Wet, stormy days,
You will find me inside,
Near a window,
No place to hide.
Hard clay, dark glaze
And the roots run through;
Something to say,
Nothing to do.
As I sit looking out,
With the sky looking in,
Brushing against this container skin.
When the sun shine breaks,
Illuminating a leaf,
The cats check my reaction
And go back to sleep.February 2021
An Origin Story
As far back as I can remember, there were always houseplants around. Most of them seemed to just be there, their origins murky. Maybe they emerged fully formed: up from the dirt, through the rock foundations, sprouting up through the floor boards to find the light again. Maybe?
Or maybe they were just waiting for you to show up?
When I was a teenager, I went to live in a house with an older sister and some of her friends. That was 1988. My room was already filled with huge plants when I got there. It was just as well because, other than a mattress, I didn’t have any furniture. There were only a few of those plants that I ever learned the names of: a jade and an aloe. One of my favorites was so tall that I could sleep under it! I was taking a photography class at school and could buy a roll of film for about a dollar. That might have been the beginning of my obsession with taking pictures? Back then, I was mostly interested in photographing people, but looking through my old prints, I was surprised by how many pictures I took of plants, even way back then!
When its Time to Start Caring
Even though I have had a lifetime with indoor plants, I can’t say that I’m very knowledgeable when it comes to their care. Most of what I know comes from things going horribly wrong. Take that jade, for instance. One time we were all out of town and asked a friend to look after the houseplants. He did a great job of watering but, he over-watered the jade. The worse it looked, the more worried he got, the more he watered it. I probably would’ve done the same thing! By the time we got back to town, the jade had shriveled up, rotted and died. So, my first lesson was that the “appearance” of an over-watered plant can be very similar to that of an under-watered plant. The leaves might wilt, turn brown or yellow and fall off. Go figure.
Let the Surface Dry-out, Then Water
If you’re unsure of when to water your plants, a good idea is to check the soil first. It should be dry when you poke your finger in an inch or two. Then when you do water, I highly recommend choosing a watering can that has a *detachable shower head. This will sprinkle water over the entire surface of the soil as opposed to dumping it all in one spot. It’s the best way to ensure that the whole root-ball receives the water. Otherwise, whole sections of the root-ball will become so dry that getting it to absorb water again is a very difficult. In fact, the only way that I know of to re-hydrate a dried out root-ball is to submerge the entire container in another larger container of water until the air bubbles stop rising to the surface. That’s not so hard to do with a smaller container but, a large container might throw your back out if you can even manage to lift it in the first place! To save yourself from an avoidable injury, just remember this: Water always finds the easiest path and that path is always down, never to the side.
*Detach the shower head to water small containers.
Another mystery to unravel with your houseplants is where to place them for the best light exposure? Different plants have different light requirements so, when you learn what your plant needs, you can place it in a location that will suit it best. The recommended distance from any window is about 3-10 feet but, depending on the orientation of the window, the amount of light can vary greatly. For a plant that requires bright and direct light, a south-facing window will provide this and for the longest period of time each day, all year long. If a plant has medium-light needs, an east or west window works really well. For those unusual plants that prefer low light conditions with no direct light, a north-facing window would be the right choice. You can play with this a bit and see how your plants respond because, in the end, they will always have the right answer.
After having lived in school buses that were parked out in the woods, we moved into town. It was the end of 1994 and our only heat source was from an old oil stove. We missed the wood heat from our time out at the buses. Oil was so much more expensive to use that we never turned it up and instead heated the house by the pilot light only. The oil heat continued for a couple of years before we finally replaced it with a wood stove. Anyone who has been around a wood stove knows that there is nothing that can compare to the quality of the heat it generates. It’s a radiant heat that goes deep into your bones where it drives out the damp that finds its way in during our wet Pacific Northwest winters. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the impact that this new heat source would have on my houseplants.
Not a Dry Eye in the House
In the winter months, you generally don’t need to water your plants as much or so I thought. I didn’t realize at the time that, as a wood stove was kicking out the heat, it was also drying out the air. So there I was, happily basking in the glow of our new wood stove while my plants were drying out and dying. In the end, I lost every single plant. I was pretty devastated and felt more than a measure of guilt over not having anticipated what a huge change the wood stove would bring to our houseplants. I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t have indoor plants anymore and would instead focus my gardening efforts out-of-doors.
That was how it was and that is how it remained for many years.
Fade to Gray
We were renters when we first moved into our house. Our landlord, Joe, had bought the house from the previous owners who had owned it for more than 50 years. The two main colors painted on the walls were pink and green and, in the living room, even the carpet was pink. I have never really been a fan of the color pink so, it felt like I was walking into a Barbie nightmare. I hesitated to imagine what other strange horrors we might discover? …. There were those mysterious mason jars in the cellar but, I will save that story for another time…
Joe was a house painter by trade and repainted the walls before we moved in. He had mixed together a bunch of leftover paint that resulted in a color that I can only describe as “sort of lavender”. Initially it was an improvement over the pink but, in just a few years, the red pigment in the “lavender” paint had faded. It left our walls looking institutional and gray. This fading had occurred around the time of the plant apocalypse and since we had already bought the house from Joe, I started to repaint the walls.
At first, I tried adding color to the walls in an attempt to blast away the gray but, the colors seemed to absorb light and left the house feeling dark. Every couple of years I’d try something different until I did the boring thing and chose white for the living room and bedrooms. I was surprised by what an improvement it was. It felt calming and I didn’t have to worry about anything clashing with the walls (including the other walls!). I can remember thinking it was like living and sleeping up in the clouds.
After many years of “simplifying” the interior of our house, David came home with a plant. He said he couldn’t take it anymore. Not only was the house devoid of plant-life but, each time I repainted the walls, I had rehung fewer and fewer pictures until there was almost nothing left on the walls. As I looked around I couldn’t argue. No plants, no pictures, no sign of family life; our house did not feel like a home.
By this time, I was super busy gardening and was worried about taking on the responsibility of caring for indoor plants. I asked David if he could help and he promised he would. Armed with lessons from the past, we opened up our home to try to make a welcoming place for our new green friends. I was sure they would start showing up soon; as they always do.
I loved all of the different ways our new plants came to us: Someone moves out of town? You get their orphaned Christmas Cactus. A friend made a bunch of cuttings from a begonia? You get a start! You make it through a surgical procedure? A family member sends you a giant Cat Palm through the mail.
We have around twenty houseplants now, which feels manageable. David doesn’t really help much with their care but, it’s mainly because I tend to “take over” when it comes to plants. I can’t seem to help it! I’m so happy that he saw what was lacking though. I get a lot of companionship from plants and having them indoors is really helping me to get through the dark, wet days of this Covid winter…and their flowers are a wonderful bonus!
Bring it Back Home
I have heard (many times!) David talk about an apartment that he had in Port Townsend way back in the early eighties. He filled it with plants, between 80-100, and hung a wicker chair from a beam of its vaulted ceiling. He would sit in that chair with his headphones on, listening to music loudly, while he was surrounded by his plants.
It was during this time that he was given a ficus tree. A friend of his was moving into a small space and couldn’t keep it. After leaving that apartment, David moved up to Bellingham and took the ficus with him. Years later he moved back to Port Townsend and the plant came back with him. For both trips, it rode in the back of the pickup truck while he was going down I-5 at 55mph! Ficus trees are notoriously finicky and are very well known for dropping leaves at the slightest hint of a shift in their environment. One of the main things you always hear is that they don’t like to be moved or re-potted. How it survived, I’ll never know. I have asked David about this many times just to make sure I have the story right. He doesn’t know why but, said it did fine with this 2+ hour road trip.
Eventually David bought a bus to live in and he gave the ficus to his parents. His Dad was a massage therapist and, for many years, kept the tree in his waiting room. Ten years ago his dad passed away and the ficus needed to be moved again. It had grown so big that we couldn’t get it through the door. After cutting off one of the branches that had grown sideways from the main trunk, it was once again loaded into the back of a truck before it headed down the highway.
Our house is an old Victorian. The previous owners were the original DIY types and had done quite a bit to “modernize” the house. They had hung dropped ceilings two feet down in almost every room of the house. Over the years, we have taken out nearly all of the dropped ceilings and restored them back up to their 10 foot high glory.
Enter the Ficus
It’s a good thing that we took out the drop ceilings because the ficus is about nine feet tall. I had already cut off such a huge portion getting it out of the clinic door, that it would’ve been heart breaking to then cut it again just to fit it into our house.
The ficus is so big that it really dominates whatever room it is in. David isn’t always thrilled with it but, I love having a tree in my house! When my art room was finally set up, I promptly moved it in there – which is where it still lives to this day.
This year I decided to re-pot it into a different container and I knew just the one. I had bought a large container last summer that I really liked but, I didn’t end up using it. If this tree could make it down the highway, would it even notice me prodding and pulling it out from its pot? I decided to give it a go.
That was a couple of weeks ago and the tree still looks pretty good. It dropped a few leaves but, nothing too dramatic. I’m keeping an eye on it but, there is probably no need to worry. This ficus has shown that it can handle whatever comes its way as it heads on down the road.