Paying Way Too Much Attention to My Plants Is a Welcome Distraction

Tending to the copious greenery in my home gives me time to pause and marvel.


Image via Getty Images and Diogo Brandao/Unsplash

Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes. 

Weekends are for rituals — church, laundry, vacuuming — and this is mine: On Saturday mornings, the first thing I do, even before coffee, is water my plants.

I start on the second floor, with a quart-size yogurt container that used to be the kids’ bath toy, back when the kids took baths and had toys. I fill it all the way to the top, take it to Marcy’s old bedroom, and empty it into the schefflera I plucked out of my ex-boss’s office trash can back in 2007. He saw me eyeing it sideways as I left a meeting: “You want that thing?” he asked.

It was more that I didn’t want it thrown away. But I told him: “Sure!” It’s been sitting in this corner ever since I brought it home. It has aphids or scale or something; some of the leaves are sticky and yellow. I would give it a bath, but it’s too big to fit in the tub.

Next, I refill the yogurt container and head to Jake’s old room. This stop takes a while. There are four little cacti on a high windowsill I have to stretch to reach. One of them flowers every now and then. A mandevilla is spending the winter here — an experiment, really. I’ve never overwintered one before. It might make it. It might not. I’ll find out soon enough.

Two old, old friends are here, too. There’s the Norfolk pine the couple next door gave us when Marcy was born — a tiny city-size Christmas tree back then. We took a photo of her with it for our Christmas card that year. She’s 30 now, with a baby of her own. The pine takes up a third of the room. It may not be showy, but it’s undemanding as hell. Even older but, thank God, more compact is the calamondin orange tree I bought at a plant sale in Rittenhouse Square before I ever met my husband. It was a wee slip of a thing then, on a sill in my first apartment. It’s on its fourth home, still bursting every winter into a cloud of sweet-smelling white blossoms that transmogrify into tiny sour fruits. It’s a sentimental favorite. Now and again I repot it, maybe toss a little fertilizer in.

The yogurt container goes back on its shelf, and I head downstairs. Recently, for reasons unknown, I sprang for a real watering can for this floor — a pretty, faintly Grecian-looking thing that caught my eye at Wegmans. Its long, curved spout is good for getting deep into foliage. I start in the kitchen, with whatever I’ve moved onto my baker’s shelf: a fern, a primrose, two leggy hyacinths that need to be planted out in the yard if it ever stops raining. A crown-of-thorns euphorbia that was a birthday gift from Jake. I’m pretty easy to buy presents for.

Every Saturday, I make this circuit of my past, the plants and people and places and, yes, pests I’ve known and loved and dealt with through the years.

Into the dining room, for the stephanotis. My mom’s wedding bouquet was stephanotis, for her middle name, Stephanie. She died before she ever had grandchildren, but Marcy has her first name: Marcella. This room has a wide picture window; when we were looking to buy the house, my dad eyed it approvingly: “You’ll get good light.” This is where the ficus tree sits, eight feet tall and so lopsided that I water it gingerly lest it tip over. For a while, it lived with Marcy and her husband in West Philly, but she’s terrible with plants and knows it. So it came back home to me out of mercy. It’ll move outside with the stephanotis by Mother’s Day.

Another baker’s rack here, another mélange of plants: a kalanchoe that was an impulse buy at Giant, a lacy mahogany fern I’ve been babying along, a grumpy Christmas cactus, an aspidistra — a.k.a. cast-iron plant, and they’re not kidding. I think it’s from a dish garden my mother-in-law gave me when one or the other of the kids was born. Sometimes, after so long, provenances get muddled. A table by the window holds nine tomato seedlings, also being babied until it’s warm enough for them to go out in the garden, plus a pot of overgrown succulents I have to fight myself not to overwater. Ants are coming and going across the table. I rustle up a fresh ant trap, then refill my watering can for the living room. What a strange term for our culture to have settled on; what are the rest of them, dead rooms?

I never quite get over the wild, weird equation of plant + sunlight + water = growth.

A few weeks back, the Wall Street Journal published a story  about what was happening to the plants people had in their offices now that those workplaces were abandoned because of the lockdown. (Answer: a lot of plant loss.) Millennials love them some houseplants; they’re easier than pets, even, which are easier than kids. They look pretty as the backdrop of selfies. Theoretically, I guess, they’re disposable. But after all these years, I still mourn any losses. How long can a lopsided ficus hang on, anyway?

I don’t put pictures of my plants on Instagram or Facebook. I don’t trade messages with fellow pot-heads all around the world, or listen to plant podcasts. But every Saturday, I make this circuit of my past, the plants and people and places and, yes, pests I’ve known and loved and dealt with through the years. I never quite get over the wild, weird equation of plant + sunlight + water = growth. It’s homemade magic, the most basic building block of our world, the unfathomable mystery of life’s beginnings, reproduced right here in my living room.

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