On returning to my university flat after a long summer of lockdown, I found my aloe vera plant shrivelled and brown on the windowsill; a reminder of all the things I’d had to hastily leave behind. I arranged the new plants I had accumulated around my room and it quickly began to feel like home again. Over the next few days, I absentmindedly watered the fossilised aloe vera along with my other plants and was amazed when it slowly began to come back to life; reminding me how fascinating and fulfilling houseplants can be.
Whether you have a dusty old cactus or a carefully cultivated indoor jungle, houseplants have become a staple of student décor, offering an inexpensive way to liven up drab flats or express individuality when living in a building of identical student halls. I bought my first houseplant during freshers’ week, with no previous knowledge of plants or how to look after them. I soon realised that my room, which received virtually no direct sunlight, was not an ideal place for my particular plants to thrive. Grappling with how to keep my green companions alive amusingly mirrored my experience of learning how to properly feed and water myself and survive in my new environment. As I adjusted to the requirements of independent living, I noticed my plants beginning to grow, but after a few nights of sleep deprivation and late-night essay writing they would start to suffer and wilt, reminding me to reprioritise and focus on my plants and wellbeing.
It is well known that activities such as gardening and spending time in nature can reduce stress and contribute to positive mental health, but greenspace can be harder to come by in a city and I often find myself missing the countryside that surrounds my childhood home. While it does not replace time spent outdoors, growing indoor plants has similar mood boosting benefits and can be very therapeutic, improving concentration and creativity. Having plants around my living space has allowed me to create my own miniature garden, cultivating a personal sense of place and tranquillity.
Having learnt most of what I know about keeping houseplants alive through trial and error and an occasional Google search, I now have a healthy collection of plants dispersed around my flat, each with their own story that represents my time at university and reflects my growth back to me. The succulents that I bought in first year are still going strong despite multiple near-death experiences and my giant kentia palm was bought the day that I moved into my second year flat. Another benefit of investing in houseplants is that you can easily expand your collection by propagating them. My spider plant was grown from a cutting I took from a friend’s plant and it has continued to multiply. Sharing plants can develop a sense of connection and community in a time of increasing disconnection and isolation, creating an interrelated network of plants between different university gardens.
My university garden has become a refuge from the constant stimulation and fast pace of the city. The simple act of tending to another living thing is a welcome distraction from the pressure of university life and can be a satisfying form of self-care. Watering my plants has become part of my daily routine and an act of mindfulness that reminds me to slow down and look after myself. If my plants aren’t getting enough water, sunlight or space, I probably am not either.
Perhaps it is the simplicity of watching a plant grow and change slowly over time that draws students to them. At a point in our lives when we have constant deadlines to meet and are encouraged to multitask and maximise our time and productivity, caring for a plant reminds us that growth takes time and requires patience. More importantly, growth is not always linear; plants naturally change with the seasons and many of my plants have gone through phases of decay (often due to my neglect) before reviving and continuing to flourish.
From building resilience to finding joy in the small things, growing my university garden has allowed me to reflect on my own growth over the past two years and I hope that my collection continues to grow with me throughout university and beyond. Owning houseplants has given me so much more than just an aesthetic interior; a symbiotic relationship has blossomed that keeps myself and my plants thriving.
[Hannah George, she/her]
[Photo credits: Brendan Kennedy]