Photo by Joey L.

Want To Live With More Plants? Here’s What You Need To Understand First.

It’s not enough to love them. They have to love you back. Author Summer Rayne Oakes shows us how it’s done.

Summer Rayne Oakes’ Williamsburg Brooklyn loft is filled with more than 1,000 plants – Monstera, HoyaRhipsalis and her favorite, the small semi-succulent Peperomia. When an image of this urban jungle was posted to Instagram in April 2016 it went viral, launching the environmental activist and sustainable fashion entrepreneur into a whole new career. Her recent book, How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart (Optimism Press), encourages would be green-thumbs to start seeing the world from a plant’s perspective. “I don’t consider this a gardening book so much as a relationship book,” Oakes says. “I want to help people find a deeper relationship to their plants and the people around them.” We talked to her about how to make “plant parenting” more successful—and rewarding.

Photo courtesy of Summer Rayne Oakes.

How did it happen that your loft went viral, and what was that like?
I wasn’t expecting it, because the photographer had come just to take pictures of my vermicomposter, which is a worm composter under my sink. But she was just blown away by the amount of plants in my home and asked if she could photograph them. For whatever reason that image really struck a chord. Obviously, people like to click on headlines of, you know, “This woman has hundreds of houseplants!” But I always look for the deeper meaning: Why are people reacting like this, and why am I getting all these messages and questions from people about how to take care of their plants? The enthusiasm was intensely overwhelming.

A year or so later, I put up [my website] Homestead Brooklyn and started my YouTube channel, “Plant One On Me,” which was a way for me to answer the questions coming in: How do I water all my plants? What kind of grow lights do you use? I could actually start to refer people to episodes.

So what do you think people were resonating to in that picture?
Just within the last three years, houseplant sales are up 50%. And last year, Google Trends did a report that daily views on YouTube for "houseplants" has increased more than 60%, largely due to my channel. I think there are deeper psychological reasons for this than we realize. There’s the act of caring for another living thing, which is such an essential part of being human. A lot of introverts find a real companionship with plants. And for those of us who live in cities or maybe far from our families or people with whom we have deep relationships, caring for plants is really the simplest way to step into a role of nurturer. A lot of folks are in transition and feeling really uprooted and I’ve come to see how when people walk into my space, they see literal and figurative rootedness. Now that I’m hosting plant swaps—essentially ways for people to come together to exchange cuttings or plants in their lives—I see that’s exactly what people are craving: rootedness and community.

"For those of us who live in cities or far from our families, caring for plants is really the simplest way to step into a role of nurturer."

Photo courtesy of Summer Rayne Oakes.

You write about what happens when we don’t have plants and greenery in our lives. Can you talk about that?
Richard Louv’s idea of nature deficit disorder is a really resonant one. It’s been touched upon by many others, but it’s the idea that if we are extracted from nature and we’re not experiencing her, then we actually start to develop negative symptoms, from anxiety to depression. There’s excellent science to support that. Biophobia is a condition in which people develop the fear of, say, sticking their hands in dirt, or even going for a walk in the forest. When you don’t have experience with something, you can develop a fear of it. This is so interesting to me because as a child growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, we only lived on five acres, but there were so many universes right outside my doorstep and I loved being out in nature. Whereas for my cousin’s generation, just five years younger. I recall my aunt saying, “Get off your computer or I'm going to send you outside!” And I was like, oh my God, when did spending time outside become a punishment?

So it's this radical shift where we've kind of lost our ability to really understand and love nature. Part of what I'm trying to convey with this book is that if we develop a curiosity about and sensitivity to something as humble as a house plant and not just see it as a décor item, we might be able to regenerate some of those lost connections—to nature and to people—because there are a lot of synergies there.

How do we start to turn that around? You say that having a relationship with nature or plants “is less about seeking and more about seeing.” Can you explain?
There’s a term I love, plant blindness. Most people are just unaware of plants in their everyday lives. If you ask people, Can you describe this plant? Most of us default to really standard language: Well, it's green and it has leaves. One of the workshops I give is how to read a plant through its leaves, stems and roots and to try to intuit what it needs and why it developed certain physiological characteristics. Because plants are extremely economical. They do not produce anything that they don't need, which I think is a very good metaphor for life.

This puts them in a very different position from listening to me tell them what a plant needs or looking at a care tag. People have to come up with their own ideas, using their observational skills and a deeper level of understanding of plants that I think is just hidden in all of our DNA. The story they come up with might be completely off base, but that's okay because you're being forced to use your intuition.

At the end of each chapter I give readers exercises to stop and think about these things. I encourage people to notice plants in their lives—it could be a plant in a window box or a neighbor’s tree. Is the plant pointing in a particular direction? Is it leafier on one side? By observing plants you’ll be able to detect subtle shifts in them and establish a connection. There’s an analogy in people: If you don’t connect with someone, how can you have a relationship with them?

Photo courtesy of Summer Rayne Oakes.

If someone wants to start greening up their house, I know you don’t advise just going to Home Depot and coming home with a couple of pretty plants. Where do we begin?
I like to pose the question, Don’t just ask what plant you’d like to live with, but what plant would like to live with you?

One of the places to begin to answer this is with your own home. It’s important to really understand the kind of light that you have in your home—the quality, the intensity, and the quantity. Many of us are not even clued into what directions our windows face, or where the sun rises or sets. (One of my most watched videos on YouTube is helping people determine this.)

Also, figuring out what kind of plant person you would be: if you're somebody who is very attentive to a plant versus somebody who travels a lot and can't be around much to take care of plants. And then, of course, you need to know your aesthetics and where you want to actually put that plant. For instance, if you only have ceiling space and need hanging plants or need one to grow vertically in a small corner because if you bumped into it you might break it. These are probably good three first steps before you actually even walk into a plant shop, where you can share all of this info with them.

Your book is called How to Make a Plant Love You. Once you bring a plant or two home, how do you set yourself up for success?
Well, if you brought a plant home based on the ideas we just discussed, then learning how to be observant is important. One of the first exercises I share in the book is an observation exercise, which is not only a mindfulness exercise, but also one that can help us develop an observant sensitivity towards the plants we have around us. I also encourage people to do research on the plant that they got. A quick google or YouTube search will bring many results, but sometimes those results are conflicting, so being able to develop those softer skills of observation and understanding what you are seeing is vital. If you see a leaf starting to brown, you may need to ask yourself why that is, and you begin to eliminate some possibilities. If you've been watering the plant with filtered or distilled water, then perhaps the humidity is too low. If your plant doesn't need the higher humidity, then maybe it's something else—inconsistent watering, perhaps? A pest? Too much or too little light? This may seem confusing at first, but as you go through the process of growing a plant, you begin to learn.

For folks who are looking to fill in the gaps with more tactical plant care, that's where my YouTube channel and the Houseplant Masterclass comes in.

Photo courtesy of Summer Rayne Oakes.

Just curious – how do you keep up with watering all those plants in your house?
It's an everyday ritual for me, but largely I devote my Sundays to watering plants. When I travel or when I'm away, I bring an experienced person from a plant shop to care for them. But I have a bunch of watering hacks that I use too. That's Episode 16!!! [laughing]

Wondering what plant might be right for your space? Here are a few suggestions from Oakes:

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