February 25, 2020

Millennials Among the Plants

“My perspective on plants and plant rearing comes from this botanizing background, rather than a gardening one. Until I got into houseplants, my idea was that plants were best left in the wild, with our roles in their lives restricted to being good-hearted environmental stewards and reverent observers. Now, I have twenty-five houseplants, and despite some encounters with spider mites and clumsy repottings, they are all thriving. This isn’t because I followed a specific, top-secret recipe for plant success or because I have some kind of natural gift, a green thumb, if you will. It’s because I haven’t been consumed by the dreaded expectations of so-called “houseplant culture,” which are fueled almost wholly by Instagram. Numerous tags, such as #houseplantclub and #crazyplantlady, betray an endless parade of twee wall hangings, big lofts with giant fiddle leaf fig trees, and expensive West Elm furniture complemented by drooping monstera leaves.

Best-selling coffee table books like the wildly successful Urban Jungle and Plant Style: How to Greenify Your Space tell readers how to decorate with plants, painstakingly describing what color pot you should choose or how to style plants with furniture for optimum cuteness, while also offering obligatory one-size-fits-all directions for how to keep said plants alive, i.e. water every ten days, as if it’s that easy. Articles on decor and gardening websites come in basically a handful of bland flavors: listicles on the hottest plants to own right now; plant Instagram accounts to follow; trendy plants that we swear you can keep alive; and the truth about trendy houseplants, which is that they are invariably hard to keep alive and that it’s all your fault. The result? Over a period of just three years, houseplant sales in the United States have surged almost 50 percent to $1.7 billion. Turns out those bespoke macramé hangers and fiddle-leaf figs are big business now, and a general rule of capitalism throughout history is: what’s good for business is usually bad for living things.

Houseplant culture is no different. Houseplant culture is bad for houseplants. Let’s begin with the most benign reason: houseplant culture creates unrealistic expectations for taking care of plants. Those snake plants and succulents are not, in fact, “impossible to kill.” If you want an unkillable plant, get one made of plastic. Just as Instagram makes us feel as if our lives, our bodies, and our friendships are inadequate, so too does it make us feel that we are bad plant parents because our plants aren’t in picture-perfect shape, pristinely arranged around a tasteful side table. Plants can’t be kept alive with the blanket statements that read like IKEA assembly instructions. If I watered my snake plants “every ten days,” as it says on the card, they would rot and die. Frankly the way some books and care cards talk about caring for plants amounts to criminal negligence, and when things don’t go according to plan, and your plant begins its death cycle, the response of these blogs is to blame you for following their directions, calling it overwatering or under-watering or under-fertilizing or over-fertilizing or whatever.”

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