With millions of innovative gardeners on this planet, differences of opinion and horticultural hair-pulling sessions are bound to erupt. Most of us look forward to a little good-natured thrust and parry – particularly in February when we’re all getting tired of endless conversations about how this winter stacks up to the last.
Words are cheap, particularly ‘easy’
A week ago, I threw down the green gauntlet after thumbing through a popular lifestyle magazine over my morning coffee. A sexy little picture of a maidenhair fern (adiantum) in a natural fiber pot was captioned with a quick, breezy proclamation stating that they, along with Boston ferns, were easy to grow for the indoor gardener: “read: hard to kill.” An even breezier comment told the reader to try “white allium” for something even daintier.
I took a double take. When you see something definitively stated in a glossy mag, the first thing you do is question your own knowledge and experience. The second thing you do is question why it’s bothering you so much. Then you text a greenhouse grower friend to ascertain if you are indeed, completely insane.
If you come out of that conversation fully vindicated, you must then decide if it’s time for one of those thinly veiled “I-know-more-than-you-do” letters to the editor that begin pompously with “Dear Editor, I was concerned to read in your last issue that…,” and end with an editorial intern falling asleep over your encyclopedic use of botanical terms.
Luckily in these days of social media I could simply take the low road and vent my spleen on Facebook.
Not that I don’t love the many species of adiantum. Airy, delicately cut, and sporting filament-thin black stipes that contrast strikingly with bright green foliage, they are plants that inspire lust the moment you set eyes upon them. My latest garden impulse purchase in this genus is Adiantum venustum, commonly called the Himalayan maidenhair. I’ve killed it once before, but a better placement has made all the difference.
Maidenhair ferns love high humidity, and just enough water to keep them moist but not wet (which by the way describes the watering style of a very small percentage of houseplant owners). They can be adapted to low-humidity levels inside through a process of slow acclimatization, but I don’t feel that such a process can be termed “easy” with a straight face. Easy is a philodendron and a rubber plant that you bought at a garage sale in 1978.
Cue social media vent….
“Easy!?!” ranted I, and followed up with a paragraph of low-level vitriol on how tired I am of non- and novice gardeners being led up the garden path by ‘expert’ information that will lead to them feeling like failures when things go pear-shaped. If I had a dollar for every person I’ve ever talked to who said “Oh, I tried houseplants – I just kill them, so I don’t bother anymore.” I’d be writing this column from the Amalfi Coast.
Then I waited for the backlash.
John Boggan, who blogs at DC Tropics and is a horticulturalist friend and plant breeder from Washington, lobbed the ball back in my court, saying he had found adiantum to be “quite easy” – though he did agree with me on the ridiculousness of naming “white allium” as a dainty option (the genus is so broad, and in some cases, the foliage so coarse, that this made sense to neither of us).
I pointed out he was a plant breeder with years of experience. (15-love.)
He pointed out it was okay to kill a plant. (15-all.)
I ruminated on the truth in this statement but still felt that the main point is not to put people off from the very beginning by setting them up for failure. John and I both love plants – he’s a horticulturalist by profession, I’m a garden columnist – we’re willing to try again. But there are many others who just…won’t. It was on their behalf that my righteous morning anger sprung.
Regulating humidity and dialing it back can be tricky. Three weeks ago I purchased some miniature plants straight from a greenhouse while the temperatures outside hovered in the 25 degree range. I knew the plants could be affected by a short burst of frigid air, or sitting in a cold car over lunch. So they were bundled under my coat, brought inside during lunch, and when I got home, put straight into a Wardian case to keep the humidity steady. Even with all that babying, a few leaf margins on the mini syngonium were beginning to dry and curl.
If I hadn’t understood what the change in environment could do to them, no matter how moist the soil, they might have dried out on the countertop. As it is I have slowly acclimatized them to an inside environment, opening the case a little more every day. There are other ways to regulate humidity, but that’s the easiest for me.
Caveat emptor – particularly when the photos are glossy
Call me cynical, but I just don’t think most people think along those lines when they see a lusty little plant and are told “Easy!” Better they are given realistic expectations so they know where to start looking when the plant dies – and hopefully, try again.
In the end, I wrote that letter to the editor too. For all my raging, I’m more old school than new. Venting one’s spleen on social media may be incredibly cathartic, but it’s a bit disconcerting to have one’s run-on sentences and egregious use of exclamation points quoted back at one in a well-known blog – though I will admit, it does serve me right.
For more inflammatory statements from me, follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook, and for terrific growing advice on tropicals in a decidedly non-tropical environment, please visit John at DC Tropics.
Marianne, it looks like we’re focusing on two different things, both of them entirely valid: your point is that we need to start people with easy plants (and I completely agree, along with your point that “easy” is relative), whereas I think we need to encourage people to try the plants in the first place, and not get too discouraged if they fail (because they inevitably will).
Yes – I agree John. Get people hooked on plants early, and I think they’ll realize that it’s okay to lose them. If you don’t, you’re not going to learn anything. I like your comment in your blog post that they are not puppies or kittens. So true.
Marianne, I couldn’t agree with you more and I”m so glad you wrote that letter to the editor. It’s this kind of inaccurate info that turns people off of house plants. : (
I love maidenhair ferns, and a few have died in my care. I would definitely not say they are “easy.” But, I think one of the best lessons a plant lover has to learn is that plants die. And that’s OK. One of my friends has tried to convinced me that it’s alright to look at houseplants as temporary – longer lived than a bouquet of cut flowers but not necessarily a plant-for-life. I’m almost to the point of agreeing, but it’s tough to let go sometimes.
I completely agree with that Amanda. If I want a spot of color and/or interesting greenery in the house, it helps me to think of more exotic houseplant purchases as a temporary (perhaps permanent?) ‘floral arrangement.’ If the plant dies, it will probably last longer than an arrangement and is cheaper; and if it lives, it’s a bonus! Took me a while to get there though.
What’s easy probably depends on your conditions and houseplant habits. Like all northern New Englanders, I keep my house cool, but it is also full of big sunny windows. I water all my houseplants once a week. Any plant that likes a bright, cool spot and a good watering once a week is easy for me. Potted cyclamen have a reputation for being difficult, but I have plants that are decades old and bloom almost year round because my conditions and habits are right for them. On the other hand, I have trouble with “easy” plants that get too much sun in my house. And plants that love warmth struggle in my house.