From lush, temperamental fiddle-leaf figs to laidback snake plants, indoor houseplants have become ubiquitous in the homes of many millennials and Gen Z — particularly as their care became a soothing and serotonin-boosting hobby early in the pandemic.
New plant parents (including this writer) caused a spike in Google searches for popular flora such as pothos and prayer plants in early 2020, while seasoned caretakers offered tips for newbies on social media platforms like TikTok — the hashtag #plantsoftiktok, for instance, has amassed over 6 billion views to date. Creating Instagrammable oases at home has become fast and easy, with home delivery sites such as The Sill and Bloomscape offering up alternatives to local shops.
Houseplants provide therapeutic and wellness benefits, but their industry has an environmental toll. Credit: Morsa Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images
“Growing indoor foliage plants is a highly intensive process,” said Dr. Loren R. Oki, a specialist in environmental horticulture at the University of California, Davis and co-director at the University of California Nursery and Floriculture Alliance. “There’s high plant densities, there’s fast turnovers (between growing and shipping plants). It’s a really complex system…They require a lot of resources like energy, labor, water, (and) fertilizers,” as well as the potting mix.
The hidden costs
Maintaining an indoor garden does have therapeutic and wellness benefits — both indoor and outdoor gardening can ease stress, sharpen attention and help bring some much-needed green into urban environments. But horticulturist Missy Bidwell, who manages the greenhouse at Cornell Botanic Gardens in New York, also said it’s important to be mindful of all the resources required to grow and maintain your houseplants, and to try and strike a balance. “When you stop and think about all of the inputs, you have to (consider) the outputs — do they have a bigger advantage? Do they have a bigger impact on your life?”
In recent years, the horticulture industry has made strides in areas like energy-efficient greenhouses and improvements in water applications, but collective and urgent environmental impacts remain.
The multi-billion-dollar behind your local plant shop requires vast amounts of resources and produces waste and pollution. Credit: Mansoreh Motamedi/Moment RF/Getty Images
Pesticides are necessary in the industry, Oki points out, because “indoor plants and other nursery products are aesthetic products,” he said. “They need to be perfect. If the plant has a brown leaf on it, people won’t buy it. So there’s the pressures of the consumer that growers also have to have to meet as well.”
And waste is an issue as well — as with many industries, the horticulture sector has a serious single-use plastic problem. “Plastics are in everything that we do, from the pots to the bags of soil (to the) plastic tags, plastic sleeves,” Bidwell said.
“That piece of nature is wrapped in one of the most toxic materials for nature,” said plant-shop owner Andreas Szankay on the plastic pots in which plants are grown. He and his partner use biodegradable pots as an alternative. Credit: Roosevelt Nguyen
“That piece of nature is wrapped in one of the most toxic materials for nature,” said Andreas Szankay, a plant-shop owner in Brooklyn. “It doesn’t really have to be that way.”
The alternative is biodegradable pots, which Szankay and his wife Stephanie aim to popularize with their shop, Pollyn. They replant all their nursery plants into bio-pots, which are made of materials including coconut fiber, cow manure, and paper pulp.
Bio-pots keep plants healthier because “they allow for more air and water exchange,” Andreas explained, and can help fertilize a plant’s roots, depending on the material. They are easily found through Amazon or Home Depot, and Szankay hopes the nurseries who supply the plants will begin to use them, since they arrive at shops already potted.
In the scheme of things, your houseplant collection likely has much less of an environmental toll than what’s in your closet or your fridge. And, like with the food and fashion industries, it may feel like an individual adopting sustainable practices is barely chipping away at a much larger problem that requires the biggest players to lead the way. But there are decisions you can make if you want a more sustainable indoor garden.
The first thing you can do is consider your own ‘plant miles’ when adding new additions to your collection, according to Bidwell.
Propagating clippings of plants in water or soil to grow new ones is the most eco-friendly way to grow a collection. Credit: Wachirawit Iemlerkchai/Moment RF/Getty Images
If you do make purchases online, do your research into where the plants are coming from. Companies like Bloomscape in Detroit and Rooted in New York, for instance, ship straight from the greenhouse, reducing your plant’s journey by cutting out the shop.
“Being a good steward of your plants is really important,” Bidwell said. “Bringing (home) living beings is important, and you need to care for them.”