Every Autumn not only do I look forward to all the beautiful colors outside and bringing in the harvests from our garden, I also look forward to filling up my house with houseplants! I love the greenery and feeling of nature being present in my home all through the year. This is particularly important in the winter since I will be spending so much more time indoors. As we move into our rainy season and darker days, many folks struggle with feeling tired and blue, and seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) is very common in Washington. I struggled with this problem quite a bit as a young person growing up in Alaska. When I moved south to Oregon as an 18 year-old, and later to Washington, I found I was still somewhat affected by the winter darkness and feelings of sadness. One thing that really has made a big difference for me over the years is being able to enjoy filling my personal spaces with plants during the winter!
Many of the plants I fill my home with in the Fall are my beloved houseplants that have spent the summer and early fall outside. Things like poinsettias (yes they make great houseplants!), scented geraniums, coleus, aloe vera, jade plants, and tradescantia. I also add a few new houseplant varieties every year so I get the opportunity to learn about some new plants. There are so many diverse and beautiful kinds of houseplants. I am fortunate that I have exposure to so many interesting houseplants at Eastside Urban. Our upstairs becomes slowly packed with them during the winter months, and that area is everyone’s favorite part of the store. I believe it is in part because it just makes people feel good to be around so many plants in an indoor environment!
It turns out that it’s not just my personal perception and experience, but these feelings of perceived well-being are backed up by science! Most people already know that indoor plants help regulate humidity and clean the air. But it goes much further than that! Researchers have found that having plants in our indoor environments boosts our serotonin levels. Indoor plants have in their soil the microbe Mycobacterium vaccae, a non-pathogenic bacteria that boosts the release of cytokines in our brains (feel good chemicals) that in turn boosts serotonin levels, reducing anxiety and stress. The same research showed exposure to these microbes also reduced body inflammation overall. Research is currently underway at Colorado University to increase our knowledge of how this bacteria might be used in the near future as a treatment for depression and PTSD. The benefits of nature and green-spaces for our overall mental health, cognitive functioning, and creativity are clear. Research and information from the University of Washington (yay!) provides ample proof that surrounding ourselves with nature is extremely beneficial on multiple levels. This all makes sense because we are not separate from nature, but evolved at the same time as the plants and animals surrounding us, with the same soil, sunlight, wind, water, air, and microbes helping to shape us all. Is it any wonder that when we are removed from contact with nature and the green world we don’t feel well?
In addition to traditional houseplants, I also like to fill our home with less-traditional plants I bring indoors, like citrus, geraniums (both scented and bedding types), mandevilla, echeveria, herbs, and others! As you may suspect, I’m a plantaholic!
The feeling of wellbeing that plants give me is immense. The act of caring for plants nourishes, grounds, and calms me, even in the darkest times. Which gives me more energy to take on some of life’s larger challenges! This calming effect is perhaps why gardeners on average live longer than other people.
Propagating houseplants during the fall and winter is really enjoyable. Some of the easiest houseplants to propagate by taking cuttings and rooting out are Tradescantia and Philodendron. They’re always a bit overgrown by Autumn and need some tidying up, so why not make new baby plants with the cuttings? You can either root them out in a jar with water on the windowsill, or in soil. For soil rootings, I like to use the MJR soil we have at Eastside Urban. I use 4 inch plastic pots left over from my other seasonal plantings. I submerge about 3 inches of the stem (no leaves) in either water or soil, making sure to submerge at least 1 leaf node. The node is generally where the new roots emerge. I use old glass jars for the water method. Think “bouquet” – of cuttings instead of flowers.
I also divide plants to propagate them. This works well for things like Peace Lily (Spathiphylum), Leopard plant (Ledebouria), Snake plant (Sanseveria) and Aloe Vera. Some plants, like Mother of Thousands (Kolancho daigremontianum) propagate themselves by dropping hundreds of little sets of rooty leaflets. For Jade plants (Crassula) and also Cuban Oregano (Pleactranthus amboinicus), I just bury any branches that fall off (or are knocked off by my huskies!) into a few inches of well-draining soil, often just in the same pot. If there’s no room and I need a new pot for any succulent/sedum type plant, I mix pumice with the MJR soil we sell or use the Cactus mix, and gently push at least a couple of nodes deep to give it more chance of rooting out. I started with 1 very small Jade plant, a parting gift from a friend in Scotland 14 years ago. Now I have 6 “old growth” Jade plants with many babies at their bases, waiting to be transplanted into new homes! Every year I bring a new crop of small jade plants to Eastside Urban to sell upstairs with our houseplants, and they go fast!
To maintain your houseplants, a critical element is providing enough light indoors, especially if they are used to being outside. Some shade or partial shade plants you can just put near a window and light will be adequate, but for many that you’ve brought indoors, you will need to supplement light. I use regular LED bulbs, and usually a 60-75 watt equivalent. I love that LEDs only use about a 10th of the energy of the old incandescent bulbs. That means I can have 8 LED lights and they will use less energy than 1 of the old incandescent bulbs!! This is great news because it means that you can have plenty of light for your indoor plants without breaking the bank, while also not increasing your carbon footprint. For lamps, I use regular house lamps, and for areas needing a boost you can pick up some cheap floor lamps (around $15) from Target or a similar store. Clamp on brooder type reflective lamps work fine as well. Just don’t use a heat bulb in them or you’ll fry your plants!
For watering, I choose 1 day per week during the winter, usually a weekend day, and I water all my plants. I keep an eye on any plants near heaters to make sure they don’t bake and give them more water if they need it during the week. I generally situate only my succulents near a heat source. Remember, the number one way to keep your plants alive is to just develop a watering routine and stick to it. Carefully observe your plants. If they are showing signs of drying out too much, add more water on your weekly watering day, or change your routine to 2 x per week for those plants. Overwatering is also a risk, so stick to a routine if you can. Take a little time to pay attention to your plants and care for them. Remember, when you care for your plants and green up your home, you’re also caring for yourself and your loved ones.
We can’t change our Western Washington weather, but we can create indoor environments during the winter that nourish our hearts, souls, families, and our wider community. Throughout time humans have lived close to nature. It is only in the relatively recent past that we have come to view ourselves as separate. The consequences of that separation have become more and more apparent in recent years as we all see the effects of climate change. I believe part of the way we heal ourselves and our world is by working to reestablish the deep and inherent connection between ourselves and the natural world we all share. We are after all, just part of the larger and very diverse web of life. What we do affects all the other strands of that web. Recognizing this can give our daily lives, work, and interactions with other people more profound meaning. Even our smallest actions can make a difference. Let’s choose to create environments at home, work, and in our wider communities that foster and restore balance, connection, and health.
About me: After over 20 years in the sustainable landscaping and garden design industry both in the Pacific NW and in the UK, I opened Eastside Urban Farm & Garden Center in 2013 in Olympia, WA. My background combines Permaculture design, traditional horticulture training, organic gardening, and regenerative agriculture. My goal has always been to provide the tools, plants, products, and educational resources to help people grow their own food sustainably and organically, and to help them consciously design, maintain, and restore their land and farms in the most ecologically sound manner possible. I believe strongly that we are all tasked with leaving this world in a better state than we found it. My hope with this Blog is to provide folks in the South Sound clear information on general seasonal tasks, as well as specifics on various aspects of maintaining their farms, gardens, orchards, and homesteads. I believe that by working consciously to restore the land, ecosystems, and soil health, we can help create a healthier food system, a healthier Earth, and a better future for our children and generations to come.– Brighida deVargas