There’s an adage about how if you can’t care for a plant, you’ll never find love. Or maybe it’s not an adage, but it totally could be. We know that plants soothe us physically (aloe, echinacea, etc.) and emotionally (your favorite apology flower of choice here). We know that trees have intricate underground networks that communicate with one another. And forest bathing has basically become its own section in the bookstore.
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, caring for potted plants has even been shown to lower blood pressure. Further research suggests that interacting with indoor plants can encourage healing, lessen pain, stress, and anxiety, and increase happiness. Some hospitals, such as NYU Langone Tisch, have formed their own horticultural therapy programs. All of this, combined with innate beauty, may explain why houseplants have come to rule social media and high-end garden shops seem to be popping up like spring bulbs. Which is all wonderful! Unless you’re someone whose thumb is so black it could just wither and fall off.
“There’s a plant for everyone, but you have to be honest about how much care you can give.”
While there are many benefits that come from living with plants, to unlock most of them you have to interact with and care for them, says Leigh Anne Starling, the president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. In other words, looking at them is only part of the benefit. Here’s how you do it: “It fundamentally comes down to water and light,” says Rebecca Bullene, the founder of Greenery NYC, who recommends looking at the space where you want to keep your plant and taking note of when light would reach it and whether it would need to be moved to a more light-soaked area at different times of the year.
Bullene is very encouraging: “There’s a plant for everyone, but you have to be honest about how much care you can give. If you’re not going to be consistent, or will travel a lot and don’t have a lot of light, try a Sansevieria snake plant, Dracaena, or an Aglaonema.” Think of them as houseplants for dummies. Another word of caution: Just like us, plants need their space to thrive. Sometimes the best practice is benign neglect; overwatering is the silent killer. (A good florist should be happy to give you a clear idea of a specimen’s moisture, light, temperature, and nutrient needs.)
Much of the flora we see in media is designed to entice us, like the mouthwatering bowl of pasta on the cover of a food magazine. But that “pasta” is often a prop made with plastic and coated in polyurethane. And those plants, while not made of plastic (usually), aren’t realistic for our lives. “I used to refer to it as fiddle fever,” says Erin Marino, the director of brand marketing at the New York- and California-based plant boutique the Sill.
“People bring in these gorgeous photos from Architectural Digest and Apartment Therapy that have gigantic fiddle leaf figs in them, and they might not be able to afford the apartment, but they can buy the plant. I know from either the setting of the room or the windows in those photos that those fiddles, which like a huge, warm environment with a lot of sun, are put there just as a prop for the shoot,” Marino says.
Marino recommends a pothos plant (a trailing vine that does well in low, indirect light), Monstera deliciosa (the Sill’s most requested plant of 2019), and Pilea peperomioides (the Chinese money plant “that was all over Instagram this year,” says Marino). As with everything in life, it’s wise to look beyond trends. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, succulents, they’re so easy!’” says Marino. “But if you don’t have a lot of light, a succulent is impossible. And air plants need more water than any other plant — they need a bath every week if you want them to be happy.”
“There can be a current attitude that plants are disposable,” says Bullene. “When a desk orchid dies a slow death, a person starts to have a negative, stressful reaction to plants. That’s the opposite of what it makes us feel like to be outside walking in the woods or in Central Park on a sunny day, and just being around living, thriving nature.”
For those who can admit our failings but still want the perfect shot of green in our homes, there is no shame in going faux. Stores like the Sill sell beautiful, believable fakes (the much-lusted-after fiddle leaf fig, for example), with pots to match your color palette. And it might still give you a boost of happiness when you remember to dust its leaves.
Inspired to bring some green into your life? Here are a few things you’ll need to help your garden grow.
Watering Can: “You want a long, thin spout so that you can get the water right on the soil,” says Joyce Mast of Bloomscape. The Light + Ladder Hadron Ceramic Watering Can is chic and understated, and gets the water right where it needs to go.
Mister: “This sounds a little strange when I say you need a mister too, but you want a really fine mist on the foliage, not a heavy spray of water,” says Mast. The Modern Sprout Brass Mister spritzes and looks chic on a table.
Pruning Shears: A good pair of gardening shears can keep houseplants looking sharp and healthy by trimming down dead bits and containing growth to your desired planter. ARS has the perfect pair.
Decorative Pot: “The fastest way to set up a houseplant to fail is with a pot with no drainage,” says Mast. Pick any decorative pot you’d like and drill some holes yourself. Try something similar to this mid-century style one, which comes with a drainage hole and plug already — easy.