Plant Therapy: What Tending to Plants Taught Me
and continues to teach me, especially during these times
Plants and I, we have a very colorful history. I’ve been trying to start, grow and maintain a garden for years—and yet, I still can’t say I have a green thumb. In fact, I am what they would call a plant murderer. These hands have tried growing flowers and they always die within seven days. I moved on to “lucky” plants and they never survive past a few weeks. Then, I became obsessed with growing our own food, but that didn’t last very long. Cacti and succulents weren’t safe from my brown hands either. They shriveled up and died—especially the succulents.
My process was over-thought or maybe I was overconfident, and now looking back, my plants were definitely over watered or completely neglected. I gave up multiple times and secretly resented those who could effortlessly grow and maintain a garden. They have what, an indoor garden? Ornamental plants? Why, what for, I once scoffed.
It wasn’t until I was given a Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ) or a Welcome plant in 2016 that I realized maybe, just maybe, hope is not lost.
When I first brought it home, the ZZ was still small, like it had just been propagated. It lived on my work desk for a while, but it turned brown and then yellow. So I moved it outside of the house, right by the door so I could see it whenever I left and came home. Days turned to weeks and ZZ seemed all the same—it wasn’t dying, but it wasn’t growing either. I left it alone and I guess nature just did it’s thing. It got enough sunlight, was watered when it rained and though it was mostly neglected (by me), it grew. I woke up one morning and saw that there were now two stems in my tiny yellow container. Naturally, I got excited and gave it the attention I thought (yes, thought, no science here) it needed. But to my dismay, it happened again; worse than death, it stayed as it was.
“But to my dismay, it happened again; worse than death, it stayed as it was”
We decided to move to an apartment closer to my workplace, and left ZZ in its outdoor spot at the old house. It was left there for months, with no one but its natural environment to care for it. It wasn’t until it grew a couple more stems and was bursting out of the can that I finally took notice. We brought it with us, repotted it in a much bigger container and from there, my ~real~ plant parenthood began.
There were still deaths (more than I can count) but the plants lived longer than a week. I learned to actually observe each plant I bought and touched their soil—to check for moisture and quality. I also stopped buying certain types of plants because I couldn’t bear the thought of killing another one for the sake of pretty and accepted the fact that maybe, I just don’t get them and that’s fine.
Out on our balcony, we grew and propagated basil, kaffir lime, rosemary (okay, my partner did this), Sansevieria cylindrica, aloe vera and a few more ornamental plants. They thrived depending on the season, their exposure to light and shade, the soil quality, the time we water them, and their effect on our pets (read: pothos are toxic to cats) and vice versa.
Now that we’ve moved to our second apartment much closer to home, our plant family has grown two times its original size. One could say the pandemic caused me to go on a plant buying spree thereby requiring me to upgrade my plant parenting skills because it’s what’s been giving me joy the past couple of months. The thrill of getting your hands on a new plant, the excitement of seeing a new leaf unfurl, the tedious but absolutely satisfying task of repotting overgrown plants and separating the bulb and roots of a once tiny sprout, and watching propagated leaves root. Conversely, it comes with it’s own set of challenges that will frustrate and sometimes infuriate you: pests, including mites and spiders that infest the soil, root rot from overwatering, burnt leaves from too much sun exposure, the list goes on.
It can be incredibly demanding, so why not just give up or do anything at all? Why waste all that time on plants that may or may not survive? Because gardening is much like life itself, isn’t it? You can’t just grab whatever seed you can, throw it in a hole and hope for the best. There’s visioning, plenty of research and planning involved. Of course, you can’t expect to grow a forest if you don’t tend to your shoots; you gotta put in the work, too, to get the results you want.
Gardening is, almost too often, a metaphor for life. It’s rife with lessons mentioned above and in change and patience; in adaptability and commitment.
Today, ZZ, which contrary to what others say thrives on neglect, overgrew its pot for the third time in four years because finally, it was given the right amount of care and attention. We dug up the plant over the long weekend, divided it into sections, checked for rot, washed the roots and replanted each section, resulting in five new ZZs.
Now, here’s to hoping they all survive.
Art Alexandra Lara