What’s not to love about houseplants? Plants bring us joy, increase mental and physical well-being, and beautify spaces with their vibrant foliage and blooms.
During the lockdowns of the pandemic, houseplant sales sky-rocketed as people were forced to stay indoors and work more from home. This gave rise to the “plant-fluencer,” and people started proudly referring to themselves as “plant parents.”
All of this seems good and well until you look at the darker side of houseplants. Much of the production, transportation, and selling of our beloved greenery is terrible for the environment.
While it may feel like plant ownership is in line with nature, it often does more harm than good. Here are some great ways to be an eco-friendly indoor plant collector, so you can feel good about your beloved tribe.
Buying local is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, as it reduces transportation and saves on fossil fuels, but make sure to look for sustainable growers, as well. Ask what kind of packaging they use, and where they source their plants.
Considerate, eco-conscious growers will ship plants in cardboard boxes and wrapping in lieu of plastic. Vendors that grow their own plants, or places that have their own nursery will be the best choice instead of stores that have their plants shipped in by large producers from a far distance.
Most big box stores rely on large-scale shipments; however, they may carry a line of plants from a local, sustainable grower. Start looking at labels and tags, and learn how to spot the difference between plants that are mass-produced and those that are locally-grown.
Get used to asking these questions when you shop, so you can end up making better choices. In the long run, this will make both you and the grower more responsible.
Share and Swap
There are tons of trendy houseplants that either self-propagate or can be done so manually from cuttings. Monstera, pothos, spider plants, pilea, ZZ plants, snake plants, aloe, jade, and other succulents are just a few common ones, but almost every houseplant can be propagated.
Not only can you get yourself another plant for free, you can also trade or share your plants with others. Rare species like variegated monsteras, the unique 'pink princess' philodendron, 'king' anthuriums, and hard-to-find calatheas could be much easier to collect if people swapped and shared their cuttings.
This would also reduce the need to ship overseas, ease competition between plant collectors, and lessen the pressure on growers to make enough of the next big thing. Search local gardening and houseplant groups on social media to find a community of like-minded folks who may just have a plant cutting with your name on it.
It’s hard to get away from plastic grower’s pots when you’re buying a new plant since most suppliers use them. While you can’t change the pot that the plant comes in, if you are thinking of transplanting, or have done some swapping, there are more than enough sustainable pots and planters on the market.
The most sustainable pots and planters are ones that are reused, shared, or swapped, which can be found on free sites like kijiji and craiglist, or local gardening groups where you find plant cuttings.
Stoneware made by local artisans is one of the best options for buying new, as they are made with natural materials, and you are supporting and buying local, which cuts down on manufacturing and transportation costs. They’re also great quality and will last a long time.
Wooden pots are also eco-friendly, especially if you choose a sustainable source like bamboo. Wood will deteriorate after some time, but wine barrels and other containers can be upcycled, which extends their life and gives you an interesting planter to boot.
Pots made of recycled plastic or recycled polypropylene are a little better, but if you want the look of plastic without the environmental problems, look for ones made of rice hulls, clay (terra cotta), or cork.
Skip the Novelty Plants
Every year I used to buy a poinsettia for family members around the holidays. That is until I started to think more eco-consciously about what this tradition entails: throwing out a dead plant by March.
Novelty or seasonal plants like poinsettias, Easter lilies, Norfolk pines, dyed cacti, and mini-roses are designed to last for a season and inevitably get tossed a month or two later. It may seem benign to bring these plants in for a while, admire them, and let them go on their natural path, but consider the energy that was put into growing, transporting, and all the wrapping involved in the process.
If a store gets a thousand poinsettias in one Christmas season, that’s a thousand pieces of plastic wrapping that most likely doesn’t get recycled, especially if it’s a big box store.
If you want to brighten your holidays with plants, skip the marketing gimmicks and choose ones that aren't meant to die so soon after they're purchased.
Don’t Impulse Buy
As much as it pains me to write this, there are times when impulse buying is a no-no! If you’ve had trouble with a certain plant that keeps dying and want to replace it, consider whether it was meant to be in the first place.
Plants need very specific indoor requirements like light, humidity, space, and water. Some need more attention than others, and while over-watering will kill a plant more often than not, many plants need consistently moist soil.
If you don’t have the time or proper space for your new friend, leave it be for someone who does. The number of plants that end up in the trash means all that energy to grow, transport, and sell it are for naught. This equals bad news for the environment.
Learn About Your Plant
This one goes hand and hand with impulse-buying: if you don’t kill your plant, you won’t have to constantly replace them with more. Part of being a sustainable collector, is to learn how to maintain your collection.
The first rule about keeping houseplants alive is that watering doesn’t always equal love! Too many people have killed their plant because they “over-loved” it.
Learn about what the light and watering needs are for your plant, and follow the instructions. And for Pete’s sake, get a pot that has drainage holes. Some plants are okay with wet feet for a little while, while others like succulents and orchids will die within a few days of too much water sitting at the bottom of the pot.
If you’re an amateur plant collector, start with plants that have a known reputation for being un-killable (yes, they do exist!). Pothos, spider plants, snake plants, philodendron, dieffenbachia, and ZZ plants are all beautiful and diverse plants that are very hard to kill.
Start with these, and as you get the hang of it, you can try adding more complicated plants like orchids, succulents, African violets, and fiddle leaf figs.
Be a Plant Doctor
Learning about your plant is also knowing how to diagnose problems and diseases that can be rectified rather than tossing out a plant that has lost some of its original sheen. Remember, houseplants that are fresh from the grower have had their ideal conditions met, and when you get them home, they often suffer and end up looking a little drab.
Most houseplants are tropical, so winter will be tough on them in colder climates where they don’t get the light, heat, and humidity they need. This can breed a host of different issues like pests and diseases, or just make for some sad looking plants.
Adding grow lights and a humidifier works wonders for plants during these dark and dry seasons, and can help alleviate symptoms.
Insecticidal soap can be useful for minor pest infestations, as can regular maintenance like cleaning dust off of leaves and foliage. Fungus gnats are a common issue in the winter, but adding a one or two-inch layer of perlite or sand can often break their cycle, along with hanging sticky traps to catch the adults.
Know when to fertilize your plant to give them the extra nutrition they might need. This is usually in the spring, just as they emerge from winter dormancy, and regularly throughout the summer growing months.
Use Natural Fertilizers
A great way to give your indoor plants a big boost of nutrition is to bring them outside when the weather warms up. Not all plants will appreciate this, but the majority of them will increase their growth, blooms, and general appearance without the need for synthetic fertilizers.
You can also use household waste items as natural fertilizers, just know how to use them. Coffee grounds, eggshells, and banana peels are commonly used, but there are ways to do it right. Egg shells should be ground into a fine powder for plants to benefit from their calcium, coffee grounds are hit-and-miss, and banana peels stink and often attract bugs.
Better to use these items and other food waste to make your own compost. You can have a small countertop compost pile for apartment living, or learn about bokashi composting for a quicker batch that's ready to use in weeks. Compost is a rich, nutrient dense material that’s much better for plants than using singular items on their own.
Leftover cooking water is great for plants, however. The liquid from pasta, rice, and vegetables is safe, and packed with various nutrients that leach out from the cooking process. Just make sure to let it cool fully. Not only will your plants get a drink, they’ll get a little boost of nutrition, too.
Peat moss and sphagnum moss are excellent amendments to compacted soil or old potting mix as they aerate the mix, and help with water absorption. Potting mix needs to be lighter than regular soil, and peat moss is often added to get this preferred density for houseplants.
Unfortunately, peat moss releases a lot of carbon dioxide back into the air when it’s harvested. It’s a renewable source, but since it grows slowly, and demand is high, it can't renew itself quickly enough to meet supply needs. Removing it also affects important ecosystems for many unique flora and fauna.
Coconut coir or “coco coir” is one of the best alternatives to peat moss. It holds up to ten times its weight in water, can help amend soil and create aeration, and is sustainable since the coconut hairs are a by-product of the fruit harvest.
Compost is another great alternative, especially if you make your own. The nutrient-dense material is excellent at amending soils and achieving better soil structure. It helps with water retention and adds beneficial microbes, eliminating the need for peat moss or artificial fertilizers. Win-win!
Rice hulls are gaining popularity as an eco-friendly alternative for soil amendment. They are lightweight, aerate soil, and help with moisture retention. They are biodegradable, and, depending on the source, can be organic. Their neutral pH balance is a bonus.
Leaf mold is probably the cheapest and most sustainable option because it’s so readily available if you happen to live near trees. Fallen leaves naturally decompose and become a type of compost. Just check for pests or disease, and mow or chop them into smaller pieces. They can also be added to outdoor compost piles.
Re-Use/ Make Your Soil
With so many excellent sustainable soil amendments available, you can learn how to re-use your old potting mixes by simply adding more organic material to it. If you have fresh potting mix around, this can easily be added to old dirt by mixing half and half.
If you don’t have any fresh potting mix, adding compost is the best solution to use in old, compacted soil as it improves soil structure and adds organic material. Potting mix can be used for a few years, so even if you mix a bit of compost, leaf mold, coco coir, or rice hulls into it every so often, this should be enough of an amendment.
Do not reuse any soil where pests or disease were present. Don’t even compost that soil, it should be bagged up and sent to the landfill or go one step further and “heat-treat” it for 30 minutes at temps around 120 degree F. This can be done by creating a DIY solar chamber—put soil in a black garbage bag inside of another clear storage bin on a hot sunny day, or in a hot car.
If you don’t want to go through this step and don’t have enough medium left to make your own, skip the big box stores and find potting mix from reputable, sustainable companies. They’re out there. Old potting mix can also be used when swapping and sharing small plants and cuttings. Just let the other person know the soil needs amending.
Houseplants make us feel as though we’ve brought a bit of nature inside, and while it may seem like an altruistic hobby, there’s an environmental downside. Many of our Instagrammable collections were started at industrial farms that use large amounts of water, land, and energy to meet the plants' light and heat requirements.
Start with making more sustainable purchases. Choose your level of plant care wisely. Try to reuse soil and make your own compost. Continue to love your houseplant collection, do your best to keep them alive, and share your sustainable tips with your fellow plant lovers.
It may take some time to get it all right, but by implementing these tips, you can proudly call yourself an eco-friendly indoor plant collector. Hashtag ecofriendlyplantparent.