So You Want to Buy Your First Houseplant

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  February 12, 2018 — 3 Comments

Soil has spilled all over my kitchen floor. It happened while I was dumping another withered plant—this time, a sad collard green—from its pot into the trash. The mess, and the funeral, is for a good cause though.

Today, I bravely enter new territory: My neighborhood garden center, where I will adopt my first, fledgling plant family. You might remember my pledge to become a better plant parent from the first post in this series. Now, my adventure begins.

Erica's starter plant family

My new plant family. Aww.

For moral (and horticultural) support, I’ve asked Wade Wheatley to be my fearless guide. Wheatley, the Garden’s tropical greenhouse horticulturist, knows a thing or two about indoor plants. His love for all things botanical began back in fourth grade, when his grandmother gifted him a clipping of one of her many houseplants. When the clipping grew into its own plant, “It blew my fourth-grade mind,” he said.

wade_wNow, Wheatley has—count them—almost 70 houseplants. He even keeps an Excel spreadsheet to track the Latin name of each plant, where it came from, its parentage, care preferences, and age. An Excel spreadsheet, you guys. This man is not messing around.

For the likes of me, Wheatley recommends a more forgiving collection of starter plants. For those of us new to this plant parenting thing, starter plants can survive on low maintenance care, even benign neglect. They’re independent teens who don’t like too much attention. When you pick them up from school and ask them about their day, they say, “Fine.”

With help from Wheatley, I plan a crew of tropical plants that would do well in my small studio. Most houseplants are native to tropical or subtropical habitats where temperatures remain above freezing, which means they can survive year-round in our warm homes. My apartment is hardly freezing (the overactive radiators make sure of that) and I have two windowsills—an east-facing one with bright, direct light, and a west-facing one with low, indirect light. I also have a cat who, although she cannot be bothered with houseplants, I don’t want to accidentally poison.

With my beginner-level skills and apartment limits in mind, here’s what Wheatley recommends:

Six Starter Plants for the New Plant Parent

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Now that I’ve watered this ZZ plant, maybe I’ll grab a glass for myself…

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
Meet ZZ, the poster child of starter plants. “ZZ plants can handle dryness if you forget to water them, and are unbothered by low light levels (though bright is better),” said Wheatley. A good rule of thumb is, if you think you should water ZZ, wait a day, and then wait three more days. This guy likes it dry, so I’ll plan to put him in my west-facing window.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

“Praying” this plant makes it. I really like it in this spot.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)
Known for its variegated foliage, or funky leaf patterns, the prayer plant’s leaves move. At night, the leaves respond to the dark by gradually turning up, then folding back down during the day. Plus, they’re easy to care for. “The prayer plant can handle it pretty dark, but likes even soil moisture,” said Wheatley. When the top ½ inch of soil feels dry, I’ll give it a drink.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider plant’s runners can be cut and replanted very easily.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Arachnophobes, fear not. Spider plants are easy to grow and do well without much water. “Spider plants can go a little drier, and make a fun hanging basket if you let its runners spill over the side of the pot,” said Wheatley. Never mind that they look like spiders dangling by a thread above your head. Just go to sleep.

Aloe hybrid

I love this aloe’s gorgeous bloom.

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)
Though I was a little afraid the coral flowers make for a good cat toy, Wheatley told me not to worry. “Aloe isn’t poisonous, should your cat find it tasty,” he said. “It requires a lot of light, but it’s very drought tolerant.” Read: Aloes love neglect.

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

Flamingo flower & east-facing window: check!

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)
An easy way to add color to your home, anthuriums bloom bold red and pink flowers. “Anthuriums are generally problem-free and easy to grow. They can handle a wide range of light but would probably do best in a bright, east-facing window,” said Wheatley.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

So. Fuzzy. In love with this succulent already.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)
Succulents can be deceivingly tricky to care for. They thrive on dryness, so most people kill them by over-watering. This is another one for my bright, east-facing window sill.

Armed with Wheatley’s advice, I push open the greenhouse door at my local plant center, and my glasses fog up. Water trickles into a nearby koi fish pond, and birds chirp softly in a cage. I unwrap my scarf. An employee spots me wiping my lenses and asks, “Do you need help?” My plant blindness is showing—literally.

The employee points me to an aisle of easy-to-care-for, relatively-indestructible, can’t-possibly-mess-this-up plants. People go about their work around me, tending to the shelves of anthuriums, cacti, and orchids. They seem to have a peaceful glow to them, and I wonder how long it’ll be until I’m gliding around my own apartment, watering my plants in a blissed-out state. Science says nature makes us happier, after all. It’s only a matter of time.

Follow along with Plant Parenthood as I track the success of my starter plant family.

After assembling my plant gang, I ask Wheatley if there was anything else I should grab. Do I need pots? (No. You should only repot a plant after at least one year.) Do I need plant food? (Sure! General all-purpose fertilizers will do the trick. Just follow the instructions.) Seems easy enough. I grab my bag of plants, and turn to go.

“Wait!” An employee hands me another bag of wrapped plants. “You almost forgot half your kids.”

Next: Tips for keeping an eye on the “kids.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The hand-carved Buddha is in the house. A circa-1850 glazed Chinese jar is filled with green Cymbidium orchids native to Asia. And we’re pampering 10,000 other orchids so they’ll be in full flower for Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show.

Lighting crews, horticulturists, and dozens of other staff members are putting the finishing touches on Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s biggest flower exhibition of the year. The Show features sweeps of orchids native to Asia, blooming with color and scent. In our heated greenhouses and galleries, the exhibition runs February 10 to March 25 and kicks off with a Members’ Preview night on Friday, February 9.

A circa-1900s hand-carved Buddha is unwrapped for display by Gabe Hutchison

A circa-1900s hand-carved Buddha, on loan from Pagoda Red, is being prepared for display. In parts of Asia, such as Myanmar, orchids are used as offerings to Buddha.

This year’s Orchid Show is infused with a deep sense of history and culture, thanks to our friends at Pagoda Red galleries in Winnetka and Chicago. Pagoda Red loaned us many lovely items—including the circa-1900 Buddha and vintage glazed jar from Shanxi province, China—that helped us bring the theme Asia in Bloom to life.

You’ll see Pagoda Red’s pieces throughout the Show, as grace notes to the stories and legends we’re telling about orchids in Asia. The narrative includes fairies, native headhunters, and the secret ingredient (we cannot vouch for this, sorry) in love potions.  

From dream to reality

Here’s a peek at how we make our design ideas happen:  

This idea for an entryway was inspired by a modern Japanese tea house. It started with a sketch by Gabriel Hutchison, the Garden’s exhibitions and programs production manager.

Gabriel Hutchison's Japanese tea house sketch illustrates his concept for the show.

Gabriel Hutchison’s Japanese tea house sketch illustrates his concept for the show.

Carpentry supervisor Andy Swets built a frame for the tea house and constructed the finished walls.

Frame for the 2018 Orchid Show "tea house" entryway

A recessed panel in the frame will house a “window” featuring orchids.

A fabricated "window" backed by shoji screens for the Orchid Show 2018

The finished window, backed with shoji screens

Horticulturist Brian Barker sketched this idea for a Japanese-inspired dry garden surrounded by rolled bamboo walls:

Sketch of the Joutras Gallery bamboo walls and dry garden concept

It took three crew members two days to get the rolled bamboo walls just right.

The finished bamboo wall in the Joutras Gallery as part of the Orchid Show 2018.

The finished walls support moss baskets filled with orchids native to Asia in the Joutras Gallery.

Brian and senior horticulturist Salina Wunderle also thought it would be cool (pun intended) to shade orchids in the Semitropical Greenhouse with handmade parasols from Myanmar:

Handmade parasols from Myanmar hang in the greenhouse.

Handmade parasols filter light from the greenhouse roof above the “checkerboard.”

Meanwhile, our horticulturists are keeping a close eye on the 10,000 orchids, each of which has its own water, humidity, temperature, and light requirements.

Other new features

New this year is a display of the graceful Japanese flower arrangements known as ikebana, with orchids as the focus. Also new is Orchids After Hours on Thursdays, from 4 to 8 p.m., with Asian beer, sake, sushi, poke bowls, and other light fare for purchase.

Rhynchostylis orchid

This Rhynchostylis orchid, native to the humid forests of India and Southeast Asia, was kept in our new orchid house at 60 degrees Fahrenheit so it wouldn’t bloom too early.

Remember that the look of the Orchid Show changes throughout, as new orchids come into bloom and the ikebana displays change. And the Semitropical Greenhouse? You’ll get a different view each time, depending on the angle of the winter sun as it shines through the patterned parasols on to the orchids.  

Pro tip: Save time and buy tickets and parking in advance; members park for free. Share your photos: #CBGOrchidShow


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

You’ve undoubtedly noticed a tall, vertical grass, planted en masse, swaying in the wind at the entrance to the mall, in your neighbor’s yard, or most likely, at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) has, for good reason, become a staple in perennial gardens.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ by Daryl Mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This hybrid of two species native to Europe and Asia can thank German nurseryman Karl Foerster (1874–1970), for discovering the species in the 1930s along a railway in Germany. It is reported that he pulled the emergency brake on the train he was riding in order to collect the plant. The cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’ was named to honor him.

Karl Foerster, son of a painter and an astronomer, was well known for his unique and innovative plant selections at his nursery in Potsdam-Bornim, Germany. The nursery focused on breeding hardy perennials from all over the world. Foerster successfully bred approximately 370 crosses, with a particular interest in clumping grasses, Delphiniums, and Phlox. Originally propagated at Foerster’s nursery, Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’ is another perennial that remains popular today. Foerster’s nursery endured difficult times over the years yet managed to survive the Great Depression and World War II, during which he is said to have employed Jewish friends despite the risk. As a plant breeder and garden designer, Foerster helped to popularize the use of grasses in garden design and heavily influenced the “New German Garden Style” which focuses on low-maintenance gardening and four-season interest. Those concepts continue to be popular in garden design today. 

Two more modern-day revolutionaries in the field of landscape architecture are Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. Both were inspired and influenced by Karl Foerster. In his book Gardening with Nature, van Sweden remarks “Foerster’s great contribution was to make plants the most important element of the garden, especially perennials and grasses. He was highly sensitive to seasonal variations and promoted the garden as a place of learning.” With inspiration from the arts, travel, and the influence of other garden styles, Oehme and van Sweden pioneered the “New American Garden Style.”

Mimicking the American prairie, this dynamic gardening style blends both native and cultivated plants with a goal of low maintenance. One can easily see similarities to the “New German Style.” At the Chicago Botanic Garden, Evening Island was designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates landscape architecture firm and is representative of the “New American Garden Style.” Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island, softening the transition between the formal gardens of the main island and the native Dixon Prairie. With perhaps a nod to the past, Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a favorite of Oehme and van Sweden and in my opinion one of the stars of the Evening Island plant palette.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sandy-colored Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a cornerstone of the landscape design by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

The most notable characteristic of Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ are the 5-foot flower stems that tower over a shorter but dense clump of narrow leaves. Purple-tinged plumes of flowers emerge in late spring and as the seeds (which are sterile) mature, the flower stalk turns a sandy color by fall. The seed stems continue to act as a vertical accent through the winter months making it truly a four-season plant. While full sun and well-drained soil with adequate moisture are ideal, this plant can tolerate some shade and heavier clay soils. However, you will see fewer flowers and floppier foliage with more shade. Drifts of this clumping grass are reminiscent of a field of wheat dancing back and forth in the wind. Interrupting the sweeps of grass with a pop of color from another perennial such as Leichtlins’ lily (Lilium leichtlinii), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) will add an element of surprise to the garden. While planning your garden for this year, take a leaf out of Foerster’s book and give Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ a try! 

Sources:

Reimann, Dorothy. “Herr der blühenden Gärten.” Monumente, June 2005, https://www.monumente-online.de/de/ausgaben/2005/3/herr-der-bluehenden-gaerten.php?seite=1#.WldsJK6nGUl (accessed January 23, 2018).

Rettig, Larry. “Karl Foerster’s Lasting Imprint on the World of Horticulture,” Cubits.org (blog), April 26, 2010, http://cubits.org/articlesongardening/articles/view/325/.

Van Sweden, James. Gardening With Nature: How James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme Plant Slopes, Meadows, Outdoor Rooms & Garden Screens. Random House Gardening Series, 1997.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Does This Houseplant Make Me Look Like an Adult?

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  January 17, 2018 — 8 Comments

Hi, my name is Erica. I’m a bad plant parent.

The irony that I work at the Chicago Botanic Garden is not lost on me. (Please don’t fire me, plant bosses.) The problem is, I have no idea how to take care of plants. Not really.

Erica Masini, blog author and plant parent

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Walk into my apartment and tell me what you see: A wasteland of unsuspecting money trees and innocent spiderworts. A drooping pothos in the corner, desperate for water. Squeezing the life out of my little green pals does not bring me joy. And yet, here I am, a lone wolf among my jungalow-dwelling, millennial peers: A plant-killer.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever asked these questions: Does my monstera prefer direct sun? Will an aloe vera kill my cat? What if I get too caught up in my very important plans (read: binging Mindhunter on Netflix) that I forget to water my fern every day? Why would I even want a plant? (More on that later).

One of my goals is to have more life in my home; to lay down some roots, so to speak (plant-pun intended). And so I invite you to follow along with me as I chronicle my gardening adventures in Plant Parenthood—a blog series about growing a relationship with plants.

With the Garden’s horticulture staff as my guide, I’ll learn the ins and outs of soil, pests, and shade. I’ll make mistakes. I’ll definitely kill more plants.

But along the way, I’ll learn something. And I hope you will, too.

TL;DR? Click here for the “Three Things Every New #PlantParent Should Know”

A wee "air plant"

One thing I’ve learned so far is I’m not the only young person new to gardening. The 2016 National Gardening Report found of the six million Americans new to gardening, five million of them were 18- to 34-year-olds. Millennials, according to a widely shared Washington Post article last year, are gardening indoors because they’ve moved to small, urban apartments and crave nature. Look no further than Instagram to see the evidence: hashtags like #urbanjungle and #jungalow call up all sorts of gauzy photos of apartments brimming with foliage.

What’s more: These plant parents seem genuinely proud to show off their blossoming, plant-baby families. How do they do it, I wonder? Where is a recovering plant-ignoramus to start?

I went to Fred Spicer for advice. As executive vice president and director of the Garden, he understands plants. Plus, he wears a gardening hat 80 percent of the time, so I figure he must know something.

Fred Spicer, executive vice president and director of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Fred Spicer, plant guru

Turns out “plant blindness”—or the inability to notice, appreciate, and understand plants—is a common problem among humans. The term was coined in 1998 by botanist-educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler, who argued humans generally connect more with animals, despite the fact that plants fuel all life on earth. Think back to grade school science class, when you first learned about photosynthesis and plant biology. Have you thought much about it since? I began to worry about the imbalance of affection toward my cat versus my definitely dead lemon cypress.

“Humans generally don’t think too much about plants, unless we’re eating them,” said Spicer. “We’re animals, our pets are animals, we generally know what animals want. Plants are different. They don’t have the same biology we do. So they’re mysterious to us.”

For instance, plants aren’t active, at least not in the way animals are active. Their activity happens on a different timeline than ours. Humans pay attention to big and rapid changes, like when the leaves change during the fall, or when trees are bare in winter. But the small things, like a budding leaf, we don’t always stop to notice.

OK, so plants aren’t animals. How, then, do I begin to understand them?

Here’s what Spicer recommends:

Three things every new #PlantParent should ask:

  1. Light — No houseplant lives in the dark. Spicer asks whether your living space is plant hospitable: Do you have natural light? Are there places in your home that get more direct/indirect light? If not, are you open to artificial lighting, like grow lamps?
  2. Maintenance — How much do you want to interact with your plants? “Do you want to fuss with them every day? Do you want to be able to leave them for a week? Some plants need more attention than others,” said Spicer. Be realistic about how much time and energy you can spend.
  3. Purpose — What do you want to get out of your plants? Spicer asks: “Do you want to eat them? Do you want to see flowers? Do you want to create a particular design aesthetic?” Knowing your goals can help you pick the right plants.

As I sit with these questions, I think about a plant I picked up from the Garden last week. It was an azalea, a small shrub with white flowers that look like snowflakes. Left over from a recent exhibition, it most likely would die within a week, but nevertheless, as I placed it in the backseat of my car to take it home, I caught myself reaching for the seat belt. I almost buckled it in. Maybe plant parenthood won’t be so unnatural after all.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pop quiz: What kind of natural habitat is increasing in urban areas? This is not a trick question. Rather, the answer offers a slice of good news on a planet that has been increasingly turning from green to gray.

Green roofs are on the rise in cities, according to Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas, Ph.D., who has a newly minted doctorate degree from the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University’s graduate program in plant biology and conservation. In Illinois, where more than 99 percent of native prairie has been lost since the 1800s, this is especially good news. 

Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas in the Plant Science Lab

Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas, Ph.D., in the Plant Science Lab

Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas, a former biology teacher, spent six years studying these engineered habitats and their potential to support biodiversity.

The plant scientist is now eager to share her findings: When started carefully and with a long-term plan in mind, these sites do grow up to support species, natural communities, and genetic diversity.

“When you have these three pieces working, you have a good foundation that should sustain plant life over long periods of time and live through environmental changes, and that look and function like a diverse prairie,” she said.

Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas examined shallow (up to six inches of soil depth), low-moisture roofs from Glencoe, Illinois, to Neubrandenburg, Germany, before reaching that conclusion. While the roofs within the United States are generally younger, some in her German sites were up to 93 years old, providing a mix of data about green roofs at all ages. She also studied data sets and conducted shorter-term experiments to clarify the qualities green roofs need to succeed.

Setting up insect traps in 2013 on a green roof on top of the Berliner Wasserbetriebe building in downtown Berlin

Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas sets up insect traps in 2013 on a green roof in downtown Berlin.

Her work had its ups and downs. She arrived in Germany looking for similarities, expecting the insect and plant species on one roof to mirror that on the others. Rather, she found differences between roof gardens. After a deep dive into data, she found the secret. Although the plant species differed between gardens, those that grew well shared the traits of being stress-tolerant and adept at establishing themselves in new areas.

She was concerned by the lack of diversity on individual roof gardens both in Germany and in her study sites in Chicago.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, she set up an experiment to test how different soil types would affect which plants were successful, and whether she could create a more diverse community on one rooftop by planting both rock and sand prairies.

She planted her experimental plots on the Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Green Roof Garden North on the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center and monitored activity over three years. She found success in growing a more diverse habitat. In related work at the same site, she confirmed that native plantings, rather than the common sedum plant mix used on roof tops, offered benefits similar to a native prairie when it comes to storing rainwater, for example.

The Plant Science Center’s Green Roof Garden is an important resource. Planted in 2009, it serves as a living laboratory, classroom, research site, and a source of inspiration to visitors.

The north side of the green roof of the Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Science Center in 2015, including a blooming population Penstemon hirsutus used in one of Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas' experiments

A blooming population of Penstemon hirsutus was part of  Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas’ experiments.

She then expanded to include plots on the Ellis Goodman Family Foundation Green Roof Garden South to study genetic diversity. She compared the genetic diversity of populations established from nursery stock to natural populations, finding more diversity in the natural populations grown from wild collected seed.

On the heels of that finding, she studied populations on green roofs in Chicago near Lake Michigan to find out if the plants were able to share their genetic material with plants on neighboring roofs through pollination. She was thrilled to confirm that they did, as the exchange of diverse genetic material is essential for the long-term health of a species.

Although there are limitations to green roof gardens, mainly due to the lack of soil depth and disconnected setting, Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas is optimistic about their ability to sustain native species. She has presented her work at numerous conferences across the globe to academics and those in the landscaping industry.

Two prairie species in Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas' experimental plots blooming on a green roof on the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago

Two prairie species in Dr. Ksiazek-Mikenas’ experimental plots—Ratibida pinnata (foreground, right) and Lespedeza capitata (background, left)—bloom on a green roof on the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

“In the future, I hope that green roofs can continue to provide ecosystem services to people but also increasingly support a wide variety of urban biodiversity,” she said.

The motivated researcher is ready to move ahead with her career and intends to continue to bring her unique perspective to future students and to the development of more green infrastructure in this growing world.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org