Episode 311

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This week I’m joined by a special guest, Maria Failla. You guys know I do not have a green thumb, and while I appreciate plants, I am not a connoisseur. Maria is a connoisseur, and you may know her from her podcast, Bloom and Grow Radio. She is here to educate us on how to choose plants, how to place plants, and how to help plants thrive.

This episode, we discuss…

[3:28] Maria’s history with plants

Maria admits that she was a notorious plant killer before becoming the “plant lady” she is today. Interior design and wanting to nest in her home is what initially instigated her love for plants. She had killed every plant she had ever interacted with – whatever you have done to a plant, she has also done. She has only watered them at night, only spritzed their leaves, completely gotten about them for three months – she has a pretty extensive plant graveyard.

When she moved in with her then boyfriend and now husband, she really wanted to nest. They were living with most of his stuff, which wasn’t really her design aesthetic. She decided it would be nice to take care of something and freshen the place up. When she brought plants into the house, that’s when it really started to feel like home.

Before her plants, Maria would wake up and start scrolling Instagram or Pinterest. Once she started caring for her plants, she would take her coffee and sit on her balcony. She would enjoy her herbs and plants rather than her phone, and it was a beautiful and meditative experience.

Maria started Bloom and Grow Radio, and you can track her whole plant parenthood journey through the 150+ episodes. The podcast was a way for her to interview experts and learn alongside the rest of the audience. She wanted to educate and empower everybody to care for plants successfully and cultivate more joy in their lives.

She feels like every room needs a plant, but it’s all about having a plant that can thrive and be successful in said room. Maria doesn’t want others to feel badly about themselves, because once you kill a plant or two you label yourself a “plant killer”.  People can carry real shame about this, and Maria wants to empower us with some tangible and actionable steps to get blooming and growing.

[6:24] How to place your plants around a room

Interior designers tend to see spaces. They see holes that they want to fill in with plants. Plant people, however, see windows. When you’re evaluating where you want to put your plants, the first thing you have to do is figure out your window.  You need to know what direction they’re facing and how much natural light you’re actually getting. Unless you have grow lights, which mimic the sun with the photosynthetic spectrum, your ambient light in your home won’t give off the light your plants need.

Plants need light to survive, and they use photosynthesis to absorb energy from the sun and convert it into something they can burn or “eat”. If there is no natural light, then the plant is slowly dying. Plants can survive for a long time and exist on what they have, but you really need to make sure you are setting your plant up for success with some light. So windows are important, because that is where the light comes in.

Maria recommends doing an environmental assessment when you move into a new home. If you are in the northern hemisphere and you have southern facing windows, you have hit the lottery for plant care. Those will be the brightest windows you can get, as long as they are unobstructed. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so it gets a little hotter as it sets.

The second strongest light window exposure is going to be Western facing windows. Then you have Eastern facing windows, which will get that gentle morning light. Northern windows have the least amount of light because the sun never actually shines right through the window. If you don’t know which way your home or apartment faces, you can open the compass app on your phone and check. When they were house hunting, Maria says she was a “maniac” with her compass app, walking up to all the windows and checking the exposure.

The first step is understanding your window exposure, and the second step is standing in the room and getting a sense of where the sunbeams are actually going. Turn off the lights and see where the natural light hits.

[10:53] Natural light versus artificial light

Interior designers love natural light, but they also love artificial light. Being able to control the light can also be important in a space. When it comes to plants, it can be helpful to think about raindrops. The photons of light can be like little raindrops hitting the plant leaves, and your plant would like a higher light situation. If you have low light spaces, you can use grow lights as an alternative to natural light.

There are now luxury grow light companies that have created museum-quality lighting that mimics the sun’s photosynthetic spectrum. Maria has three pendant style grow lights that she hangs from her ceiling. They are super modern, and they look like any other light. Nobody knows they are grow lights unless she points it out. They also make grow lights that you can screw into a desk lamp, so you could put a plant on or near your desk as well.

Rather than those old tube lights, they now make LED light strips. Maria put these under a bookshelf and turned an entire shelf into a grow shelf. So, there are a lot of cool and modern light solutions these days. They come with timers, so you can set them to go on and off as needed. These lights can also mimic the sun, fading in and out like a sunrise and a sunset. Maria has a section on her website featuring her recommended grow lights.

Another thing to think about that most people who aren’t “plant people” don’t realize is how far a plant is from a window can greatly impact the light. You might think that if you have southern facing windows, you can put a plant anywhere in the room. Once you take a plant around two feet from a window, however, the volume of light greatly decreases. You want to be careful not to put plants too far from your windows or they won’t get all that “food” that they need.

[16:59] The effect of the home environment on plant care

Everybody’s lighting environment is so different. If two people plant the exact same plant – same size, soil, and nursery pot – they would probably turn out differently. They would likely water the plants at different frequencies, care for it in different ways, and have different light exposures.

[17:56] Low light plants

Sometimes plants are marketed as “low light” plants, and Maria says we need to understand that it’s a low light tolerant plant. The strength of the sun outdoors versus indoors is so different, so even a low light plant outdoors is going to get way more light than what they would get indoors. Most of these low light tolerant plants actually also tolerate a lot of light and actually love light.

The snake plant is a common and beautiful plant. It has long, structured leaves and would look beautiful in many design styles. It is a high light loving plant, and if you put it in a bright window it might even flower.  These plants, however, are marketed as low light tolerant because they can tolerate it. They frequently get put in the darkest corner of the room, but they actually love high light. Maria has a whole podcast episode about snake plants, and she is on a mission to get them in the light they deserve.

Ferns are low light plants, and if you stuck a fern in a really bright window Maria isn’t sure it would tolerate that well. They have really delicate leaves, and if they touched a sunny window they might burn. There are some plants that do not prefer to be scorched by the sun, but there are also so few homes that actually have light that gets that intense.

[21:53] Plant food and fertilizer

Through photosynthesis, plants convert the carbs they are “eating”. They uptake water and nutrients through their roots. In nature, plants have an infinite amount of nutrients and soil that their roots can crawl across. If they deplete the nutrients in one space, their roots can keep growing to find more nutrients and water.

Because we grow our plants indoors in pots, they have a finite amount of soil and space. The soil is filled with nutrients. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the three that plants really need to function successfully. If the plants have taken up those nutrients from the soil and those nutrients don’t get replaced, then the plant won’t function properly. So when you fertilize, you add the nutrients back into your soil mixture.

You should only re-pot a plant when its root mass has grown so large that it is growing out of the pot. A lot of people actually get in trouble because they do this too early and the root system isn’t able to uptake water fast enough. Then too much water sits in the soil, creating the conditions for root rot. The roots rot and disintegrate, and then the plant has no roots to uptake water and nutrients so it dies. Root rot is a huge issue for novice plant parents who don’t know how to water properly.

There are a lot of ways to handle fertilizer. You can get granules that you actually just sprinkle on the soil and water. Every time you water, the water catches some of the granules and waters the plant that way.  Maria also likes liquid fertilizer that you can just dump into the watering can. You can fertilize once a month, depending on the growing season. You can also do those little plant food stocks, or buy granules you can mix up with water.

When a plant is brand new, the soil in the pot should be enough. Some edible plants might need fertilizer more quickly. Tomatoes, for example, are known as “heavy feeders”. You really need to fertilize that plant in the season when it’s growing fruit. For normal house plants, Maria says she wouldn’t worry too much about fertilizing unless you have a plant that has been in the same pot for around five years.

[26:17] Whether plants can thrive in low to no light

Maria says that there are not really plants that can thrive in low or no light. It’s basically a slow death for the plant. There are people who think that one plant that will die in a year is cheaper than weekly flowers – and that thought makes Maria sad, but she gets it. Another thing you can do is get two of the same plant. One can go in a “no light” room like a bathroom, and one can go in a light room. Every couple weeks you can swap them out.

Another thing you could do in bathrooms is put in really beautiful grow lights. Maria has a friend who really wanted ferns in his shower. He rigged grow lights and had them go on during the night. So he would go to sleep and the grow lights would be on from like 10PM to 8AM to give the plants the light they needed.

[28:10] Fake plants

Fake plants are also an option in environments with low light. Maria has changed her thoughts on fake plants over the years.  At first, she was anti-fake plants. They aren’t good for the environment, they look fake, and they collect dust. There are a lot of studies showing that being around plants makes you happy. So, if you want the look of a fake plant, Maria is all for it.

They also make much nicer fake plants now than they used to. If you want to create a specific look and get the emotional benefit of seeing plants, Maria understands that. She also thinks, however, that a better option than fake plants is botanical prints. You could do an amazing gallery wall of all sorts of botanical prints, or a really big photo that is really immersive and looks like a forest. There are other ways to incorporate that fresh, vibrant feel without having a fake plant.

[31:52] Low-maintenance plants

Maria says you can kill any plant.  At the same time, there are some plants that are marketed as really finicky that are actually easy to care for, for some people. The key to plant parenthood is picking the right plants for your lifestyle and environment. On Maria’s website, she has a Plant Personality Test. Plants tend to die when there is a lack of understanding about light and other needs. It’s all about identifying how you want to care for your plants and how frequently you’re going to realistically water them.

There are definitely some forgiving plants. If you’re a designer working on a room and you’re not really sure what the lighting situation will be like, you need a plant that is tough and can thrive in several different scenarios. The snake plant can tolerate low light and they love high light, so they make great gifts because everyone likely has a space in their home they could put a snake plant. Philodendrons are rather hardy plants, and ZZ plants are great as well. There is a new variety called the Raven ZZ with black leaves, so that could be an interesting statement plant from a designer’s perspective.If you want a larger statement plant, dracaena plants are a good option. A corn plant would also work, along with ficus trees and fiddle-leaf figs.

[39:18] Fiddle-leaf fig plants

Everybody seems to ask about fiddle-leaf fig plants, and Maria says they are one of the most beautiful sculptural plants. They are absolutely gorgeous, with fiddle-shaped leaves. They can grow to six feet tall, so you can have a beautiful tree in your house. Interior design magazines put them in every single photo, and they’re often placed in the corner. In reality, though, fiddle-leaf figs need bright light. Maria has a podcast episode covering them if you want to take a deep dive.  If you want to have a thriving fiddle-leaf fig, it needs to go in front of a window or under a grow light.They don’t love to be moved and they can be kind of finicky. A lot of people put plants in a corner thinking it will be fine because it’s next to a southern facing window, but it doesn’t usually work.

[42:39] Plants and interior design

There are plants for everyone, and you can find a good fit through Maria’s Plant Parent Personality quiz. There is one called the design-based plant parent, describing people who use plants as part of their design aesthetic.  They collect plants with an eye for design.

When it comes to interior design, just take a look and think about the exposure and the direction and distance to the window space.

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