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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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