Confessions of A Plant Murderer - How I Learned the Hard Way

A dry Mairdenhair Fern. I have successfully killed seven. Silver lining...I now have seven tips for keeping the alive.

A dry Mairdenhair Fern. I have successfully killed seven. Silver lining...I now have seven tips for keeping the alive.

I have a confession to make. I may not look like a killer, or act barbaric, but I have murdered hundreds of plants. I have annihilated houseplants, outdoor plants and edible plants. I have assassinated expensive plants, mature plants and new plants. I have slayed sentimental plants, easy-to-grow plants, and even other people's plants. 

In the beginning I was like a terrified mother, coddling and cooing over each unfurling leaf, breaking into hysteria if I saw a yellow spot or crispy edge. Now however, I am beyond the feelings of remorse, guilt and defeat. If I kill a plant or am in the process of killing it, I accept this failure as a lesson, archiving it in the "what not to do when I try again" folder. 

I hear it everyday, "I love plants, but I seem to kill everything. I just can't handle the guilt!" Firstly, I understand. As humans we have a deep connection to flora and the natural world. We find peace in the forest, beauty in the flower, sustenance in the seed. But I have learned that if we get over the guilt, shame and fear of failure, plants have lessons to teach us. 

As humans, we have an innate connection the nature. By growing plants, we can harness the powerful benefits they offer.  Photo by    Cedar Coast Photography

As humans, we have an innate connection the nature. By growing plants, we can harness the powerful benefits they offer. Photo by Cedar Coast Photography

Here are my top ten lessons that I have learned from my many, many failures as a plant mother. Please remember, these are tips from personal experience, if you have been successfully caring for your plants, keep doing what your doing and rock on.

  1. Choose the right plant. Plants aren't very flexible when it comes to preferences. Certain plants have certain requirements and it is important to become familiar with them. Light, moisture, humidity, soil, container size...some don't even like to be near other plants. I am the QUEEN of bringing a plant home before I even know where it will live. So, I do my research, move some stuff around and give it what it wants. Right plant, right spot. 

  2. Observation is key. How many times I have brought a plant home, tenderly re-potted it, watered it, and placed it in the windowsill only to promptly forget about it.  Four weeks later I am appalled to see it dead! Check in with your plants ONCE A WEEK. This does not mean you must water them,  just say Hi. Make it a ritual (with a glass of wine on a Sunday evening perhaps) and touch each one, check the leaves for signs of stress, stick your finger into the soil, rotate the pot so it grows evenly. Think of them as really independent pets. 

  3. The leaf holds all of the answers. We have words, plants have leaves. I call this leaf language. I get almost all of my insight from a plant's leaf. There are exceptions, but here is some helpful guidance:

  • Crispy brown edges, wilted = I need more water. Sometimes that means MORE water, rather than more often.

  • Drooping, misshapen, yellowing edges, falling off = You're watering me too much. Chill and let me dry out a bit before watering.

  • Unusually pale = I'm hungry! Fertilize me (during spring and summer)

  • Yellow spots = You're feeding me too much

  • Crispy brown spots = I'm burning! Move me away from the sun.

  • Pale and leaning one way = I need more light please.

A common problem with Fiddle Leaf Fig ( Ficus layrata)  caused by root rot (too much moisture). Let the top 3" dry out completely, provide exceptional drainage and remove excess water.

A common problem with Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus layrata) caused by root rot (too much moisture). Let the top 3" dry out completely, provide exceptional drainage and remove excess water.

4. Water wisely. This is the root of all frustration. How much do I water? Again, do your research, find out how much water that specific plant wants. Use leaf language (above) to understand your plants water needs. Use your finger! Once a week shove it as far down into the soil as possible, if it comes out dry, water. If soil is dark and sticking to it, hold off. Make sure you evenly and fully saturate the soil. Don't just dump the ends of your water glass into the pot - watch the water seep into the soil and judge how far down it went, then water again.

5. Accept failures. You're not a bad person for killing a plant. Learn from these mistakes and try again. I have been trying to grow a maidenhair fern for years now, I swear I hear them scream when I go to buy another. Don't give up!

6. Honor the seasons. Plants, like us, are sensitive to the seasons. They have a dormancy period (normally during the winter) and a growing period (spring and summer). It is important to support your plants when they are growing by re-potting, fertilizing, pruning and trimming - and letting them rest by holding off on all these things during fall and winter. 

These sun-loving plants are getting their grow on this spring!  A BOTANIC install at    Shampoo Hair Bar.

These sun-loving plants are getting their grow on this spring! A BOTANIC install at Shampoo Hair Bar.

7. When in doubt, pull it out. You've had this plant for years, you know what it wants when it wants it. But suddenly it's doing this weird thing. Don't be afraid to pull it completely out of its container. Check out the roots, is it  root bound? Is the drainage hole blocked and the soil is super soggy. Do you have a gross bug infestation in there? If the plant is a giant, grab a tarp and some friends. 

8. Meow. I am a cat mom, too. I am okay when he knocks over my really expensive Pilea. I am okay...I am okay...it's okay...he doesn't know better...the window was open and he wanted to see that bird. I'll just vacuum up the evidence and move on.

9. Experiment.  Plants are wild, natural, weird beings that never want to be tamed. Don't restrict yourself to what is 'right,' 'trendy,' or the 'limit of plants per household.' Group things together, plant things together, try weird vessels and techniques, try propagating! Enjoy the journey.

10. Talk about it. Learn from your community! Ask questions, lots of them! I love nerding out and exchanging knowledge. Ask me questions below and I'd be happy to do my best :)

Happy plant = happy human! Grace from  Knotty and Nice Macrame  squeezing her new spider plant at this year's YYJ Plant Swap!

Happy plant = happy human! Grace from Knotty and Nice Macrame squeezing her new spider plant at this year's YYJ Plant Swap!