I changed jobs the summer before Covid. When I packed up to leave, I brought home the plants that had made my workspace happier: a prayer plant, a small dieffenbachia, a little pothos, an orchid, a jade plant, and a cyclamen I’d killed and resurrected at least a dozen times over the eight or nine years that it had had the misfortune to live with me. I’d kept the first three on my desk and the orchid, jade, and cyclamen on a window ledge not far away. That ledge was sunny, and they needed sun.
I had a little over a week between jobs. As it turned out, that short time in my house was a disaster for all my plants. They hated my house. My apartment is sunny, but the difference in light, heat, and humidity between my office and my house were entirely unacceptable. My orchid, which had been setting up to bloom, dropped two leaves and the buds stopped growing. My cyclamen lost several leaves and choked off the buds that had started coming up. My dieffenbachia and pothos drooped. My jade dropped leaves and started shriveling at the base. In just 10 days!
I installed my plants in my very sunny and warm new office immediately. I had a bright office and was certain it would give my poor plants a better environment than they’d found in my home. So I brought my leafy little friends to work … and almost killed every last one of them.
I thought the wide window ledge in my new digs would be exactly what sun-hungry plants would love. Instead, they got too much sun: blazing, unobstructed sun through my east-facing window, sun so intense it burned the leaves on my cyclamen and dieffenbachia, sucked the life out of my jade plant and my pothos, and wilted my prayer plant. My orchid’s aerial roots dried and shriveled. And just like that, I was cast back to the bad old days of my plant-murderer past.
I grew up a plant killer, never able to keep any poor growing thing alive for more than a minute. This truth was particularly frustrating and shame-inducing given the spectacularly green thumbs of my grandmothers, my aunt, and my mother. With my office plants, I had been made brave by the years-long, in-spite-of-me survival of my cyclamen. I’d received it as a gift. Then I received a gift of the dieffenbachia and the pothos. They arrived in a lovely basket, accompanied by a tiny, elegant peace lily and an equally tiny parlor palm. The peace lily held on for a while, but my careless care soon brought on the end of it. That loss made me sad, but the pothos, parlor palm, and dieffenbachia stayed with me, greening up my windowed but surprisingly-dark office and making me think there was some hope for me after all. When I changed jobs a couple of years later, all three plants survived the move and seemed to adapt to their new space. And then the palm withered and died. I filled the empty space in the basket with a red prayer plant. Over the next couple of years, I acquired the orchid and the jade. The orchid was a gift to the office that no one else felt brave enough to attempt caring for, and the jade was left behind when a coworker moved on. I adopted both — the orchid with a little trepidation, as I’d killed an orchid once before.
And then I found myself in my new, brilliantly bright and hot office, and my plants faded fast. My new work team had welcomed me on board with a pretty little growing something that might have been a Peperomia dolabriformis (no name tag in the pot, but the dolabriformis was the closest looking plant I could find in images online). There were also two left-behind plants that I adopted: an red-brown not at all alive-looking aloe, and a Christmas cactus choking in a too-small pot.
I did a lot of failing in the beginning. I took way too long to realize not all plants want as much sun as my window provided, took way too long to realize that the increased warmth of my office meant the plants would be thirstier and would need more water more often. The only plant that seemed happy in those early weeks was the Peperomia.
I had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about my plants and learn how they needed to be cared for in their new environment — like moving most of them out of the direct onslaught of the sun and watering them a LOT more to make up for the extra heat. In the first two weeks, I repotted first the cactus and then the pothos, jade, dieffenbachia, and prayer plant
Eight months in my new space, I was feeling cautiously successful. My plants and I had survived and I risked saying we’d begun to thrive. I further expanded the office greenery with a “fishnet stockings” coleus I’d adopted while at a writing residency.
In those early months, I discovered that my pothos is a golden pothos — it never had variegated leaves in all the years I’d had it, but suddenly it was putting out huge, shiny, green and gold leaves. My prayer plant, which had lost its red and was putting out anemically-pale green leaves, started to grow larger leaves, started to add red again. The dieffenbachia, which never supported more than three small leaves on each … stem? stalk? (still a lot to learn!) … suddenly had six, then seven, then eight leaves, and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
The coleus started working hard at becoming a tree. Its leaves stopped fish-netting almost as soon as I brought it home. They all turned bright-light green, some with a purple edging. I waited much too long to start following the care note that I found online about pinching back to “encourage bushiness.” I was wary of the pinching and I also loved how tall it was growing.
The Christmas cactus immediately began putting up new growth, fluffing out in all directions. And then it began a spotty bloom. I’ve never had one of these plants before, and I was thrilled it was making flowers, so proud you’d think I was sprouting them myself!
The orchid made a slow comeback. It grew new leaves and put out a new set of flowers right before the pandemic, but its external roots were still in a bad place — it had taken me way too long to realize it couldn’t take the full force of the sun.
The aloe was a big win. I’d figured it was for sure a lost cause, but I did a little reading (thank you, University of Google!) and found an article that said to move it out of the light, remove the outermost leaves so the plant could focus its recuperation energy more intensely … and then ignore it until it either revived or died, no water, no nothing.
I followed the steps. It was in such sad condition, the drastic, ruthless approach seemed best. That was in mid-July. By mid-September, I told myself that I saw something not quite brown and not quite green happening with one of the smallest leaves. I was pretty sure I was lying to myself, but I kept thinking I saw that not-quite-green. And then I was convinced that I saw that not-quite-green spreading to other leaves. By March 2020, there was hardly any brown left, and it was only the palest brown.
And then came quarantine.
I knew I couldn’t take the plants home. The original ones hated my house and had finally recovered from their two 2019 moves. I couldn’t risk them in my house. And the aloe and cactus had just come back to life. I couldn’t subject them to the dark heat chamber that is apparently how plants experience my bright, sunny apartment.
So I bought self-watering bulbs and angled my computer monitor so I could log into my office from home, turn on the camera and see how the plants were doing. No, seriously, I’m that person.
It’s about to be two years later … and most of my plants have survived. The peperomia gift that welcomed me to my new office was the first to go. I can’t say that I was ever caring for it properly because I was never sure exactly what it was. When it was clear it wasn’t doing well with the self-watering bulb, I brought it home … and it promptly gave up the ghost.
Next was my prayer plant (red maranta). I followed the advice of a few different online plant people, but … no.
I bought some new plants for my home … and killed many of them. I thought if they started in my house, they’d acclimate to my bad lighting, but mostly they just decided the plant hereafter was a more attractive option. The dearly departed: a spider plant (“But it’s impossible to kill a spider plant!”), a ruffled jade, an echeveria.
I also got a new prayer plant. After trying very hard to die, it has revived and is looking almost okay today. I brought home some cuttings from my office pothos, and they’re doing nicely. I bought a different kind of pothos — its leaves almost seem to have glitter on them, which is weird and fascinating — and it barely survived my house, so now it’s in my office and has come very nicely back to life. I bought a ZZ plant, a parlor palm, and another peperomia (an obtusifolia, not a dolabriformis) … and all of those were moved pretty quickly to my office after their instant rejection of my house.
My plan with the self-watering bulbs had been to work in my office once every other week. That turned into once a week when it became clear that the self-watering system didn’t give me the “two weeks peace of mind!” it claimed on the package. The larger plants barely made it a week with the bulb. So I put a second bulb in my pothos and a second and third bulb in the coleus. I spent a day a week in the office so I could take care of them and compliment them and be amazed at how well they were doing without me around. And, in addition to the newbies I’ve brought to the office over the last months, I also have three small pots full of cuttings from the pothos.
And I’ve discovered that my dieffenbachia … isn’t a dieffenbachia at all. It’s an aglaonema silver bay! And it’s done fabulously well during quarantine. It’s got two new plants, is putting out leaves like crazy, and is definitely ready for a larger pot.
I have no one’s idea of a green thumb. Not even close. But I’m realizing that I can’t think of myself as a plant killer anymore, either. Not entirely. I seem to be turning a corner. My farm-life fantasy may have a chance after all!
It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!