Adventures of an Aspiring Plant Lady: The Plague

And so it happened. My herb garden hath perished.

You read about it online: desperate plant owners anonymously posting grainy, poorly-framed photos of shriveled leaves and wilting plants on every gardening forum they can find, seeking answers and advice from someone...anyone. But you never imagine it will happen to you.

Unless you're me, and then you're amazed any plants in your care were able to cling to life for even this long.

From what I could gather from the unknown experts on my little collection of potted herbs suffered thrip damage, an apparently-common bug that eats away at the herbs with which you're meant to be cooking until the leaves wither and the stems rot and your oregano is a mere shadow of what it used to be.

This isn't the aforementioned herb garden, but it honestly might as well be. // Hudson Valley, 2016

This isn't the aforementioned herb garden, but it honestly might as well be. // Hudson Valley, 2016

But there's hope. Although the thyme and oregano are too far gone, the basil, rosemary, and spearmint have - with a little bit of work and quite a lot of google searching - somehow managed to hold on by a thread (a very minuscule thread, but a thread, nonetheless). I've learned a couple of things along the way - mostly what not to do - but learning is learning and that's all that matters.

  1. For starters, always pay attention. One of the easiest ways to deal with pests and diseases is to catch them early. Check in on plants regularly and make a note of even slight changes in the coloring or texture of leaves and stems. Different pests create different kinds of damage, but generally any splotchiness or pinched texture means that something is making a snack out of your potted friend. To test for thrips, specifically, hold a white sheet of paper beneath the leaves in questions and tap the top of the leaves. If thrips are present you'll see very small, almost translucent bugs on the sheet of paper. And if you see very small, almost translucent bugs on the sheet of paper read here to see what you should do next.
  2. Another way to save yourself the pain of watching your lovely herb garden wither away is to prevent pest damage. Periodically rinsing or wiping your plants will help keep bugs from settling in and inviting their neighbors over for dinner, and prevent dust from building up. You could also (and should also) use some form of pest control. Chemical-laden bug sprays are less than ideal (because you're hoping to eat the herbs and also because chemicals...). There are several natural options out there but I use a homemade neem oil spray. If you're wondering why the herbs still died it's because I forgot to use it for, oh, about 6 months.
  3. Keep trying! Plants die. It happens. If I've learned anything from commiserating with other amateur indoor gardeners online it's that everyone deals with this. Plants are susceptible to pests, diseases, over-watering, under-watering, over-heating, freezing, too much pruning, not enough humidity - honestly it's amazing that any plants are alive right now at all. It takes some time to figure out how to properly care for plants, and when one plant door closes, another plant door opens. Or something like that...

And - for those of you on the edge of your seats wondering how all of my other plants are doing - all is well. My philodendron plant continues to sit on the top of my bookshelf as an example to all of the other, under-achieving greenery. The two tiny bird's nest ferns I impulse-bought in the checkout line of Trader Joe's are holding up, as are a handful of succulents. And I recently purchased two new plants - a parlor palm and a dieffenbachia. Both are *supposedly* easy to care for, but we'll see how this goes. 

Adventures of an Aspiring Plant Lady: One Down

I've been thinking all morning about how to incorporate an unwanted thyme/time pun into the opening of this post, but after all I could come up with was "my thyme has passed" I thought it best to just dive right in.

But indeed it has. In the midst of a move uptown and a week out of town my thyme plant has perished. I've also lost a succulent (mostly because I forgot it was in the windowsill of my bathroom...), have inherited a dying house plant (species TBD), and have been gifted an herb garden of basil, spearmint, oregano, rosemary, and thyme (we meet again).

Over the past couple of weeks, as I've tried desperately to keep my little green roommates alive, I have learned a few things. And by learned I mean confirmed what every single blog post about plant care already tells you. So here it goes.

  1. Proper pruning is paramount. They say regularly pruning - cutting back a few leaves and stems to promote growth - will result in a more luscious, full herb garden. And they're right (surprise!). Basil, in particular, requires frequent pruning in order to prevent the plant from getting too leggy. To prune, cut or pinch the stem just above a pair of leaves, once the herb is at least two or three inches tall; in just a few days you'll notice two new pairs of leaves sprouting from just below where you cut, creating a fuller, more plentiful plant. It's magical. Use the fresh cut leaves in pasta sauces or herb butters (recipe here), or dry them so they last a bit longer.
  2. We all know plants need plenty of water, sunlight, and Nat King Cole to stay happy and healthy. But I never realized just how much sunlight (or Nat King Cole, tbh) was necessary. My kitchen window is north-facing which means it gets weaker sunlight than windows facing south, east, and west. Although at first I didn't think this was such a big deal, I started to notice certain herbs in the center of the pot reaching their precious little stems out and up to get as much sun as they could. Poor little guys. Since it's summer I've been able to cheat a bit by illegally placing the herb garden on my fire escape (hope none of you are with the NY housing dept.) but come November I'll have to figure out a plan B.
  3. Unlike contemporary spinal surgeries, spearmint is highly invasive. I inherited a dying houseplant when I moved to my new apartment; it was wilted and brown as it sat, pathetically, on the kitchen counter, so I moved it to the fire escape and treated it to a bit of fertilizer and a gulp of water and, I'm happy to report, it's doing quite well. It also has a new roommate. Last week as I was pulling out a few browning leaves I noticed two spearmint plants growing very aggressively from the pot where there was nothing but dirt before (pictured below). Turns out mint has a habit of inviting itself over for dinner and taking a nap on the couch, whether you like it or not. I'll either be repotting the mint or making myself a Whiskey Smash; will keep you posted.

I'm waiting until I'm more confident in my abilities as a plant mom to head down to The Sill and pick up this little trio. For now, I'm taking in all that I can in the hopes that I'll be able to keep my herbs and succulents alive for a long thyme (I'm sorry).

Adventures of an Aspiring Plant Lady: Here We Go

Keeping a plant alive is hard. A dog or cat will offer a variety of expressions or behaviors to indicate something is wrong; they'll stop eating for a few days, their stomach will make noise, and if they're in pain they'll yelp or meow. They look up at you with their adorable little animal eyes and say "hey, I need to go on a walk" or "please stop bothering me I'm trying to sleep".

But plants just sit there, and wilt. And wilting can mean anything. It could be caused by rotting roots from overwatering, or dried out roots from under-watering. It could be because the temperature is too cold, or too hot, or it's too sunny. It could be a sign of a pest infestation, or a desperate plea for some kind of fertilizer. It could even mean your plant is annoyed that you're watching that episode of Friends for the 4th time that week.

Okay, maybe not that last one. But to someone with almost no knowledge of how to keep a plant alive, these vague warning signs are difficult to decipher, and make my aspirations to be a plant lady seem more daunting than my impending graduation from graduate school (it's fine, everything is fine).

So, like Julie Powell, I've decided to document my exploration of this new hobby. Except instead of trying out recipes I'll be trying to keep these little green friends of mine alive, and instead of Julia Child as a guide I have the whole, plant-related internet (an unsurprisingly robust corner of the web).

Above are my latest victims. I mean plants. I have three succulents, basil, and thyme, and will try to post updates and discoveries every month. To start here are a few things I've learned so far:

  1. Basil is surprisingly receptive to water. All of the plants sit on the sill of an east facing window, and on a sunny morning they wake up to very direct, harsh sunlight. By the time I wake up at 8am they've been sunbathing for at least an hour or so, and the basil plant is usually starting to wilt (apparently indoor potted plants tend to dry out much faster and may require more frequent watering). So before I make myself a very necessary cup of coffee, I give these little guys and gals a drink, and I'm always shocked at how quickly the basil leaves perk right up. Within 10 minutes there's a noticeable difference, and the plant goes from looking like a withered 97-year-old man to a lively teen (weird analogy? Idk). Honestly, no matter how long I manage to keep these plants alive, I will always be amazed by this. It's like watching one of those time lapse videos of a flower blooming only it's happening in real life before my eyes. Ah, nature.
  2. You can, in fact, kill succulents. And with relative ease, at that. I learned this well before this month but it was my first clue that I may not be gifted with a green thumb. I hopped on the succulent band wagon after seeing the 400th (rough estimate) Refinery29 article about how easy it is to care for succulents. "They practically take care of themselves!" But no. They don't. Because if you don't water them they die and if you do water them they die. So I decided to turn to people who know more about gardening, and upon purchasing my latest batch of succulents I followed careful instructions from Succulents and Sunshine when repotting them and so far so good. I probably jinxed it just now, though, so we'll see.
  3. Gooseneck coffee kettles (like this one) make for a great watering can. For those of you who, like myself, lack any storage and live in a teeny tiny box, finding household objects with multiple uses is key to living a happy, healthy life. 

That's all I've got, so far, but I'm excited to keep caring for these little plants and learning about indoor plant care. Starting out with monthly posts about problems I've encountered and what I've discovered, and we'll see how this goes.