It’s gardening season and everywhere I look, I see gardening inspiration—splashy photos, planting guides, aspirational kitchen gardens, gorgeous flower beds. It’s all lovely of course, and when I’m at my horse farm in the Midwest where I have plenty of space, I get excited about outdoor gardening, too. But today, as I sit quarantined in my home in Arizona on a steamy 105-degree day, I’m thinking about all the people who live in places where they can’t garden outside (not to mention all the people who have no desire to take up the time-consuming hobby of outdoor gardening). Can’t those people enjoy the many benefits of nature, too? Can’t those of us who are stuck inside, in inhospitable climates, get a little taste of that gardening excitement? What do people like us do with our potentially green thumbs?
I’m a big fan of fresh flowers and I always have them in vases around my home, but today I‘m thinking about actually growing some things that might not last an afternoon out in the rocky Arizona soil and blistering heat. Indoor gardening can become a fun and engaging hobby, and there are as many ways to do it as there are houseplant varieties. You can spend a lot of money on indoor greenhouses and grow lights, or you can go old-school and set pots and trays in sunny windows. But first, I want to give you some really good reasons why indoor gardening might be just the thing to brighten up your spring season—since many of us are spending a lot more time inside our homes than usual, these indoor plant benefits are even more relevant for us right now:
- Breathe easier. Several studies have looked at how well indoor plants clean indoor air. One of these studies was funded by NASA way back in the 1980s, to test whether indoor plants could improve air quality in space stations, and they showed that many common houseplants did reduce the levels of certain indoor air pollutants, including carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Since then, other studies have shown that indoor plants can remove many other air pollutants like ozone and benzene. Interestingly, the effect seems to come from bacteria growing on the roots of indoor plants or in the soil, so to get this effect, your plants likely need to be potted (rather than cut flowers, for example). Other studies have also shown that plants increase humidity to a more comfortable level and even reduce dust and mold in your home.
- Feel happier. Can a ficus plant or an asparagus fern actually cheer you up? It seems so. Some research has looked at the effect of plants on stress, and showed that even looking at pictures of plants reduces stress, but that being in a room with houseplants, even without paying attention to them, can decrease blood pressure during a stressful task. Subjectively, people also reported feeling happier or more positive in rooms with plants compared to people in rooms without plants.
- Work better. Some researchers studied whether plants could make people more productive or creative at work. Although many of us are currently working at home, it may pay off later to bring indoor plants to your workspace, whenever you end up going back there. In the meantime, plants around you in your home office may help you learn and remember things more easily. According to one study, just looking at the color green before performing creative tasks boosted creative performance.
- Heal faster. Plants have also been shown to lower perception of pain, increase pain tolerance, and reduce feelings of minor discomfort, such as from cold symptoms. They may also give your immune system a boost. A famous study showed that people recovering from surgery recovered faster if they could see nature out their windows, or even after just looking at pictures of nature.
So indoor plants are good for you, physically and mentally. Great! Now, how do you get them into your home?
You can buy houseplants, of course, and you will reap all the benefits if you do, but some people have the itch to DIY their houseplants, so if that’s you, think about your priorities:
- Are you interested in the aesthetic value of plants? Look for small starts of plants with interesting colors, silhouettes, textures, or scents, or ask a friend for a small cutting you can put in a jar of water until roots sprout. Plant the cutting in soil and “grow it up” into a full-fledged houseplant, like a proud parent.
- Very small houseplants are much less expensive, so buy them small and repot them as they grow bigger. Before long, you could have large and valuable houseplants at a low cost. You can buy plants at garden stores but you might also have local plant sales sponsored by gardening clubs, where you can find interesting plants at a low cost. Some easy plants to grow include spider plants (great air cleaners), English ivy, ferns, yucca plants, air plants, African violets, Peace lilies, rubber plant, aloe, jade plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, philodendron, dieffenbachia, and ficus tree. What you have available to you may also depend on what part of the country you live, so see what’s out there. The exploration is part of the fun.
- If you want to get a little more exotic, you could pick a specialty area and learn all about it. Succulents are trendy right now, easy to care for, and come in fascinating shapes and colors. Other popular plants you could “specialize in” include orchids, or tropical plants, or forced bulbs, or carnivorous plants like Venus flytrap or pitcher plants. Whatever you want to grow, do some research about the needs of that plant: how much water they need, what level of light, what kind of plant food (fertilizer) if any, or in the case of fussier plants, preferred temperature, humidity, and any other special conditions.
- If you love to cook, try growing herbs indoors. You could plant basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, oregano, thyme, sage, tarragon, mint, or lemon balm in small pots or large trays. Keep them well watered with time in the sun and soon you’ll have tasty herbs you can snip off to add to your culinary creations, or to make teas.
- Some people have good luck growing vegetables indoors. You could try growing tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, or lettuces from seeds or starts from the garden store, but keep in mind that big plants like tomatoes and peppers will need plenty of space. Eventually, they will need large pots.
- In true DIY spirit, you could plant scraps from the vegetables you are cooking for dinner, to make new plants. Plant the seeds from tomatoes, peppers, squashes, or cucumbers. Plant your sprouted onions, potatoes with “eyes,” the sweet potato that sprouted, leftover green onions, the base of a bunch of celery, the root ends of carrots or beets, or the base of a cabbage. It can be fun to “recycle” your veggie scraps in this way.
If you really want to go all the way, you could invest in some grow lights to more precisely regulate full-spectrum light for your plants. Or you could buy complete terrarium set-ups or indoor gardens that come with temperature-regulated pots and attached lights. These can get expensive, though, so whether you go that route depends on how much you want to invest in your houseplant hobby.
But indoor gardening doesn’t have to be difficult, or even time consuming. All you need is some seeds or starts, a pot or a tray with drainage holes and something to catch the water overflow, a bag of dirt, and a little plant food. Add a sunny window, regular watering, and a watchful eye (whether or not you talk to your plants or play classical music for them is entirely up to you–I don’t judge). It’s really pretty easy to fill up your home with nature, add more flavor and variety to your meals, and reap all the benefits of nature from the comfort of your own home.