Archives For plant parenthood

When Watering Your Succulents is Overkill

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  March 27, 2018 — 5 Comments

When I was a kid, one of my chores was to water all of the houseplants. Each day, I filled up the plastic watering can and padded around the house, filling each pot until it was almost overflowing. I loved listening for the faint trickle of water as it soaked through the soil. I sensed the plants were thirsty, and I liked knowing I was giving them a much-needed drink.

Cut to my adult apartment, one week after I brought home my first plant family, and two of my babies look frazzled. When I first set them on the kitchen windowsill they were healthy and strong, but now they’re, well…you be the judge.

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (before)

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (after)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (before)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (after)

I think water is the culprit.

Aloes and succulents are deceivingly tricky houseplants to care for. The others in my home—the prayer plant, spider plant, zz plant, and flamingo flower—look fine, by the way. But these two prefer drier soil; daily watering would be their worst nightmare. I was a new plant-mom, though, and wanted to give them a nice warm welcome.

So when I first got home, I drenched them both with water.

Maybe not the best idea.

Within a week, the aloe’s beautiful coral flowers had shriveled up and fallen off. In a panic, I wrote to Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Wade Wheatley and asked if I’d overdone it with my watering. He suggested it may just be the end of the aloe’s bloom cycle (their flowers bloom from winter to spring), and that it is completely natural for the blooms to fall. Phew!

The succulent, on the other hand, doesn’t seem normal. The bottom half of the leaves have dropped (some even fell off with the slightest touch), and what’s left of the leaves seem to be wilting and smushy. I remembered Wheatley saying that if a succulent’s leaves are soggy, it could mean they’re overwatered.

For a thorough diagnosis, I turned to Kathie Hayden, manager of the Garden’s Plant Information Service, the help center for all things plant-related.

Hayden fields all kinds of questions from visitors about diagnosing and treating their plants. After looking at my plant photos, here’s what she said:

“The only thing that I notice about the aloe is that the flowering has finished and the stem has turned brown. You can safely prune back the stem.”

“Echeveria plants (a large genus of succulents) appreciate average warmth from spring to autumn but cooler temperatures in winter. Try to place the plant in a cooler location for the winter, if possible. Echeveria require regular watering from spring to fall so you should water when the soil begins to dry out. You don’t want to use the same amount of water in the winter. Watering the plant every one to two months should suffice. If you’ve been watering more frequently, this may be the reason for fewer leaves that are lighter in color. Let the soil dry out a little and hopefully the plant will begin to develop new growth. A south-facing window is good location to keep the plant, but you may want to provide some shade during the summer months. There is no need for additional humidity. It will also benefit from a little fresh air in the summer.”

The verdict? The succulent is probably overwatered. I’ll prune back my aloe, leave the succulent alone for a month, and move it to a shadier window.  

Remember, there are no hard and fast watering rules. But with a few simple guidelines, you can keep your plants alive and healthy. To sort out the facts, contact Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org.

Watering Lessons 101

  • Not all plants are created equal. Some houseplants need constant moisture, and some survive on drought. Research the specific care instructions for your plant and give it the amount and frequency of water it needs.
  • Make sure your container has drainage holes. If it doesn’t, moisture can get trapped in the soil and prevent oxygen from reaching the roots, leading to root rot.
  • Soak the entire root ball. When watering, make sure you do so until it leaks out of the drainage holes. This ensures the entire root system has been watered. (Note: “Usually, plants that are root-bound have problems because water rolls off and down the sides of the pot and doesn’t penetrate the root ball. If roots have dried up, you are probably looking at dead roots,” said Hayden.)

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

So You Want to Buy Your First Houseplant

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  February 12, 2018 — 7 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

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