Help! I’m Struggling to Take Care of My Plants

My quest to become a better plant parent — or to simply keep one hoya alive

Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I have a knack for killing plants. I’m the grim reaper of flora, with a graveyard’s worth of leaves, stems, roots and flowers that have withered under my care. A green thumb I have not.

But I want to be a good plant parent. I set calendar alerts to schedule waterings. When I’m told to use dirty water from a pet’s bowl to spritz my tillandsia — air plants — I do. But does all my care lead to new stems? Hardly.

Currently, I’m “nurturing” three plants. (There used to be six.) There’s a resilient snake plant and an echeveria (it has some questionable browning) and a worrisome hoya that’s begun to droop and turn yellow around the leaf tips.

Why don’t I take up some hobby that’s less harmful to living things, like watercoloring? Because in this world where so many of us have home offices, I’m determined to turn mine into the greenery-filled paradise I want. After all, plants are good for our health. It’s why Jefferson Health’s Magee Rehabilitation hospital in Center City offers horticulture therapy to patients recovering from brain or spinal-cord injuries; caring for plants provides physical and psychosocial support for stress relief, mental stimulation and managing pain.

Jeannette Glennon, a horticultural therapist,­ leads the programming in Magee’s sixth-floor greenhouse, with activities like creating succulent gardens to help patients develop fine motor skills. “You see a change in the patient as they are connected to the earth,” says Glennon. “It builds self-confidence.” People respond positively to nature, she notes: Studies have shown that folks who work in cubicles with plants are more productive.

Plants also respond to our voices. Oh God, I wonder, is my voice the culprit? Glennon assures me it’s not. But I glance at my hoya, and I worry.

I’m not alone in my ineptitude. Cherron Perry-Thomas and Amma Thomas, the mother-daughter duo behind Plant & People, a wellness center and nursery in West Philly, say their ideal customer is someone like me; they enjoy educating those who need help raising little sprouts. But, Cherron soothes, “There’s a plant for everybody.”

Let’s start with tillandsia, those spiky cuties that don’t need soil. They’re not low-maintenance, says Amma. “They need consistency and great light.” She recommends soaking them once a week, then placing them upside down on newspapers to dry.

The pair also peeked at my hoya — they offer free 15-minute consultations — and I was delighted to hear there’s hope. Its lackluster presentation could be from drafty windows, they said. They suggest moving it away from the window during colder weather, and using room-temperature water once every 20 days — only when it’s dry. (Cherron recommends a moisture meter to check the soil.)

Or stick with a snake plant. “If you forget to water it for three months, it’ll still be alive,” says Amma.

A wrinkle: A plant’s roots could already be dying when you purchase it, warns Cherron, who’s seen that with big-box retailers that churn out greenery for the masses. Repot at home, she says, to ensure the root system is strong.

As for me? I’m a work in progress, but my hoya’s looking a bit greener today.

Published as “A New Leaf?” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.