My indoor plant license should be revoked

When I gave up the opportunity to plant a garden (even the balcony variety) at my own apartment, I did not forego all outdoor space. My Oakland apartment building boasts a rooftop deck and an interior courtyard, and although I-880 hugs the building on its opposite side, it is possible to sit outside on one of the lovely wooden benches and get some fresh air and sunlight.

“Maybe you could get them to let you put a tomato in a corner of the upstairs deck,” one of my friends said when I moved in.

No such luck. Although I’m a renter, my landlord is a condo owner, and it’s a condo building, complete with everything that comes along with it: sterilely manicured open space, a list of approved movers to use when entering or leaving the premises with your worldly belongings, and, although I will admit I haven’t asked the question, an absolutely-not policy on putting tomato plants on the roof.

So instead, I’ve been trying to make do with a miniscule potted plant collection in my living room window. I have a low table and plenty of light (although not much direct sunlight, to be honest), coming in, and that has caused me, in moments of weakness, to buy plants that I am probably dooming to certain death.

My indoor plant track record has not ever been good.

The first arrival on the scene was a mini Gerbera, bought at Trader Joe’s. The movers had just arrived that morning, and I was exhausted and at the store expressly for the purpose of impulse-buying large quantities of cheese and wine and convenience foods, and the cheery red flowers (oh, how I do love Gerberas) sat there muttering at me as I went by, “Hey lady! Lady! How ‘bout just a little taste?”

Of course, the following weekend, I was leaving for Hawaii for a week’s vacation, with no plan for watering the Gerbera while I was gone. It still has barely-surviving foliage, to be sure, but since I returned from Kaua’i, has refused me additional blossoms.

Then, last week, after my first stint in the Victory Garden, I decided to buy a basil plant that was on sale at Whole Foods. (You may notice a trend here, a trend that involves shopping when hungry AND needy-of-plants.)

The basil plant was beautiful, indeed, but I purchased it and did what I do with every plant I ever take home, whether I’m on vacation or not: I forget to water it. Or, worse, I remember that I should water it and just think, Oh, I’ll do that later. And then later becomes dinner out with friends and then there’s that workout I really should be getting to and then I have laundry to do and the dishes to wash and then…and then…

This is why outside plants and I get along so much better. If I don’t plant them under a godforsaken Black Walnut, they have such a better shot at getting what they need from the sun and the rain and the earth-that’s-not-potting soil.

This leads me to the inevitable, which is Sunday, when I suddenly looked at the basil plant and noticed that it was utterly droopy. This set me atwirl, trying to remember if I’d watered it, or if I’d over-watered it, or if I’d maybe given it some wine just for fun one night?

I decided to go with under-watering, because that’s my usual M.O., and gave it a drink. The water ran right out the bottom as if it didn’t even want to stop to say hello to the dirt, so I gave it some more, operating in my usual, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing manner.

I also watered the Gerbera, which is really just a pot of Gerbera greens, which is really a plant that I kind of want to just throw out, but which makes me guilty so I keep it and begrudgingly nurture it. I am like that guy in The DaVinci Code, the albino monk? That Gerbera plant is my cilice.

By the next day, the Gerbera was waving its little fronds of greens in the air like a happy camper. And the basil, while still clearly in need of more attention, looked at least a little less limp. That’s really all I can ask for.

Except that I’m going away for the weekend. I promise I’ll water the plants before I go, but seriously…if they gave out licenses to garden indoors, mine would have already been revoked.

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19 Responses to “My indoor plant license should be revoked”


  1. 1 hotfessional August 7, 2008 at 6:53 am

    I’m the same way. If it’s outside, it’ll grow like crazy. Bring it in, and it’s doomed.

    By the way, any tips for blossom end rot?

  2. 2 inadvertentgardener August 7, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Hotfessional, I didn’t ever (luckily) have to deal with blossom end rot when I was growing my tomatoes, so I’m no expert. My understanding is that it’s happening because the tomatoes aren’t getting enough calcium, and often it’s worse after too much or too little water in the soil. You guys have gotten the rain pounding this year, right? I think I’ve read that you can spray the tomato plants with a water-milk solution? But that also sounds a little gross to me…

  3. 3 mr_subjunctive August 7, 2008 at 9:00 am

    Hi. I’m here to revoke your indoor plant license?

    Not really. From the sound of it, it’s less that you’re unable to grow plants indoors, and more that you’re attempting plants that are hard to grow indoors. If you want suggestions for plants that would be better, I can offer suggestions. Lots and lots of suggestions.

    If you don’t want suggestions: your name has been referred to the appropriate agencies, and I expect you’re going to be placed on indoor plant probation for six months, *but* you’re allowed to keep the license. For now. After all, there haven’t been any fatalities, so you’re doing better than some people, no?

  4. 4 Karen Ledebur August 7, 2008 at 9:02 am

    I’m always a little frigthened by folks who can well care for their indoor plants. It must mean the laundry doesn’t get done, the bills aren’t paid, the refrigerator probably even has plants growing in it. Indoor plants are just like indoor pets they require so much more attention than a farm dog. I’ve given up….just buy cut flowers when you go to the market…if they die in the vase so what!

  5. 5 mr_subjunctive August 7, 2008 at 9:25 am

    [narrows eyes at Karen]

  6. 6 inadvertentgardener August 7, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Mr. Subjunctive, you can narrow your eyes at Karen, but you’ll have to get through me first! And yes — a list of appropriate indoor plants would be, um, appreciated. Clearly!

    Karen, I like the pets-plants analogy, and yes — I’m a fan of market-fresh cut flowers!

  7. 8 mr_subjunctive August 7, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Let me just say first off that none of these will grow particularly well in refrigerators.

    Plants that will do well with considerable neglect:

    Dracaena deremensis cultivars (‘Lemon-Lime,’ ‘Warneckei,’ ‘Janet Craig,’ etc.)

    Zamioculcas zamiifolia (‘ZZ plant’ or ‘eternity plant’)

    Yucca elephantipes

    Epipremnum aureum (pothos, devil’s ivy)

    Aspidistra lurida (cast-iron plant)

    Chlorophytum comosum and C. ‘Fire Flash’ (spider plant, ‘Fire Flash’)

    Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)

    Asparagus spp. (asparagus fern)

    Hoya carnosa

    Aglaonema spp. (Chinese evergreen)

    Haworthia spp.

    Philodendron hederaceum (aka P. oxycardium, P. scandens) (heart-leaf philodendron)

    Rhapis excelsa (lady palm)

    Dracaena fragrans (corn plant)

    And there are others besides those, but that’s some of the better ones. Yucca, Asparagus, Hoya and Haworthia all need pretty good light; most of the others can make do with low light but prefer at least bright indirect. Your results may vary.

    None of them flower, and none of them are edible, so they’re not going to replace the Gerbera or basil, but still. If you want to grow something inside, and you’ve got halfway decent light. . . .

  8. 9 mr_subjunctive August 7, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Hmm. I just posted, but it seems not to have gone through. Spam filter, perhaps? There were a lot of links in it.

  9. 10 inadvertentgardener August 7, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Mr. Subjunctive, I rescued your extensive list from the spam filter — thank you! I promise to keep all those out of the refrigerator, and will give them consideration, even though they don’t flower or taste good.

  10. 11 Karen Ledebur August 7, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Mr. Subjunctive….Hypothetically speaking (as your name suggests) if I met a man who could care for an indoor garden and actually put together a list of plants to post on a young ladies blog like you have AND his household affairs were all in order I would say he’s a keeper. This in my lifetime is something I have never seen so narrow your eyes all you like because I’m bold enough to stand by my assertion. Stick with the cut flowers Inadvertant Gardener they can change with your moods!

  11. 12 inadvertentgardener August 7, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Kären, that’s so true about the moods! You crack me up.

  12. 13 Lotus August 7, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Have to ever considered bromeliads? I’ve seen them inside office buildings a lot and they have vibrant blooms. Although from what I understand (granted, very little) they only bloom once but that make little offshoots that you can plant for a new bloom. Perhaps taking the old plant to composter (instead of the trash), you know, to give life to something else…

  13. 14 Susan August 8, 2008 at 4:31 am

    Uh, birthday present to the rescue. I know you have plenty of wine bottles there with which to put it into service. Save the plants (especially the basil!).

  14. 15 Diatryma August 11, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I have… a lot of indoor plants. I think it helps if you begin with something like dracaena, lucky bamboo, that will take all the water you can give it and not react. That teaches you to overwater, and since my apartment is pretty dry to begin with, the plants get enough. My main scourge is fungus gnats from the overwatering that just wouldn’t go away no matter what I did.

  15. 16 Diatryma August 11, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Also, for going away, you can get the plant stick things that go in the dirt and hold a bottle or something to water the plants as needed, or, if you have some faith that the dirt will not suck up more water than necessary, you can put the whole pot in a bowl of water while you’re gone.

  16. 17 inadvertentgardener August 12, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Lotus, interesting — I hadn’t thought of bromeliads. I wish there was something edible I could grow without much sun…sigh…

    Susan, oh definitely — the birthday present will come in handy. The problem is that the basil plant isn’t quite big enough to accommodate the bottle without toppling over! I need to drink a 750ml bottle, I think.

    Diatryma, those things that hold bottles are just what Susan was talking about — she got me a whole set of them for my birthday!

  17. 18 Becky Hill November 13, 2008 at 1:14 am

    I have a tomato plant that I grew from seed. Of course I have it indoors now. I started the seeds in June, and the plant has 100+ leaves on it but NO blooms. I just want one little tomato for my grandson, as it’s his plant, too. What can I do? The seeds were Big Boy. The plant is now 5 months old. Thank you!

  18. 19 inadvertentgardener November 13, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Becky, do you have any kind of grow light on the plant? I’m guessing that if the plant’s at 5 months and has had no blossoms yet, it’s unlikely to get any now, but I’m not sure about that. Perhaps we can continue the conversation over on my updated blog?


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