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February 9, 2017 6:20 PM   Subscribe

How To Buy Plants And Keep Them Alive. "Plants are great. You’re going to want to own a plant and keep it in your apartment. Why? They can clean the air, increase productivity and most importantly, they will cheer you up. Honestly, when has a plant ever made you feel grumpy? Yeah, exactly.​ But even though they’ll never run away, cry or make a mess — plants are still a handful. It’s not always clear which ones to buy, where to put them or even how to keep them alive. Thankfully, within the last 10,000 years or so, humans figured out how to care for plants. And Christopher Satch, the in-house plant specialist at The Sill, is here to pass along that knowledge to you. "
posted by storybored (39 comments total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah I don't put plants in my house to boost my dang productivity though.

(Other than that - nice simple tips. Cool)
posted by entropone at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2017

Okay so what if you have a window with a strong eastern exposure that gets bright sunrise light in the morning and then low level at best after? It's a great spot for a plant but it's confused everything I've put there.
posted by The Whelk at 6:37 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

As the 'blackthumb' in a long line of nurserymen, farmers and gardeners, get a snake plant. (but don't leave the heat off when going on a ski trip when the never occurs in seattle ultra-freeze and it goes sub zero for a week and freezes the pipes, that will actually kill a snake plant, but not much else, well bleach maybe, no I think I spilled some bleach on that poor thing once, tough plants)
posted by sammyo at 6:42 PM on February 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Okay so what if you have a window with a strong eastern exposure that gets bright sunrise light in the morning and then low level at best after? It's a great spot for a plant but it's confused everything I've put there.

Yeah this advice isn't really great. Because light conditions change throughout the year. I have south facing window which means I get great direct sunlight for most of the year but at the peak of summer I get zero direct light and in the depths of winter I get more (angle of the sun and all). So I get more light when a lot of plants go dormant and less light when they are actively growing.

You can grow succulents in an apartment. Just not well. They absolutely will etiolate and look like crap. I switched to more shade tolerant succulents such as haworthia and gasteria and those still didn't really do well either. The did okay but not great.

You just don't get enough light and what you do get is angled - reducing the insolation and making the plants stretch for light.

In the end I got grow lights.

The best plants for indoor growing are probably the varieties of sansevieria which can have a nice architectural verticality and survives almost any conditions and pothos because they just grow and grow.
posted by srboisvert at 6:58 PM on February 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Have you tried a pothos (2nding srboisvert on preview)? It's a vine. I got one for a 3rd grade project and it survived 10 years and 2 moves with my mother's black thumb. Five of those years were in a eastern facing window in SE MI, with the corresponding variability in sunlight.

Also, I need to get a job, so I can turn my apartment into a jungle. I've gotten so desperate I stuck leftover mint leaves (ran out of rum) in a vase to get some greenery.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:09 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I took to bromeliads and smaller air plants. It's harder to kill them but still possible.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 7:09 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, when has a plant ever made you feel grumpy?

Every time one of the fuckers has caused painful punctures, scratches, and/or rashes on some part of my body, or my nose to clog, drip and sneeze.

Sorry, I'm not against all plants ever by a long shot. But I used to live in Florida; visit there sometime and you'll see that much of the flora (and fauna, for that matter) are actively malevolent and seriously don't like humans being there. So I felt that did need to be said, by me, now.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:25 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by turbid dahlia at 7:32 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ditto on the snake plant, aka mother-in-law's tongue. Exceedingly hardy. Water? Once or twice a month, maybe (in fact over-watering is the only way kill them). Light? Whatever. They've been found alive and hardy after months in a closet. More on Sansevieria trifasciata...
posted by jim in austin at 7:41 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

My wife got some air plants a few years ago and up until last month I figured they were some kind of elaborate prank because they didn't grow or die or anything. What happened last month was that one of them started to bloom, or maybe she just painted part of it pink and it all is a prank. I really don't know.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:45 PM on February 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

I threw away all my plants when they got infested with fungus gnats and I did not give enough of a shit to re-pot them in sterile soil because who has time for that? Ugh.

That'll teach me to believe Nicholas Angel about the many benefits of caring for a peace lily.
posted by asperity at 7:51 PM on February 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

After some intial fumbling with unhappy plants that lurked in dark corners and made me unhappy, my approach has been only plants that I use. Lemon tree. Herbs. Aloe. Even if you lose an herb, you generally end up with well, dried herbs or something. When the perennial onion that I'd kept for 3 years ended up in not enough light this winter and went into crazed light-seeking death spirals, I had interesting corkscrew green onions for salads. Rosemary is great to have handy in small and large quantities and can survive large temperature swings and lack of water. Aloe too.

Winter is mostly holding pattern time. They all get put out of the house in summer to grow, in appropriate levels of shade.
posted by joeyh at 8:14 PM on February 9, 2017

I have two different kinds of ferns from Home Depot that do well with just north facing light. I think the cats talk to them.
posted by soakimbo at 8:57 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Calathea with nice broad leaves come in a decent variety and do well in relatively low indirect light areas. I did find out what happens if you expose them to direct summer sunlight for even a few hours, though. (Spoiler: A blow torch would have been quicker but had the same effect.) Have nursed 'em back to health out of stubborness.

It's a good article and bookmarked it though I'm finally at the point where I can keep most things alive. The one recent exception was a dracaena I lost to root rot after a couple years of good health, which looks exactly like that gif in TFA down to the squishy stem. I was surprised how upset I got, since I've killed many houseplants in my lifetime, but this one was like I'd lost a pet. (Not a dog-pet, maybe a hamster level of upset though.)
posted by mark k at 9:38 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]


you first
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:37 PM on February 9, 2017

The little Fittonia I've had for the last two years has finally given up the ghost (although it did get a lot bigger since that Ask!) I've also got a little cactus which I haven't managed to kill yet, and will be watching this thread for low-maintenance houseplant ideas.

There's something about a plant that cheers up a room immediately.
posted by invokeuse at 12:08 AM on February 10, 2017

My succulents are etiolating like whoa, but considering I'm in a basement flat, it's winter, and I live in Seattle? This is Growing Houseplants on Hard Mode.

They get spritzes periodically, and my orchids get watered weekly. I like to tell them how my day went. And when we really want to cut loose? The orchids love Slayer.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:35 AM on February 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

We have no plants inside the house. But the state says that once they get the MM statutes figured out we can have eight plants because we'll be more than forty miles from a dispensary. My wife has glaucoma. I better bookmark that article.
posted by Ber at 3:23 AM on February 10, 2017

I have never wanted plants in the house as an adult because of a series of all too curious cats in my life, but now that we have just one curious plump cat, I am considering it but have no idea where to start. Our house is on a corner: we get great morning light from the east in our upstairs lounge (which has lots of windows) but then obviously not a lot of direct light as the day goes on. Our living room windows face west as the sun goes down but it's not the best light either--it doesn't help that the windows in our house are unusually high. So yeah, I have no idea what to do. I grew up with a parent who always had houseplants and now I would like some too. Just don't know what to do, what to get, where to put 'em!
posted by Kitteh at 5:41 AM on February 10, 2017

What you need is a Voodoo Lily. Mine never bloomed but it would sprout for a few months a year and then disappear completely until the next time. The stem is spotted and looks very creepy. Apparently the flower stinks like dead flesh. Mine died after a few years when I planted it outside and then it didn't like snow.
posted by waving at 5:41 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can kill any plant except jade plants. I have two of those, and they Will Not Die. I water them occasionally.
posted by Peach at 6:01 AM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I LOVE PLANTS A WHOLE LOT WOW. I work at a hospital, and in all the lobbies (it's a large hospital) they each have several fiddle leaf figs that are anywhere from 10-14 feet tall. I WANT THEM SO BAD even though my ceiling at home is around 9 ft.

I'm not necessarily a black-thumb. More like a brown-thumb, and I'm slowly getting better! I might even be olive green thumb. I have 3 pythos, one of which is steadily growing. The other two are small and don't grow, but they're healthy as far as I can tell, and they're not losing leaves.

I also have a purple spiderwort, Tradescantia pallida. It's on recovery but doing great! When I first got it it was very happy, flowered a couple times. When I moved it got less happy and turned greensish. It is now purple again, and I hope it flowers soon!
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:17 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've always been the resident Plant Doctor as I have a green thumb. Currently trying to eradicate some sort of infestation on some lucky bamboo. My mom has the black-thumb and can kill basically any plant you can imagine, so most of high school was spent keeping her plants alive.

On a visit home not too long ago my parents had set up about 5-8 potted plants on their deck. I marveled at how well everything there was doing. Mom asks "see all the plants I've got on the deck?" I responded with "They seem to be doing very well....Dad's taking care of them isn't he?" Mom looks at me sheepishly, and dad is standing behind her grinning and nodding. He comes by it honestly as my grandmother always had a few acres of garden in her yard till she got too old to maintain it.

Additionally, I've labeled my wife the Plant Grim Reaper and her herb garden is generally in my care. I've been meaning to get a new cadre of plants for the house, this might inspire me to do so.
posted by Twain Device at 6:51 AM on February 10, 2017

Our balcony window gets partial sunshine for a few hours a day at best, which makes growing anything interesting difficult. We've been going with the usual things like coleus and begonias.

Last year we had an invader -- all of a sudden a vine started growing from one of my wife's boxes, and grew like wildfire. We identified it as a japanese hop vine, which a local greenhouse owner confirmed. Despite less-then-ideal sunshine for it, it grew so fast that it started looping around the balcony railing repeatedly.

My wife ordered some seeds for that vine from eBay. "Isn't it classified as a nuisance plant here in our state?" "Don't care, it grows." This year we're going to try to blot out the sun with it, and maybe drop a couple of seeds onto the garden of some downstairs neighbors so it'll have company. We're awful like that.
posted by delfin at 6:56 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great article, storybored. Thanks!

Honestly, when has a plant ever made you feel grumpy?

Houseplants are pretty fun to grow and I don't really get an attitude about them. But...

I am a professional botanist/horticulturist and I work with a lot of plants everyday. Like cacti. Many, many cacti. I am currently working on a massive project with approx. 6000 plants including various species of cacti and succulents. But mostly cacti. There are days (too many to count) that I would give my left arm to never see another saguaro again. And it doesn't seem like such a bad idea to impale oneself on a specimen such as Ferocactus rectispinus. Grumpy? Maybe.

But never fear, there's a plant to make it all better. When you have an over 15 ft. double-headed Yucca plant that was just planted at the edge of a hill, you and your colleagues get to make it into a gigantic slingshot with all kinds of potential for mischief.

Plants rule the world.
posted by strelitzia at 7:11 AM on February 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm a green thumb but really only by luck. When I got my first apartment with a balcony, my mom sent my BFF down with a car full of plants: airplane plants, palms, ivy, a peace lily, geraniums, and a few others I can't remember. They all got put outside (Austin). I really think they only survived because the peace lily is such a wuss. Everything got water when the lily started drooping, everything came inside when it was too cold for the lily (<40F). All those plants lasted me many years. Some died (because who wants to bring plants in after staying out until 3am and then there's a cold snap overnight) and I aquired others.

I don't do anything much different now. Plants go on a north facing balcony, inside to a south facing room in the winter. When I had balcked out the windows in the plant room, I bought a grow lamp (which probably made the whole thing look like something it wasn't!).

If you're looking to start out and want something hard to kill, I recommend either an airplane plant (also called a spider plant) or a purple heart plant. Both are very hard to kill and both will come back from the dead if you accidentally kill them. The airplane plant will give off shoots of babies that you can remove and place in water or soil to grow a new plant. The purple heart plant is purple and has tiny pink/purple flowers. Pieces will fall off with the slightest touch (I'm guessing some kind of self-preservation mechanism like a chameleon), but then you can pick up those pieces and grow a new plant with them!
posted by LizBoBiz at 7:19 AM on February 10, 2017

Honestly, when has a plant ever made you feel grumpy?

Oh, any time I've actually tried growing them.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:19 AM on February 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Honestly, when has a plant ever made you feel grumpy?

When they've gotten pests or diseases (spider mites, scale, mealybugs, aphids, whitefly, thrips, mildew, unidentified white fungus, cyclamen mites, I actually had caterpillars one time no kidding, ring spot virus, springtails, bacterial and/or fungal leaf spot, the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, some kind of mite which is neither spider mites nor cyclamen mites), when treatment for one of the pests or diseases not only didn't get rid of the pest/disease but made other pests/diseases worse, when they've outgrown their spot and I didn't have somewhere else to put them, when they wouldn't grow at all for years at a time, when they burned themselves on the fluorescent lights, when they etiolated, when they sunburned, when they spontaneously died for no obvious reason, when they got root rot, when they failed to bounce back from a single missed watering, when the cuttings failed to root, when the seeds failed to germinate, when the flower buds dropped, when the plant got top-heavy and threw itself off the shelf, when the roots were strong enough to crack the pot, when the spines and thorns stabbed me, when I had mild allergic reactions to the plant, when they were orchids / air plants / rex begonias / streptocarpus / maidenhair ferns,* when a tiny piece of dried sap got in my eye and I had to spend two hours running cold water on it at the kitchen sink because otherwise I hurt too much to function, when the whole plant turned yellow overnight for no known reason, when the blooms were ugly, when they got tangled in a shelf or another plant and accidentally uprooted themselves, when they rotted completely the fuck out after growing beautifully outside for a whole summer, when they refused to bloom for years at a time, when they abruptly defoliated despite getting the same care they'd been getting for the previous five years, when they accidentally got buried by their own potting soil during a watering and I didn't notice until it was too late, when they grew weird random tumors, when they died after blooming (even when they were genetically programmed to do so, and I knew that it was going to happen), when the flowers weren't the color the tag said they were going to be, when they fell over on me, when they fell over on other plants, when they refused to produce a new growing tip following a necessary decapitation, when they became too heavy to move comfortably, when the (thick, inflexible) leaves flopped over the edge of the pot so tightly that it became impossible to get water into the soil anymore, when they overran the terrarium and killed all the other plants, and any time I've tried to make them a career instead of a pleasant and manageable hobby.

*First person to say oh, but orchids / air plants / rex begonias / streptocarpus / maidenhair ferns are so easy, if you just _____ gets cut. I did ____. Didn't help. I'm happy they grow for you, though.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 8:26 AM on February 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Orchids are complete divas. I love mine, but divas.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:59 AM on February 10, 2017

I actually had caterpillars one time no kidding

Me too! I captured one and put it in a little cage with leaves and stuff and then forgot about it when it went into its cocoon and then I had a dead moth.
posted by LizBoBiz at 10:12 AM on February 10, 2017

My dream is to someday have a potted spinifex.

But I think that'd be impossible as 1. I can't import the plant outside of Australia, and 2. it'd take one look at Seattle and just freak out. "You promised me a desert, Daddy! I hate you! *dies* "
posted by spinifex23 at 12:01 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Talking about confusing plants; my balcony is East facing but there's also an office tower across the street with mirrored windows.

So lots of morning sun, shade mid-morning, and then a second whack of sunshine in the afternoon.

I can't grow cilantro on my balcony - they bolt within a week. Mint also gets weird quickly and flowers (the leaves loses its mintiness).

Oregano I have no idea because whenever I try to grow it on my balcony, the crows tear it to shreds.
posted by porpoise at 1:09 PM on February 10, 2017

Looking on to my deck, I have two pots each of lavender, small-leaf sage, oregano, rosemary and both onion and garlic chives, and a massive pot of chocolate mint. I love my spice pots. In the house I have a large philodendron that took over the living room for awhile (I finally trimmed it last year) named Norma, and two spider plants in the kitchen named Steve and Mike. Mike is big, robust, beautiful, but doesn't send out babies very much. Steve is kinda sickly looking, but has a ton of babies. I decided to put a couple of the babies outside last year to have some variation (and shade the mint a bit), and afterwards I now have, in the office/library Stevie and Mikey.

I touch all of them weekly.
posted by eclectist at 2:48 PM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, mites and stuff are the real killer. I got a whole bunch of otherwise-great plants from my mother a few years ago, when I was trying to filter the air in my apartment, that unfortunately also came with some tiny beetles that got sticky stuff all over everything and thus destroyed the back of our old futon mattress.

Ficuses are also entirely more work than they're worth; the previous owner of our house left us a big one, and it's been exceedingly unhappy. I always either water it too much or not enough. It's not in a good place, but I'm not sure there is a good place for it. I don't actually know how to make it happy.

I can tell you that it is in fact, with much neglect due to life events, possible to kill off that superhardy pothos plant from a research lab that a guy gave you in college for saving his life when you found him on the bathroom floor of your suite one night. It made it the better part of a decade, though, before I killed it.

Also, to my eternal shame, when we moved this year, I left my dracaena of 10 years in the basement for a while, thought it dead, then only realized it could've been revived when I went to break it down to throw away and found that there was still sap. Ah well... One of these days I'll get over to IKEA and pick up a successor. For some reason, the dracaena was a bit spotty from the day I bought it from a sidewalk vendor in my neighborhood, and it never became totally healthy that I could tell. I had thought it was just sunburned or something from being outside, but no, it always had those brown spots, possibly just from the water.

Given that my main method of caring for plants is to dump in the water left over from my bedside glass every morning, the ones I have (also bequeathed by the house's previous owner) are doing remarkably well. Right now, in addition to the angry ficus, I've been keeping alive a big pothos/philodendron thing, a huge aloe, and now a couple hyacinths in my house.
posted by limeonaire at 12:54 AM on February 11, 2017

I have the Black Thumb of Death or something for plants; I've killed off the hardiest cacti, vines, hanging plants, air-plants, you name it.

My grandmother kept a money plant that went from a tiny bunch of leaves to a six foot verdant bush that coiled against a rattan shelf in our living room in 12 years. Six months after she moved out to live with my uncle, I killed it. I did everything the same way she did, watering weekly, nipping off wilted leaves, wipe leaves every few weeks with a moist cloth...but it still shriveled up and died. It was devastating.

My grandmother and uncle have moved in with me now, and she gave away her bunch of lovely potted plants. I got an aloe vera that struggled to survive, and of course it flourished when she took over. If I so much as look at it too long, a leaf will start to wilt. I kid thee not.
posted by Alnedra at 9:40 PM on February 11, 2017

All you people with windows with imperfect lighting conditions should get yourself some kalanchoe. I call mine the trash succulents, because I fished them out of the trash two days after someone trimmed their work plants. Then I brought them home and set the cuttings on my desk for two whole months. Then I looked at the and went "oh hey, those plant bits I fished out of the trash, I should throw them away or something," except they didn't look entirely dead, so I pulled off the bottom leaves and put them in dirt in my southern-exposed window, whereupon they grew immediately, sent up a flower shoot with weekly watering, and put out pretty yellow blooms for six freaking months straight.

Trash succulents. Gotta love 'em.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:06 PM on February 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have dumpster dived a rhododendron and two orchids.

No shame in saving a plant that can be salvaged. My rhodie is doing very well. The orchids are meh, but as I mentioned before, they're divas.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:05 AM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also - my church gets all the leftover flower bouquets from the megagrocery store across the street to give away to the parishioners, so every week after Service? I'm lugging home a bouquet of a dozen roses or so for my vase. This week I got a lovely purple bouquet, complete with lilies.

I imagine that next week, we're going to be overrun with all the Valentine's Day specials that didn't sell.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:08 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

The plants that work best for me are Africa Violets. Mine multiplied, so I repotted and put up a fluorescent strip light for them.

Now those have multiplied and I've run out if victims willing to rehome them; and, at the store, I see another bloom that I don't have at home so another one joins the crowd....and they are all overflowing the pots and need dividing again.

Just like one rescue cat becomes two, etc.

help me?
posted by mightshould at 8:05 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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