Ever fantasized about filling your home with beautiful plants of all sizes and colors? You’re not alone. But for those of us who weren’t born with a green thumb, the idea of finding the right plant for you can seem a bit daunting. So, we reached out to Ushshi Rahman, writer and plant enthusiast, for her tips on connecting with your perfect leafy companion.
Written by Ushshi Rahman
Last year I found myself moving into my first “nice” adult apartment, replete with cascading, bright sunlight—practically a unicorn by New York City standards. Coming high and mighty off the fumes of leveling up, I finally felt grown enough to bring plants into my space. I had no clue what I was doing, and, in fact, had asked a foliage friend about where to procure the best fake plants (dear Lord, why?!) before being helpfully directed to a list of unkillable plants. A list that I, of course, ignored in lieu of three of the cutesiest, tiniest plants I spied (and one flowering Bromeliad), because I somehow thought starting off small was best. I was dead wrong, of course. Who is less vulnerable and a whole lot heartier: an infant or an adult? You know what they say about common sense not being that common?
How I managed to not kill any of that first batch is a mystery to me. Close to a year, fifty-something plants, and a full-fledged #Jungalow obsession later, the one thing I know for sure is that there is no such thing as a black thumb. All you need to have a green thumb is a whole lot of love for your leafy friends and the right conditions for your space and lifestyle. Let’s see where you fit into the latter, shall we?
Call Me Count Dracula
Living in a dank dungeon because the rent cut was too good to offer up? Night owl to the max? Does facing the breaking light of dawn make you hiss at the air? Blackout shades might keep you feeling cozy and safe, but you’ve probably assumed by now that plants are not going to work for your dimly lit predilections. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The vast majority of plants need at least a wee bit of indirect light to survive, let alone thrive, but if you’ve got at least one window in the distance, you’ve still got hope.
Your first go-to should be the Cast-Iron Plant (Aspidistra Elatior), also known as the bar-room plant. The latter nickname kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Yes, it survives even in full shade. Next in line is the Snake Plant (Sansevieria), an architectural wonder whose leaves grow wide and vertically. They look sleek with all interior-design aesthetics and manage to thrive even when neglected. If you forget to water this lil’ fella one weekend, don’t fret—autopilot mode is strong with this one. Lastly, I highly recommend one of my personal favorites, the ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas), a leafy wonder with a high-gloss sheen and a penchant for lots of personal space. Notoriously easy to propagate and sustain, these low-light beauties will be your trusty standbys and never fail you.
Inbox at Capacity
Starting your Monday about 50 emails behind? Are permanent burnout and neck tension your constant companions? Whether you’re running a mile a minute or struggling with daily functioning, a whole lot of us (yours truly included) struggle with finding the balance between our mental and physical bandwidth versus the amount of tasks and commitments we have signed ourselves up for. Taking on any additional responsibilities or plant projects may just seem too overwhelming and out of reach. Don’t worry—I got you!
Water rooting is a way of growing plants where you skip pesky things like soil, potting and repotting annually, insects, and a regular watering schedule—and still get to enjoy the life-altering joy that plants bring to your home. All you need to do is find an aptly sized vase, add water, add the plant, and voila! Extra bonus: You get to watch the roots grow alongside the leaves. (Roots are the actual coolest—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
How does maintenance work, you ask? Ideally, you’d want to change the water every 7-10 days as the roots draw up the nutrients they need and eventually deplete the water. Truthfully, you could just keep topping off with fresh water when you visually clock the old water evaporating significantly, and not change or wash anything for a pretty long time. But you might deal with pesky, but completely harmless, algae in the water if you do slack too long, especially if your plant is in a clear glass container in direct sunlight. Besides that, it’s honestly hands down the easiest way to have plants without feeling beholden to high-maintenance needs. Self-watering and self-sustaining—what’s easier than that?
Not all plants can be water-bound, though, so my top three picks for this would be the evergreen Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), the ’70s revival wunderkind, the Spider Plant (Clorophytum comosum), and the classic boarding school or brownstone drapery, the English Ivy (Hedera helix).
Sound the Alarm
I remember the low-grade fear I carried with me before I became a full-fledged obsessive plant person: What if I neglect them to death because I simply forget they’re there? Yes, I’ve been a loving and responsible partner, friend, and pet caretaker for most of my life. But with humans, you’ve got clear verbal communication, and our furry friends will raise you straight out of that REM sleep at the first sign of breakfast hunger pangs. They make sure you know and hear what their needs are. The kicker is, so do plants. A crispy leaf edge here will tell you about under-watering, a long dormancy well into spring is a long letter to you to up the sunlight and add some fertilizer, and a new leaf reminds you that it is evolving and growing, just like you.
If you need the loudest plants available to visually jackhammer you into busting out the watering can, say hello to the drama club! These plants went to “The Bold and the Beautiful” school of hammy acting with an extra side of cheese. Fittonia, also known as the Nerve Plant, comes in a dizzying array of colors—so, of course, the first chance I had to pick one up, I did a jig and swiped my card without a second thought. Two measly days later, I sat wailing in my kitchen. I was inconsolable. I had just killed my first plant, my new, unnamed, and unidentified plant baby. Or had I? Hoping against all hope a generous watering would bring this dried, dying plant back, I waited patiently. Guess who was fine and dandy, happy as a clam, and dancing toward the sun in a few hours? Fittonia friend, aka the most dramatic of all my girls.
Fittonias aren’t the only dramatic ones. Polka Dot, or Freckle Face, Plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya) are my favorite pale-pink wonders, but they too will play dead at the first sign of dryness. Oxalis triangularis, also known as the Shamrock Plant, mimic a throng of purple (or green) butterflies amidst a smattering of white flowers in bloom. They’re truly gorgeous, unique, more alien than plant, and oh so dramatic! With these plants, you won’t need to set a weekly watering alarm. Trust and believe—they will show you exactly when they’re feeling parched. If you need visual cues, you are set.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Remember earlier, how I told you about all that glorious light my new apartment gets? Surely, all my plants must be ecstatic to be getting their full tan on, right? Nope. Like a summer at the beach with nary an SPF lotion in sight, I quickly learned too much direct sunlight was no good for most of my green companions. If you’re getting more than four hours of direct (overhead, especially) sunlight, chances are you need to be careful about who you bring in. Think a little more Arizona and New Mexico in terms of plants to pick. Prickly cacti will be your best friends, but some succulents might still crisp, as I learned the hard way.
Still want a leafier alternative for your windowsill? Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) look like fall personified: glittering gold, phoenix orange, and oxblood all over. They also love full, direct sunlight. So does the plant that personally belongs in my “fastest grower” hall of fame: Coleus (Plectranthus scuttellariodes). In the two months that I have kept a few stems of Coleus cuttings to root in water, they have literally quadrupled in size. Every time I buy a pot that will fit them, they’ve already outgrown it. We get it, you’re a grower, stop flexing so hard! These precocious stems thrive in the rays of sunlight and will turn and face it with arms and leaves outstretched, like Narcissus flying high in the sky. They’ll spin right around in a matter of hours if you rotate them from your usual spot, and it’s fascinating to watch the immediacy with which they respond to their sun deity.
Disney Princess, Who?
Firstly, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You probably already knew everything you’ve read thus far and, if not, well done on managing to take it all in without a snoozefest. You’re well on your way to becoming a full-fledged plant person. For those of you who have mastered the basics, bought the majestic tropicals, the finicky ferns, and are still killin’ it at plant parenthood, all that’s left are wishlist plants. You’ve got the mojo of Moana whispering to the goddess Te Fiti, Pocahontas painting with all the colors of the wind, and if baby birds come and sing duets with you while you frolic in the park, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. The elements feel malleable in your hand, your plants know, love, and trust you to have their backs, and they’re thriving. I can’t tell you what plants to get next because you already have them all (almost)—so go wild! Get a Jasmine you have to water daily or a mysterious Maidenhair Fern. Find variegated versions of all of your existing plants, because it’s not really a double if the foliage is slightly mutated, right? My only advice for you is to spread the love. Gift your friends and loved ones (and internet strangers, in my case) with the utter contentment that saturates every aspect of your life once you discover the joy of plants.
Let me leave you with this: this is just a loose guide. I didn’t think I was capable of taking care of any plants a year ago, and here I am now, writing about them like I’m some sort of expert. We make time and space and energy for the things we care about, no matter what we are working with. That is what is most important: to learn to care for your plants. I don’t just mean perfunctory watering and a spot check. Find the pool of well-being, regard, empathy, and compassion that we are made up of, underneath all the social masks and egos we bear to move through this world. Now take all that goodness and love your plants wholeheartedly. They will know. They will feel it. And, I promise you, they will love you back.
Professional Creative & Plant Hobbyist