The New Cozier, Healthier Normal
I have a friend, who I probably shouldn’t name, because… well, she has a new man in her life. But the good news is her husband doesn’t seem to mind. It’s my fault because I was the one who introduced her, his name is Frank and he’s a fiddle-leaf fig. In fact, I’m the crazy person who named him in the first place. When I made the introduction, she was a self-titled “non-plant-person” but Frank won her over by happily settling in and rewarding her by regularly growing fresh new leaves. Frank has been so happy living with her that she recently had to repot him and now has about 11 other houseplants, two backyard planters, a hanging basket and a community garden plot. Yep, a good houseplant can do that to a person, Frank was her gateway to gardening.
I am a huge advocate for the health benefits of living with plants, both mental and physical health. In my opinion it’s been one of the unforeseen “silver-linings” of the pandemic that so many people have made the leap into “plant parenting” (I term I hear being used more and more). Spending more time inside our homes has been the needed inspiration to create healthy living spaces using plants.
Not only are there the benefits of caring for something living (there might be something to that “plant parent” thing), the mental health benefits of being surrounded by beauty (it is literally soul soothing), but they legitimately clean the air. It’s true… NASA did a whole study on it, called the Clean Air Study. They were researching ways to clean the air in space stations. They discovered that not only do plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis, but they act as a natural filter to remove volatile organic pollutants (the study looked at in particular benzene, formaldehyde and tricholoroethylene… ummmm… yuck). It was found that to have optimal air cleaning potential you need to have one plant per 100 square feet (but that was in sealed laboratory settings, so we can feel justified to add a few more).
So, if you too want to add some greenery to your life and increase your well being here are few things you should know before you jump into plant parenthood.
Have a serious look at where you want to put your plants, a sunny window sill? Your desk? Behind the sofa? Or a hanging planter in the basement? Light is food for plants, they need it to survive but just not too much (kind of similar to us now that I think about it). Two places in your house that are hard to grow a plant are a south facing window sill or a windowless basement. These are the extremes and both are difficult or just impossible.
The best spots for houseplants are near a window but not actually in the window, it’s called filtered light. So, step one is to be real about where you are going to put your plant and how long and how intense the light will be there. Make sure to look at it at different times of the day, an east facing window may have cooler morning sunshine as opposed to the full blast of a south facing window.
If your window is shaded then perhaps you can move the plant closer, if it’s full sun then move the plants farther away. A good trick is to look at the shadows your plants cast, if the shadow is short then the light is high, long stretched out shadows indicate lower light levels.
The good news is that there are plants for every light situation. Some are adapted to low light levels and other high light and there are a few that are happy in both. I’ve listed some of my favorites below but feel free to browse the tropical section of your local GardenWorks, they are generally grouped by their light requirements to make it easy to find the one for you.
To me one of the best parts about getting a houseplant is finding the perfect pot to suit the space and the plant. There are so many beautiful planters out there. Larger elevated containers to make a bold statement, small ceramic pots that are works of art, and even vintage inspired hanging planters. The choices are endless so you’re bound to find one to fall in love with at least one or two. A few things to keep in mind before you fall head-over-heals is that the pot needs to suit the plant.
You don’t want to put a tiny little plant into a big planter or vice-versa try to jam a mature plant into a tiny pot, try to keep it in proportion and pay attention to how fast it will grow.
Another thing is to make sure you have a drainage hole and saucer if you want to put your plant directly into the pot. If you fall in love with a planter that has no drainage then you should consider doing a pot-in-pot where you can remove the pot for watering. See the section on watering for more information or better yet talk to one of the experts in store.
Also, if you do need to add some soil when potting up a new plant (which you usually do), make sure to use proper indoor potting mix. It’s been specially formulated for houseplants, and more importantly has been sterilized for growing indoors. I’m all for the worms and ground beetles in my garden NOT in my living room.
The last touch that I think is so important but overlooked by so many is to mulch your indoor plants. I love to use rock mulches (which you can buy at GardenWorks), they come in so many colours and sizes; but you can also use sand or moss (which I like to use on my ferns). Not only does it do wonders to insulate the soil from drying out, it can prevent fungus gnats (those little flies that are actually a sign that you are overwatering… but more on that below) and a mulch is just like icing on the cake, it’s that added touch that gives your plant a fancy touch.
This is probably the one area where most plant owners go wrong, either too much or too little. If I had to guess 90% of houseplant mortality is caused by improper watering. In a slightly unexpected twist, it’s usually overwatering caused by “helicopter plant parents.” Once upon a time I scoffed at the idea of using something called a water meter for my houseplants.
For those that don’t know a water meter is just what it sounds a device you can stick into the soil of your plants that will tell you how wet the soil is and therefore whether you need to water or not. I always laughed and said “why do you need a device when you can just stick your finger in the soil to tell if it’s wet or not.” Well, guess what my new favourite toy is? Yep, I have a water meter and I love it. It just takes the guess work out of watering and it’s less messy than moving the rock mulch and sticking your fingers in the soil. So, you might want to consider getting one and ignore people who might scoff at you.
I find the best way to water is to make it a regular ritual (like for example every Tuesday and Friday, or after your morning coffee) and make good use of the meter (or finger if you prefer), that way you don’t ever forget to water and you make sure you are only giving the plant what it needs.
The other key component is to make sure that your plants are well watered and then well drained, you NEVER want your plants sitting in water. The roots need air and will die and rot if too waterlogged (this is usually when the annoying little flies, fungus gnats, start to move in).
My favourite thing to do is to bring any small pots into the kitchen sink or shower, water them well and then leave them to drain. I usually come back in a while and remember they’re in the sink and put them back in their places. For my large planters I water them in place and then come back in a while to remove any water that has drained into the saucer, a turkey baster is the perfect tool for this job. Just keep in mind that you want to water when the plant needs it (some prefer to dry out a little in between watering and others prefer constant moisture) check the plant labels if you aren’t sure, and never let your plants sit in water.
This is another important step, while sunlight is food for plants… they can use a little help. In natural settings plants are getting regular infusions of organic matter from various sources, but not in your living room/dining room/kitchen. Check out the selection in store of water-soluble fertilizers, they are very easy to use (just add to the watering can when you water). Trust me your plants will thank you by happily growing. Be sure to read and follow the instructions and lay off the fertilizer in the winter when plants are generally growing less.
So now you have all the information to get started and create your own “new healthier, cozier normal.” It is a bit hard to think of there being a “silver lining” to something as horrible as a global pandemic but I believe we have to try and find our little bits of joy where we can. I hope that one such outcome is we dispel the myths of a “black versus green thumb,” when it comes to growing your own plants and creating a healthier space. I know that anyone can grow houseplants, you just need at least one window and be armed with a little bit of information so you can buy your perfect houseplant. Perhaps you’ll even be lucky enough to find your own Frank.
Here are some of my favourites to help get you started.
Top Air Purifying Plants:
A vigorous vine with heart shaped leaves. Some are variegated with green and white or yellow, others are a bright shiny green, there is even one (satin pothos) with a velvety silver leaf, and my favourite a golden/chartreuse colour. Don’t be afraid to cut back any vines that get too long, it will make your plant bushier and fuller looking. Mostly a low to medium light plant, pothos aren’t too fussy, they will put up with a fair amount of neglect and so are perfect for the beginner. In fact, one common name for it is Devils vine since it seems to be impossible to kill it.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum) –
Yet another super easy plant to grow and I would bet that anyone who has lived through or seen pictures from the 70s has witnessed a spider plant living in a vintage macrame hanger. The reason it was, and still is, so popular is they are extremely adaptable top most growing conditions and therefor easy to grow. Best in bright indirect light, water them well but let them dry out between watering. They come in both green and variegated. You can sometimes get browning on the leaf tips from neglect but just prune those out and try to pay better attention to it in the future. Just in case you were curious, this plant is called spider plant because of the spiderettes that dangle on long stems from the mother plant. They start off as white flowers and then turn into little baby plants you can give to friends or repot.
This is a good confidence building plant for the beginner. Easy to grow and they come in such a variety of leaf shapes, sizes and textures, I have one called Hope that has a lovely almost frilly cut-leaf. Glossy tropical looking leaves will liven up any spot with medium indirect light. Keep the soil moist, they like high humidity and won’t enjoy drying out. These are fast growing plants, some are climbers and others have an upright habit, so make sure to read the label before you buy.
Snake plant (Sansevieria) –
This plant is the darling of Instagram, for good reason. It has such a beautiful structural appeal, and it’s dead easy to grow. A perfect plant for beginners. Try to avoid getting the leaves wet when you water, make sure not to over-water and it will be happy in a variety of lighting conditions.
Fern Crispy Wave –
This adorable little fern is perfect for a desk or small space. Called crispy wave because of its stiff undulating leaves. As you might expect from a fern, this plant is happy in lower light levels. Make sure that it’s well drained, it likes to be moist but not soggy. If the leaves start to brown on the edges then lay off the water or move it to a slightly sunnier spot.
Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) –
The giant leathery leaves of this plant have made this plant the “it” plant with designers and influencers everywhere. If I’m being honest it has a reputation for being fussy, and it is. It likes a certain environment and if you ignore that and put it somewhere it doesn’t like it won’t be happy. So, avoid drafts, overwatering and under-watering, make sure to give it filtered light (a east or shaded west facing window is perfect) and also don’t put it right above a heat vent. If you have a place in your house that will make this plant happy then you should get one.
Best Plants for High Light:
Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) –
This is a long-lived succulent, and with thick woody stems it can eventually look like a miniature tree. Give it warm, dry, brightly indirect light (minimum 4 hours per day) water well and let dry out slightly between (rot is a real thing with this plant). Water less in the winter and pay attention to the leaves, if the leaves get soggy or yellow and fall off then you need to adjust the watering. When planting up get a succulent/cactus potting mix as it is formulated to have better drainage. Don’t be too quick to repot this plant, they don’t mind being a bit root-bound and it keeps them small.
Croton (Codiaeum variegatum) –
Those leaves, such colour! The large leathery leaves of the croton are striped in green, orange, red and yellow. They are known for being susceptible to shock so don’t panic if they drop a few leaves when you bring them home or otherwise move them, they will soon settle down. Water well, but let them dry out slightly between watering.
Aloe Vera –
Another succulent with fleshy architectural leaves. The cool thing about this plant is it’s your own homemade first aid kit. The gel inside the fleshy stem will instantly cool any kind of burn, a handy plant to have when you are clumsy like me. Use a well-drained succulent/cactus potting mix and find it a sunny spot… probably in the kitchen.
Imagine growing your own lemon or lime… yes please. Citrus are a bit more of a challenge but they are worth it. They are thirsty plants so make sure to water them well, and only let the very top layer of soil dry out. Also get yourself a specific citrus fertilizer, they are hungry plants. Watch out for mealy bugs and scale (bumps on the stem and leaves that can be scraped off with your finger that are actually an insect, see in store for ways to combat these pests). Consider making the jump to a citrus, I literally picked lemons off my mother’s plant last weekend and it was divine.
If you have a sunny spot in the house get yourself some succulents. There are literally too many to mention here so my advice is to head down to the garden centre and find some that speak to you and plant up a mixed container. Or better yet, buy one that has already been created by a GardenWorks expert.
Best Plants for Low Light:
ZZ Plant (Zaminoculucas zamiifolia) –
This is the perfect plant for a beginner with low light conditions. They tolerate low light and infrequent watering, so pretty much they will put up with some neglect and keep growing. A striking plant with structural foliage, I’ve recently seen a new black leafed cultivar.
Ferns are so well adapted to living in low lights conditions and there are so many different kinds available. Some are dainty and frilly such as the maidenhair fern, others cute and structural like the button ferns, and then others are just so interesting like the staghorn fern which can be mounted on a board and hung on the wall. Most will thrive in low light conditions but require regular consistent moisture. Check out the selection in store and be sure to read the specific care instructions on the label.
Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) –
If you want to add a tropical feel to your home and are ready for a bit more of a challenge, then this is the plant for you. Glossy green leaves with distinctive holes and notches, it is a striking plant. However, it does need a bit of space to grow (not suitable for your desk) and will need a structure to climb on, but don’t be afraid to prune it back if it gets a bit out of hand. While I would classify this as a lower light plant it does likes a bit more light, it’s more of an in-between plant (2-3 hours of morning sunlight a day would be perfect). Find a spot where it gets indirect light. Keep the soil moist as it likes a high humidity environment.
Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides) –