I became a better plant caretaker in 2 months

I would currently describe myself as an “advanced beginner” house plant caretaker, even though I’ve had a few house plants come and go around my home for the past decade. For context, I would say an intermediate caretaker is one who cares for and helps thrive a variety of plants, some with more specific needs, while an advanced caretaker is someone able to care for plants who have very specific needs and cannot thrive outside of them. On that spectrum I place myself at an “advanced beginner”, a step beyond “beginner.” Before last year, I was one of those people who walks into a plant shop and immediately confesses to being a person who kills houseplants and inquiring only about plants which would have the strongest chance of survival if they go home with me. That all changed in late summer 2020 when I decided to take intentional steps to improve my caretaking skills, and I think it worked.

When everything shifted within the structure at Vault and Vine, prompted by Covid-19 in March 2020, my position expanded from event floral designer to include additional roles including occasional help with the greenhouse, selling plants on the retail floor, and other plant-related activities in the shop. This is one of the reasons I felt motivated to become a better caretaker. Another reason is that I had accumulated a collection of plants over the past few years and had recently moved into a brighter, warmer apartment space where they seemed happier. I felt that since moving into that new space, the plants had started to level out again in terms of their growth and overall happiness.

Of course there’s probably many different ways to approach the task of becoming a better house plant caretaker. The route I took worked for me, but everyone learns differently. I found that I only needed to use this tactic temporarily (2 months) as a means to absorb new information. I started by making a spreadsheet and taking inventory of every plant I owned. I didn’t actually know the names of some of them, and learning the scientific name of things is a great way to start becoming more familiar. 

Then I added a section for ‘observations’ and ‘water (amount/quality/etc)’. I filled out this sheet of plant notes and observations every week on the day I planned to water everything. When I say “every week” it was more like every 10 days. Between the note-taking and watering it would take me about an hour to an hour and a half every time. 

    By the time the second week rolled around I added an additional section for notes and divided it up into: observations, actions, and water (amount/quality/etc).

During this hour and a half process, which I performed every week over the following two months, I cultivated some new habits. To start with, I learned all the names of my plants. This simple act is an easy way to expand the universe of what you think you already know. When you learn the scientific names of things you start to see those names pop up other places: in books, at parks, museums, nature preserves, weird blogs about plants. You’ll recognize names you know and plant characteristics you’re familiar with and then notice the variety that exists within single species of plants. I’ve had a similar experience in the process of getting to know names of flowers, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and birds. Strange cousins of your favorite plants and animals start appearing on the other side of the country and on the other side of the world! It’s a way of simultaneously making the world feel larger and smaller.

    In addition to learning names, I cultivated a habit of touching the soil of my plants to get a sense of the feeling and degree of wetness as well as lifting each plant to get a sense of the weight difference when it has just been watered vs. when the soil is very dry. During this process, I realized in the past there were many times when I watered plants simply because it was the day that I was watering all my plants, not because I knew the plant and the soil needed it. Even though it’s a helpful part of this observational process to establish a “watering day” there will definitely be some plants that will need watered less frequently and some that will need water again before “watering day” rolls around. Once you figure out which plants fall outside of the main watering day, you can help those plants thrive more easily. For instance, I learned that my calatheas and maranta want to be watered more frequently than most of my other plants, and my christmas cactus wants to be watered less than my other plants.

    As I write down my findings to you, I simultaneously have a million caveats following every piece of advice. There are general guidelines out there to help you get started on your path of caring for any plant, yet there are still many factors to consider based on the specific environment. Environments vary widely in terms of temperature, sunlight, air moisture, etc, which affects any particular plant’s best plan of survival and thriving. For instance, my bedroom where most of my plants live, is extremely warm and dry in the winter so I’ve found myself watering more frequently than I did in the fall. This goes against the concept that plants are most actively growing in spring, summer and fall and then start to slow down in late fall and can even go dormant in winter. I found that by trying out a short but consistent practice of observation, it’s possible to create a custom plan of best practices for your particular houseplants in their particular environment. I am still in the middle of that process.

    The last thing I will say about those two months is that during that time, I killed three of the plants on my list, and severely stressed out another that is still alive but not thriving. When your plant begins to show signs of stress, consider it a learning opportunity, remember what you learned from those two months of observation, and try out a solution based on what you think the problem may be. Maybe you’ll kill it, maybe you’ll solve the problem, or maybe it’ll hold on one more day while it waits for you to come up with a better solution. In my experience as an advanced beginner, if you make a solid effort to try, experiment, and take action when it’s required- you’ll learn, fail, succeed and ultimately become a better plant caretaker.