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Home > Health > Wellness > How not to kill your houseplants

How not to kill your houseplants

Trisha Bora, avowed plant-lover and author of a new book on how to successfully raise houseplants, answers your most urgent questions about being a plant-parent

Humans are genetically biased to be around natural life, says Trisha Bora
Humans are genetically biased to be around natural life, says Trisha Bora (Unsplash)

Trisha Bora grew up in the tea gardens of Assam, surrounded by greenery and imbibing the love of plants from her mother, an avid gardener. She has worked in publishing for many years, and feels there is a gap in the market when it comes to a handy book on gardening that takes into account Indian conditions and preferences. Recording her plantkeeping stories on Instagram on her handle @aplantersdaughter and YouTube channel, Planter's Daughter, Bora felt the need to address this gap with a book that conveys her love of plants and acts as a go-to guide for those starting out on their gardening journey. Edited excerpts from an interview with Lounge:

What prompted you to write this book? When did you start planning it, writing it, and who did you have in mind as your primary reader?

I wrote this book because, frankly, there isn’t a handy, updated book on care for ornamentals for the Indian gardener-reader. My mother is a brilliant gardener and she, at one point, collected tons of gardening books, all of which I’d read. The books were beautiful coffee table formats with lush photography and although I loved them and they inspired me, they always left me wanting because they were meant for a specific international audience. Gardening books only have meaning when they are set in your context because of unique cultural parameters like climate, soil profiles, growing seasons (for example: most of India doesn’t have a brutal winter and total rest season for plants).

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I knew exactly what I wanted from this book. I began writing it in March 2020, handing it over in August. The research was relatively easy because I’m familiar, or have raised, the plants profiled in the book at some point in my life. I wrote this book for someone who is new to the world of houseplants and who has perhaps bought a plant or two hoping to decorate their house, and in time, has unfortunately ended up killing it. The book is also for an avid gardener who’d like tips on new plant varieties they are bringing into their collection. It makes the perfect gift for people who love plants/gardening because of the elegant format and the gorgeous photography by the folks at Soiled (www.soiled.in)–one of India’s best online plant sellers.

A monstera plant in Bora's home (Photo: soiled.in)
A monstera plant in Bora's home (Photo: soiled.in) (soiled.in)

What in your view is the connection between nurturing plants and mental health? How have plants helped your own mental and physical wellbeing?

Plants have a direct connection to mental wellbeing. At the very basic level, plants offer us instant visual relief. Think of how you feel when you enter an apartment that has a few plants versus a stark office setting. The fluid, natural forms of plants break the hard, inanimate settings we inhabit. It’s like watching fish, an activity prescribed those who are stressed, anxious, and even heart patients.

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Plants work in the same way and this is because humans are genetically biased to be around natural life. The American naturalist and writer, E. O. Wilson, popularized the term ‘biophilia’ which literally translates to ‘love for life/all that is alive’. He hypothesized that humans have an innate tendency to seek out nature. There are many studies that have found connections between exposure to nature and recovery from mental fatigue. In particular, the Kaplan theory of ART (attention restoration theory) from the 1980s-90s, which says that being in contact with nature can renew our attention, reduce fatigue, and improve our mental health.

I grew up in the heart of nature, surrounded by acres of manicured tea gardens (of Assam) and wild jungles. As a child of an alcoholic parent, the vast gardens that came with our bungalows offered both refuge and solace. It was there - in the orchards, among the flower beds planted by my mother and her gardener, the vegetable gardens – that I went to when the interiors of our house became unbearable. It was also there where I began to notice the subtlety of plants/nature and the many delights it offered. It brought me moments of much-needed respite, calm, and safety. At a time when counselling was a unicorn in rural parts of India, nature filled in that role for me, and I am forever indebted to her generosity. More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, which had us locked down and hunkering in, my houseplants once again came to my (and many others’) rescue by providing us a taste of the outdoors, a friendly reminder of avenue trees and city parks.

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Tending to plants is an active hobby. It requires our attention, it demands contact with organic material (soil, water, leaves, mulch), it is habit-creating, it asks us to kneel, to crane our necks, to bend, to stretch, to be out in the sun, to forage, to walk, get our footwear muddy. At its best, it offers a tangible, sensory, transformative, nurturing experience that boosts boost both physical and mental wellbeing.

A bougainvillea plant in Bora's home (Photo: soiled.in)
A bougainvillea plant in Bora's home (Photo: soiled.in) (soiled.in)

Do you think the pandemic has made us more attached to our plants and gardens? Is the 'plantdemic' real, in other words, and if so, what could be some of the reasons?

The ‘plantdemic’ is very real! Talk to any garden centre or online seller of plants and they’ll tell you how well they’ve done in the last year. In my own circles, I’ve had many friends and family members who’ve never owned a plant, now sporting at least a Monstera deliciosa or a succulent in their Instagram updates. However, the trend to own plants is anything but recent. Through time, plant collectors have always sought out new, more exotic species to add to their libraries (think Victorian plant collectors or the eighteenth-century Tulip Craze in Holland). But today, plant collecting has gone finally gone mainstream. The houseplant market has been on a steady winning streak since social media made plants cool.

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I hope we’ve become more attached to our plants; however, whether we’ll still turn to plants after ‘all this’ is over, depends on our motives for having plants. Do we bring plants home because we are interested in growing things? Do we like them for aesthetic reasons, or do we simply want to showcase them on our social media to stay relevant? But then again, these reasons can change when curiosity is sparked, turning a hobby into a lifelong passion or at the other end of the spectrum, we may become frustrated by their upkeep and give it up altogether.

Why do so many people find it difficult to rear houseplants? What are some of the common mistakes they can avoid when they are getting started?

I once bought home a species of cane begonia and in no time the bushy potful of leaves became an unsightly specimen. It was embarrassing because cane begonias are pretty resilient. Before it completely died, I took leaf cuttings and propagated the plant. I was unsure about the experiment because the plant had perished so rapidly but when the new plants grew, I found that they were robust, sturdy, and prolific. There’s only one reason for this – the new plants knew only one environment and one type of care, mine, and thus they adapted to the new conditions.

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Overwatering, poor light, pests are symptomatic of a bigger problem, which is usually a change in environments. In the nursery, plants are mostly grown outdoors or under a green shade cloth, and thus they receive ample natural light, daily watering, and vigorous feeding. However, when we bring these plants home, we introduce them to a whole new environment – one where natural light is usually cut back by 50%, which slows down evaporation and transpiration, resulting in soils that remain moist for longer periods, which result in a whole slew of problems, from root rot to fungus to pests. It is this dramatic change of care and conditions that makes caring for houseplants frustrating and unfathomable to many. This is why I much prefer buying a smaller/juvenile specimen rather than a mature plant. The success rates are always higher. A few years ago, everyone rushed out to get the Ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig) – a massively trendy plant once described as ‘the equivalent of a newborn child’ – because they wanted a statement tree in their homes, only to realise that the plant was a pain in the neck. If folks had bought themselves a smaller specimen, the plant would have had the luxury of losing a few leaves in its path of life, while also adapting to your circumstances because it’s easier to learn than unlearn.

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Low light is another factor. Most houseplants are often placed in areas of the home that have little to no light. It doesn’t help that plants nowadays are being marketed and sold as ‘low light’ plants (and sometimes even ‘zero light’ plants!) All plants need light! Except for direct afternoon sun, most houseplants will thank you for giving them bright (not direct) light. The brighter, the better.

The other reasons why caring for houseplants may be hard is a lack of information, impulse buying plants for aesthetic reasons and not having the corresponding conditions in your home to provide it and being unable to read the signs that your plants are giving you – all of which I’ve presented in the book.

Do you think this fear of killing plants deters people from actually taking to gardening in even a small way? What's the best way to get rid of these fears?

Perhaps, but you know what they say about fears – the only way to get over it is to do the thing you fear. Everyone, including the best gardeners, kills a few houseplants. The best place to start is by asking oneself deliberate questions such as 'why did it die'? And then narrow down the possibilities from there by generating ideas, testing, and experimenting with conditions and care and revising till you perfect your methods. You could also start with plants that are more forgiving, like the ZZ plant or a Scindapsis.

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How Not to Kill Your House Plants: A Beginner's Guide to Plant Parenting by Trisha Bora (Penguin Random House;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499)
How Not to Kill Your House Plants: A Beginner's Guide to Plant Parenting by Trisha Bora (Penguin Random House; 499)
  • LAST UPDATED
    22.02.2021 | 06:02 PM IST
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