5 Key Things I Learned From a Session With a NYC Plant Doctor

Including the question I was too embarrassed to Google.
light filled room featuring leather lounge chair with house plants around it
Photography by Aaron Bengochea

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If I were to rank myself as a plant parent on a scale from faux foliage connoisseur to Kate Berry, I would give myself about a six and a half. Pothos? No problem. Snake plant? Thriving. ZZ? A breeze. And yet my early successes have more to do with the innate hardiness of these species than with any particular finesse of my own. I’ll go ahead and admit it: I didn’t really grasp what indirect light meant, and I was too proud to do a simple Google search. I did not have complete confidence in when, or how much, to water my youngsters. I loved my plants, but I did not truly know them. As with many of life’s problems, sometimes you just need to hash things out with a professional. 

In this case, that expert is Maryah Greene, a New York City–based plant doctor and stylist and founder of Greene Piece, whose services range from personal plant shopping and creating apartment green plans to offering advice and check-ins for the growing swath of urban millennials falling in love with houseplants. First, I answered Greene’s extensive questionnaire, giving insight into my current collection, experience with keeping things alive, lifestyle and apartment routines, and my botanical aspirations. (I was feeling audacious and selected “A. I’m most interested in bold statement plants that say ‘I’m clearly a plant parent.’”)

On the morning of my consultation, I willed my wilted Pilea to perk up and put on a brave face. But as soon as Greene arrived with nonjudgmental energy and armfuls of new plant babies from Rooted in tow, my mind was set at ease. For the next 45 minutes we circled the apartment, with Greene offering diagnoses and care tips for my existing vegetation, placing new arrivals in the optimal light, and generously answering all my questions. If you’re looking to start plant parenthood with your best foot forward, I can confidently recommend a session with a plant consultant (either local or remote). Still wondering what you might gain from such an experiment? Here’s what I learned.

Plants Are Seasonal

Unlike those of us who live life in general disregard for the time of year, plants follow differing cycles depending on the season. Winter is Greene’s busiest period, as the shortening days cause leaves around the city to yellow, brown, and strain toward the nearest window. However, leaves falling as temperatures drop is not a disaster as long as the plant is also showing new growth. For leaning stalks and yellowing foliage, move your plants closer to a window and rotate regularly for equal access to those shortening hours of sun. Plants will hibernate, so they won’t show much growth until they wake in the spring.

Light Is Everything

I was not alone in my confusion around the difference between direct and indirect light—in fact, it’s one of the top questions Greene receives. As my apartment is a long, narrow, railroad style with windows on either end, it served as an ideal illustration of the gradient from bright, direct light to low, indirect light. 

Greene puts it this way: When the sun is coming through your window, anywhere you could “catch a tan” would be considered direct light. Bonus tip—it’s important to keep the exterior of your windows clean in order to maximize the amount of light passing through the glass. (Greene recommends a plant-based cleanser like Love Home and Planet.) As you move further from these direct rays and the sunshine begins to bounce off the various surfaces in your home, you’re now encountering indirect light. 

Water Up

First off, spend a little time researching the types of plants in your home and write down a basic weekly watering schedule (which you can easily hand off to your next plant-sitter). When that day arrives, bring your babies to the sink or bathtub and water all the way around the planter until it begins to drain out the bottom (this means that the soil has been saturated and the upper and lower roots of the plant will get equal moisture). Then let your plant do its thing until it fully dries out once more. Greene’s first rule of plant care is to always lean toward the side of underwatering.

Pest-Proof Naturally

If you have a pet that’s too curious for their own good and chomps on your precious foliage, spray the enticing temptations with a blend of lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Once they learn that plants can be spicy, they’ll leave them be. When it comes to flies or gnats, Greene recommends sprinkling cinnamon over the top soil of the affected pots. The spice acts as a natural deterrent to bugs laying eggs.

A “Survival of the Fittest” Situation Can Happen

As your plant grows up, its roots will multiply and extend toward the edges of its pot. As the amount of available space gets eaten up, new roots will start to overtake the old. On the surface, this will begin to look like simultaneous rates of growth and death, with new, higher leaves sprouting and older, lower leaves falling off. If this effect does not stabilize and your plant is beginning to dwarf its pot, it’s time to give it more room. 

Have a problem (plant) child? Check out Greene’s complementary online SOS program. As she puts it: “My goal when I launched Greene Piece was to make plants affordable and accessible to everyone.”

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