tovah martin
PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCY SCHAEFFER

This Woman Has Over 300 Houseplants

The best potted greenery is foolproof, rewarding, uplifting, and—most of all—beautiful.

October 15, 2015

It’s amazing what a little ivy can do for your state of mind as the cold weather starts to close in. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I need plants to survive the harsh and unrelenting New England winter, just as I wouldn’t make it long without oxygen or granola. I guess that’s why I started collecting houseplants decades ago and never quite stopped—and now, with 300-plus green companions, I have learned to look for species that I can count on to stick around. Specifically, I collect plants with a single defining characteristic: They have to be indestructible. 

My aim when I set out was to create an indoor jungle. I wanted trailing plants cascading over their pot rims, vines grasping for vertical support, mini trees stretching their branches, and lots of creepy-crawly greenery in between. I wanted to be able to reach out and touch a leaf in every room. But I lead a busy life just like everyone else, so I needed to cram my chores into narrow slots of time—and, as a result, occasionally subjected my plants to mild forms of neglect. 

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I’m not talking about anything too drastic. I sometimes forget to water my plants for a longer-than-usual stretch of days. I offer them shelter in less-than-perfect growing conditions: My home, in Litchfield County, Connecticut, is a converted barn attached to an 18th-century cobbler shop by a lean-to greenhouse corridor with glass facing east. I have limited windows, drafty rooms, fluctuating temperatures, and forced-air heat. My rambunctious Maine coon cat, Einstein, loves playing king of the jungle, and he sometimes knocks things over, reducing terra-cotta pots to shards. Still, I expect the plants to survive. And they have to be able to resist bugs on their own. My approach is strictly organic, so I avoided plants that attract insects onto the premises. 

My aim was to create an indoor jungle. I wanted to be able to reach out and touch a leaf in every room.

Plenty of plants couldn’t abide this lack of pampering and precise climate control. But as I culled the fussbudgets from the long-term survivors, I was pleased to find that dozens of them passed muster. In fact, I was amazed at the number that could thrive with remarkably little care. Generally speaking, plants will flourish indoors if they come from regions where the growing conditions—temperatures and light levels—are similar to those in the average home. Some are natives of jungles, where they bask in low light; others grow in deserts that are Sahara dry—like a house with the furnace blasting in winter. These adaptations lead to some handsome physical traits as well as resilience
in the face of adversity. 

Now that my little Darwinian experiment has helped me settle on a lineup of plants, it’s standing room only on my windowsills. South-facing windows host sun worshipers such as succulents; east- and west-facing windows are crowded with begonias, peperomias, and hoyas, which need less light. Ferns and ivies are stationed in the sunless exposures facing north. All manner of improvised plant stands, from chairs and bar stools to stacked crates and overturned wastebaskets, crowd around the windows. Because no high-maintenance prima donnas are allowed inside, we all grow in angst-free peace and harmony. 

The result has been overwhelmingly positive and therapeutic. From the moment I wake up in the morning and make my way through the house, brushing by various stems and leaves as I head toward the kitchen, until I walk back to the bedroom with a cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I can breathe easier. I feel a connection with nature—a link that’s closer than my relationship with the garden outdoors. And it’s not only me. Delivery people stop and gawk while hauling their parcels past the hoyas and begonias. They often linger a few extra minutes to smell the scented geraniums—and leave smiling. Whether they’re laughing with me or at me, I couldn’t care less. 

 

Who cares what the weatherman is predicting for winter? When you can count on houseplants as year-round companions, even if you don’t have time to shower them with affection, it’s always heaven indoors.