For years, I’ve wanted to write a book on plants. I spent much of my childhood outdoors. In the spring and summer, I would run through the timothy (Phleum pratense), fondly known as “tickle your ass grass,” and emerge with streaks of spittlebug froth and red marks from the abrasive, silica- containing fescue (Festuca arundinacea) and ryegrass (Lolium perenne) on my bare, sun-kissed legs. In the colder months of autumn, I exulted in the brilliant shades of crimson, umber, and gold- flecked leaves that transfigured the landscape. And in the winter months, when my mittened hands turned up chunks of alabaster snow, I’d often find myself dazzled by emerald mosses snuggled cozy and unperturbed under their igloo homes on the forest floor.
It’s difficult to put into words how alive I feel when I’m outside, among all the intricacies and mysteries of the natural world. I’ve spent much of my professional life connecting people back to nature. In time, my career path led me to New York City, where I had to retire my bug net and boots and largely trade in the lifestyle that I was accustomed to. I made this sacrifice in order to explore how urban people might reconnect to their environment through the products they consume regularly, like clothes, cosmetics, and food, and the actions that they take on a daily basis, like preparing and eating more locally sourced food (more on that later). Since I could no longer step out my back door and be immersed in nature, I needed to find a way to bring nature to me. I had to learn how to carve out my own personal green space in my apartment and in my community in the city, which meant cultivating an entirely new kind of relationship with plants in an entirely different context.
And so I began. I started with a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) in my bedroom over ten years ago now. Leaf by leaf, frond by frond, flower by flower, my indoor collection of green companions grew. I found plants by the side of the road, in long- forgotten window boxes, at farmers’ markets and local garden shops, and even sprouting bravely between cracked pavement. Many found a home with me. I nestled them in sturdy terra- cotta pots, pretty cachepots, kitchen colanders (great drainage!), woven baskets, Mason jars, and rows of upcycled empty tea tins. I came up with inexpensive, inventive ways and places to shelve, hang, tuck, anchor, secure, and suspend them, circumventing the number and narrowness of my windowsills and pressing walls, poles, pillars, beams, and even a street-found trellis into service. In time, I had well over 1,000 plants and around 550 species and cultivars that took up residence in my home, which one of my friends accordingly dubbed “The Hanging Gardens of Brooklyn.”
It appeared that my efforts touched a chord. I was shocked when my very verdant apartment went viral. Within months, tens of millions of people were watching videos or sharing stories on the plants in my home. Were they just looking for the gee-whiz story of the day? I don’t think so. “Woman Lives with Hundreds of Houseplants” may be a compelling headline, but I sensed that there was more behind people’s interest. Nor were they just looking for interior-design inspiration. I’ve learned that plants offer us far more than drool- worthy decor. And indeed, countless people have sent me stories — some of which you’ll read in this book — of how their communion with plants has improved their lives in innumerable ways:
“I love the cleaner air in my living room. The color my plants add to my home makes me feel noticeably happier. I live in a basement apartment with no windows, so I was thrilled that my plants could thrive in lightbulb light.”
“My husband and I love having plants. The air feels cleaner, and seeing them on the windowsill when we wake up is soothing. Caring for them and watering them makes me feel calm and purposeful, as if I am succeeding in some small way. When they flower and bloom or just grow larger, I feel that I, too, am growing. And nourishing them with natural fertilizer helps me remember that I need to nourish myself.”
— Sarah A.
“I find being in an area full of plants has an energy that is thick with the smell of greenery and the air makes me feel very refreshed. Tending my plants relaxes my mind. I slow down as I look for leaves to prune, and when I water them, it reminds me that they have their own schedule. When I’m with my plants, life feels nice and gentle.”
— Madeline T.
“I always thought I couldn’t keep plants alive — that I had a black thumb. When my son was born, I had a horribly traumatic birth experience and developed postpartum depression that brought me to a pretty dark place. I started growing plants at the suggestion of a friend who is a horticultural therapist. Learning to care for plants, to notice them and see them thrive, gave me the confidence to see that my child was thriving, too.”
“When I find myself getting anxious, I need to do something kinesthetic in order to distract my thoughts. Usually I repot my houseplants and untangle their roots, making sure they have space to grow and breathe. I also just sit with them and study their unique foliage. Sometimes I draw what I see. I lie in the sun with them during the day for a few minutes, and it reminds me to breathe more deeply.”
What is consistently striking in the messages people in my community send me is how far removed many of us seem to be from the outdoors, and how gratifying it is when we finally find our way back to nature and plants. So, why don’t more of us?
Probably because the task seems daunting or impossible without a major lifestyle shift. Gardening, as we have known it, has not kept step with society’s exodus from the countryside to city centers. Most of us don’t have a patch of fertile dirt to call our own.
And yet the experience I had growing up of being immersed in plants is within our reach — including those of us living in tiny apartments.
From How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart by Summer Rayne Oakes. Published by Optimism Press, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Summer Rayne Oakes.
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