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Social Distancing Diaries: Finding Solace in Being a Plant Mom

When you can’t control what’s going on outside, you try to find comfort and distraction in what’s within your control—even if they’re just houseplants

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

I’m almost always indoors now. The numbers are disconcerting—somewhere between 23 and 24 hours per day—but I’m less ashamed of that fact because I know I’m hardly alone in being so alone. Living in Los Angeles, nature is largely off-limits for the indefinite future. Parks, trails, and beaches are shutting down nationwide. Quarantine strips the childhood joy of being outside and the autonomy earned in adulthood to roam freely. The side effects are enervating: extended isolation, the lack of vitamin D, your iPhone’s screen-time notification reporting a 27 percent increase this week. It’s patently unhealthy, though in the age of coronavirus, staying at home remains the only truly healthy option.

So we do our best to recreate the outside world indoors. Happy hours are held via Zoom or Google Hangouts. I order delivery from the places I used to frequent. I’m a regular on the couch by the wall. My hit of nature is the menagerie of houseplants in my apartment. Caring for them is a divine comfort and distraction. With the increasingly unnerving reports (and charts, and statistics, and speeches) in the news, “comfort” and “distraction” are synonymous for me.

In all, I own 26 houseplants, but my numbers are inflated. Eleven are wee succulents, tiny gods of self-competence that inspire a faux sense of parenting capability in their caretaker by never withering, ever, no matter how much or how little they’re given. All but two were gifted to me. In November, a friend gave me plant shelves and hangers for my birthday. Off and on for two months I stared at the packaging, then the wall, then the packaging, then the miniature tool kit that my mom gave me when I moved to Los Angeles. In January, inspired by the new year, I bought 13 baby plants all at once. I repotted and hung them, then wondered, looking at the walls dotted with sprouts and ceilings dripping with vines, whether something I had brought home on purpose still qualified as an invasive species.

To be frank, I don’t know anything about plants. The basics, yes. I know a fern from an ivy from a cactus, but not much else. For many plant owners, the esotericism is a hobby within a hobby. Plant Moms know the colloquial names of their sprouts as well as their Latin origins, which read like Harry Potter spells. This tall, upright perennial is not just a mother-in-law’s tongue, it’s a sansevieria versus; a caterpillar fern is a polypodium formosana; a eucalyptus might as well be a wingardium leviosa. Meanwhile, I lost the caretaking instructions that the supremely generous woman from the nursery wrote on the back of my receipt somewhere between the trip from the greenhouse to Popeyes to home. On the good days, when the plants are perky, I applaud myself for getting by despite the palest of green thumbs. On the bad days, when they’re near death and waterlogged, I feel like the plant community charlatan.

Initially I liked my plants’ presence because of how positively I felt it reflected on me as their keeper. The greener and more cherubic their appearance, the more I played the part of—again, to no one except myself—someone who remembers all birthdays and leads the way on off-trail hikes. The lows, though, are quite low. That staunch feeling of competence shrivels as the plants do. My coworker Alyssa described people who collect houseplants as having “a Moby Dick inverse,” desperate to keep them alive, but never able to. My problem children are my two ferns, my bête noires, a pair of fickle and foible personalities that appear perfectly nourished one day, then sag and crisp up the next, like the exhaustion of holding their stems upright was proving too much to bear.

Quarantine has condensed my reality into four rooms. The greenery breathes life into a place that lacks other signs of it right now. I wish I could write about one thing without it all coming back to The Thing, but it’s impossible to not circle back to the root of why I find more solace in these plants now than ever before. I can care for them. Their well-being is under my control.

I called my mom last week to update her on the botanic state of my apartment. My new interest amuses her to no end. I dreaded helping her in the garden when I was a kid, as she dreaded helping her mom when she was younger. We both eventually came around. My great grandpa was a farmer by trade in Kentucky; maybe we were bound to. My mom and I talk all the time, but our typical rundown of life updates—relationships, work, what we do each week—have come to a halt. I do most of the asking now, about how to salvage my ferns, about her supply of groceries, about the shows she’s watching, about how she’s feeling, about whether she’s checking her temperature still.

I think about my mom dozens of times each day. She has two of the seven pre-existing conditions that the CDC warns will put people at a much higher risk for COVID-19 complications. Because of something called diastolic heart failure, the left side of the organ doesn’t relax after it beats; because of a defect called myocardial bridges, my mom’s main arteries don’t rest on top of her heart like they’re supposed to, cutting through the organ instead. Two years ago, she had a heart attack while we were hiking Runyon Canyon in L.A. That time, I was with her. One of the scarier aspects of the coronavirus is that to be well, you have to be well alone. If it spreads to my mom, I won’t have the option to be by her side.

I know: I should’ve prefaced this story with a disclaimer that it was going to go somewhere much darker than plants. Disclaimers, this month and going forward, are now a part of polite society. Work emails open with well wishes for their recipient’s health before asking to touch base or circle back or, God forbid, discuss synergy; restaurants hang signs explaining that they’re indefinitely “delivery or takeout only”; blogs on how to survive quarantine acknowledge that survive probably isn’t the best word. And pieces about houseplants take detours to explain the endless, worried thoughts they have about their parents.

Last week, my mom told me to expect something in the mail, news I only received well after she promised she had taken it to a mailbox drop-off, touched nothing, that no one was near, and that she was now safely inside again. It was a clipping from the gooseberry bush on her porch, a plant that my mom had fostered for more than 25 years after shearing a cut from my great grandpa’s gooseberry bush. Another happy distraction to add to the frankly overwhelming collection in my apartment. The instructions: repot it, tend to it, watch over it very carefully for a couple of months. Eventually, she said, it’ll be safe enough to let it live outdoors.