Should You Take Up Indoor or Outdoor Gardening? There’s Only One Correct Answer

The pandemic has Americans twiddling their green thumbs and people are looking to plants to cope. If you choose to join us, you’ll have a decision to make. I’ve chosen to learn how to grow my own food. But many other people have turned to houseplants for their horticulture comfort.

Succulents and ficus trees are flying off the shelves as isolated people seek quarantine companionship. Even before the pandemic, indoor gardening was on the rise. According to a National Gardening Survey, in 2019, 30 percent of all households bought at least one indoor plant. Since the virus hit, garden stores like The Sill, an online houseplant delivery service, can’t keep up with demand. “We’re experiencing days that look and feel like Black Friday,” says the service’s CEO Eliza Blank, while pointing out its April sales were up 50 percent, month over month.

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Indoor plant purveyors will cheerily list the benefits of surrounding yourself with their wares: cleaner indoor air, mental and emotional well-being, the comfort of caring for something outside yourself—and these are laudable goals for anyone focused on self-care. But I know from experience that it’s not all that simple.

Seven years ago, I bought a generic, low-maintenance ivy and hung it from the ceiling in my first-floor apartment in Brooklyn. I figured it would make me look sophisticated and maybe it would filter out some of the building’s lingering asbestos. It didn’t take long for the leaves to brown and drop and it always seemed to be just clinging to life. When I moved out, I planted the sickly ivy in the dirty little plot of non-pavement behind our apartment building. When I saw it again several years later, it had taken over the plot and vined up and over the fence and into the neighboring yard. Clearly, it was my care and not the plant that was lacking.

I suspect my experience is not at all uncommon, but you wouldn’t know it from Instagram, where a subculture of “plantfluencers” has sprung up. Like so many online influencers, they’re all young and attractive and seem to live exclusively in white-walled apartments in Brooklyn and San Francisco. The pandemic has droves of anxiety-fueled people looking to them for help.

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Plantfluencer videos educate viewers on the endless varieties of houseplants ready to keep you company. They refer to themselves as plant moms and dads, talk about the particular needs and characteristics of specific plants and frequently use binomial nomenclature. There is a running joke about Millennials (and the plantfluencers are overwhelmingly Millennials): We aren’t having children at the same clip as previous generations, so we’ve filled that void with plants. But if plants are like children, indoor plants are the weird, homeschooled kids, especially when referred to in Latin.

The plantfluencers speak in the language of self-care. In a Vogue article titled “Why Houseplants Make All the Difference in Self-Isolation,” Instagram plantfluencer, The Plant Kween, says that “plants are great quarantine buddies!” Because he is “learning to put love, care and attention towards his plants,” The Plant Kween is now prepared to “put love, care and attention toward himself.”

There is some truth to the physical and emotional healing powers of having plants indoors, especially for people stuck in urban environments without backyards. A recent NASA study showed that plants boost serotonin levels, reduce blood pressure and clean the air of some toxic chemicals. Houseplant advocates talk about how they feel less alone and more connected. Having a living thing depend on you for your care can offer some daily purpose; having the stakes be very low in that arrangement can mitigate anxiety. I can understand the appeal of feeling connected to something while we are locked away in our homes, but there is also something a little self-absorbed about devoting yourself to houseplants.

One of the most popular of the plantfluencers is Summer Rayne Oakes. She lives with over 1,100 plants in her Brooklyn apartment and has a book called How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivating Your Personal Green Space. Another popular houseplant Instagram is @houseplantclub. They, too, have a book out titled How to Raise a Plant and Make It Love You Back. These books must give bookstore shelf stockers fits, since they fit equally well in self-help section as they do in the gardening section.

But in the midst of year when the world has conspired to cut us off from everyone, shouldn’t we seize every opportunity to connect with others? And with the need to stay indoors greater than ever, shouldn’t we seize every opportunity to get the hell outdoors?

For the last several months, I have taught myself to garden using a different platform: YouTube. On YouTube, there are no plantfluencers speaking a language more appropriate to a Tony Robbins seminar than a gardening tutorial. Rather, there are just corny old gardeners (and most of them are old) with internet connections. They don’t do self-help, they do how-to. I’ve watched hours of them over the past few months, and the purest distillation I’ve found is a middle-aged Australian goofball who speaks exclusively in dad jokes. His page is called “Self-Sufficient Me,” and he wears short-shorts and grows enough food to sustain himself for short periods of time. He doesn’t sell anything as far as I can tell, nor does he have any sponsors—just seems to want to show people how to make their own food.

Unlike outdoor gardening, houseplants are almost entirely ornamental. Tending to them is, quite literally, a fruitless endeavor. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food supply chains. Right now, the most revolutionary thing you can do is grow food. So, using the advice from my YouTube garden gurus, I’ve put things in the ground that will feed me and the people around me for years to come: sweet potatoes, cassava, pole beans, pineapple, tomatoes, papaya, eggplant, peanuts, and more. With most indoor plants there is no harvest, no waiting, just daily bits of tender care.

The houseplant lifestyle is an aesthetic, not an ecosystem. Most houseplants are finicky species that require you to change the conditions of your home instead of adapting to your surrounding habitat. There is no need to emphasize growing native species because you can control the climate of your ersatz environment. Instead of greening the areas around us, we retreat to our apartments.

Gardening outdoors connects you to the world at large. I’ve learned which native species thrive in my Southwest Florida soil, what kinds of pests I’ve got to look out, for and which good bugs I should try and attract. My local nursery (an essential business) offers guidance and I’ve shared plants and advice with other neighborhood gardeners. I’ve also fed friends and family, and while the caloric value of vegetables isn’t particularly high, you can’t invite your neighbors over to your apartment to breathe your extra-clean air.
If things get worse and the food supply chain is significantly disrupted, a home-grown garden will help you weather the storm. If you’ve got nothing but houseplants around you—things you’ve been referring to as your children … you’re going to have to eat them.