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A person in overalls and a plaid shirt shines a line on a trio of small houseplants on a wooden shelf. Illustration.

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How I learned to stop killing houseplants

I grew up among Californian oaks and wildflowers; after the loss of my father, I developed a green thumb in a tiny Queens apartment

I grew up in a snarl of ancient oaks on a 9-acre hillside property in the sleepy town of Atascadero, California. Each spring brought a parade of daffodils and the subtle fragrance of honeysuckle. Stepping outside the front door, I saw a vista of eucalyptus and sycamore, pockmarked by wild poppies. If I craned my ear, I could hear a faint tractor or the buzz of a weed wacker.

The beauty was my father’s choice. He was an asthmatic child from a smog-choked area south of Los Angeles. He couldn’t go out for a quart of milk without wheezing and running faint. Decades later, when it was time to move his young family north, the realtor led my parents up a cumbersome hill in the middle of pastoral nowhere. It was perfect. Largely on their own, they pruned, planted, and landscaped until it was breathtaking.

It was a quirky, exquisite backdrop. Once, my father lost his Amazon parrot for days when the bird roosted in an especially generous, mossy oak. In the dog days of summer, my friends and I raced winter sleds through the weeds and thistles until we careened across the road, my father filming and nearly collapsing with laughter. I spent so many afternoons in the garden as he rattled off every perennial, annual, and biannual.

At my core, I was an indoorsy, computer-bound child who was into books and rock music. I rarely, if ever, had the urge to plant anything myself. But my environment had taken root in me in ways that would manifest years later.

In 2017, my father suddenly passed away back in California. I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a shoebox apartment with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Brenna; two roommates; and zero plants. New York’s cracked-concrete sprawl immediately felt gray, devoid of life. And in my father’s absence, I began to ache for some kind of greenery—a tribute to his green-thumbed soul.

When Brenna and I moved deeper into the boroughs, settling into an exposed-brick railroad apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, I began experimenting with all manner of houseplants: majesty palms and peace lilies, ficuses and ivy, succulents and snake plants.

Ridgewood had what I needed to pursue this hobby. A shared concrete courtyard. Little flower shops and hardware stores down the main drag. Still, I quickly learned that I didn’t know what I was doing; several plants withered, yellowed, and browned under my care. Thus began a frustrating phase of wrestling with light, humidity, watering levels, seeking the balance between tending too much and not enough.

My first casualty was a giant indoor palm that I vastly over-watered and left in nutrition-starved soil. The pot leaked and buckled the awful faux-wood laminate underneath. I had to cart the plant back to the store and ask them to rescue it. I moved on to majesty palms, not understanding that they need jungle-like levels of humidity, more than the dry Northeastern air could ever offer. Those made it through the summer outdoors until the fall chill finished them off.

Snake plants were next; their flamelike leaves are a fixture of every candle-filled boutique. “If you can kill this guy, your next plant is plastic,” the shop clerk told me. I watered sparingly around the edges, careful to not get any splashback, and mostly let it thrive on neglect. I was finally doing okay; the plant lived. I wrongly thought to repot it in special succulent soil, where some of its leaves bent askew and the plant began to emit a sweaty odor akin to gym socks. But I was persistent. I trimmed back the root rot and moved it back to regular soil, and it began to recover.

Through the magic of repotting, monitoring, and a handy moisture meter, I seemed to reach a sort of uneasy truce with the plants. But they still weren’t thriving. The peace lily in our bedroom never produced its flower, a little white flag that gives the plant its name.

I finally realized my problem: The whole place was horribly lit, as if every room was constructed to hide from the sun. I was gardening in a cave. I added a few lamps in each room, and one morning, I was stunned to see a little sliver of white poking through on the peace lily. This would be an insignificant victory to anyone else—of course plants need light—but, damn it, it was mine.

Our living space was small and somewhat cheaply constructed, but I was set on using it to its fullest potential. Well-maintained plants can elevate a space from a crash pad to a point of pride—and having a flash of green against exposed brick looks great. If I applied my dad’s tenacity and analytical mind, I decided, I could keep a plant alive for years, and class up the place in the process.

I’ve gone from being plant-ignorant to tending a snake, a spider, two pothos, a peace lily, and some spring flowers in the courtyard. My mother-in-law brought over some of my outdoor specimens that she’d been caring for in her Connecticut greenhouse, keeping warm away from the winter frost. It’s a soothing activity that has nothing to do with my work or cats or marriage. And now, I’ve got a whole universe of verdant possibilities at my fingertips.

Last month, Brenna and I moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath colonial house in Hackensack, New Jersey. While our Ridgewood place could grow clammy and dark, light positively floods this space. When the previous owners led me into the backyard for the first time, I was shocked that this could be mine. There’s no concrete. I own a trimmer. I have my own shed. Our Ridgewood neighbors, who moved to New Jersey the same month we did, even returned my biggest snake plant, which they’d been fostering for me when it couldn’t fit in the moving truck with our other belongings. The plant was a little overwatered and worse for wear from the journey, but nothing I couldn’t fix.

And I’d be starting at square one without my training ground in Queens, where I brought a little bit of my rural upbringing to the urban sprawl. The Atascadero house is up for sale, my family is spread across three states, and the majesty I grew up around is less accessible. But my father’s garden has never been more on my mind.

Morgan Enos is a music journalist and essayist with bylines in Billboard, HuffPost, the Recording Academy, Talkhouse, and more. He lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, and can be found at his website.

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