple,” which includes buying easy houseplants, not anything flowering or especially tricky. Snake plants, spider plants and pothos are good for novice gardeners. They can pretty much thrive under any conditions with enough water and light, like Tamagotchis that undergo photosynthesis.
I drenched my plants in attention (and water). It seems intuitive enough to water your plants when they look dry and pull back when they don’t. And yet, I was under the impression that every problem a plant was having had to do with it needing more water. (Sort of like how, when a human being gets sick, the answer always seems to be “lots of fluids.”) Although plants do need hydration, I was soaking them without keeping track of how much and how often I was watering, and, worse, not actually evaluating whether a drink was needed. The result? Yellow leaves, “wet feet” a.k.a. perpetually damp roots and sometimes mold. Now, to idiot-proof the process, I keep a little notebook with watering details based on the particular plant’s needs, along with a schedule and notations about volume.
I overreacted to overwatering by underwatering. When I finally understood the signs of overwatering (see: flaccid cactus), I initially reacted by going in the opposite direction: chronic underwatering. Part of that was just trying to establish a baseline — “what does it mean for a plant to be dry?”— but that is the kind of experiment where you’ll probably lose some subjects along the way. For example, the basil plant in my kitchen will go limp like a damsel on a fainting couch when it needs water. When that happens, I set it in the sink and let the faucet drip medium-fast until water runs out the bottom hole of the pot. A couple hours later, it will have perked right back up. But I’ve learned that the same test can’t be performed on an evergreen bonsai or a gardenia, which, once they go bone dry, are, in my experience, goners. Keeping the plant journal has also helped with this issue, as have moisture meters I finally bought to help determine thirst levels.
I thought all sunlight was the same. My railroad apartment gets light at both ends: in the two large windows that face northeast in the morning, and the two that face southwest in the afternoon. In general, that means a lot of bright light for about half the day. I used to assume it didn’t really matter where the plants were in relation to the windows — light was light, right? — but that thinking is how plants get sunburned or scorched. Nowadays, I read the instructions, taking care that the ones that require “indirect sun” aren’t directly in the window and that the ones that need bright light for most of the day remain by the brightest window with the longest light. I also rotate the plants regularly to make sure they’re getting the rays they need.
I gave up too soon. Although there are plenty of good reasons to have plants in your home — including the fact that they can improve air quality — I admit that the real reason I originally started a houseplant collection was that I liked the way they looked. (Blame the fiddle-leaf fig trend on Instagram.) So, when plants started getting droopy or dry or just generally less good-looking, there were times I tossed them rather than trying to revive them. (Shameful, I know.) Once I figured out how to take care of them, though, I stopped calling time of death too soon and started sticking with my plants until the actual end. That means enduring the bald spots, pruning to force new growth and patiently waiting when they are going through an awkward phase. It’s not always pretty. But recently, I think it’s fair to say, my thumb has become the palest shade of green. And even though I’m not quite inspiring envy among the neighbors, I’d like to think I’m doing my mother proud.