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Ever hear the saying, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”? As someone who got their first houseplants during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am firmly starting to believe it. And I’m not alone — many people have turned to plants to provide much needed solace during an isolating time.
My first houseplant actually belonged to someone else: I was plant-sitting my best friend’s Aloe plant for a few weeks, and I was afraid I would kill it, simply because I don’t have a great track record of taking care of living things. But the hardiness of the Aloe plant and my slow adjustment to watering it regularly inspired me, and soon after I formed my covenant with my friend’s plant, she offered me a cerulean-colored pot with a mint shoot planted right at the center. Therein began my plant parenthood journey.
Acknowledging and honoring my houseplants’ watering schedule was sometimes my light at the end of a bad anxiety spell. When my mental health gets awful, it is incredibly easy to get lost in the spiral of negative thoughts. Even worse, the lack of energy I have makes me feel like my life is slipping away from me; I can’t clean my room, I can’t cook or eat when I’m hungry, I can’t reach out to friends and check in with them, simply because I’m too exhausted to do it. This is a similar reality for tens of millions of people — according to the World Health Organization, depression is a leading cause of disability, and a number of factors contribute to whether someone receives the help and support they need.
While it’s important to consult a mental health professional if you’re going through a rough patch, I’ve also found that the vested interest in my plant’s welfare has helped me ground myself. Here are four ways my houseplants have helped me connect with and prioritize my mental health, through good and bad.
My Houseplants Ground Me in Different Ways
That fated Aloe plant quickly turned me into an enthusiastic plant parent. Seeing its tender green leaves grow longer towards the sun’s rays as I babbled to it about my perpetual angst solidified my loyalty towards plants, which have served as empathetic listeners at a time when almost everyone was overwhelmed. The instability the pandemic inserted into my life often caused my mood to have the bitterness of a seed pit, and communicating that to my friends felt impossible. A confession to my plants felt therapeutic.
Again, it’s important to seek help from a professional if you feel like you would benefit from it, but houseplants can also have tangible health benefits, according to some mental health experts. In a 2015 study, researchers tasked 24 young men with alternating between spending time on the computer, and spending time working with plants. These researchers found that the men had reduced blood pressure after transferring the plants. “Our results suggest that active interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with mental work,” the researchers noted.
My Plants Remind Me That TLC Is Necessary
Plant blogger Myeshia Carter became a plant parent by buying her first plant on a whim, and in true 2020s fashion, documented it for the #junebugchallenge, a viral TikTok trend. The plants, she said, helped her mourn her cousin’s death, and continue to help her handle the grief stemming from that life-altering change.
“Like plants, we need time, care, love, space and a peaceful environment to blossom in,” Carter told Apartment Therapy. “Planting has taught me to trust the process of whatever process I’m in.”
My plants helped me see that growth is a nonlinear process, and to respect the seasonal nature of life. Hard times are hard times. We can never totally avoid them, yet it is our adaptability and resilience during this time that allows us to grow in seasons of abundance. Becoming a plant parent during the pandemic and seeing my plants survive and thrive both because of and despite my capacity to care for them made me believe that the same could be possible for myself during a difficult time.
My Plants Can Serve as a Reminder to Check in With Myself
Even more than brightening my day-to-day life, the state of my plants on any given day can also serve as a useful visual marker for where I am with my mental health and physical wellbeing. It takes immense energy to keep myself alive, and that often means prioritizing my most basic needs: eating, sleeping, and working for the money I need to keep myself fed and housed. Anything, and I do mean anything else I do is a luxury, whether that be taking a walk in the park, talking to friends, or yes, watering my plants.
When the leaves of my plants turn brown from lack of watering, it also likely means I have checked out, or that my responsibilities have become too overwhelming. When I overwater my plants, that is usually a sign that I have been overindulging in escapism, and I simply haven’t been paying attention to life’s intricacies. If I can’t bother to keep track of when I last watered my plants, it also means I’ve probably lost sight of effective time-management skills and my schedule is going down the drain, usually due to immense stress and anxiety. At that point, it’s often time to look at what I can do to keep my to-do list manageable.
Seeing my plants suffer because I am not meeting my basic needs and loving myself in the best way possible is a great motivator to re-evaluate my schedule, slow down, and slowly work towards a new equilibrium in my work-life balance. It is a great moment to return to meeting my biological needs and giving myself the love I deserve.
For TikToker Khasi McDaniel, her plants’ physical appearance is also a great way for her to keep herself grounded amidst great anxiety. “Self-love is not just a once-a-month thing to me, it is an everyday thing just because I do have anxiety and that is an everyday battle,” McDaniel, who runs the Etsy shop Just In Khas, said. “I’m glad that my plants bring me back to reality with the physical changes they make. I appreciate them really giving me the chance to process how I may feel in the moment in real time.”
My Plants Remind Me That I Deserve Love at All Stages of My Growth
Plants are also great companions because they are alive. You can physically observe them changing: from seed to seedling, from sprout to flower, from bloom to death. Their growth and potential (or partial) decay is a reminder that you also go through great change as you experience life. Just as you don’t judge a plant for how fast it shoots up from the dirt, what season it blooms in, or if it is having a hard time surviving, you should also give the same grace for yourself.
My plants have really taught me that I am worthy of love in every state. I adored the Venus flytrap I received as a birthday gift last winter despite its dormancy. Now that the first weeks of summer sun have crept onto my apartment’s windowsill, her traps are beginning to open up and the rich green of her stems is a thrilling sight to see. Imagine if we had the same patience and gratitude when it came to our periods of personal hardships and growth? I am trying to give myself as much time and space that I need to recover from past hardships and understand myself so that I can be better prepared for the future.
As someone who went from having one plant to over a hundred in less than a year, reiki practitioner and expert plant parent Nkhensani Rikhotso said that her plants’ growth process aligned with her evolution throughout the pandemic. For a long time, Rikhotso didn’t know how to care for herself in a nurturing way — as a result, she told Apartment Therapy, she was a dormant seed. But after working with a therapist, setting boundaries, and working on goals such as her reiki certification and maintaining an exercise routine, she finally began to grow.
“I’ll call this the sprouting phase,” she said. “It’s when you need to stay most consistent with the newer parts of you that are unfolding and nurture them because they often feel foreign to you even when they are good for you.” Now as her plants bloom, she blooms, and understands that her flowering period is one that is rapidly changing and always making space for new growth to occur.
My Plants Remind Me That I’m a Living Thing With Needs
My array of houseplants — from my mint plant to my pink splash, my Venus flytrap, and Casablanca, and my tradescantia nanouk — have weathered the worst of the pandemic with me, kept my pandemic loneliness at bay, and have grounded me at a time when I needed it. Living under capitalism where my body is mechanized for maximum production efficiency, my plants remind me of my biological needs. They remind me that I am still human — that I need water, sunlight, and time to rest, just like any other living thing.
Or as McDaniel said, “My plants taught me how to be as open, as curious, and as vulnerable as I can.”