How to Rebuild a Plant Collection — What to Do After Your Plants Die
I have never identified myself as a plant parent like many people in the plant community do. (How many? #Plantparenthood has more than 1.1 million posts on Instagram alone.) I see, people care for plants to keep them alive, so plants are their “children”. Even so, a parenting relationship has never been one I’ve had with my plants. Maybe that makes me a bad plant parent. Maybe that’s why I’ll start over.
In March 2020, I had just moved around 30 plants to a new apartment that was already occupied by someone else. My plants fit awkwardly in corners and on table tops, are placed on a newly hung shelf in the living room or banished to the balcony to accommodate the plant-loving cat. They made someone else’s room feel a little more like my home.
As life began to feel increasingly isolated during the pandemic, I looked for signs of life in my plants. Budding leaves unraveled despite all the adversities in their new, harsh environment. Despite the dying leaves below, nature was resilient. I felt like I could be too.
At some point I had to leave, so I left my plants in the care of the other above. It did not work. A few months later I returned to a plant graveyard. Some brown skeletons lingered; others were just ghosts in empty pots. I’m not sure which was worse: seeing their crispy dead shapes or never knowing what they looked like after life was gone.
I was angry first, then despised, then sad. Nobody can really take care of your plants like you, the person who cared for them and were cared for in return. I cried. I mourned. I got rid of the remains. Some goodbyes were tough – my Chinese Evergreen, my very first plant that survived several rounds of pests and produced strong white roots and flowers in the warmer months; The violin leaf fig I had cut from my brother’s lush tree, my first attempt at propagation. Other goodbyes, I hate to say, were a relief. I was grateful for all of my plants, but I didn’t connect with all of them in the same way.
Finally I left this apartment again, not exactly ready for my new beginning, but turned up anyway. I am learning from my loss and entering this new phase with a more thoughtful approach. I try to build a plant collection full of specimens that I enjoy caring for and that in return will give me what I’m looking for. Reconstruction has the advantage of learning from lived experience on a technical level, certainly, but above all on an emotional level. This is how I handle my new plant collection carefully:
Think about what you want to get out of your plant collection and choose the plants accordingly.
I want to feel like an active part of my plants’ life, so I prefer plants that require regular spraying and occasional pruning. In return, I like to see frequent signs of life – things like active growth and pimped leaves after watering. Slow, low maintenance growers like Dracaenas may not have a place in my new collection, but philodendrons with wine. In fact, I already have two: a Heartleaf and a Brasil. Another way to accomplish this is to focus on productive plants like fruit trees or reliable statue-like plants like snake plants.
Check out your local kindergartens and find one that is in tune with you.
Different nurseries have different plants; They look after their plants differently and give you different information, including who they are from and care recommendations. You can hit the jackpot and fall in love with the first kindergarten you go to, or like me, you can visit three Home Depots and four kindergartens before you find the place you trust. You may even shop exclusively online. A good feeling for your collection starts with the buying process. Make it comfortable.
Include plants that make you happy when you look at them, then throw in some placeholders.
People always ask, “What is your favorite plant?” My goal is to make a collection that I can’t choose from. Some plants feel meaningful – an orchid, my grandfather’s favorite, and a Chinese periwinkle, received as gifts in honor of the lost. Others who attracted me for their looks and I just thought it would be cool to meet them, like a Philodendron Lickety Split with its giant leaves unfolding like claws. Don’t get anything just because it’s popular on Instagram or because Google says it’s easy to maintain. Look at the plants at your disposal, touch their foliage, and see if you can connect.
It’s unrealistic to think that you can bring something created outside into your home and never see a pest. I try to use it as a bonding experience with my plants and as an opportunity to slow down. Take the time to examine each leaf, carefully bathe it with a sponge, cut off any non-detachable parts, shake the soil up, and top it up with a thorough spray of neem oil or suitable treatment. The care process can be just as therapeutic for you as it is for your plant.
Document the journeys of your plants.
Whether you want to keep track of photos, spreadsheets, journal entries, or some other method, documenting the journeys of your plants will alert you to things you might otherwise have missed – both potential problems like unusually quick drying soil or discoloration on celebrations, such as increased growth rate. The more you notice, the better you know your plant and the better you can care for your plant. Observing details puts you in the moment, a principle of mindfulness, and keeping track of those details can help you achieve your long-term goals. Once you know what you’re looking for, it will feel like your collection is growing on its own.
Alissa Schulman is a freelance writer specializing in products, home, lifestyle and entertainment. She has written for the Good Housekeeping Institute, Architectural Digest, MTV News, and more.