Last year for Christmas, I told my mother I wanted one thing: some big plants.
My house was feeling a little sparse. I had recently gotten separated, and there were empty spaces where my husband’s record player, stacks of records and liquor cabinet used to be. Some of Mother Nature’s essence seemed like the perfect fix. Even though I’ve never had much of a green thumb, I told myself I would be committed. After all, I wanted to put my energy into taking good care of my home now that it was all mine and mine alone.
So a few days after Christmas, I put a big green plant with pointed leaves that my mother had given me under a window in my dining room. I poured two big cups of water in with the highest of hopes. Two weeks later, the plant was dead. I drenched the soil for a few days, hoping to bring it back to life, but there were no signs of revival. It’s been sitting in the same spot under the window for five months now, brown as burned toast, a reminder of my failure.
It’s a reminder, too, that I should never try owning plants again. Because over the years, it always goes like this. Every time I take a trip to Home Depot or some trendy new flower shop, excited to pick out the perfect plants, put them in colorful pots and sprinkle them all over my home in just the right nooks, I manage to kill them in what must be record time.
I’m not completely unskilled at caring for things. I have two children who are fed and clothed and (usually) bathed. I walk the dog and do the dishes and meet deadlines. But I can’t keep up with greenery, despite my good intentions.
I wanted to figure out why I’m so bad at something that seems like it shouldn’t be so complicated. I know people who are, even by their own standards, messier, more scattered than me, yet their plants thrive. I wondered if it’s my ADHD, my Type B personality or some fundamental gene I happen to lack. The plant gene.
I spoke with Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas who also serves on the scientific advisory boards for the “Dr. Phil” and “Dr. Oz” shows. He has written extensively about motivation and decision-making. He didn’t think my brown thumb had all that much to do with personality. While it’s possible those inclined to take good care of their plants may be more conscientious individuals, he said, there’s a big reason maintaining flora can pose a challenge: “One of the things that we find difficult to do is tasks that need to be performed infrequently that don’t provide reminders to perform them.” For example, if you don’t do your laundry, you will run out of clothes and be forced to wash them. (My 9-year-old daughter is somehow proving that false at the moment, as she keeps managing to find shirts to wear in spite of her refusal to bring her massive pile of dirty clothes downstairs.) With plants, there’s no reminder that you’ve forgotten to water them until the leaves turn brown — by which point, as I’ve learned, it’s too late.
Maybe the way to change my behavior would be to create reminders for myself. Markman said putting something as simple as “water plants” on my calendar might be necessary until it becomes a habit. The problem is, I actually tried that. Somehow I managed to overlook my own reminders, probably because there were dozens of other, more pressing ones each day.
Studies have examined what kind of reminders are most effective for smaller, easy-to-neglect tasks. In those studies, it was the most unusual reminders that worked best. Maybe I could tape a picture of the Hulk (since he’s also green) to my coffee maker, and every morning it would be like he’s yelling at me to take care of my plants. Or set a phone alarm with the song “Water Me” by Lizzo (which is also just . . . a really good song).
Maybe the problem wasn’t that I forgot about the plants but that I didn’t understand how they worked in the first place. I decided I needed to learn some more plant basics. I emailed Liz Vayda, who has a master’s in environmental science from Johns Hopkins University and owns two popular flower shops in Baltimore, where I live. She told me that plant care is about practice and observation. “I always compare tending to houseplants to cooking,” she wrote. “It’s all about learning and paying attention to them. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more prone you are to making educated guesses about cause and effect.”
I hadn’t thought of houseplants as something I needed to spend a lot of time observing and learning from. Given that I’d always managed to kill them instantaneously, I never really got to the “a little of this, a little of that” part, like my Italian grandfather used to say about his pasta sauce (a recipe that died with him, by the way, because those were the exact instructions). Vayda said there is really no such thing as a “green thumb,” because everyone kills plants at first: “It’s not just as simple as watering or ensuring appropriate light levels. It’s doing everything within your power to mimic a plant’s natural environment.”
Blaming my genes or looking to psychology, I realized, was a cop-out. I had been expecting my plants to take what I gave them, rather than viewing them as living things that relied on me for absolutely everything.
With this in mind, I visited my neighbor, Bethe Brohawn. Sitting at her counter, sipping coffee, I admired her many plants while her kids played. The ones in front of me were not easy to take care of, she said. They required really getting to know, the kind of diligence Vayda talked about. I sat amazed and asked how she managed to keep them all alive. “We get a lot out of them,” Brohawn told me. “They are just something to simply enjoy.”
Vayda’s deep appreciation for bringing greenery indoors springs from the benefits that she believes come with it, like lower stress levels, better concentration and higher morale. “Thinking about nature on a deeper level is a great motivator to keeping plants alive,” she said.
I haven’t run out to fill my old pots just yet. But I believe there is hope for those prone to plant murder or, more kindly, plant manslaughter. Because this year for Mother’s Day, my 4-year-old son brought home from preschool a two-inch pot of dirt with a seed buried in it. I have no earthly idea what the viney plant that keeps expanding across my counter is. Vayda suggested it could be potato vine. The important thing is, it isn’t dead yet. Soon, I’ll have to move it because it’s getting too big. Brohawn said she would help me repot it so I don’t tear it to smithereens. I haven’t even needed reminders to water it — but then again, I have a big reason to keep this tiny plant going. It’s not my joy at green things that’s motivating me, but my kid’s, who loves the fact that something he gave me is taking on a new shape every week. It’s forced me to dig a bit deeper for the seed of my green thumb. I want to get a lot out of it. I want to simply enjoy it. Here’s hoping that practice, and some childlike wonder sprinkled in, is enough to help it grow.
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