I created a garden in my dorm… Here’s what I learned.

10247452_10152204918570805_8582340086945612707_nThe summer before my sophomore year of college I made an impulse decision. Standing inside the kind of store that sells plastic buddhas and hemp-scented incense, I fixed my gaze on a potted bamboo plant. Sure I wasn’t the most reliable owner… Hermit crabs and twenty-five cent goldfish had come and gone, confirming that perhaps I was not the best with long-term commitments. But this time would be different, I told myself. It’s just a plant after all. How hard could it be? I eagerly carried my tiny plant to the checkout.

Shortly after, my little plant was exceeding my expectations. With little to no supervision it was not only sustaining life, but flourishing within the confines of my dimly-lit dorm room. Soon I was finding larger planters for it. It was absorbing more and more water within each day. This thing was pretty indestructible I thought… and for the most part I was right.

I began buying more indoor plants. Or in this case, we can refer to them as in-dorm plants. By the time I had three plants, my friends began to take notice, and before I knew it I was gifted three more. I was now the plant girl. At some point I started going by “plant mother.” Where before I was feeling pretty cocky about my plant owner sensibilities, now I was beginning to get nervous. It was only a matter of time until I dropped the ball.

Two years later and my not so little bamboo is the only survivor… Most of my plants survived for a solid semester or two, which is what I would consider a small achievement. That said, let’s learn from my mistakes as a plant owner. Here are the top six things I learned during my brief plant motherhood.

Your plant is only as strong as your weakest plant-sitter.

When I bought my plants I wasn’t really thinking about long-term commitments. If you haven’t got someone to plant-sit, for a lack of a better word, you should probably reconsider buying the plant all together. A five dollar plant doesn’t really scream the need for stability, but if you haven’t got someone to water your plant while you’re away, it’s as good as dead. That said, some plants are more temperamental than others.

Some plants are just not meant to live indoors. Cut your losses.

Twice I was gifted plants that were potted as though they were indoor, that required full sunlight… Not found inside my shady dorm room. Before I watched my plants slowly suffer and eventually die, I wish I would have bit the bullet and given them away to someone who could afford them the conditions they needed. I pruned, fertilized and repotted plants that never stood a chance. If you buy an indoor plant and realize that its prospects are grim, do the responsible thing: find it a new home.

The store pots are never large enough.

I mentioned repotting my plants. This was something I had to do with practically all of my plants. The truth of the matter is that store-bought plants are never potted to grow. If you want to give your plant any chance at growth you will need to repot it. To confirm that this is something you need to do, check two things: the space unoccupied outwards by the plant, and the space left downward for the roots. If things are tight you should consider repotting so that your plant can receive the full nutrients that it needs. Many times more than one plant will be potted together in a small space, choosing not to separate them often means choosing one over the other.

Fertilizer is nice, but not always necessary.

Fertilizer helped when my plants were struggling, but it was not the determining factor to how long a plant survived. Figuring out the lighting, temperature, and watering conditions proved much more important.

Seasonal gift plants are a trap. Don’t buy in.

Once I was gifted a rose bush in February. Valentines season. Where I was living at the time, there was little to no chance of it surviving. Snow was still falling. The weather was gray… every day. There was little sign of plant life. As my little roses welted I did all I could to get them to survive. Miraculously they made it until I was able to plant them outside my home, but it’s not always that lucky. 

Admit to the level of commitment you are willing to make. Find a plant that matches that level.

I joke about the reliability of my bamboo, but truth be told it is probably the most appropriate plant for the level of involvement I am willing to commit over the course of several years. I water it once about every two weeks and if I leave town, my plant is still alright. Others who may be more invested might enjoy a flowering plant like daisies, or someone lazier should look at a succulent or even a cactus. It all comes down to commitment of time and resources.

Alright, there you have it, a twenty-something’s recommendations for indoor gardening. Take that as you will. Garden on, my friends.