I was, regrettably, blithely optimistic for a while. Or maybe it was denial, one of the first stages of grief. My petite peperomia, which for months had proudly unfurled new leaves throughout the warmer months, was starting to wither.
After grappling with the plant owner’s paradox of knowing I could make things worse with over-ambitious intervention, I tried putting it in a different spot (another stage: bargaining). Although a successful tactic in previous resuscitation efforts for other plants, it just seemed to upset the peperomia further. Leaves began dropping until two little yellowing discs remained, clinging sadly to the puckering stem. Finally, I had to make the call (yet another stage, acceptance), and I tossed my baby rubber plant in the trash.
An abject sense of failure sank in, marked by the fact that I feel a distinct pride in my “plant parenting” abilities. Wondering what else I could’ve done, or what shouldn’t I have done, occupied my thoughts.
I also resolved to be even more diligent in my methods moving forward (the final stage – hope). But this wasn’t my first time delivering a funeral for foliage; it likely won’t be my last. All I, we, can do is learn from our mistakes. And it seems like this time of year is a particularly painful time of study for plant owners given the shift in natural light, plus the heat and dryness exposure the winter months bring.
“Most people assume my busiest time of year is spring and summer, but it’s actually right now for these exact reasons,” says New York-based plant doctor and stylist Maryah Greene, who also offers virtual consultations to weary plant parents.
“One of the signs that a plant is experiencing some sadness as a result of seasonal change is going to be a colour change,” Greene says. Looking for leaves on indoor plants that are turning yellow or brown – fall hues, if you will – in addition to seeing new leaves coming in, is an indication that “you might have to mix up its watering schedule, or give it more or less light.”
She also says that repotting could be the solution ... with a caveat.
“My number one rule is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Greene says. “If you’re seeing yellow and browning leaves but you’re also still seeing new growth, and it’s not at a ridiculously fast rate that [the leaves] are dropping off, I would wait until the spring to repot. Mainly because your plants aren’t dormant at that time.”
For plants too far gone to rehabilitate with these tips, all still might not be lost. And this is welcome news if the greenery in question has special significance.
“Propagation is a really good method of trying to save a piece of [a] mother plant,” Greene says, revealing a pothos cutting through her Zoom screen to illustrate her point. “My great-grandmother’s plant was really in decline and I didn’t want to lose it, so I took a piece of it,” she says, acknowledging just how sentimental plant care can be.
“Sometimes people will call me just to deliver that news that it’s no longer with us because they don’t want to give up hope,” Greene says.
And since founding her plant consultancy and care business Greene Piece in 2018, she’s come to enact a measure of self-protection when providing her assistance.
“About a year-and-a-half ago, I decided one of the questions [to ask] when you make a [service] submission with me is, ‘How attached are you to this plant, scale of one to 10,’” Greene says. “If you’re seven or above, I have an additional waiver that you have to sign that basically states that I am not Mother Nature. I will do everything in the best of my ability to care for this plant, but if it’s no longer with us, I can’t be held responsible. Or, you could be paying me to tell you that news. That is very common.”
Even if you’re not ardently attached to a plant – and some people express relief when especially high-maintenance vegetation expires – you can’t help but feel a twinge of melancholy after all the effort you likely put in. In this way, Greene seems to find an opportunity for mutual peace of mind while ushering her clients through plant death.
“My goal when I show up is to find a way to propagate [the plant], or just see if there’s any life there at all,” she says.
But failing that, “[the] option is to find either a replacement plant of that exact kind – if it’s meant for their space – or to make a recommendation on what I call a confidence-boosting plant. So, if you lose a plant like a fiddle-leaf fig [a particularly fussy variety], I’m going to get you a monstera because it’s sort of foolproof, and you’re going to get the satisfaction of seeing leaves that are huge, and you’ll feel really good about it.”
It’s a very practical outlook – and one that certainly reflects that hope stage, to be sure. It resonates with Greene’s professional ambitions as well.
“I’ve sort of adopted a Marie Kondo method,” she says of her approach to going through a plant’s passing, referencing the home organization guru.
“You thank it for its service – it contributed to your space it [and] didn’t make your life easy, but you did learn something from it. Either you’ll never get this plant again because it doesn’t work for your space, or you know what not to do with your next plant. And that’s essentially how I started the whole entire business – by killing a ton of plants and knowing what not to do.”
No wonder we all marvel at nature’s resilience – because it can show us that we also have it within ourselves.
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