Supporting Plant Parenthood

Cycad @SanAntonioBG 2003nov30 LAH 003

When I first saw the headline, I had to snicker:

Most millennials are intimidated by plants, survey finds.

A recent poll has revealed that while millennials (aged 25 – 39) love house plants and want them in their homes, they’re also clueless when it comes to caring for them. Most decide to adopt a plant anyway, but some are so worried that they’ll commit planticide that they refuse to accept the responsibility of plant parenthood. Happily, there’s hope.

According to the article, these plant-shy millennials have four main concerns:

  • How much light the plants need
  • How often to water the plants
  • How to determine whether the plant should live indoors or out
  • How to prune the plants

I took this article as a challenge. I blog about gardening; maybe I can help! These are not insurmountable problems. While growing a plant indoors is a bit more complicated than sticking one in the garden, you also avoid issues such as extreme weather and many pests. And at this time of year, when virtually nothing is growing outside, house plants are a balm to the withering winter soul.

Some plant species are more resilient than others, but they all share a few basic needs—light, nutrients, water, the proper temperatures, space for their roots to grow, and (in most cases) decent soil/potting mix. If you don’t figure out the answers to these questions, sooner or later you are likely to have a dead plant on your hands.

If you’ve tried to grow plants indoors, it’s likely that you’ve killed a few. I certainly have—more than I can count. Thankfully, I don’t have to face the friends and family of the deceased, or plead guilty to murder, although I certainly feel sad that a living thing in my care has died. Besides, the lessons I’ve learned from these failures have led to my current high level of success.

The good news is that growing house plants isn’t all that difficult. Whether you want plants in your home for their decorating value, because they lift your mood, or simply because it’s the trendy thing to do, it’s highly likely you can succeed.

Before I address the four topics listed above (it will take more than one post, so stay tuned), I want to point out that plants are alive. It should be obvious, but often it’s not. Too often, our house plants are treated as furnishings—a part of the decor rather than a living creature. Just as you can’t go on vacation, or simply get distracted, and leave a cat or dog to fend for themselves, so you can’t ignore your plants and expect them to thrive—or even survive. Caring for a potted plant requires commitment.

Over the years, I’ve developed sort of a “plant radar”—a sixth sense that lets me know when a plant needs attention. However, I don’t rely on my subconscious. I also put “check house plants” on my calendar. That doesn’t mean I water on a schedule (I’ll explain why that doesn’t work in a future post), just that I am reminding myself to visit each of my plants to see how they’re doing.

Now, how about that list of concerns? The easiest one to address is pruning. Basically, house plants don’t need pruning as much as grooming. Is it unattractive or broken? Cut it off. Is it dead? Remove it. (The one exception is a moth orchid’s flower stalk. If it’s still green, leave it. Phalaenopsis orchids often rebloom on an existing stalk, and the time saved by not having to grow a new one means you have flowers that much sooner.)

Coleus houseplant_COS-CO_LAH_1House plants frequently become rather leggy, and we’re tempted to do something to bring them back into proper proportions. In the case of plants with dormant buds, such as coleus or creeping Charlie, you can pinch off the ends of the stems, forcing branching. (It’s the same technique gardeners use on basil and chrysanthemums.) Leggy succulents can be shortened by cutting the growing stems off the mother plant and sticking them into some damp potting soil, where they quickly re-root.

Other plants with long stems, such as dracaenas, won’t resprout or branch if you remove the growing tip, so you’re better off either propagating the long stem (check out air-layering) or, if that sounds like too much effort, simply discarding your spindly specimen and getting a new plant. Then pick a brighter spot for the replacement; leggy growth is a plant’s way of saying it wants more light.

Chlorophytum comosum_Spider Plant_home 28mar2006 LAH 123rWhat about pruning for size? Again, that works in some cases. You can easily trim off spider plant babies, give a wandering Jew a haircut, or pinch back holiday cactus. But cut off the top of a palm and all you end up with is a dead stem. (To my disappointment, this also applied to the plumeria I had grown from a cutting brought back from Hawaii.)

Other species simply get too big for most homes. Remember that technically, there is no such thing as a house plant. The plants we bring indoors are really outdoor plants that will tolerate the conditions in our houses. Many of them get quite large in nature. (If you have ever been to the tropics, or visited a conservatory, you know what I mean.) I recently had to part with “Phil,” the split-leaf philodendron I had for 20 years. He simply outgrew the space I had for him. I hope his new owner treats him well. Meanwhile, I now have an empty spot just begging for a replacement. I can’t wait to go plant shopping!

Plants beautify our homes and renew our spirits. Taking care of a plant can even encourage us to take better care of ourselves. If you are acquainted with any millennials who are daunted by the idea of adopting a house plant, please send them my way.

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