A field guide to plant parenthood

We are living in a baby boom.

The last few years has seen an upswing of “plant parents” embracing indoor plants to green-up their living and work spaces. Condo-dwelling millennials are at the core of this movement, but it has spilled out across all demographics and housing types.

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People have rediscovered the joys of indoor plants.

In terms of social media, Instagram is the most popular platform for houseplant “inspo”, where legions of foliage-fanatics and bloom-boosters post their successes and support one another through challenges. With well over 300,000 followers, Derryl Cheng of Houseplant Journal (@houseplantjournal) is, in our view, the King of Houseplants on Instagram.

An Engineer/Gardener

Cheng started caring for houseplants as a hobby outside of his day job as an engineer, and it wasn’t long before his technical approach to plant care led him to sharing his experiences online. Over 1,800 thoughtful posts and countless plant specimens later, he has released a book on what he calls ‘plant-parenthood’: The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family (Abrams Image, 2019).

The photography is excellent. Cheng’s first hobby was as a photographer. The pictures in this book speak to his incredible attention to detail and appreciation for plants. Perhaps this is the result of his “engineer training”. 

The text of the book reflects a very different perspective on plant care. Indeed, he treats it like parenthood. In writing about his approach, “I wasn’t looking for perfection – I just wanted to know that I was doing everything I could and that the plant was trying its best too”.  

Cheng excels at managing our expectations of our own plants. Experienced parents know that children are not always perfect, except Ben of course. So why should we expect plants, also living things, to always act perfectly?  He explains our need to accept that yellow leaves, wilting, and occasional disease are all part of the journey that makes growing plants easier and less stressful. This is a perspective we can agree with.

Yet caring for indoor plants requires more than plant-compassion, and that’s where Cheng, the engineer, steps in.  In The New Plant Parent he breaks down the components of houseplant soil. He endorses buying the premade stuff and instructs us on how to blend our own.

He also offers both a technical and home-made solution to assessing light: by using a light-meter, and comparing readings to specific guidelines in the book, or by simply asking yourself “what does my plant see?” with additional guidelines.

Water

The most commonly debated element of plant care is water. In this section, Cheng does an excellent job of dispelling myths and as he puts it, “turn[ing] watering from a chore into a positive experience of interacting with a growing plant”. He advocates for aerating soil and probing for moisture to get an accurate read (the engineer) and observing each individual plant’s signals (the compassionate plant parent).

Pruning and propagating, soil rejuvenation, fertilizing and equipment round out the remainder of the first half of the book, and in the second half we get a deep dive into popular houseplants by species. Note that Cheng’s aesthetic is very much consistent with the current trends, so you will find a lot of emphasis on foliar plants like pilea (Pilea peperomioides), monstera (Monstera deliciosa), money tree (Pachira aquatica), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), and various ferns including the fascinating staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurctum) which can be mounted like a prized hunting trophy on a wall.

This book breaks many rules and forces us to think outside of the box.  For traditional indoor plant growers, such as Ben’s 97-year-old grandmother who loves her African violets, this might not be the book, but after all, this is not “The Plant Grand-Parent”.

And for the rest of us, this a very good guidebook for plant-parenthood.

 

The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family

Cover price: $31.00

Publisher: Abrams Image, New York

ISBN # 978-1-4197-3239-3

Instagram: @houseplantjournal

Website: www.houseplantjournal.com

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.

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