February 4, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Isabel Hicks | Illustration by Rikki Held
If you’re anything like me, your freshman-year dorm room was an ugly mess: every surface adorned with empty cans, to-be-recycled paper, dishes with food remnants, the floor scattered with dirty clothes and a cheap rug from Target that leaks its filling every time you try to wash it.
The wall decorations are purchased with love, but nevertheless tacky, from the Pinterest-girl psychedelic tapestry to the crinkled posters courtesy Ladyfingers Letterpress. It wasn’t much, but for me, it was home.
But maybe you’re better than me. My freshman-year self was very focused on school and work, but equally focused on partying. The whole “keep your room clean” thing never seemed to be my top priority (sorry Sada). I’d like to think I’m a bit more grown up now — thank god I no longer have to live in a dorm — and my room, on the surface, is less of a hot mess. Yet I’m not sure if this switch is because I’ve improved as a person or because my priorities have changed.
Honestly, I think it’s because of the plants.
My plant obsession began my junior year of college after I spent the summer working on a farm. I’ve been a die-hard environmental studies major since day one at Colorado College, but for some reason the thought to brighten up my living space with plants — bringing the outdoors inside, to an effect — had never crossed my mind. If I could give my past self a piece of advice, at least in regard to making my room less cheugy, it would be to fall in love with plants sooner.
The best part is, once you get into it, growing a green hiatus in your home is pretty easy. This article may not be for those who completely lack a green thumb, but I’ve tried my best to compile all the important tips for becoming a plant parent. I present my beginner’s guide to houseplants, or dorm-room plants, as follows:
Good starter plants
Hanging plants can change the plant game instantly. They’re the first thing someone notices when they walk into your room. Pothos, or Devil’s Ivy, are the green vines you’ve likely seen around, frequenting office desks and coffee shop tables. They’re prolific because they’re very easy to grow in Colorado, and anywhere really.
I recommend starting a pothos in a hanging basket and putting it in front of a window where it will receive bright, indirect light. This is a great dorm room plant because it doesn’t need a ton of light to flourish (but it definitely prefers it). Water it once or twice a week by soaking the pot through completely. When the soil is dry to the touch, the plant needs water. You can also mist the leaves to make sure the pothos gets sufficient humidity, or even put it in your bathroom.
Redhead plant (coleus)
Out of all beginner plants to start with, I would throw my weight behind the redhead plant. This plant is a variety of the coleus family and can be grown outdoors in a garden or indoors as a houseplant. It has dramatic red-maroon foliage and large leaves that sometimes have a green outline.
The trick to this plant is light exposure and bottom-watering (detailed below). I have my redheads in a west-facing window (towards Pikes Peak) but if your windows don’t face west, anywhere with bright light will do fine. This plant is also incredibly easy to propagate (also detailed later) and in fact might get so big that you’ll have no choice but to propagate it.
It is important to note that the redhead plant is very dramatic. If it’s thirsty, its leaves will droop and look like they’re dying. All the plant needs is some water, though — just fill up its tray and it will perk right back up within a few hours.
Also known as the “swiss cheese plant,” this one is extremely popular among plant parents. With some trial and error, I’ve found that the best thing you can do with this plant is to put it a few feet away from a window, give it a bottom-water tray, and leave it alone. Fill up the water tray every week or so but be careful not to overwater this plant. Soon enough you’ll get the joy of watching new growth unfurl into the holey leaves everyone loves so much.
Important tips and tricks
A lot of houseplants thrive in humidity, but if you haven’t noticed, we’re in the very dry state of Colorado. Fear not! I don’t really understand the science of why, but there’s an easy fix for your humidity-seeking friends.
Find a circular plastic tray that the plant’s pot can fit into. Make sure it is something with some extra room. Mine are about three inches in depth. Fill the tray with a layer of rocks and pebbles (I scavenge my backyard for these for free, but a lot of plant stores sell stone mixes for this purpose) and then place the pot on top of the rocks. Then fill the tray to the brim with water.
This will effectively bottom-water the plant and also magically create some humidity. Just make sure to only use this technique for your plants that enjoy medium-to-high humidity, which you can find out with a simple Google search. Watch your plants thrive, and you’re welcome!
Learning how to propagate plants literally changed my life (and saved my bank account). You can duplicate the plants you already have by taking a medium-length cutting off of them (think four to six inches). Once you have your cutting, pull a few leaves off the bottom of it to expose the nodes on the stem. Make sure there are still leaves at the top of your cutting, and then put it in a glass of water in front of your window.
Make sure to maintain the water level (it will start to evaporate) and soon enough you should see roots grow out of the nodes on the stem where the leaves used to be. Give the cutting a few weeks to develop its roots. Once it’s prolific enough, you can pot it in soil and welcome a new plant to your home! It’s also perfectly acceptable to leave the propagation in water and let the roots go off — it looks super cool!
To make the propagation process even easier, you can buy rooting hormone at any garden store. When you pull leaves from your cutting, dip the stem in water and then coat it with the rooting hormone powder. Then leave the cutting in water for several weeks as described above. I’ve successfully propagated plants with and without rooting hormone, so it’s up to you if you want to use it.
Growing windowsill herbs
Starting herbs from seed, which can be done even in the winter, is super fun and rewarding. Go to the plant store and pick up some seed packets; for windowsill herbs I’d recommend basil, mint, and thyme. Fill a pot with soil mix and sow the seeds to the depth indicated by the packet. Gently sprinkle cold water over them until the soil is soaked through.
Place the pot by a sunny window, and then grab a plastic Ziploc bag that is large enough to fit over your pot. Place the inflated Ziploc bag around the top of the pot’s brim and seal — it should look like the pot has a plastic bag as a roof. This will keep the seedlings super humid, simulating a greenhouse environment where one would start seeds, and allow them to sprout faster. Keep the bag for a week or two after the seeds sprout and take it off once the seedlings are fully established and growing.
Good luck — you’ll be known as the plant parent friend in no time!