An *Idiot’s Guide to Growing Indoor Plants

*It’s me. I am the idiot.

Until about a year ago, I thought I was the Plant Killer. Everyone always said, “Start out with a succulent! They’re SO easy.” So I would buy a succulent and do my best to take care of it the way everyone said (which was basically: don’t. just leave it. flick water at it every few months). Unsurprisingly, these hardy unkillable plants would wither under my baffled care.

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Then, last spring, I saw a plant at the farmer’s market and I fell in love. It was called an artillery plant (I’d never heard of that before) and I had to have it. “I’m so sorry,” I crooned to it on the way home. “You’re going to die but I had to have you.”#truelove

I bought a terracotta pot and some soil from Home Depot, and thus I had my first green plant. (The non-succulent kind. Although I did receive a venus flytrap as a gift, before I figured plants out, and it died, and I was heartbroken. I want to find another and care for it properly this time, but they’re NOT easy to find around here).

I kept waiting for the artillery plant to keel over and die, but every day it remained – beautiful, green, and happy. I began to wonder – was my curse over? Had God taken pity on me and given me a green thumb (or at the very least taken away my black one)? I began to keep my eye out for more plants. Grocery stores and the farmer’s market became new fields to scope out, and I found myself regularly coming home with new plants. Every space that DIDN’T have a plant began to look bare. Every few days I’d be crouched outside, quickly potting a new one so I could take it inside and spruce up my room.

The most plants I’ve ever had in my room at one time was a grand total of sixteen. Right now I have thirteen, but the farmer’s market is almost back and I’ll have more plants than I know what to do with.

NONE OF THIS HELPS YOU (yet) but I’m about to, I promise. I have a variety of plants right now – roses, pothos, ivy, ferns, a few mystery plants I haven’t sent to Flower Checker because I’m used to them and hey, we’ve made it this far together. SO without further ado, onto the tips!

LIGHTING

My room faces east(erly) and while I have two windows, my room isn’t particularly sunny. It’s bright, but it’s not ‘sustain all the plants with photosynthesis’ bright. I realized, while trying to take care of a large ivy plant and keep it from dying, that some of my plants weren’t getting enough sun, even though they were consistently getting several hours of ‘brightness.’ With plants that aren’t low-light or shade plants, I developed a system – I’d take them into the bathroom every two or three days, set them on the counter, flip on the light, and leave them for a hour or so. At first I was afraid the light might be too bright and might burn the more sensitive ivy leaves, but no! The plants began to thrive, sprout new leaves, and grow faster. So if you’re wondering why you have a plant that’s ALIVE but isn’t growing, it might not be getting enough light!

That said, NOT ALL of my plants need this extra treatment. So far only my ivy and a mystery plant require this extra light, but if I get a plant that doesn’t seem to be growing, I give it the extra light.

SOMETIMES a plant just needs to be moved. Ferns need SOME light, but too much will burn them or dry them out. (Most ferns die in this house, I’ve discovered; it’s simply too dry. The thicker the leaves + darker the color of the fern, I’ve noticed, the hardier it is. Fiddle-leaf and maiden hair ferns need a lot more moisture and might do best in a bathroom.) If a plant’s leaves are turning yellow or brown but it’s getting enough water, it might be in too much sunlight so try moving it somewhere a bit shadier or more out of the way. Most plants DO NOT thrive in COMPLETE shade, though, so don’t lock them under the stairs like Harry Potter.

LOCATION

Another important thing to consider when choosing a location for your plant, aside from lighting, is the air quality and flow. Basically: don’t put your plan right by or under an air vent, or anywhere with extreme temperature changes. Plants like consistency. I know I said to move them around and test which lighting they like best, but don’t move them TOO much. They actually ‘get used’ to residing in a certain location, and moving them around too much will stress them out.

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WATER

I’ve heard many different plant owners give many different recommendations about watering your plants. ‘Water them once a week, that’ll keep them alive,’ some say, but that doesn’t work for all plants. Some, sure – devil’s ivy and pothos plants are pretty low-maintenance, but I have a mystery plant that begins to wilt if I don’t water it every two or three days. I essentially water all my plants the same way – I give them roughly a cup and a half of water ever two or three days. You don’t need to be exact – your plant isn’t going to die if you forget to water them one day, or don’t give them e x a c t l y a cup and a half of water. I fill a regular-sized water bottle, and that bottle waters two plants before I go refill it. A common tip is: dig your finger into the soil of your plant, and if the top two inches of your plant are still damp, you don’t need to water them (I think this works as a rule of thumb, but since I have a loose watering schedule I don’t use this unless I’m trying to figure out why a plant is unhappy).

SINK WATER IS FINE, also. At first I thought it was causing problems, but it isn’t. Washington water is known to be pretty hard, and the plants still like it just fine. If your water is unusual for any reason (extremely high-mineral, etc.) maybe test it out on a hardy plant to see how it reacts.

FEEDING TIME

I use the little yellow sprinkle-food balls (I never said I was a professional at this, okay) because they’re the easiest and seem to work. Miracle Gro is TRICKY, GUYS. I killed four plants using it wrong because I, in my genius, didn’t read the instructions and assumed it worked like regular plant food. Yeah, that artillery plant that kick-started my obsession? I killed it this way. It was tragic. I also killed my largest, most beautiful ivy plant. So either use it the way it’s instructed or NOT AT ALL. I’ve decided I don’t like extremely concentrated plant foods like that anyway and prefer the time-released fertilizer types, but that’s up to you!

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SOIL

Not all soil is created equal. If you have indoor plants, use soil for indoor plants. The more nutrients it comes with, the better. Also, some plants thrive on sandier soil – I try to avoid those plants, but if you’re looking for more desert-style plants, be sure to check on what kind of soil they’d prefer! Since I don’t have any of those, I use the same soil (I don’t remember the brand, but it’s a fairly generic brand of indoor potting soil from home depot) for all my plants.

POTTING

Except for my hanging plants, I use typical terracotta pots. It’s VERY important that whatever pots you buy have a drainage hole + saucer, otherwise they can build up backlogged bacteria inside the plant and that will rot it from the roots. Also, after you’ve watered a plant, if you notice water in the saucer, be sure to dump it out. You don’t want your plant sitting in a puddle of water.

NOTE: mold does grow on terracotta pots. If you notice a thick white film forming around the bottom, that’s a kind of plant-mold. But never fear – it wipes off with a damp paper towel, and it’s not dangerous. Super easy to take care of.

If you have hanging plants in plastic pots (of which I have four), you obviously won’t want to just water them over the carpet, as water WILL drain out through the hole in the bottom. I just take mine into the bathroom, put them in the sink, run water into them, and let them drain for 10-15 minutes before hanging them back up. Be sure to tilt the pot in all directions to get the excess water out, otherwise you’ll have surprise dirt-water dripping out after you re-hang them.

Finally…

Some plants will still die. For example, I bought my little indoor rose plant on a whim, and it’s not doing so well. I can’t figure out why, since by all accounts I’m doing everything right, but I don’t think it’s long for this world. That, unfortunately, is life – and if you get emotionally attached to your plants, like I do, it can legitimately be hard when a plant dies under your care. Don’t worry! The more you practice and the more plants you succeed in growing, the easier it gets. I rarely have plants die anymore, unless I have no idea what they are, can’t find any information about them, and have no clue what they need despite my experiments.

I recently downloaded an app called Flower Checker (it does cost something like two dollars, I think) where if you send in pictures of your mystery plant, a team of botanists will try and identify it for you!

I hope this helps you on your journey to becoming a plant mom, plant father, plant cousin, weird plant uncle, etc. etc.

Frondest wishes to you all.

(yes that was terrible i’m leaving now)
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//invasive thoughts and other flora

There’s an astonishing amount of bamboo in Georgia. Growing up, I equated bamboo with Pandas and pagodas. Bamboo was something found in eastern Asia, not the American south. I was wrong. As Mom and I drove to my chiropractor appointment this morning, we remarked on a fast-growing grove of bamboo on the side of the road. It’s a little bigger each time we pass it.

“It’s a very invasive plant,” Mom remarked. “Like the blackberry bushes.” She was referring to the wild blackberry growing in our backyard. If we aren’t careful it tries to climb through the fence, over the fence, under the fence. My mind wandered, comparing bamboo and blackberries to dandelions. All three plants are hardy and invasive. They will flourish and thrive in the barest conditions. All three are beautiful and supremely useful, and yet, once we stick the label ‘invasive’ on them, they become synonymous with weeds. Pests.

Like thoughts. It’s easy to label certain thoughts or ideas as invasive, particularly spiritual ones. Voices of the conscience that whisper, you shouldn’t be doing that, or you should do this. Voices that suggest maybe we aren’t perfect, maybe there’s something to fix, maybe we don’t know everything.

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When something threatens to throw off our structure, our perfect landscaping, it’s natural to react with negativity, to pull out the pruning shears and cut these invasive thoughts back until they’re out of sight. We don’t want them growing through the fence, or over it, or under it.

But ‘invasive’ is not always synonymous with ‘bad.’ Dandelions are one of the most versatile, useful plants in America – brought over intentionally to supply pioneers. It grows quickly, it’s pretty, you can use the leaves in salad, you can make tea with it, you can make wishes on the fluff.

Unfortunately for dandelions, they grow quickly. They spread. And so we spray them with chemicals, hoping to kill them off, to make the environment a hostile one.

It’s easy to do, with uncomfortable thoughts; with recurring ideas that keep pushing up through the dirt, growing four inches overnight. Sometimes they really are weeds. Sometimes they need hacked down. But sometimes the uncomfortable, invasive thoughts – the mental dandelions, the thorny blackberry bushes – sometimes they’re invasive because we ought to pay attention to them, because they’re saying something important. Because they’re useful, or helpful; because if we pay attention to them and use them to their full potential, they will result in spiritual growth.

Sometimes that weed is the voice in the back of our mind saying, you should talk to that person. You should understand their point of view. You may be misreading this situation. Perhaps you’re in the wrong.

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Sometimes the invasive weed is actually a life-saving resource. It’s an ongoing process, knowing the differences; learning what to pull, what to cut, what to water, what to keep. Learning what to encourage and what to discourage. But like anyone with a plant, you’ll eventually learn what they need; not all are the same. My pot of mint needs as much sunlight as possible, my blue moss needs shade. My mint needs lightly watered on a daily basis (occasionally it gets coffee. Sometimes I let my coffee cool off accidentally, all right?) and my moss needs to be damp at all times.

However, sometimes a weed really is a weed, and that’s where discernment comes in.

Years ago, I planted a row of fairy rose-bushes along the side of the fence. The roses are ‘fairy’ roses; small, delicate, in varying shades of pink. They’re also surprisingly tough. We cut them back every winter, and every spring they grow three times their previous size, bearing loads of blossoms that I can, on a good year, bring inside. This year is not a good year. The bushes are green and thriving, but the roses are pale, dying just a day or two after they bloom.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized I’d been forgetting to pull the weeds that grow around the base of the bushes. I don’t know what these weeds are – they’re vicious and thick and they grow at an enormous rate, springing up overnight like malignant beanstalks. We’ve had enough rain that I haven’t needed to water the roses, which meant I hadn’t been tending to them every few days. I usually water the roses right after pulling the weeds. Because I hadn’t been watering, I hadn’t been weeding, and the weeds have been growing at an alarming rate, draining the nutrients in the soil needed for the rose bushes.

My own neglect is causing a disappointing bloom this year.

When the sun goes down and the heat fades, I need to put on some gloves and take care of the weed problem. Once they’re pulled out from the root, I should have beautiful roses back within a week or so. They bloom through fall, so there’s plenty of time still left.

That’s the difference. An invasive thought you should tend won’t drain the nutrients from your soil, but feed it. An invasive thought you should root out will leech away your health.

The moral of the story, from a coffee-and-sleep-deprived mind, is pretty simple: you don’t need a green thumb to be a good gardener. All you really need to do is pay attention, to learn the difference between useful-invasive and detrimental-invasive. Sometimes the best lessons, the ones that stay with us, are learned only after our hands are scratched and bleeding from reaching through the thorns.