This week we talked to Sue from Chicago, IL about growing up surrounded by plants in Puerto Rico and moving to Chicago and re-creating the greenery indoors.
WATER & LIGHT (W&L): HOW DID YOU GET INTO PLANTS?
Sue (S): I was always surrounded by plants and gardening/agriculture as a kid cuz it was something my parents and grandparents were actively involved in (my grandparents love a good harvest), but because I was a shitty teenager, plants became something I put in the back burner and definitely took for granted. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I began to miss all the greenery and lushness around me - a real “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” kinda situation. So, to remedy this, I got some plants lol. Mainly tropicals at first, of course, to assuage my bleeding, homesick heart. It’s obviously not the same as the stuff I would see back at home in regards to how large and well they grow, but whenever I am back in the island, this realization has made me appreciate the plants around me so much more.
W&L: DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST PLANT AND WHAT PLANT IT WAS?
S: I don’t think I got one singular plant when I first started. It sort of got out of hand and I went balls to the wall with it. Totally snowballed. I got my plants in July 2016, and there was no dipping my feet in the pool to test the waters out first, I just dove in and got maybe ten plants? One was a monstera deliciosa, a syngonium, parlor palm, burgundy rubber tree, prayer plant. The rest were all cuttings I took from public displays on sidewalks and whatnot.
W&L: WHERE DO YOU GET MOST OF YOUR PLANTS?
S: I was still in college when I first got into plants, so I was definitely on a budget. So I hit up online groups/forums and my plant life really took off once I started trading with people. I really owe where I am to all those who were generous and welcomed me to this community. Otherwise, I would hit up nurseries and mom and pop/small business plant shops. They keep their prices fair and I like knowing that at the very least, I am supporting people and businesses that deserve it. Of course, I won’t pass up the occasional steal from Lowe’s discounted section. Who doesn’t like to nurse plants back to life?
W&L: WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLANT SHOPS TO VISIT?
S: If I can’t find it at Adams and Sons, Plant Shop Chicago, or Ted’s Greenhouse, then my favorite plant shop is the online plant community, which is truly an amazing resource that is undervalued. I know some people are afraid of receiving plants from people online, and rightfully so, because I’ve heard some crazy stories, but I’ll keep testing my luck and giving people the benefit of the doubt. No one’s wronged me yet, and I’ve only made friends along the way. I don’t give people cuttings or plants in a condition I wouldn’t want to receive them in myself, and I believe most of the serious plant people feel the same way and respect that general rule of thumb.
W&L: HOW MANY PLANTS DO YOU HAVE IN YOUR COLLECTION?
S: I haven’t kept an active count, but I’m positive it’s over 100. I tend to discourage this idea of plants as something to count because I feel that it fuels an intense consumerist and competitive aspect of the plant world that is reductive to how wonderful it is to have plants in one’s life, in addition to potentially devaluing or discrediting the hundreds of other reasons why people love plants.
W&L: WHAT ARE THE RAREST PLANTS THAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR COLLECTION?
S: I have a few odd ones that stick out cuz they’re not well known as houseplants, like my dioon edule, dorstenia gigas, or aloe hercules; I have a few copiapoas and cacti that aren’t super commonplace (NEVER POACHED!). Other highly coveted (but not really rare) plants that I have are the trendy variegated stuff, like the variegated monstera deliciosa, variegated fishtail and lady palm, as well as a variegated zz plant. Overall though, I think rare is contextual only because I know some of the cacti and plants I have, which would be considered rare or hard to find here in Chicago, are super commonplace and easy to find in Arizona, Thailand, even Puerto Rico, or other areas of the world.
W&L: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PLANTS?
S: My favorite plants are ones that have these crazy, unique traits which reflect how they’ve adapted to the ecosystem and extreme conditions they originally come from. So I love cacti and other xerophytes and how odd they can look, but I also love tropicals and their large foliage. Each characteristic has its reason, thus I am totally in love with the marriage between evolution and aesthetic. I wish I looked that good on the brink of survival.
W&L: WHAT DO YOU LIKE THE MOST ABOUT BEING A PLANT PERSON?
S: There are so many things I love about being a plant person, it’s hard to start. The community, the people; plants are everywhere, as are people who love them, so there’s no shortage of awesome people with lots of plant knowledge to share. I love how gratifying it is to see a plant growing and doing well under your care. The fruit of your labor, it’s the purest physical manifestation of your efforts. I love that I am merely a spectator, a caregiver in this moment throughout a plant’s life - some of the plants/cacti I own will outlive me (if taken proper care of) and it’s humbling. Plus, because I was raised in a tropical environment, plants always felt like something of the outdoors - large and sprawling, ancient and commanding respect. Which, in reality, is exactly how they should be treated. Very few people who own a rubber tree in an urban space will ever be able to see its true potential. Some people have a hard time even conceptualizing how the small branch in their home is actually from a massive tree and the same can be said for cacti. Understanding the human relationship with plants has by far been the best thing about being a plant person.
W&L: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU HAVE WITH PLANTS?
S: One challenge I’ve experienced that doesn’t explicitly have to do with plant care, but is absolutely interwoven with plant life is the consumerist aspect of being a plant person and how deeply it can affect my daily habits and psyche. Or, more correctly, being a plant person with a smartphone and social media, lol. It was difficult at first for me to be self aware and ask myself, “am I doing this because I’m positive it’s the plant that will bring me this nebulous understanding of satisfaction and happiness or because I just want another thing to buy? Would this satisfaction stave me off, or would it be brief and will I unnecessarily spend a ton of money again next week?” Realizing when something was simply poorly disguised retail therapy wasn’t fun, but had to happen. And of course, there’s the fact that we all have a ton of other real life things hitting us at 125 mph all at once, and to top all of that off, you’re saying that now I gotta go water all these damn plants? Oh, I’m sorry! Apparently now I’ve been over-watering them, inadvertently killing them because I haven’t been providing adequate lighting conditions? So now I just feel like I’m a neglectful plant parent, guilty about getting a plant I couldn’t even realistically provide for in the first place? Okay, yeah, great, cool, love it.
It can feel like an uphill battle sometimes, no doubt. lol.
W&L: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR PLANT SPECIALTY?
S: I’m totally just gonna toot my own horn and say a lot of my attempts at propagation have gone incredibly well and I’ve had few fail. That having been said, that’s totally more up to the plant than me, I just have to know how to set it up for success and consider the best method for propagation (as well as the best medium/conditions to do it in) on a case to case basis.
W&L: WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 3 PLANT CARE TIPS?
Always err on the side of giving less water than too much. The reality is, most of us don’t have as much sunlight as we’d like to think we do (this is me assuming the majority of the people reading this don’t live in beautiful greenhouses that I’m super jealous of, but actually live in apartments surrounded by other tall buildings that obstruct sunlight, etc.) and it’s a delicate balance between light and watering frequency. You can always add more water later, but you can’t take it back. You don’t want a waterlogged plant that’s getting only 3 hours of sunlight a day.
Research where the plant you got (or you want) came from! I can’t emphasize this tip enough lol, it provides crucial information you can use for all different aspects of plant care like how much water you can give it, how much sunlight it should receive, even what type of soil/soil conditions it should be in, etc. Putting your understanding of the plant in the context of its natural environment/origins will help you be the best plant parent you could be, or if a plant is right for you or not. For example, if your apartment doesn’t get at least 6+hrs of sunlight, then maybe you shouldn’t get a cactus whose origins are from South Africa, where it can experience up to 11 hours of sunlight in a day. Or you totally can! But at least knowing that information, you are equipped to handle that accordingly by adjusting a watering schedule (watering much less) and providing an intense grow light (sunlight focused/blue light).
Burnout is real, so remember to have fun with it! If you find yourself really struggling, take a break so you don’t find yourself resenting the plants or getting frustrated with yourself! On that same token, don’t sell yourself short if you’ve had bad luck with plants in the past; find the one that’s right for your schedule and lifestyle cuz everyone is capable of being a plant parent and we all deserve to experience how awesome it is to be one!