By Kate Hull
In the thick of the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heaviness of what the world was, and in many cases still is, collectively experiencing was palpable. Stress and uncertainty seemed to creep in from every corner as we navigated a jarring period of hunkering-down, waiting for the next steps or some semblance of normalcy to reemerge.
Amidst grappling with what to do in the insecurity of those early days, I—like so many others—found solace in the simplistic joy of reviving or finding a hobby. Many searched for sourdough starters and took on the art of baking bread, most notably turning banana bread into an overnight superstar. Others dove into their artistic sides, learning to paint, knit and create something new.
I needed to get my hands a little dirty, and even as the snow continued to fall outside my window, blanketing the Greater Yellowstone landscape in white, I looked to the plant world for little bits of bliss and reprieve. Propagating stonecrop succulents, fussing over my ever-growing inch plants and repotting thriving mother-in-law’s tongue, I’ve found gratitude in doting on and watching plants grow for years. But now, more than ever, I’ve found a doubled down joy in watching something grow, thrive and find its way. And I’m unquestionably not alone in this indoor gardening journey.
Houseplants have always been a mainstay, to certain degrees, in living rooms, and on windowsills and desks across the globe. Over the past few months, however, residents from coast to coast—in mountain towns out West and high-rise apartments in urban metros, and everywhere in between—have sought a little extra comfort by bringing the outside in, especially as so many have found their homes warped into a cage of sorts, where the full gamut of existence—everything from bathing to making an income—transpires.
“Plants are able to grow through so many different situations, and they continue to remain hardy and beautiful and strong,” says Erin Marino, director of branding for the nationwide plant delivery company The Sill. Marino has, quite naturally, made a career in the plant word as an avid tender to her own ever-growing assemblage of houseplants.
“There is a piece of us that wants to feel similar to that,” Marino adds. “We can find some positivity and motivation in seeing a plant grow, even out of the crack of the sidewalk. It carries a hopeful, sentimental feeling to it.”
The Sill began in New York City as a delivery service helping urban residents bring the outside’s greenery in. Armed with the knowledge that plants help make people happier, healthier and more creative, The Sill has grown to now delivering plants nationwide, as well as adding brick and mortar locations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This spring, the company observed traffic to their website double compared to similar periods, with people searching, en masse, for natural greenery to add to their spaces. This number is particularly impressive when factoring in the already steadily growing increase in gardening enthusiasts over the past few years. In 2018, the National Gardening Survey, produced by the National Gardening Association, found gardening prevalence at an all-time high—77 percent of American households participated in some form of gardening, whether outdoors or indoors. Similarly, indoor gardening enthusiasts grew to 30 percent, a figure unseen since the houseplant trend of the 70s, the survey found.
The benefits of having and tending to houseplants are plentiful. For one, you might recall the frequently referenced NASA study from the late-1980s that found plants improve the air quality of your home by removing volatile organic compounds, or COVs. Admittedly, horticulture and air-pollution experts over the years have found the key findings of the study aren’t inaccurate but are unlikely in everyday living spaces. (The short version: You’d need an incredibly high concentration of plants to see the benefits of air quality changes). Still, that’s just one small piece of the plant-benefits medley.
Three experiments published collectively in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology,” known as the “Green vs. Lean” study, found that a working environment featuring an abundance of plants and greenery leads to a more enjoyable, productive workspace.
“A lot of studies do show the impact of plants on a person’s overall mood and demeanor,” Marino says. “It [the ‘Green vs. Lean’ study] showed that employees in a green office with indoor plants were happier and less stressed and even called out sick less often, in comparison to workers in a space with less foliage and greenery as décor.”
Improvements in mental fatigue, heightened creativity, positive effects on mood, higher self-esteem; all have been common findings throughout numerous studies on the psychological effects of plants.
For a succinct and telling explanation of our affinity for integrating green into habitable spaces, an arguably revived movement, look to American biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis that proposes humans possess a genetic pull to “focus on and affiliate with nature.”
Wilson put it simply with his famed quote, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
Ask any mountain town resident if nature brightens the spirit, and I’d venture to guess you’d get a resounding affirmation, as those denizens know well the meditative and therapeutic qualities to finding a connection with nature.
Miranda Milligan, an American Society for Horticultural Science-certified horticulturalist based in Big Sky-backyard-town Victor, Idaho, welcomes the juxtaposition of the outdoor world versus the nature we bring indoors, acknowledging their different effects on the soul.
“While the great outdoors inspires and challenges us, with its ever-changing, dramatic flora, it’s nice to come home to our ever-steady indoor plants,” Milligan says. “They provide a bit of a constant. They are reliable and they are soothing.”
We reap these benefits, she says, in the ritual of caring for them.
Whether born and raised in the wide-open West, or a newcomer searching for a little more room to breathe, it’s a simple task, in many respects, to understand the pull of nature for Montanans. Big Sky residents experience its majesty daily through pristine views of the rugged Gallatin Range or lush fields backing up to endless skies, and constantly seek a deeper connection to it by exploring their surroundings.
A silver lining of the times: the hardship has only served to reaffirm the importance of bringing that connection inside, surrounding ourselves with its perennial embrace.
Whether you’re just getting started or looking to add a new plant variety to your windowsill, The Sill recommends these go-to beginner favorites:
ZZ (ZANZIBAR GEM) PLANT
Lush, vertical growth makes this thickstemmed, waxy-leafed beauty a tried and true favorite. A variety of succulent, it does best with bright indirect to medium indirect light (but can handily tolerate low light).
A flowering plant, this favorite is known as the world’s longest-flowering plant. Blooms last up to eight weeks. Anthuriums do best in bright, direct sunlight.
Also known as mother-in-law’s tongue (coincidence?), the snake plant has sword-like leaves that are lovely green and yellow hues. They are sun lovers, but can tolerate low light making them great additions for nearly all homes.
“I can’t say enough good things about the pothos plant,” Erin Marino from The Sill says. It is known for tolerating just about any environment and is quick-growing, making it a favorite for office spaces.