5 Life Lessons I Learned From My House Plants
I need water. Or maybe more sunlight. Actually, just put me in that corner over there and leave me alone for a while.
These are just some of the life lessons I learned from my house plants during the covid lockdown. How have your last 18 months been?
Okay, so to be clear, my house plants don’t speak to me. Mostly, they sit there, like the furniture, not doing much at all.
Except, they do things, subtly. Like, grow. Or die. Often, it’s a bit of both. It’s a balance, really.
But it’s in those quiet moments—shall we call them both silent pleading and judgment?—that they taught me some unexpected, but necessary things about life.
At the beginning of lockdown, we had exactly two houseplants. We’re now up to ten-and-a-half (more on the half later). I’m not sure it’s enough yet, though. If crazy cat lady is a golden years destination, crazy house plant lady is a midlife castle in Provence. There’s every reason to fill your house with plants.
Let’s get to it: the five life lessons learned from my house plants.
1. Water. It matters way more and a whole lot less than I thought
I was listening to an interview not that long ago with a nutrition expert. He was busting some health myths. You know, the usual stuff about balancing your diet and eating enough fruit and vegetables, avoiding sugar and heart disease, and all of that.
One of the queries he tackled that caught my ear was whether or not we need to drink something like 8-10 glasses of water per day. That has always seemed like a lot to me, and I really like drinking water.
He was saying that even the things that dehydrate us, like coffee, still count toward that total water requirement for the day. According to him, the coffee hydrates us before it dehydrates, after all. The foods we eat that contain water—fresh fruit and vegetables, primarily—also count toward that goal. So does soup. Soup!
The point he was making was that, if the goal is 8-10 glasses per day, we don’t necessarily need to make an effort to track our water consumption by the sip. And we certainly don’t need to measure that water outside of our normal eating and drinking activities. We’re likely to get there organically.
My house plants, for the most part, are the same.
At the beginning of our relationship, I overwatered. I hyperwatered. I hoverwatered. I thought too much about the watering in general. Where was the best spot to water them? Was there a better time of day? I drink spring water; should they?
I killed a few because of all of this. Some plants are way more fickle than others about water. My pothos will practically send me a summons when it’s ready for a drink, dropping yellow leaves like daggers. But I have a palm (it’s the “half," sadly) that missed a single watering and has never forgiven me. A friend who’s an arborist said it will never recover.
But then there are the cacti and succulents. And I honestly don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t need a summons, but a postcard would be nice. A Post-It note, even. They’re so nonchalant about water that it’s almost passive-aggressive. Water me, don’t water me—either way, Jill, you’re doing it wrong.
So, mostly, I don’t water them. I want to believe that even though the plants don’t talk to me, they do talk to each other, and somehow even share resources from their isolated terra cotta prisons. Do they water each other in the dark of night?
As for me, I still start and end my day with fresh spring water. But I don’t think about it so much anymore. And, for the most part, I’m still upright.
2. You can spritz your way to sanity (almost)
As a relative newcomer to the world of house plants, I also recently learned about misting. This is an important part of plant parenting. It works in tandem with watering, but is its own thing.
Face misting is one of my absolute favorite beauty care indulgences. Why delicately pat or swab things onto my face when I can spray them on with reckless abandon too close to my already sensitive eyes? And you thought lockdown was boring.
Misting is the art of a little going a long way. It’s what I’m sure is a scientific term: “hitting the spot.” A little toner spray and I can feel like a whole new person in mere seconds. Is it any surprise a little misting of water can make a plant perk up and look like a whole new plant?
I carry several toner mists in my purse at all times. In LA, getting in a hot car is an all-too-frequent occurrence, and a quick spritz can bring much relief. Sitting at the beach? Spritz. Hiking or workout fatigue? Spritz. Meeting time? Spritz. But during lockdown, I wasn’t driving anywhere—for weeks at a time. It wasn’t until I started misting the plants that I remembered this little moment of zen I loved so much for myself, too. How could I have forgotten!
Now, there are two spritzers on my desk. One for the plant, and one for me. And we’re both dewey and happy.
3. Hang out more. Literally
I have a pothos. It hangs in my kitchen over the dish drain in front of a window that opens out to our backyard. It would not be inaccurate to say this plant is living its best life. It is the alpha plant in my house. I got it a fancy geodesic hanging ceramic pot with gold rope. There’s moisture from the sink and dishwasher, the southeasterly light that bathes it all morning long. I swear that it doubles in size every night. I’ve never been more interested in a plant than this one. It’s just so alive and busy, but quiet and still all at the same time.
It does all this even though it’s in a more precarious situation than all of the other plants in the house. It’s suspended, literally. I think the pot is too small for its roots, but anything bigger won’t hang as well. It doesn’t seem to mind, though.
It's there, hovering over me every morning while I make my coffee or fix breakfast for my daughter. It’s there, hanging over me while I do dishes, feed the cats, and all of the kitchen things.
Its vine-y rows of leaves appear to be growing right toward the point in the yard where my hammock is positioned, almost like it’s telling me that I, too, need to go hang and hover. So I do, sometimes. Because even though we’ve barely left the house in over a year, that’s not at all the same as hanging out.
I didn’t do enough hanging out this year. I’m sure, like most people, there was the constant nagging feeling that I needed to “do something” with my time. (I repainted an outdoor play structure, decluttered the whole house, and started a business, if that counts.)
But on those days where I make time for the hammock, everything changes. I’m me again in the most rewarding way. And as I lay there in that hammock looking toward the window, Pothos hanging there where it always is, all is right with the world.
4. Everything dies. Don’t make excuses
“Why are there mushrooms in the spider plant pot?” I recently asked a friend who was visiting. “That’s usually a sign of death,” he said. I rushed into crisis mode. Not the spider plant! It has babies growing! I was able to save that one (I had overwatered, or underwatered, I don’t even know). But other plants in my care over the years weren’t so lucky. Some now have browning or drooping leaves. It gives me anxiety just to type about it.
My first instinct is to blame the nursery. Something went wrong when they were babies. This is the narrative I’ve told myself dozens of times—every time I’ve killed a house plant over the decades. These poor, PTSD suffering palms. They never stood a chance. I did everything I could.
But, more likely, it’s that I never changed the soil. Or that the pots are too small. There’s not enough light in the living room. Or, maybe, it’s just time for that plant to die.
There’s been so much death this last year for all of us. I lost three people since lockdown started—none of them covid-related—but it’s still been incredibly sad, perhaps even more so, as there’s so much loss for everyone right now.
When it comes to the plants, sometimes they die slowly, like the palm that’s refusing every effort. Sometimes, a plant will appear fine one day, and past the point the next. I do what I can, offering water, more light, less light, quiet. I bear witness. I breathe close to them in our shared invisible chemical exchange.
This reminds me of Carlos Castaneda’s meditation on death: “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, 'I haven't touched you yet.”
And so, I watch the naturalness of it all, not questioning, just being and accepting all that is happening, not waiting for death, but not ignoring it, either.
5. Nurture yourself
I had kind of hoped that bringing this many house plants into my life would make me better at everything. They would teach me, through their quiet wisdom, about when to water them, when to water myself, I thought.
The house plants, like all nature, are better than us, that’s why. We all know this, even if just intuitively. They teach the art of making do, being silent, fulfilled in all moments even though they’re strangers in a strange land, plucked from the earth, held captive in fertilizer and clay. They are prisoners in the truest sense, isolated, living through a meager facsimile of what they’d get just steps away in my yard.
Yet, they find a way.
They find a way to be the most honest version of themselves. Spider plants grow babies from the windowsill, ready for plucking and planting. The Pothos ivies its way across my kitchen—its kitchen, really. The herbs grow more fragrant. The succulents bloom—all while never setting root in “real” soil.
I’ve felt a lot like this, too, this last year. Even though I’m an introverted homebody to begin with, it’s different when you’re forced into isolation. It’s different when restaurants and yoga studios are off-limits. It’s all been so different.
But, like the plants, I made the most of the situation, regenerating the stale soil of isolation. I dug my roots into new ideas, new ways to nourish myself and my daughter. We embraced new rituals, we cooked new meals, we found new ways of entertaining ourselves. I sat quietly by the sunlit windows breathing, sipping water, feeling grateful but in the most humble way I know how. What else can we do?
It’s this quiet sturdiness that’s perhaps the biggest lesson I learned as a plant parent in covid times. Things will go awry, things will go terribly wrong, even. But there’s grace to be had in those moments. That’s when it matters most, really.
But most of the time, even when the world around us is foreign and strange and not at all what we think it should be, some things can be right as rain too. The flower pushing itself up through concrete. The house plants thriving in the little indoor worlds we make for them—these are the same unnatural worlds we make for ourselves, after all.
Like the plants, we can flourish, soaking in the mist and the sunlight and the warm air that’s constantly moving between and becoming all living things.
Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.