When Summer Rayne Oakes’ roommate moved out of their NYC apartment six years ago, Oakes felt her decorative restrictions in the shared space lift; she was now free to fill her own space however she wanted to.
The first thing she did was buy a plant – a fiddleleaf fig tree. “It just kind of changed the energy in the room – I mean, it really made a huge difference,” says Oakes, a sustainability activist who has worked in the fashion, food, and beauty industries and is currently working on a cookbook.
Oakes grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania surrounded by greenspace and her family’s garden, and after graduating from Cornell with degrees in Environmental Science and Entomology, she began working in the city to transform industries.
Today, she keeps over 500 plants in her New York apartment. “The first plant that I got was a little more spontaneous of a purchase, and it helped acclimate me back to a place where I felt at home – It made me feel like I was back home in Pennsylvania.”
The space she was in was transformed. Oakes’ indoor jungle may sound extreme, but she’s onto something we can all take a cue from. Being around plants can and does improve our quality of life for various reasons, and although we don’t all have it in us to take care of 500 plants, they can be a great addition to any living or working space. Here’s how to get the most out of them.
Every space is different, so there’s no real general rule to follow for plant setup. You should consider your own preferences in terms of aesthetics, scent, and utility. Also, though, think about the conditions of the space you’re occupying, whether it’s a home or an office or something in between. Oakes names three major factors to consider: light, humidity, and temperature.
Michael Hanlon of Hanlon Landscaping in Cambridge, MA suggests not to struggle against the conditions of a space. Instead of trying to fight it, “Just try to use the environment and optimize it,” he says. “Rather than putting plastic on the window to protect that one plant, move that plant and put plants on the window that will like it there.”
Hanlon recommends getting a thermometer which measures the minimum and maximum temperatures every day, and leaving it wherever you plan on keeping plants. It’s a good way to get an estimate of the usual conditions. “Try to match that environment with the right plant, with the plant that’s going to love that [temperature].” A windowsill that gets cold and drafty might be perfect for a mountain orchid, which likes cooler nights, whereas a tropical begonia would be happier in a warm, well-lit bathroom.
Besides landscaping, Hanlon keeps personal plants inside and outside his home, and offers insight on the visual aspect. “I’ll have large foliage plants and then I’ll have them paired with small foliage plants, so you can see the contrast,” he says. “Visually, it just makes the arrangement more exciting, more alive.” This is similar to the method he uses for outdoor landscaping, but one unique opportunity for houseplants is the hanging plant, which Hanlon likes to incorporate in his arrangements. He puts it “next to a plant that’s pointing up, or very upright. It’s nice to have a plant that kind of is weeping. So it’s like the weeping effect of a hanging plant. It looks good,” he says.
Jon Wyand is a student at Emerson College in Boston, MA who keeps over fifteen plants in his small single dorm room. He’s been interested in plants since high school: “I had a biology teacher whose classroom was full of plants. And I really liked that atmosphere – when I went into class, I could always concentrate really well,” says Wyand. “We started trading [plants], so I’d pick something up somewhere, and cut a piece off of it, and then she would grow it, or I would grow something.”
Wyand’s improved concentration wasn’t just because of his teacher. Though not much research has been done on the topic, two studies have recently come out on how plants affect your concentration. One, done at Exeter University in 2014, showed a 15% increase in workplace productivity. According to the research, “Plants in the office significantly increased workplace satisfaction, self-reported levels of concentration, and perceived air quality.”
Now, as a busy student, Wyand has practical advice on how to keep plants happy. “They’re like people, too – they’re living things, so if they’re not looking as good, there’s usually,” he says, “something wrong.” Simple observation can go a long way. If a plant is looking dry, water it. If the soil is still wet, don’t water it. If there are burn marks, those may be caused by the sun and you should move the plant into a shadier spot.
There are a lot of possible problems that can occur, and Wyand takes a pragmatic approach. “It can get frustrating if something is not growing well, sometimes it can be hard, but at the same time, sometimes you’ve just got to give up,” he says. You try and you do different things and you research, and sometimes you fix the problem and sometimes you don’t. It really depends on the conditions.”
For landscaper Hanlon, plant care is more consistent. He sets Monday aside as watering day. “It really doesn’t take a lot of time,” say Hanlon. “What people end up doing mostly with houseplants is killing them by overwatering them, by drowning them. Plants need air, just like us.”
Plant care goes beyond the mechanical analysis of drooping leaves or drying buds; for many, it’s a genuinely uplifting emotional experience. “It’s beautiful,” Hanlon says. “Taking care of plants is like taking care of a pet, in a way. When you have these plants for many years, especially, if you underwater them and they start to suffer, you feel guilty. You try to get it all perfect. You try to feed them, by fertilizing them and you watch them grow and you have to protect them from getting sick. Sometimes they’ll get insects who latch on and you have to spray them, like giving your pets medicine. It’s very comforting. I enjoy it a lot.”
And Oakes, owner of 500+ plants, agrees. She spends about half an hour each day on watering plants, and about an hour and a half of trimming and cutting back per week. “I think it depends on the state that I’m in, but it’s really pretty early in the morning when I typically water. It’s more meditative for me. I kind of look at it as my daily meditation,” says Oakes.
It’s important to take the time to slow down and really enjoy the experience. “It’s like going out and enjoying a good meal; you don’t just scarf it down. So for me, with my plants, they offer so much in return that I can only give them my time as well,” Oakes says. For her, plant care is a daily interaction and a symbiotic relationship. And even with 500+ plants, Oakes still doesn’t spend more than half an hour a day – even less in the winter – on watering. This is not a major time commitment, like a pet or a child, but still provides a living companion, something constant to keep a record of how each day has been.
Carina Allen is a manager at Boston’s popular urban garden supply store, niche. She has always been interested in nature, and grew up visiting her grandparents’ house in upstate New York, where she spent a lot of time outdoors. When she started college and had a space to make her own, she started purchasing small houseplants. And then, during the summer of 2015, she participated in a summer study abroad program in a small village in the Netherlands. It marked a major change for her.
“Being immersed in such a removed environment with so much nature around – I definitely felt more grounded and at ease there. That stuck with me once I came back – how do I maintain that feeling?” Allen was working a retail job at Urban Outfitters at the time, and once she returned to Boston, she was ready for a change. Her job’s interior was stuffy, musty, and overall a completely unpleasant environment. So she applied to niche, got the job, and has now been working there for about a year.
“Honestly, the quality of my life has improved so much now that I have a job that I enjoy. It’s just like sitting in a greenhouse,” says Allen. Though she is still working retail, being surrounded by greenery provides a mood booster, especially in the dead of winter when most of Boston is grey and dreary.
Professor Wyatt Oswald, who teaches a “Plants and People” class at Emerson College, has his students grow their own plants. He gives them a packet of seed and some soil, then has them do an experiment, controlling for one factor. Though the main point of the activity is to learn to think scientifically, Oswald says there’s an added benefit. “The other interesting piece of feedback for me is how much students like one, having plants around, but two – being responsible for them and feeling like they’re empowered to take care of this other organism.”
Oswald himself proves that plants really can feel like family. “I have a jade plant that has been in my wife’s family for 30 years that we don’t take particularly good care of, but it’s big and pieces of it have gone to other family members – they all do well,” he says.
Plants provide so many benefits in any space; at work, they promote focus and keep the mind centered, and at home they are a peaceful refuge or a friend to come home to. Oakes, owner of 500+ plants, is able to combine the two, since she spends so much time working from home. “I started off as an environmental scientist and ecologist in the city, because I love nature,” says Oakes.
“Being in the city, because of the work that I do, is very interesting, and I think part of what is very healing about this place that I live is that you have this cacophony of the city, and then you have this meditative, relaxing space that I get to spend quite a bit of my time in, because I live here. It’s great.”