A Minimalist Moment: Houseplant Hoarding

This year I’m offering minimalist spotlights every month on Suburban Satsangs, little steps toward a simple life. After many years of reading organization books, watching cleaning shows and performing countless pre-move purges, I’ve discovered tips that work for me — and that may work for you.

I love plants and gardening, grew up in a family nursery and have a self-taught horticultural background. I have also dragged many pots full of hapless greenery around the country with me in my numerous moves before I learned to let go. I’ve been given countless clippings and sick plants because I have a “green thumb” before I had the courage to just say no. Geez, this sounds like I’m a recovering plant addict.

Maybe I am.

So when I walk into a house full of half-dead tropicals, leggy annuals or spindly vines (philodendron, I’m talking about YOU), I can physically feel their pain and almost hear their little pleas for release at the compost heap. I know you mean well, folks, but take pity on those poor pot-bound organisms and end their misery.

Here’s the check list so that you don’t become known as the crazy plant person:

  1. How long have you had it? If the specimen in question was THIS YEAR’S holiday gift (other than a poinsettia*) chances are it’s still in good shape. If it looks close to the same as the day you got it, then fine. Some plants, the jades and other succulents for example, can get better with age. If the plant is full and majestic in all its ancient glory, then it’s likely very happy where it lives. If, on the other hand, it’s nothing but stalk with a few brown leaves at the very top, it needs the old heave-ho.
  2. Can you take a cutting and start over? I’ve done this many a time with african violets, begonias, geraniums and snake plants who have seen better days. The spider plants practically give you little starters, and there are many plants which can be divided when they become overgrown. Fresh soil and a new pot can do wonders for a plant’s self-esteem.
  3. Is it getting enough light? If you have an inhabitant reaching for the sky, or traveling across the living room to get to a window, then my guess is it needs more sun. There are grow lights and window shelves you can purchase, but let’s face it, there’s probably still not enough light or room for everybody.
  4. Examine the soil surface: is it green, moldy or growing questionable fungi? My mother-in-law battled allergies for years before discovering that the treasured ficus tree given to her by the family was harboring mold that irritated her throat every evening. You can buy a new container and repot the plant with fresh soil, but often the mold will return.

I know you mean well, all you plant lovers out there who can’t say goodbye to your anemic, molting wards. I’ve been there. And I’ve witnessed it: I once helped move a dear friend who was so attached to her mummified brood, that she insisted we stuff dead plants (still embedded in fossilized dirt and cracked clay pots) into her already-packed-to-the-roof U-Haul trailer.

And I’m not a feng shui expert, but it can’t be good “chi” to harbor a broken-down Aspidistra in your money corner. The time has come to bury the past (preferably in a compost pile) and turn over a new leaf (sorry, I couldn’t help it).

*Note: This is one of my biggest plant peeves. I know that you want to keep those poinsettia plants and bring them back to their original holiday splendor again next year. It’s a noble idea, really. I’ve tried it myself. But they will never, I repeat, NEVER look like they did when you bought them. Plant them outside for the summer, enjoy the foliage, let them die an honorable death when the frost comes. The time and effort you spend hiding them in the closet is not worth it. Come next Christmas–BUY A NEW ONE. KEEP THE NURSERIES IN BUSINESS.

Want more? Check out my other Minimalist Moments:

The Mail Monster

Weeds: Lose ’em or Leave ’em (Or Spray the Bejabers out of ’em)

Letting Go #15

Believe me, I would love to let go of some of the undergrowth around my house. This has been a busy summer what with fitting in vacations and preparing to send a child off to college. While my back was turned, the dense carpet of plant hooligans has appeared magically, it seems, aided by an unusually cool and wet midwestern summer.

Although I am determined to cut back on gardening chores, the banes of my horticultural pursuits mock me daily. They are the strawberry patch and the dreaded brick walk “that goes to nowhere.” I finally girded my loins and plunged into the strawberries this week, with the reward coming in the form of mulching the dickens out of them. Ordinarily, I love to mulch, but shoving shredded bark under and around tenacious runners isn’t any fun.

And the brick walk! We inherited this highway of hell from the previous owners who must have thought this would be an attractive feature–EXCEPT THAT IT DOESN’T SERVE ANY PURPOSE. Of course, as an organically inclined gardener, I have patiently plucked the dandelions, crabgrass, and other weird life forms (of another planet), not to mention the ever-encroaching lawn, from the sandy cracks between the bricks. And then there was the boiling water, the vinegar, the salt–yes! yes! and yes!

My conclusion? There is way too much walk–and way too much time and expense in gentler methods. Since this rosy brick path continues to kick my butt, I’ve called in the heavy artillery: I went out and bought me a gallon or so of a commercial weedkiller in a spray pump.

This may be the coward’s way, but I’ve heard from experts of the organic persuasion that if you must use an herbicide, this is the one with less environmental impact. I still feel guilty, but part of my quest this year in simplifying and letting go of outdated and useless activities is to get real about weeds and my precious time.

It’s either chemicals or move.

I’ve Still Got Tomatoes, At Least

Letting Go #13

So, I have reason to believe that green thumbs are genetic. My paternal grandmother’s people were known as plant whisperers. In fact, they settled in Maryland in the late 1920’s because the state was parallel to some place in Italy with a climate conducive to growing anything and everything, including tomatoes. Years later (many years later) I was born into the family nursery (the botanical kind, that is).

My earliest memories are of playing in the sand of the pansy hotbeds and riding my tricycle along the concrete paths that bordered the maze of shrubbery bundled up in burlap. To this day, whenever I’m upset or depressed, just walking into the tropical haze of a greenhouse can reach into my primordial memory and calm me right down.

It was expected that I would grow things. And I did, but with a twist. My father found me scrounging around in the discarded plant heap looking for orphans to revive. Why, he asked, would I want to bother with a scraggly, half-dead geranium when there was a whole greenhouse brimming with perfect ones in every gorgeous color imaginable that he had magically grown from seed? He had done the work for me.


I guess I’m a sucker for cast-offs and lost causes. And a challenge. Later, I got into cacti–literally. My room as a teenager was full of exotic and rather prickly species. Gee, no symbolism there, right? A slight brush near one of the little lovelies would keep me busy plucking for a whole day–hey, what else is there to do when you’re isolated on a 400-acre farm?

In my early life, I dragged my beloved plants from dorm room to apartment, tended to other people’s mistreated pot-bound casualties as a house-sitter, and became a super-hero horticulturist in a trench coat at plant sales (even before the Matrix). While other young women were working on their tans in the yard next to mine, I was busy cutting medicinal herbs to dry and making horehound candy (for sore throats–it works).

About ten years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to finally own a farmhouse and tend a few acres in the country. I ended up with a 3,000 square-foot garden in what used to be a mule pen. Needless to say, the soil was very fertile, and I wound up with bushels of vegetables that we gave away to anyone who couldn’t run very fast. As an organic and soft-hearted gardener, I didn’t have the heart to banish any insects or misplaced plants (weeds), so by the end of the season one needed a machete to cut a path to towering seven-foot tomato groves and waist-high pepper beds.

You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? I have the photos to prove it. Which I’m happy to drag out and bore you with at dinner parties, as any proud parent showing off baby photos. Unfortunately, after two years spent losing my way in the jungle of my own creation, I wound up overwhelmed and in denial, carefully avoiding the garden until after the first good frost as I would an old ex-lover. And, because of another little genetic gift passed along from the greener side of the family tree, I became too ill to handle a small tract yard, much less three acres of fertile ground.

Which leads me back to the suburbs, and a quarter acre of civilized lawn. As my life becomes increasingly cluttered with suburbanite overgrowth, I’m gradually letting go of the high maintenance flora and opting for simple. I have kept the perennials around the house, the June strawberry bed, salad fixings and tomatoes in containers on the deck (supposedly where the deer won’t dare go–yeah, right). My favorite containers come from Gardener’s Supply because they hold water reservoirs that keep the soil evenly moist, or at least keep me from running the hose out every two hours.

This year’s featured tomato variety is ‘Sun Gold’, an orangish cherry indeterminate that has a sweetness I would suspect closely resembles the nectar of the gods. I’ve learned the hard way that quality is truly better than quantity. It is far better to relish the comforting old friends and selected exotic hotshots of the season reclining on my patio in the twilight hours, rather than swimming waist deep in “misplaced plants” looking for the zucchini that got away and possibly mutated into a new alien life force.

Ah, but I have to say there are moments when I’m tempted to let the genie out of the bottle and go wild at the discount store. When I pass the garden center leftovers, their little voices cry out to me from their overgrown pots and dried up six packs, asking me for refuge.

It’s almost all I can do NOT to go score some mule manure.

Sun Gold tomatoes with cat on the side
Sun Gold tomatoes with cat on the side