woman planting plants in a pot

House plants: why looking after plants is the ultimate form of self-care

In these somewhat troubling times it can be helpful to concentrate on one simple act of self-care. Looking after a plant, for example, is proven to reduce stress and boost mood. Here, writer Kat Poole explains why in difficult periods caring for her leafy friends has helped her mental health.

It’s July 2018. The England football team are playing Colombia in the final 16 of the World Cup, the game is about to go to penalties, and the whole country is literally on edge.

There are minutes before Harry Kane walks up to the spot, so I leave the TV and go outside onto my balcony. My neighbour is stood, just across from me, having a cigarette to calm his nerves. 

Only I’m not holding a lighter, I’m holding a watering can, and my coping mechanism of choice is tending to my plants.

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Because here’s the thing: when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, the one sure way to unwind my brain is to shift all of my focus onto the green things growing around me. OK, I also find it incredibly relaxing to make my way through half a bottle of red; but tucking my thoughts out of sight under a warm wine blanket simply doesn’t have the same effect as turning them into something proactive and positive. And when it comes to plants, that’s the whole deal. 

House plants: “Of all the things I’ve dabbled in, it’s horticulture that brings me the most heady feeling of calm.”

Since my teens, I’ve had a tendency to shuffle around in my own brain, looking for things to worry about. And when I was old enough to know what was bad for me, I tried shutting down that overactive mechanism in many delicious and ill-advised ways. But of all the things I’ve dabbled in — more than cigarettes, spirits and various miscellaneous recreational activities I won’t get into here — it’s horticulture that brings me the most heady feeling of calm. 

House plants: “I enjoyed the ritual of looking after them, just making sure they stayed alive.”

And all I did was dabble, to begin with. Most of the plants in my house have come from the same two aloe veras my Nan potted up and gave me for my 27th birthday. I had just moved into a shared flat I was struggling to make into a home, feeling rather lost — and whether it was her intention or not, looking after these little succulents made me feel a little bit more connected to the place I was sleeping. So, I put them on my windowsill and watered them when their soil was dry, and took away leaves when they died. And they just sat there, as most plants do, not growing much, not doing anything new. But I wasn’t bothered; I enjoyed the ritual of looking after them, just making sure they stayed alive.

Then one day at the beginning of summer they both started to grow reedy stems which shot right up towards the window, and a little while later, both of those stems became covered in light pink flowers. I didn’t even know that they did flower, but there was my room, the room I didn’t really care for, in full bloom. I had never expected these hardy, spiky, sprouting things to produce something so beautiful — and partly because I had taken care of them. 

And so, I became hooked. I asked my Nan for more cuttings, and soon my windowsill was filling up with African violets and cacti in all shapes and sizes and an (extremely intimidating) orchid. I didn’t know what any of them were meant to do (would they flower? Were the leaves meant to go yellow? Would they cook me dinner?) but I liked the strange and surprising relationship which relied only on my patience, intuition and a little bit of luck.

I work in a job that is equal parts delightful and demanding. I have to hit deadlines and provide results and reports. In 2018 I released a book, Being an Adult, a practical handbook for anyone making their way through adult life — and those deadlines doubled. I feel busy constantly, and frazzled, often, but when I’m looking after my plants, there’s no room for that. I have so many now that it takes the best part of an hour to water them all; tapping the soil to make sure they’re not too wet or too dry, trying a new spot if they’re getting too much light or not enough, getting rid of the deadheads and clearing up the soil I inevitably spill all over my surfaces. It involves both hands and no distractions; I can’t do it with my phone in one hand or one eye on the TV. 

house plant
House plants: “It’s like a mini retreat for my mind, and it works every time.”

And if any have outgrown their pots or are growing offsets (little daughter plants that can be separated), I’ve guaranteed myself hours of peaceful and methodical re-potting on the kitchen floor. Detached from tech, focussed on giving these little roots more room to grow, it’s like a mini retreat for my mind, and it works every time.

So, for all these reasons, I have plants. I have spider and snake plants and cacti and succulents. I have palms and mini palms. I still have that intimidating orchid (and it still flowers). And I have baby plants which I’ve grown and repotted and when they’ve had babies, I’ve repotted them too. Every surface in my house is covered in leaves or spikes or petals.

Obviously, my friends think this urban jungle is funny. I am their crazy plant lady, the very millennial version of our much maligned forerunner, the cat person. In a way, they’re right. They visited me in the spring and I had 10 plants; they came back six months later and I had 55. Soon I’ll have 101 and someone will be trying to make them into a coat. 

House plants: “In 2020, green looks good with everything.”

And it’s easier to feed the stereotype now, because they’re everywhere. In clothes shops and fashion shoots, in every ‘home inspiration’ pin. You can nip down to the corner shop and find adorable tiny succulents in adorable tiny pots propped up next to the Mars bars and the mini torches. In 2020, green looks good with everything. But I haven’t bought them to match my copper detailing, backwards books and industrial lighting. I don’t have a pink velvet sofa to position them next to in my next picture on Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found it far more rewarding to grow plants than to curate them (NB: quite hard to curate when they multiply so fast you have to keep them in double stacked rows next to the loo).

For me, that’s self-care in its greenest and greatest form. Because if I can’t find five minutes in my day to check in on a living thing that isn’t, well, me, I know I’m not doing something right.

This piece was originally published in May 2019

Being an Adult by Kat Poole and Lucy Tobin is available to buy now

Images: Unsplash


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