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The price of houseplants

After months in lockdown, more of us are bringing nature inside our homes in the form of houseplants than ever. What happens when caring for our houseplants go wrong, and how can we do it right? The Secretary of Plant Society, Rebecca Atkinson, explains.

A common theme for the University during Freshers Week (however, perhaps not this year) is to host a ‘Plant Sale’ in which a wide array of foliage is purchased by students, hoping to create a jungle-scape in their mouse-house/ student flat. I have never been but am always amazed to see the variety that emerges – not to mention the price tags.

Once they’ve taken the plunge and made the purchase, it is normally only a matter of weeks until something goes awry. Be it leaves dropping off, turning red or going mouldy. Yet students always seem to go back to buying more. Is it really worth it? Purchasing something that, in the hands of students, seems more likely to die than live?

In learning about another organism, you are choosing to remove yourself from your own bubble and watch in real-time how your actions affect something else. This is a key part of understanding sustainability.

Think about the timeline of your plant. Once you’ve purchased it and shown it to your flatmates and Instagram followers, it takes pride of place in your bedroom. Evening arrives and you lie in bed and realise, “(insert curse-word) I’ve forgotten to water my plant!”.  It’s okay, you’ll do it tomorrow. But you don’t. The cycle continues.

If you refuse to break out of your cyclical nature of plant mistreatment – I’m sorry to break it to you, your plant will die.

Having a plant is a baby-step towards understanding long term care – similar to a couple getting a dog before they have kids. I’d argue that understanding the basics and consequences of plant care during adolescence is really useful. A valuable lesson is (hopefully) learnt.

Moving to scenario two in your plant-timeline. You’ve decided (after learning your lesson the first time) to water your plant every single day. Instead of dying by dehydration, the leaves turned yellow! What? What could you have done now? You scream to the heavens in anguish only to later discover that a quick google search would’ve told you that overwatering is a thing (symptoms also include (but not limited to) spots and root rot. Please read the label beforehand and at least pretend to know what plant you own).

You may say that I sound cynical. That I hope every plant owner without a biology degree fails miserably. However, what I am trying to highlight is that plant care is a skill, built over time. The path to success is not easy, it is laden with mistakes – both accidental and careless. In learning about another organism, you are choosing to remove yourself from your own bubble and watch in real-time how your actions affect something else. This is a key part of understanding sustainability.

Additionally, I’d argue that now is the time. Students are stuck inside with nothing but flatmates they are beginning to hate and mice they are beginning to love. Now is the time to engage in learning a craft that encourages a passion for plants in this historic moment of climate action.

Back to our plant timeline. Unfortunately, if we are considering life, we must also consider death.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, plant to bin and all that. How can we give something a ‘sustainable thumbs-up’ if its downfall and degradation is inevitable?

I have to admit that students are quite sinful when it comes to transporting house plants home. Home students will struggle to lug them onto the train without sufficient damage and international students certainly won’t be allowed to take them in carry-on luggage. I happened to be in Edinburgh for the initial pandemonium of the pandemic. In that time I was witness to multiple plant abandonments, including one with a sign that read, “been abandoned twice, please adopt me!” (And of course I did).

So if we’re throwing away all these no longer fit for purpose plants, how can we justify they fit into a sustainable lifestyle outside of the picture-perfect sustainable #goals?It is a rather simple question to answer if you compare it with plastic decor. Both may grow to no longer fit into your lifestyle, but when they enter the bin, only one will break down in the next couple months.

According to WWF Australia, a plastic straw takes 200 years to break down. Can you imagine how long it would take the plastic cactus you bought to add ‘good vibes’ to degrade? If we, as a student community are moving towards sustainability, we have to consider everything. That includes our bedroom aesthetic. A plant is arguably a better choice for Earth than buying into the quick-fix plastic industry.

Another thing that is increasing in awareness among students is considering our mental health when we make daily choices. Some may argue that a living temperamental plant could cause more stress than it is worth. However, with exams and essays on the brain, I’m sure succulent-related stress will take a back-seat.

Creating an ideal study environment for those exams and essays is becoming increasingly more important with COVID-19 causing the most classes to be online. Even before the pandemic, according to a survey taken by Ribbles Cycle Company only 8% of people in the United Kingdom spent regular time outdoors. Stateside, a 2001 National Human Activity Pattern Survey found that Americans spend 13% of their time outdoors. Even without the pandemic, Western life was becoming increasingly online, with more entertainment found digitally than outdoors.

Now, with online studying, it’s likely that many people will venture through their front door ridiculously less than they would have before. To respond to this, it is more important that we sustainably create a study space that can have greenery (in the form of plants that we are proud of) – after all, once the pandemic retreats, we are still stuck in a climate crisis.

So maybe these plants are worth their price tag. Maybe it is time to get stuck in and reconnected to nature when we’ve been so forcibly removed from it. Centring plants allows for a greater appreciation for rainforests, swamps, all kinds of weird and wonderful ecosystems. Hopefully, an increase in amateur botanists will inspire more of us to get stuck in and save our planet.

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