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Grow where you are planted

When plants become more than just decorations

Text reading 'Grow where you are planted" on top of a pink background and an arrangement of leaves, flowers and a potplant Artwork by Garnet Chan

In a fast-paced urban environment where we are obsessed with the fine art of ‘Keeping Up’, we often forget to slow down and appreciate the little things in the world around us. In our day-to-day lives, we are surrounded by greenery, whether we realise it or not. For something easily taken for granted, nature can have phenomenal impacts on our mental health and the way that we live our day to day lives; I say this confidently from experience.

A plant in the home is more than just an embellishment: you are quietly breathing life into your everyday living spaces. Whether you’re a seasoned botanist or never seen a houseplant in your life, owning and caring for a houseplant is chicken soup for the soul.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Though my personal foray with houseplants has only recently picked up speed, I feel the need to acknowledge my father, who is the unheralded inspiration and support behind my botanic adventure. Dad cultivated a greenhouse in our backyard when I was growing up, a jungle filled with all manner of aroids, bromeliads, and ferns. It was these fond memories that I drew from when my houseplant hobby began to grow in September last year. Inextricably inundated with assessments and missed lectures I’d promised to watch online, I naturally found myself seeking the shallower compensations in life through mindless online retail therapy.

Amongst my first plant purchases was a swiss cheese vine (monstera adansonii). It  remains nothing short of remarkable how the millimeter-by-millimeter growth of a quiet little houseplant sitting by my window gave me such a profound sense of fulfilment and peace.

This was horticultural therapy in effect — defined by Cultivate NSW as “a process in which plants and gardening activities are used to improve the body, mind and spirit.”

Growing plants teaches us to care for the world beyond ourselves, a world so often viewed in retrospect as we torpedo through a student life riddled with exam stress and social woes. My swiss cheese vine brought me so much joy that I have since fallen down the rabbit hole, accumulating over 100 houseplants. I blame this on dopamine or, as I like to call it, the ‘nice, do it again’ chemical signal in our brains.

According to neuroscientist Dr. Caitlin Vander Weele, the dopamine acquired through plants can affect our day-to-day motivations, decisions and emotions.

Speaking from experience, plants have certainly bolstered my mental health, making day-to-day things easier to handle. I dove into this hobby at a time when I was struggling with depression and anxiety, which went on to cripple the way that I interacted with my friends, family and other work.

Plants provide a focal point through which I can slow down time and re-approach challenges with a different angle when I feel less burdened with the world on my shoulders. However, I find a need to state the obvious: though buying and caring for plants has helped me make strides in caring for my mental health, it will in no way be an effective substitute for therapy.

Engaging with greenery doesn’t have to be huge task or long-term commitment. Nature therapy can be as simple as setting a naturescape as a desktop wallpaper. Even something as easy as going for a mindful walk — an example of shinrinyoku, or Japanese nature therapy — has been proven to lower blood pressure and boost wellbeing. I personally find the most joy in houseplants. The prospect of caring for houseplants can be quite daunting for many – I was terrified that I would somehow manage to kill mine – but the activity is much easier than you might think. I’m not the biggest fan of succulents, which demand a deceptive amount of bright light and are very easy to overwater. There are many houseplants that are relatively easy to care for and add a nice pop of green to your life. Here are just some of my favourites:

Pothos (epipremnum aureum): Famously easy care, most varieties can handle low light situations and thrive on neglect. Watering once a week is more than enough for these beginner-friendly beauties.

Zz plants (zamioculcas zamifolia): Troopers of the plant world! They tolerate pretty much any light situation, but thrive in moderate to low light. Water once a month and they really do just sit still and look pretty.

Peace lilies (spathiphyllums): These are famous air purifying plants, and look beautiful and jungly to boot! Peace lilies can tolerate low light situations and tend to droop dramatically when they need to be watered. They are ideal if you aren’t confident in your abilities to read your plant’s needs.

Various species of philodendron: Philodendrons are the second largest genus in the Aracae family. They are, for the most part, incredibly tough and easy care. Although care differs, general consensus is that bright, indirect light and weekly watering are all you need to keep them happy. Also, their genus name literally translates to ‘love’ and ‘tree’!

The quiet tranquility of my houseplants has helped me appreciate smaller jubilances, the tiny markers of growth and vitality easily overlooked in the humdrum of modern living. Walking to Redfern Station, I often slow down to look at the flora around me: the variegated umbrella plants on the sidewalk, the snake plants in someone’s front yard, the tree ferns growing quietly out of the brick wall.

Mental turmoil, though still a villain at large, doesn’t seem to be so challenging in my day-to-day life. Plants add a little routine, stability and some gratification as I try to navigate the stressful stretches of uni life that never seem to end. In the short months that I’ve been caring for my houseplants, I’ve found that plants are far more resilient than you initially think. I’ve stepped on them, dropped them from their pots, even forgotten to water them. Yet, they grow.

In that way, the growth of plants becomes a powerful metaphor for us. Maybe the care that we put into these little undisturbed artefacts of nature can improve the way that we live our lives, and help us love our people, and ourselves, just that little bit more.