by Erica Parrigin
Though I’ve always been enchanted by the idea of plants, I had, until recently, completely shied away from the responsibility of caring for anything other than my cat. I’m often guilty of neglecting my own needs and allowing stress to build up, and I was intimidated by the accountability that comes with plant care. The few deaths of the bamboo or cacti I had halfheartedly attempted to raise cemented a certainty in my mind that I’d never have the time or patience to allow anything to flourish. While longingly admiring a display of succulents, I’d conjure up a cartoon image of a row of sentient plants neglected in the dark. Shriveled, brown, and desperately in need of pruning, they’d hoarsely plead for mercy. If I sometimes struggle to care for myself, how could I possibly commit to indoor gardening?
It started with a frail basil plant that I took a few minutes to check up on every other day without much thought. I went to water it one day and saw that it was hanging over the sides of its little pot – in fact, it had tripled in size! With the realization that I had actually grown something came a sense of accomplishment, and I began to pay more attention. I learned to recognize when it needed water, because the leaves would droop and feel rubbery to the touch. I praised each new leaf and removed the dead ones when needed. Without realizing it, and despite my disorganized habits, I had established a routine.
The ritual of indoor gardening, which I’ve now carried to around fifteen other plants, has become an almost meditative process. Houseplants may be resilient, but they rely on dedication and parenting. Since each variety has its own unique requirements, I’m forced to slow down and examine each plant’s individual needs. While rattlesnake plants need high humidity and filtered light, palms prefer drought and shade. If I’m anxious, checking to see which plants need water or wiping their leaves provides a moment of mindfulness that I appreciate.
Plants also improve focus, which is why my workspace now doubles as a greenroom. A study of college students found that indoor plants increase attention capacity and work performance, lessening the need for breaks. Not only are they visually appealing, but they provide “background noise” that’s especially helpful when trying to get your thoughts together. Houseplants’ ability to filter the air contributes to attention capacity as well, because improved breathing reduces mental fatigue.
Indoor gardening is an especially student-friendly way to improve mental health and focus because it’s so inexpensive. There’s no need to purchase expensive varieties or containers – just check out your local grocery store. Most of my plants were purchased for a couple dollars, and I found some cheap pots that I poked drainage holes in with a heated screwdriver. I opted to splurge for a humidifier, but a cheaper option to keep humidity up is to place your plants atop a shallow dish of rocks and water.
On top of being one of the least expensive ways to increase productivity and happiness, plants remind me about self-care. If I push aside their needs, they’ll wilt or die, so I’ve reciprocated that by recognizing my own needs. Though I still sometimes think I can live off coffee and chips, the time and effort I put into making sure my plants thrive makes me more aware of how I treat myself. This semester has been as intense as ever, but my new hobby has sparked significantly positive change in the ways I cope with stress. While I know that the only way to boost productivity without burnout is to create time for myself, it’s rare that I actually do so. In return for care, my plants provide a gentle nudge to hold myself accountable and practice mindfulness at the same time.