Categories
Life

What it Takes to Keep Something Alive: 5 Plant Parents on Raising their Botanical Brood

Misting the plants that live on the ledge of my bathroom window is my most sacred ritual. They live above my toilet, but they seem happy. That might be due to my absolute desperation to keep them alive, more than any actual plant care. I chant: We’re fine-we’re fine-we’re fine to them when things seem absolutely dire, and if I catch my own eyes in the mirror and chant a little longer, then that is between me, Stevie Nicks (aloe), Chicken (a menagerie of succulents), and Sappho (a snake plant).

I don’t get out much these days, but the green makes me remember that yes, I am alive, and we are alive, and we can continue on despite it all. 

For me, growing up in the tree-shrouded foothills of rural eastern Oklahoma, plants were never far from my periphery. My mother was a green-thumbed gardener, meticulous. My grandfather could scatter seeds to the wind with his eyes closed and produce something beautiful. My favorite smell is still wild honeysuckle. Plants are our oldest teachers, our connection to life outside of ourselves, and they should be honored accordingly. But how? How do we nurture this relationship now, when the anxiety is suffocating, when we’re locked away from each other, and the loneliness is almost palpable in the air? 

In my quest for answers, I interviewed five people who have let plants take over their homes, who now live in lush mini-conservatories filled to the brim with plants (and sometimes frogs, fungi, and cats.) From our conversations, I learned more about what it takes to stay and keep something alive, and the healing relationships I think we should all cultivate

Courtney (@_cspaige)

How did you become the green witch goddess that you are now? When did this journey begin for you? 

Honestly, childhood! I come from a long line of plant mamas. I grew up with plants with my mom and my grandmother. As far as myself, about six years ago, when I got the space and the lighting for them. That’s when I told myself, Okay, it’s time for my own plants. I felt like I was missing something. They complete the space as far as I’m concerned. 

That makes a lot of sense to me. Especially with the deep familial connection you have there. Not having plants would be like missing a piece of home. 

Definitely. Originally I’m from upstate New York, always around nature, and being in the city it can be a bit sterile sometimes. Plants are my way of reminding myself of home and bringing some of that to the urban area. 

Did your mom and grandmother keep indoor plants? Or were they outside gardeners? 

My grandmother was mainly an outside gardener—she had a really big backyard. I grew up helping her in the garden and watching that journey of planting the tomatoes and seeing them grow and then being able to pick them and then helping her cook. Those are really treasured memories for me. My mom was an inside plant owner, though we did have a lot of plants in our backyard that we ended up taking when we moved. I have a lot of connections with plants in my childhood. 

How do you care for all those plants? Is it meditative or routine for you? Do you sing to them?

I will say that we’re a ’90s hip-hop and R&B household! I keep the music on basically all the time. So I don’t sing specifically to them, but they also don’t have a choice in listening. As far as their care, I do have a calendar reminder because—well, life is so busy. I try to keep my personal life and my work as organized as possible. I usually break it up into two separate days, just because there are so many of them, and certain plants require less water than others. Just so I don’t kill them. As a plant parent, you go through trial and error with what works and what doesn’t work—and the types of plants you can maintain and take care of, and which ones you haven’t figured out. I try to stick with ones that I haven’t killed off. I try to keep it as organized as possible—if I don’t, I’ll forget.

So we’ve talked a little through why you’ve done it historically, but why do you do it right now? Especially in this frankly scary present moment. 

I’ll be perfectly honest. I’ve purchased around ten to 15 plants since the pandemic began. I moved into my apartment in February, and I definitely paid attention to making my space as comfortable as possible. I didn’t know how long I would be at home. I worked remotely for three months. I just felt like it was so important to do the things that really matter to me, the things that bring me joy during these scary and unknown times. 

Do they have names? 

Okay, I’m not really a namer, but I do have one called Courtney. I figured out if you pick one and call it by your name, you’re literally nurturing yourself.

I think that’s incredible. 

Agatha (@plant.ma, @plantingforprogress)

What is your plant goddess origin story? When did this journey begin for you? 

Plants have always been close to my heart, but the zero-to-100 transformation of having 160 plants in my apartment happened two or three years ago. I’m originally from Los Angeles, and my family is still there, but when I moved to the East Coast, having plants in my apartment, starting with succulents, was just to have something green close to me. Then it transformed into something therapeutic.

Did your parents have plants? 

I actually had a pretty unique childhood. I was born in the Philippines, and my parents were frequent travelers. I grew up with plants around me, both with the garden outside and house plants inside. I accidentally killed one of my mom’s Monstera deliciosas when I was a kid, and looking back at that from my adulthood, I’m like, Oh, no, what a beautiful plant—how could I have done that? Plants have been something that has connected me to my family, too, especially in the era of covid. There was a period of time where my grandma and I had a text thread that was just plant pictures!

It seems like a real matrilineal tradition for you. I think that’s really beautiful. 

For sure. It’s kind of a no-brainer when it comes to spreading the joy. My plants grow and propagate, so why not send them elsewhere to friends and loved ones? Even if I wasn’t in a one-bedroom apartment I think I would want to share. 

How do you actually care for all those plants? 

Before I had as many plants as I do now, I used to make a day of it, but now there are way too many for that. Now I tackle them by groups of similar care and so on. For example, a lot of Hoya plants that are indigenous to Southeast Asia are really hardy and by the window, but they don’t get as much water as others do. By grouping them, I learn more about them and make sure all of them are getting the care that they need. Also: I’m a great multitasker, so I could be repotting plants while on a call. Paying attention, obviously, but also doing something with my hands. 

Tell me more about why you’re doing it now. Especially within the frame of the Planting for Progress Project

At the beginning of quarantine, I was having a really hard time, like so many people were. After finding myself furloughed from work, I wasn’t able to donate to the social movements and causes that I really wanted to. It was at that time that I started propagating some of my rarer plants and auctioning them for donations. It got a good amount of traction, and in the last few months, we’ve been able to raise about $5000. We’ve donated to BLM, the ACLU, and have done a few things with the Audre Lorde Project, the Innocence Project, and the Foresight Project. So my love for plants became not just therapeutic for me, but a way to give back. 

I think that pretty well answers my next question of what your plants mean to you. They’re a lifeline. 

Oh, absolutely. I don’t know what I would do without them. They’ve not only helped me personally, but they’ve helped me create a larger community, something that felt impossible in the current climate. 

Eric (@botany_spears

How did you become the great plant whisperer you are now? When did the transformation begin? 

I grew up upstate, in a rural area, so I was used to being surrounded by plants and nature from a young age. We had a big garden and flower beds and the forest was basically my backyard, so when I moved to the city ten years ago I was surprised that no one had that. And if they did have space, it was rocks, poison soil, and maybe some garbage the last tenants left behind. I started by getting the kind of plant everyone has in their apartment that they treat as their baby, and then I got one more, and now I decade later I have something like 120. 

Wow. 

It grew slowly, but it was something that was always in my realm of interest. I also work as a photographer, which means I spend a lot of time at home, and the plants are a way for me not to feel like I’m stuck in a big white box. 

Did your parents garden at all? Or did you step into it on your own? 

My mom had her flower beds that were her prized possessions. My family is Armenian, and my grandmother grew grapevines that we then made into stuffed grape leaves, so that was always a big event and showcased that you could grow something and eat it, too. I learned the value of plants in general just by what my family found important. 

How do you care for your 120 plant children? Do you sing to them? 

I don’t sing to them, but I do talk to them a lot! If I get a particularly stressful email or something, I will leave my office and come vent to them, mostly in hopes that somebody in the ethos will hear me and something will change. It feels like having friends around, as corny as that sounds, and it’s reassuring to have that kind of company. As far as their physical care, everyone has this idea that having a lot of plants is harder than having one plant, and from my experience, everything likes bright and direct light, everything wants water once a week, and if you notice something is off, adjust one of those things accordingly, and that’s it. I’m not more or less talented than anyone else—certainly not a botanist. 

Why do you do it, besides your familial connection, especially right now? 

I’m a Virgo. I love controlling the situation. I love having only myself to blame when something goes wrong. It’s really nice to have something to hold onto, in this time where every time you open your phone some new and fresh horror awaits. Plants offer me an escape. I take care of them, and they offer new growth. I wish that that was the norm: We take care of each other and offer each other new growth. 

We’ve touched on it a bit, but what do your plants mean to you? What do you think you mean to them? 

My plants are a stamp collection that have become a deep emotional connection. My friend gave me a cutting of a plant one year for my birthday, but that plant had been in her family for over 100 years. It’s this thing that has a heritage older than I am. It’s hard not to have reverence for. I hope I can take care of these things with the preciousness and the respect that they deserve. 

Which is your favorite? I promise I won’t tell. 

My most common, oldest plant I have. It’s called a Scindapsus exotica, and she’s not the one I brag about, but she’s the one who has seen the road with me, and that is something I deeply love her for. We have history. Like the friend who has embarrassing pictures of you that they can never show anyone.

Missleidy (@missleidytheplantlady

How and when did your plant journey/botanical glow up begin?

It started about a year and a half ago. Before that, I was living in an apartment with one dingy window and nothing else. When I moved and had the light, I went to the plant shop across the street and decided that if I was going to be working on myself mentally, and getting myself to a better place in general, I needed to make my environment reflect that. I thought back to what brought me so much joy as a kid, and that was being with my grandmother and grandfather in the garden. I was already doing drag by that point, so I knew that I wanted a plant that was a diva. I wanted people to look at her twice. A month after that, I had 40 plants in the window. It became an opportunity for my love of drag and my love of plants to intersect and bloom—that’s how MissLeidy the Plant Lady was born. 

Tell me more about when you were a kid with your grandmother and grandfather in the garden. 

They basically raised me. My grandmother was and still is my idol. They’re such an inspiration to me—they immigrated from Cuba in 1979 with absolutely no money and then helped the rest of my family come to the United States. Everyone had a place to stay and something to eat. Once I got into a conversation with my aunt and during it, she said, “We grew up really poor.” And I was like, “Are you serious? Did we grow up in the same house?” I was almost convinced I had grown up rich because my grandparents filled me up with so much love, community, and family that there was no room to miss anything else. My grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades. One of his hobbies was breeding rare tropical birds. In our backyard, we had everything from albino peacocks to turkeys to parrots. 

So you basically grew up in the Secret Garden? 

Yes! When I was a kid I had this idea if I planted enough trees I could make Vegas a rainforest. Every time we went to the store I would ask to buy a tree or plants for the garden beds in the front. Plants have always been in our lifestyle and our bloodline. 

Onto your plants specifically, how do you care for all of them? Is it a routine for you? 

It is a routine for me. It became a way to help strengthen my sobriety and deal with depression. Anytime I take a living thing into my home, I become responsible for it. So even if I feel terrible in the mornings I have something to work towards. I want to give the plants (and poison dart frogs) the optimal conditions to thrive since I’m taking them out of their environments and putting them into mine. I chose to bring this thing into my home, so I have to get out of bed. By incorporating this into my life, I get to see new growth in the plants, which in turn stimulates new growth in me. 

Why do you do it? Why do you do it right now in the terrifying times we find ourselves in? 

It all goes back to mental health for me. If I didn’t have the outlet of plants, I’m not sure I would have been able to handle everything that has happened. 

What do you think you mean to them (your plants)? 

I’m the drag queen Mother Nature up in this bitch. I do enjoy all of this so much. It is serious, but it’s also fun for me, and I think that is important. They’re showgirls at the end of the day. 

Cartreze (@blackboyplantjoy)

How and when did you bloom into the green-thumbed plant collector you are now?

I’ve been interested in plants since I was a child, but with my day-to-day theater job, there just wasn’t enough time to collect and care for the plants I wanted. With the pandemic, even in the chaos, I’ve had the time at home needed to start diving deep, and I mean really deep, into all things plants. I went from having ten plants to my current count of 80. 

That’s a lot of plants. Did the jump from ten to 80 happen in the last six months?

It is a lot of plants. And yes, 100%. If things were different, I’d be traveling right now, but instead I can help them grow and love them as they deserve.

Who helped your love of plants along as a kid? 

My great-grandmother Gladys. She used to have as many plants, if not more, as I do now. She had lots of prayer plants, pothos, and other run-of-the-mill house plants. The kind that I imagine every grandmother or abuela has in their house. She also used to do ceramics, and so she would paint individual pots for all of her plants. I’ve actually picked up on that ritual because I paint my terracotta pots. I have so many family members tell me that we are especially connected, and that’s so special to me. 

Miss Gladys sounds like quite the woman. How do you care for your 80 plant children? 

A lot of stress, anxiety, and chaotic energy! But there is a routine. I water them once a week, on Sunday, or on Thursday as needed. The first thing I do after waking up is check on them. I like to see what’s growing, what’s not growing, and what might need a little more love. So it’s check plants, make coffee, and watch Wendy Williams. 

Do you talk to them? 

Oh my God, I talk to them like they are my really close friends. I say things like, “OK, girl, you’re not gonna grow today? That’s fine. I see you. If you really want to act up I’ll get you more water.”

So along with Miss Gladys and the freeing up of your schedule, why do you do it? 

I did not expect that caring for these plants would bring me as much joy as it does, but it does. At the beginning I thought it would be a couple more house plants and that’s it. I do it because caring for my plants is actually a form of self-care. Tending to them, watering them, and helping them grow, as stressful as it is for me some days because there are so many, the act of caring for them is so helpful. It relieves some of the anxiety of the world as it is right now. Helping them helps me. And also: why not now? This is the best possible time for me to become a crazy plant parent, and rather appropriate, I think. 

What is the first plant that you purchased? Was it just one or did you get a pair? 

I got a few so they wouldn’t be lonely. A pink polka-dot plant, a prayer plant, a cactus I named Keisha, and four others. Out of the seven, only three are still here—rest in peace, Keisha. But they did their job and they served a purpose. 

Your connection to them is almost spiritual, isn’t it? 

It is. As corny as it sounds it’s very spiritual, very connective to me. There’s a deep love and respect there, and I cherish that. It’s so bizarre because I never thought I would be able to hold so much feeling inside of myself for them? But I do. They have personalities, and lives, and I never thought I would be that person, but here we are, honey.

Photography: Ryan Razon
Photography Assistant: Will Pippin

Autumn Fourkiller

Autumn Fourkiller is a writer from rural Oklahoma and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She's probably thinking about cowboys and postcards. She can most reliably, and most interestingly, be found on Twitter @sadboyhowdy

More from Style