My Year in Plants

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My Year in Plants

By my count, I have 36 houseplants in my apartment, 38 if you count the philodendron cuttings I stuck the other day into an old water-filled tequila bottle. This number includes the Monstera adansonii I bought earlier this week—its leaves are riddled with holes, how cool, I thought when I wandered into the garden store that, much to the detriment of my bank account, opened around the corner from me in 2019.

A good third of these plants weren’t in my life before March. The string of pearls now hanging in my bedroom window, the pilea on my office desk, the variegated Japanese laurel and calathea on various windowsills, not to mention the others whose names I’m too lazy to learn—all of these, and I’m sure you’re shocked to learn this because no one else has been descending into a leafy green abyss over the past year, were pandemic purchases. Like a lot of people with a bit of disposable income and a surfeit of loneliness, I just can’t seem to stop buying plants.

This accounting doesn’t even include the outdoor plants and shrubs I bought earlier this year for my backyard, which for the past decade-plus that I’ve lived here has been what I’ve fondly described as a dirt pit, neglected beyond a couple of ornamental bushes I planted the year I moved in and then promptly ignored; a sad hydrangea almost as dead as the dog it was meant to commemorate; a few lilies that I really don’t like; and some struggling hostas that I planted in 2019 in a rare moment of guilt over the fact that I have a backyard in Brooklyn that I spent no time tending to, seeing it mostly as a space for freewheeling parties. There are no more parties, and it’s still a dirt pit, but now scattered here and there are four rose bushes, three boxwoods, a laurel bush, about 150 flower bulbs that I’m praying won’t be dug up by squirrels, and even more hostas that I frantically threw into the ground a few weeks ago in advance of winter.

Photo:Esther Wang

Just thinking about these plants, which I’m surrounded by almost every hour of each day because I now rarely leave my house, is stressing me out, if I’m going to be honest. While it’s accepted wisdom that having plants is soothing, they are actually in fact the opposite. Don’t let anyone fool you! Buying a plant is soothing. The idea of being surrounded by plants is a wonderfully calming one, like hotboxing your whole life. When you buy a plant, it’s most likely at the apex of its beauty, nurtured as it’s been by someone who knows precisely how to keep a plant alive and thriving. It’s shiny, its leaves are whole, it’s gorgeous, it’s full of potential—to make your home just a little prettier, even possibly to help you on your journey towards becoming a functioning human being with responsibilities that you can capably fulfill. This is how they get you.

But the rest of the process? It’s just an endless battle against plant death, one that I for one am losing, despite buying supposed anti-death aids like grow lights and humidifiers and liquid fertilizers and four different kinds of dirt and a soil testing kit. Half of the plants I accumulated before the pandemic hit were already not faring well, dropping leaves and drooping due to either a combination of too little water or too much, or a similar problem with sunlight. How much sun does a plant need? I have no fucking clue, and they all need different amounts! Same with water! How do plants even survive in the wild? Why are the leaves of my calathea drying out and then falling off? I am constantly worried that everything I planted in my backyard won’t make it, that my rose bushes will never bloom, that my elephant ear’s drooping leaf means it’s well on its way towards its final resting place. No one needs this stress! Everyone we know and love is going to die already anyway, we don’t need to add worrying about our plants to our lives, filled as they already are with future sorrow.

Why did I do this to myself? I guess I’m just as susceptible as anyone else to the need to care for, touch, and yes, worry about and at times even resent, other living, growing, breathing things. I miss feeding my friends; I miss being annoyed at my sister for some inconsequential dumb thing that she’s done; I miss it all. So now, instead, I have plants.

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