A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, we clamoured toward self-care as both an act of self-preservation and distraction. Some of us got really into Zoom workouts or TikTok dances. Some moved back into their childhood homes or adopted puppies to fill the sudden plethora of spare time. And some turned to plants. The timing, in that one way, couldn’t have been better: March is an ideal time to welcome house plants into your home — spring is around the corner, the sun stays in the sky for longer, and growing-season is about to begin. When there’s no life to live outside with other people, watching our new monstera plant grow a new leaf gave us all something new to be excited about.
I had already been plant mum-ing for a while; I had around 15 very happy plants scattered across my small apartment at the beginning of the pandemic. A year later, my garden isn’t quite as abundant. All I have left are my pride-and-joy monstera (who has had multiple babysitters), a struggling pothos, a random leafy plant that refuses to die, and a wandering jew cutting from a friend. And that’s it. Between quarantining at my parents’ house last spring and the general wash of pandemic depression that hangs in our collective consciousness, taking care of my plants was one of the first responsibilities I took off my plate.
I knew I couldn’t be alone in my below average plant-mothering skills, so I started to reach out to friends and family in the hopes that their flora failures could bring me some comfort. While I did find some other failed plant parents (shoutout to my cousin from Kentucky who has also killed most of her plants), what I mostly found was a beautiful sense of hope — a reminder that, you know, life will find a way. From pandemic gardens to palm trees to fish tanks filled with tropical plants, plants are still flourishing across the country — even if not much else is.
Laura, a plant ecology graduate student, had 10 house plants when they moved from New Mexico to Reno, Nevada in August 2020 for school — now they have 130. “I’ve spent the last four years working botany internships working with native plants,” they tell me. “And I had house plants before, but not to this extent.” They credit most of their collection’s expansion to Northern Nevada Plant People, a Facebook group for buying, selling, trading, and showing off plants in Northern Nevada. “It started with a single shelf, then another shelf, then a bench, then I saw this 80-gallon fish tank on Facebook Marketplace for free, so now that’s filled too,” they say. Laura is currently propagating pothos in test tubes and growing moss poles to sell to fund their plant habit, since it’s gotten rather expensive. Laura has found comfort in their plants throughout quarantine and they’ve also found something else — friendship in isolation. “My plants make me so happy and I really love the Facebook group,” Laura explains. “I’ve made friends with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I have a plant group chat and a plant bestie. I have a community because of my plants.”
Pandemic plant journeys haven’t remained solely inside, especially for those with coveted outdoor space. Jess Wolinsky, an executive assistant in Los Angeles, CA, started growing tomatoes in her backyard during the first lockdown in 2020. Her tomatoes were at their peak in July 2020, when Wolinsky found out her mother, Marcia, had pancreatic cancer. She immediately went to Florida to care for her mom; without Wolinsky there to care for it, her garden died. But she was resilient, and so was her green thumb. “Together we grew five different kinds of tomatoes, rosemary, basil, celery, eggplant, strawberries, and many kinds of flowering plants that specifically grow really well in Florida,” she tells me. “We were obviously both devastated with the diagnosis, and our garden gave us a reason to be outside and really boosted my mental health. It feels really good to nurture something and put depressive, sad energy into growing new life, especially when life becomes very precious all of a sudden.” Now that Wolinsky is back in Los Angeles, her and her mum’s respective gardens are what keep them connected, “We FaceTime all the time and talk about our plants. She shows me the tomatoes I planted when I was with her and I now have a Abutilon ‘Red Tiger’ inspired by her garden — it makes me feel closer to her even though we’re thousands of miles away.”
Like Wolinsky, Tara Cappel found comfort in her garden during the pandemic. CEO and founder of For the Love of Travel, a company that runs small group tours for young people across the world, Cappel found herself unable to work once COVID struck. “Trips were getting cancelled and my dad had just finished building his dream home in Baja California, Mexico, so I left my apartment in New York and came down here with my sister.” The house had just been finished and the yard was just a pile of dirt. Without regular work, Cappel decided to use her free time to learn about gardening and landscaping. A year later, Cappel has a group a ferns inside — “we call it Fern Gully” — and outside she has “a pomegranate tree, papaya trees, a passionfruit tree, tons of palm trees, an olive tree, lemon trees, agave, a huge bed of basil, and so many more.” She now knows about acidic soil and what kind of water certain trees need.
As for me, going into this story, I was cynical. I thought everyone would have plant disaster stories to share like I did, and so I would feel better about my crispy pothos cuttings that hadn’t survived COVID. But rather than feel bashful about the fact that others had managed to keep their gardens thriving while I hadn’t, instead, I found joy and hope — and a lot of group chats — about plants. I learned what a papaya tree looks like and that I really need to keep my next calathea warm in the winter. Maybe all this means that this will be the year I successfully keep a fern alive, but at the very least, I know I can always send a picture of my monstera to my new plant friends.
For Cappel, taking care of her plants and trees, especially while unable to work, has been meditative. “I have a deeper appreciation now for plants, and they’ve really taught me lessons,” she says. “When a plant would lose a limb, I would freak out, but then it would grow back stronger than before. They’ve really taught me life lessons. I’ll alway be a plant person now.”