It started with an orchid.
I’m talking about my journey to plant parenthood, and how I ended up in my current situation, where my list of things I parent includes one cat, one dog, one husband (I’m kidding-mostly), and somewhere in the vicinity of fifty plants. After several years of false starts in the form of rotten succulents and dead air plants, I bought my house. I was given an orchid as a housewarming gift.
Panic immediately set in.
I knew I was bound to kill that plant. My good friend, who is kind and patient and cares for multiple orchids, was consistently telling me how finicky they are. (Side note-she also told me how orchid growing develops patience because there are long dormant periods in between blooms…then looked at me and said “Erica, maybe you should get an orchid!”) I knew I was bound to overwater it, or forget to water it. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to give it enough humidity. And I knew I would feel terrible if I killed a gift.
I put it in my bathroom, which luckily has a window. I read about orchids and found a vessel I could use to guarantee I gave it a consistent volume of water every time, and I put myself on a disciplined once a week watering schedule. Miraculously, it didn’t die, And not only did it not die, but it also flowered after its first dormant period. Then it flowered again. Then I figured if I could keep an orchid alive, I could manage other plants and my obsession took off like a racehorse.
There are a million articles online about plant care, what plants are easy for beginners, what plants look best in Instagram photos. I’ll touch on some of those things momentarily, but first I want to tell you that even if you feel like you have the blackest thumb, you CAN take care of a plant if it’s something you really want in your life. If it’s not a responsibility you want to take on, that’s cool too. There are lots of convincing faux plants out there, and never underestimate the power of a bouquet of grocery store flower to bring some life to a room. I’ll put some pictures of my plants here for you to enjoy. For those of you who want to become successful plant parents, here are some things I think are helpful to know:
There are a bunch of articles around the internet to the tune of “Best Plants for Beginners.” These almost always include, among others, pothos, snake plants, and ZZ plants. I can confirm from experience that pothos and snake plants are extremely forgiving. The thing most of the articles fail to mention about those three, however, is they are all toxic to cats and dogs. If you have curious fur babies like mine (my cat, Celia, will try to eat EVERYTHING), consider where you’re placing these guys and maybe look for a less toxic option.
- One thing I’ve found to help discourage nibbling is I spray every plant that comes within reach of my fur babies with bitter apple spray before I bring it in the house. It’s not perfect, but it does make a difference when the very first bite tastes bad, and it doesn’t hurt the plants.
- My go-to source for checking toxicity of plants to pets is the ASPCA. They have an extremely comprehensive website where you can look up plants by common and scientific name. If you have kiddos, I would recommend looking up toxicity for humans as well.
- Keep in mind some plants might upset your pet’s stomach even if they aren’t technically toxic. Celia has a very sensitive stomach and has thrown up a few plants on the ASPCA safe list just because they were new for her when she nibbled on them.
Some easy plants to start with as you get the hang of a watering schedule are plants that let you know when they’re thirsty by drooping or curling their leaves. I’ve found nerve plants, pothos, and peace lilies all fit this category. Again, check toxicity because lilies are EXTREMELY toxic, expecially to cats.
When in doubt, skip watering. The best way I’ve found to check if a plant needs water is to stick my finger in the soil and see how dry it feels. For the longest time I tried to get around this because I didn’t want to get my fingers dirty, and I over watered a lot of plants this way. Most plants can recovering from being under watered for short periods of time, but if they’re over watered and the roots start to rot it’s usually game over.
I highly recommend finding a nursery you like and making friends with the people who work there. There are lots of options for buying plants online, but I find a lot of peace of mind in going to a nursery. You get the thrill of supporting a local business, you can look at the plants before you buy them, and you can probably get the plants at a much lower cost than buying the same thing from an online retailer. You can also get lots of great advice from the nursery staff to help you troubleshoot issues, find plants for specific areas of your home, and discover new gems.
Side note on tips from the local nursery staff: I learned something really interesting from my friend at my favorite nursery here in Austin. You know all those articles about how great snake plants are? What they don’t tell you is snake plants grow these weird nodes on their root systems that, over time, put pressure on their containers. If they’re in a glass planter, they can actually crack the planter if the pressure gets too big. A good way around this is my next tip…
One of the easiest ways to ensure a plant has good drainage is to keep it in the plastic grow pot it comes in from the nursery. For the longest time I was buying cute ceramic planters online which didn’t have drainage holes. I would repot my new plant acquisitions in these vessels with some rocks at the bottom to try to provide some drainage. Then I would inevitably overwater, the roots would sit in it and rot, and the plant would die. When I found out about the snake plant node thing I realized I could just put the grow pots directly in the planters, and it was a game changer. My plants have drainage, I don’t get dirt everywhere repotting things, and it dramatically expanded my available planter options. This is a great budget option for large plants because giant pots are expensive. I usually just find a cute basket and put the grow pot in there with a plastic drainage tray, like I did with my bird of paradise and an IKEA basket I painted with leftover paint I had on hand.
You can grow your plant collection by propagating cuttings from your existing plants. There are several different ways to propagate plants. The easiest is to cut off a piece of the plant and stick it in water until roots grow. You can propagate many vining plants, like pothos, and succulents this way. Another way is to look for plants that grow little offshoots, which you can cut off and repot in soil. I’ve propagated bromeliads and snake plants this way. The final option involves some kind of root division, which is still too intimidating to me to try. I think you can propagate Chinese money plants this way.
This concludes the informative section of this post. I know it’s already pretty long, so I wouldn’t blame you if you bail here. If you’re still interested, though, here are some pictures of my plants:
My Christmas cactus is probably my favorite plant in my collection because it was grown from a cutting from my mom’s Christmas cactus, which is now about thirty years old. Hers was grown from a cutting from my grandma’s Christmas cactus. I cannot describe the joy it brings me when it blooms like this. (The winter blooms are why it’s called a Christmas cactus-because it blooms around Christmas time. Although I’ve been told mine is technically an Easter cactus, it blooms in the early winter when it gets cold).
My calathea pinstripe is one of my other favorites. I love the pretty pink and yellow stripes on the leaves. It’s also a member of a family of plants referred to as “prayer plants” because they close up at night when it starts getting dark and then open their leaves again in the morning when the sun comes out. This guy has been nibbled on a bit. I’m probably overdue for another hit of bitter apple.
Last one…this peace lily is one of the most recent additions to my plant collection. It lives in my office with some of my other toxic plants because I keep the door closed, so Celia won’t be able to get in there and eat it. It was a fun pick because my friend at the nursery suggested it to me. Most peace lilies have more solid leaves, but this variety has this cool pinstripe effect. We’re really curious what color the flowers will be when it blooms. I’ll post an update on Instagram if I figure it out.