Guide to a green thumb: gardening how-tos

by Beacon Staff • March 22, 2006

Sometimes, your dorm room can feel like a prison cell: four walls, artless and just enough space to breathe in. Even your Pulp Fiction and Fight Club posters seem pointless in a place so sterile. It doesn't have to be this way, though. One great way to bring the life-literally-back into your dorm or apartment is through indoor gardening.

"I like plants in my room, because it gives serenity to my space," said Greg Corbino, a sophomore performing arts major. "I wake up each morning surrounded by magnolia blooms and bamboo and it gives a life and energy to the staleness of the dorm."

With a simple hanging plant, terrarium or flower box, you can easily add depth and vitality to your environment.

"The most obvious choice for greening up your space is with houseplants," said Dr. Leonard Parry, extension professor at the University of Vermont, in his Web article, "Gardening 101." Being selective is imperative, though. Conditions in dorms and most city apartments normally include low lighting, high temperatures and poor humidity-all potential hazards for indoor plants.

John Paul, a sophomore marketing major who lives off-campus in an apartment, has a flowering potted plant that is dying.

"We kept it by a window, thinking the sun would help, but no one really watered it. When you neglect it like that, especially inside, it dies immediately," Paul said.

Species like peperomia, sanservieria and grape ivy are your best bets because they can survive in dorm-like conditions. The more common English ivy is especially common for its aesthetic value. It needs lower light and can even hang from a suspended flowerpot.

Figure out what your room lacks and what it offers. Is it very warm or very bright? Choose a plant that matches your room's conditions.

Also, be realistic about how much time and money you want to spend. Seeds are the cheapest, cuttings are more expensive and grown plants are the most expensive. Ginger Catalini, owner of Box on Beacon Hill, said "most people have a lot of luck with sunflowers growing from seed, as well as impatients and morning glories."

Corbino said that choosing the right plant is crucial, as working with difficult-to-grow plants is not for everyone.

"Someone couldn't take care of the orchid I'm trying to save because it demands strict water and light and temperature conditions," he said. "I would advise against buying a plant if you aren't ready for the responsibility."

Ana Alvarez, a sophomore journalism major, feels differently.

"Having a plant is nice when everything is dead in the winter, but if the plant dies, I can always just go out and buy a new one."

Whether you're interested in keeping up with a plant's maintenance, or just using it for decorative purposes, there are ways to garden inexpensively and easily.

If you want best of both worlds-gorgeous flowers with little maintenance-Catalino suggests peace lilies and geraniums. "But most of the flowering plants are seasonal, so they may not last long," she warns.

If your classes, your part-time job and your bustling social life leave you very few moments of valuable garden-care time, choose a low-maintenance plant.

Melissa Parent, a junior TV/video major and an employee at Exotic Flowers in Faneuil Hall, said, "The hardest things to kill are bamboo, pothos plants and cactuses, because they don't take a lot of maintenance and they can handle low lighting. [Cactuses need more sun]. They hardly need to be watered though. You could basically just neglect a cactus."

Another way to make your room more flora-friendly is to use a terrarium, or an old fish tank, according to an Indoor Gardening Web site at webterrace.com. By using a container, you can allow different species of plants to grow close together to save space.

The closed glass allows for a lesser amount of lighting, even though some kind of artificial lighting, such as the fluorescent lights on a fish tank, is preferred if you can't place the plants near a window. Too much light will actually overheat and fog the container, according to Parry, so be careful.

Picking a container is easy, and often inexpensive. Ten- or twenty-gallon fish tanks are perfect, as well as smaller, one or two-gallon plastic tanks, which are available at pet stores and Amazon.com for around $20.

It all depends how much you want to grow. Start by washing the tank and lining the bottom with at least two inches of gravel or sand for drainage. Then add a layer of horticulture charcoal, which can be found at any greenhouse. Lastly, add a significant layer of soil mix or potting soil.

Altogether, a bag of gravel, charcoal and soil shouldn't cost more than $15-$25.

When you are keeping plants in a terrarium, you need to make sure that each kind is similar in its need for light, moisture and soil type.

Usually, you can't go wrong in placing tropical or sub-tropical plants in a tank, because they grow naturally in the heat and humidity that the closeness produces. Some easy-to-maintain tropical plants include creeping figs, parlor palms and ivies. A piece of driftwood can serve as a vertical post for ivies to grow on.

If you're looking for a woodsier appeal, try mosses, ferns or partridgeberries. It's better to buy these from plant stores and greenhouses, however, because it is uncertain what bugs or bacteria you might be bringing into your tank if you take them from the ground.

Watering a woods-based terrarium is simple: just use a spray bottle and mist the entire tank once a day.

For something more unconventional, underwater gardens and windowsill herbs can do the trick. Using the same type of terrarium that you would for a woods-based or tropical terrarium set-up, buy plants from any pet store that are typically used in fish tanks, like Riccia Fluitans or Phyllanthus Fluitans (both around $5).

Windowsill herbs are relatively easy to maintain as well. Herbs with fresh scents will cover up the pizza odor in your dorm room.

"Fresh herbs like basil, parsley, rosemary and mint are the easiest to grow in limited space," said Catalini. They can also add flavor to meals.

Some general tips will help you keep your green friends alive:

Lighting: Don't forget to rotate your plant daily, because if it only gets light on one side, it will "stretch" and deform its original shape.

A plant that doesn't get enough light will produce small leaves, have thin stems and display a lighter color. Sometimes this happens when plants are bought from stores with maximum light and brought to dimmer rooms.

To avoid this, condition your plant by exposing it to maximum light, then gradually decreasing to a dimmer area.

Watering: Hydrating your plant is important, but over-watering is dangerous. "The number one problem that we have [when a plant dies] is that the student watered it too much-most plants really only need to be watered once a week," Parent said.

When a plant's leaves turn yellow, it is a sure sign of over watering, because there is not enough oxygen in the soil. When this happens, the plant needs immediate care. "You need to cut the dead heads and yellow leaves off just like you'd do in a regular garden, because then the plan

t grows fuller and it can produce more flowers," Catalani said.

There is still hope, though. You can always dry the plant out for a while, and continue to water it sparingly.

If you're feeling claustrophobic, head to a local flower shop or greenhouse and liven up your living area with a terrarium or a simple houseplant that will add depth and freshness to your cramped space.

Plants for the not-so-constant gardener

The philodendron can withstand more abuse and neglect than many other indoor plants. Some other plants that will survive the extreme dark, dry conditions of a college dorm (or any other environment) are:

Bromeliads

Cactuses

Chinese evergreen

Jade plant

Sansevieria

Peperomia

Goldenstripe

Snakeplant

Plants are an easy way to brighten up an apartment and bring a taste of the country to your city dwelling. If you live off-campus, here are some plants that are more suitable for average home conditions:

Begonia

Earth star

Slipper or red bird flower

Strawberry geranium

Painted tongue

Artillery plant

Lemon vine

Botanical wonder