Shabd Simon-Alexander didn’t set out to create a jungle. A New York City resident for her entire adult life, the textile designer had tried and failed for years to keep houseplants alive in dark city apartments. But when she moved into a spacious, light-filled loft in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, she toted along a few long-suffering plants—and they began to thrive.
“I thought I had a brown thumb, but it turns out I just didn’t have sunlight,” she said. She grew addicted to her newfound success, and soon, “I didn’t care about furniture or having things. I just wanted it to feel like a jungle in there.” She collected plants from nearby nurseries and moving sales, accepted cuttings from friends, and rescued rejects off the street. “Over the years, I just kept adding,” she said.
“I don’t know their names, and I don’t know the technical care they’re supposed to get,” she said. She doesn’t read gardening books or blogs, and doesn’t keep a watering or feeding schedule. “If I’m home and on the phone, I’ll be walking around, looking at them, pulling off dead leaves, and caring for them passively. But I never really learned anything about them.”
Let’s take a closer look at Simon-Alexander’s houseplants and the expertise she’s gained over time:
Photography by Emily Johnston.
Above: The living room of Shabd Simon-Alexander’s former loft apartment in Williamsburg, where she lived for eight years, had about 80 houseplants. (She’s now in Bedford-Stuyvesant; she moved last year after her building was sold.)
“I buy a plant because I’m attracted to it,” she said, and is especially drawn to varieties she’s never seen before. But she says the most important factor in choosing a plant is finding the right fit between plant and caretaker. “It’s like looking for a partner,” she said. “One person could be handsome and talented and wonderful but you’re not necessarily going to click. They have to fit your lifestyle.” If one plant dies, she said, “we are not a good fit. Even if I loved the way it looked, I won’t replace it.”
Above: The apartment was painted white when she arrived, and Simon-Alexander added a gray-purple accent wall as the backdrop for her indoor jungle. At far right a rubber tree was “at its happiest,” basking in indirect light. (Simon-Alexander later put the tree in direct light in her new apartment, where its leaves were scorched by the sun.) The snake plant to its left is one of the first houseplants Simon-Alexander owned.
Why so many plants? “One of the reasons I wanted this jungle is that I didn’t have any outdoor space in New York,” she said. “I don’t get out to the country much, so it’s a way to have nature around me all the time.”
Above: The fiddle leaf fig at the back wall was photographed in its awkward teenage years: Simon-Alexander bought it on Craigslist and it dropped all but three leaves upon arriving home. “We assumed they would grow back,” she said, but after waiting for months, she started to think it might be dead. She moved it a few feet away from the light, and all of a sudden “it sprouted nearly 50 leaves within a week.”
“The lesson,” she said, “is to move your plants around to see where they want to live.” In theory, plants like more light, so one might think they want to be closer to the window. “I don’t know exactly what the plant was thinking, but it clearly was happier there.”
Above: Against the living room wall, a bit of Spanish moss hung from a rope that previously held a tiny glass terrarium (it broke).
Simon-Alexander doesn’t keep a watering, pruning, or feeding schedule. “I’m also low-key with containers,” she said, opting for basic terra cotta pots or hobby ceramics from artist friends. When she does buy something special, it’s from independent makers such as Helen Levi or Recreation Center.
Above: The designer tends her garden. The aloe plant in back at right taught its owner a lesson in plant location, twice: It used to live on the north side of her studio in indirect light, and it didn’t grow beyond 4 inches in size. “I moved it to the jungle on the south side,” she said, “and within a couple of months it burst forth, overgrew the pot, and had many babies I gave to friends as gifts.”
Later, she set the same aloe on the plant-filled coffee table. “It was leaning toward the sun and one day I opened the blinds,” she said. “I swear I saw it lean toward the window, and it fell over and broke the coffee table and a bunch of other plants.”
Above: Simon-Alexander acquired her dieffenbachia from a 90-year-old artist “who had both a loft and a jungle ten times the size of mine,” she said. She bought some plants from the woman, but accepted the dieffenbachia reluctantly—it was in a 6-foot-wide planter and no one wanted it. She pulled it from the planter and thought she’d killed it by the time she got home, but it eventually grew new leaves and now climbs unceasingly toward the sun. “It had been leaning on another plant for 30 years,” she said. “That’s why we have the rope.”
Above: The dried sago palm fronds were a gift from her boyfriend; they’re on a ledge behind other cuttings and tillandsias. “That’s one plant I’m not good at,” said Simon-Alexander. “I think because they’re not in soil, I’m not watering them the same way and I forget to do it as often.”
When she moved, Simon-Alexander announced that she was offloading some of her plants to make room for life in her new apartment. “People know me for having this jungle,” she said. “There were people waiting in line outside even before the sale began.”
They sale didn’t go as planned, however; Simon-Alexander backed out. “I knew I had to let go of some of my plants, but I wasn’t ready to,” she said. She moved them all to her new apartment—about a third as big as her loft—before accepting that it just wouldn’t work. She downsized, and “placed each plant with someone I know and they still send me pictures.”
Above: Simon-Alexander bought this plant from Ikea when she first moved into her Williamsburg loft; it had four stalks, and only one survived. “It looks like a bamboo,” she said, “but I think it’s a Japanese maple of some sort.”
Above: On a shelf, an air plant lives in an empty metal can.
The silver lining of being forced to move? Simon-Alexander now has a private roof space in a new apartment she bought with her boyfriend. “It’s a whole new world,” she said of her new opportunity to grow plants outdoors. “I’m a little daunted, but I can’t wait to try it; I’m really excited.”
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