Growing your own green thumb

Tips for a healthy indoor garden from an amateur home gardener

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Tips for a healthy indoor garden from an amateur home gardener

A few years ago, I did not care for plants. I owned one. It was an aloe, a desert plant which evolved to survive some of Earth's harshest conditions. I killed it. After that, I said no more indoor plants. When I went grocery shopping, I pointedly ignored the plant section at Trader Joe's and went straight for the frozen Tikka Masala.  

Then, I made friends with some exceptional home gardeners, who taught me how fun indoor gardening could be. Now, my home garden gives me immense joy, and grocery store plant sections are some of my favorite places.  

The following are a few tips that have helped me keep (most) of my plants alive.  

  • Pet-safe plants: A lot of house plants are toxic to pets and will make your furry roommates pretty sick. If you have pets that like to nibble, try researching plants you want to purchase online or consulting a sales clerk while you shop. Many garden centers also have pet-safe sections to make the selection process easier! 

  • Lighting: Not all plants need direct sunlight. Like Chicagoans in the winter, a little ambient light can keep them going for days. If you do not have south or west facing windows, be sure to buy plants that do well in partial or minimal sunlight. Keep them in or near your windows as much as possible.

  • Watering: Some plants need to be watered more than others. Generally, you can tell if your plants need water if you stick your index finger in the dirt and the soil is dry an inch or two down. Plants in terra cotta vessels tend to dry out faster than others, due to the clay's porousness. For desert plants like succulents and aloe, which love dry soil, give their leaves a gentle squeeze. If they give more than usual, it's time to give them a drink. Do not squeeze cacti--you will be very sad. 

  • Pot holes (not the ones on I-94): Make sure your pots have drainage holes in them. Plants need to be able to regulate their own water intake so they don't drown or get root rot. If a pot you want to purchase does not have holes in the bottom, most garden centers will drill some for you after you've paid. If you have a pretty pot you don't want to drill holes into, you can use it as a dummy pot--which is when you place a small potted plant into a larger vessel. Just make sure the smaller pot has holes in it!  

  • Haircuts: Sometimes plants become overgrown. This can negatively affect a plant's health, especially if its branches become weighted down. If you notice this happening to one of your plants, try giving it a haircut (a.k.a. pruning). If you want, you can put the clippings in water, allowing them to grow roots. This is called "propagating."  When the propagated clippings have roots about three inches long, they can be planted!  

  • Growing pains : Eventually, most plants outgrow their pots. If a plant's roots are sticking out of the pot's drainage holes, or you poke the dirt and there's no give, it's probably time to repot. 

  • Circle of life: Sometimes plants just die. You gave them the right amount of light and water. You gave them proper haircuts. Their pot was just the right size. Your cat only took two bites out of it, and it still croaked. It's okay. You did your best. Thank the plant for its service, bid it farewell, and go grab another one at the store on your next grocery run. 

Jenna Cohen is a development professional and freelance writer living in Chicago. 

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