The Houseplants That Saved Me from Myself
When things took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2020, Toronto writer Tayo Bero decided to refresh her life with a new apartment full of plants. As it turned out, they taught her more than she could have anticipated.
One sunny afternoon in mid-July of 2020, I took a trip to what would become my regular plant place, nestled in Toronto’s vibrant Junction neighbourhood. I parked my car down the street and made my way to the corner shop, taking in the now much quieter area and lamenting everything that the pandemic had robbed us of.
The summer of 2020 was a mess, my worst on record. I can still viscerally recall the all-around sense of hopelessness, fatigue, and devastation that filled those mid-year months as we navigated a growing pandemic, as well as the heavy and often traumatizing conversations about anti-Blackness and police brutality that were happening across the globe. I fought through the thick haze of despair that clouded those days, all the while nursing myself through the aftermath of an extremely tumultuous breakup and planning a move into a new apartment.
Feeling exhausted and worn out, I decided that the move was going to be a new beginning for me, a fresh start where I got to define the terms of my own existence separate from what was happening in the world around me.
I’d never had plants before, but I knew I wanted them to be a part of my new reality. And to help me get started, I reached out to my close friend Gloria, who runs a popular Instagram account (@blackgirlrooted) dedicated entirely to her assortment of plants, which you can typically find posed up against a bright orange accent wall in her Edmonton apartment. I’d always watched how devoted she was to them, and it made me feel great to know I had someone I could go to for advice and who wouldn’t shame me if I killed something.
When I finally arrived at the plant shop that July afternoon, I was reminded of all the reasons why I wanted to start growing plants at home. There’s something breathtaking about the way they occupy space in a room. From tiny, fuzzy cacti that fit in the palm of your hand to leafy pothoses that are just perfect for hanging from the ceiling, their presence can turn any boring old room into a green oasis — just the kind of place I longed to wake up in and come home to.
After walking around the shop for at least an hour, I finally had my picks. My first set of plants would be a group of simple, easy-to-take-care-of selections including a snake plant, an alocasia, a rubber ficus, a monstera, and a pothos. I‘d always loved the giant leaves of the monstera and the subtle boldness of the rubber plant, which says, “I may be small, but I’m here.” The alocasia was beautiful, with three vibrant purple leaves calling out to be noticed, and the snake plant was a first-timer’s no-brainer, given that they are virtually indestructible.
I talked through the plant care with the store associates, made sure I had all the tools I needed (pro tip: don’t buy that expensive watering can unless it’s for Instagram, any old container will do), and then finally felt ready to take them home.
Plant care as self-care
We never had plants in my house growing up. Dried plants and flower arrangements, yes. But real living ones, inside the house? Never. My mom still says she has no idea where I get my green thumb, and even I was surprised by how easily I slipped into the routine.
I quickly got the process down to a science, learning how to test the soil with my finger to see whether the plant needed water, moving them around for better light, and springing for some quality fertilizer and a humidifier to make sure they were getting all the nutrients they needed and were in the best environment to grow.
I even told my therapist about it. We reasoned that plant care had become part of my self-care routine, something that I enjoyed doing, and a place where I could see the results of my efforts actually coming to life.
Lesson #1: Loving detachment
Things seemed to be going well until one day, out of the blue, a leaf fell off my rubber plant. A few days later it was two, and then four, and before I knew it, several leaves had fallen off and were greying and curling on the soil below.
Devastated, I did what any new plant parent does and started frantically searching the internet to figure out what was going on. There are many reasons why a rubber plant might start to lose its leaves: inadequate sunlight, not enough water, too much water, drastic changes in temperature and humidity, pests; the list goes on and on. After weeks of trying to salvage what was left of the plant, I finally resigned myself to the fact that it was, in fact, dying. I soon bought another one to replace the first and was stunned when the same thing happened — leaves falling one by one until the whole thing was dead. Flummoxed, I put a pause on buying new rubber plants, only to receive yet another (and a much bigger one this time) as a gift.
And it was on that third rubber plant that I learned the first big lesson my plants would teach me. When it began to fail like the others did, I ordered a moisture checker that went deeper into the soil than my fingers could, and I realized that I’d been overwatering them the whole time. Yes, the reason my rubber plants kept dying was because I was giving them too much love, not too little.
This realization hit me like a ton of bricks, but it also mirrored a lot of the ways that I was engaging with the turmoil in my own life. Maybe spending time and emotional energy trying to nurture something broken isn’t always the solution. I’d been trying so hard to fix a dying relationship that it never occurred to me that my efforts may have been part of the problem, and that leaving it alone might have been the thing to do all along.
Lesson #2: Room to grow
A couple of months into having my alocasia, I noticed I was needing to water it more frequently than usual. One look at the bottom of the pot showed that the plant’s roots were so overgrown that they had snaked through the drainage holes and formed a matted web. It was time to repot.
And I knew that feeling all too well. With the walls feeling like they were closing in on me during those difficult months, my apartment began to feel claustrophobic. Working from home meant I was barely even leaving my cramped bedroom, and I was beyond ready for a change of environment. So, similar to the way I planned out my move to a new apartment, I set about buying a new pot and ingredients for a good soil mixture — all the things I’d need for this transplant to be a success and for my alocasia to thrive in its new home.
My alocasia’s experience mirrored a vital lesson I had learned during my summer of hell. I already knew that in order for me to thrive, I needed to be in a better, more conducive environment, one that gave me room to grow and didn’t leave me feeling stuck in place, bound at the roots. I knew that a change of scenery was, in part, the answer to these problems, so I poured love into my new place; switched jobs; created newer, healthier habits; and filled my life with the things that made me happy.
Lesson #3: Healthy rhythms
The mindful routine of plant care helped me have something to nurture and tend to outside of the wounds of my breakup and the world’s ongoing cycles of chaos.
My inner turmoil was quieted by the knowledge that I was pouring life into something, and that those efforts were yielding immediate results, ones that I could see every time I looked around me or breathed the air in my apartment.
I later added a maranta (also known as a “prayer plant”) to my collection, and it’s taught me one of the greatest lessons of this journey so far, by its very nature. Prayer plants “close” and “open” their leaves in response to the environment — their leaves open up when there’s sunlight and then fold in on themselves when it gets dark. This behaviour in plants is called nyctinasty, and there’s no one agreed-upon answer as to why it happens, though it’s been theorized that the movement may be an evolutionary adaptation to help the plant capture moisture and rainwater during the day and then preserve it at night.
I realized that humans operate in just the same way. It’s great to open oneself up to all that the world has to offer, but in my experience, there is also value in retreating to our quiet places when things get dark, and in looking inward when the noise of the world gets too loud.
Unshaken by their surroundings and able to withstand the harshest and most unfavourable conditions, my snake and jade plants are simply unbothered by the world at large. After surviving my summer of hell, I am willing that same resilience for myself.
Tayo Bero is an award-winning radio producer and freelance culture writer. You can find her work in publications like the Guardian, Teen Vogue, Chatelaine Magazine, and the Walrus as well as on CBC Radio.