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Living with Houseplants: Four Years Later in a Brooklyn Apartment

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Living with Houseplants: Four Years Later in a Brooklyn Apartment

June 14, 2017

The first time we visited Summer Rayne Oakes in 2013, the wellness author and houseplant enthusiast was living in Brooklyn with more plants than we’d ever seen in a 1,200-square-foot apartment. Asked to count them, she reported her collection totaled 120.

Four years later, Oakes’ botanical family has increased to 670 plants and they live, in addition to a green wall, in several plant closets, a vertical swing garden, an herb drawbridge garden, indoor trellises, and even an outdoor garden plot. We recently caught up with her with questions about how she keeps her collection thriving (which she kindly answered while on tour to promote her new book, SugarDetoxMe).

“One thing I’m trying to get across to people is that your home is a sanctuary; when you plant roots and live in an area, your home becomes a place of refuge—to unwind, to think, to grow,” she says.

Read on to learn more of the lessons she’s learned from living with houseplants.

Photographs courtesy of @homesteadbrooklyn unless otherwise noted.

 Oakes has lived in her \1,\200-square-foot industrial &#8\2\20;plant pad&#8\2\2\1; in Brooklyn&#8\2\17;s Williamsburg neighborhood for more than \1\2 years.
Above: Oakes has lived in her 1,200-square-foot industrial “plant pad” in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood for more than 12 years.

Gardenista: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned while living with an abundant and evolving “plant pad” in the city?

Summer Rayne Oakes: I’ve learned from my plants, that in order to grow, you need to seek out the sunlight—even if it means having to stretch or contort yourself to get it.  I’ve also learned that it often takes more than one plant to create the ideal environment that plants want to live in; it requires a whole community to shift and change the dynamics—not unlike a community of people. And perhaps, most important, my plants have taught me what it means to grow roots. You often cannot grow or even change the community that you want to live in, if you don’t stay long enough to imprint upon the very soil on which you stand.

Nearly every corner and open space, including her work area, is inhabited by a plant. Some of the many species Oakes has include: Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum), Bromeliads, Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), Codiaeum, Diefenbachia, Maranta, Peperonia, Schefflera, and Zebrina.
Above: Nearly every corner and open space, including her work area, is inhabited by a plant. Some of the many species Oakes has include: Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum), Bromeliads, Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), Codiaeum, Diefenbachia, Maranta, Peperonia, Schefflera, and Zebrina.

GD: What are your secrets for growing plants indoors?

SRO: I always share with people that they should first ask themselves what type of plants they think would like to live in their home, as opposed to what plant you want there. When you turn that question around, you immediately begin figuring out what plant is best suited for the conditions of your home.

Determine which side your windows face. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, like me, then southern exposure will give you lots of hot light, perfect for cacti, succulents, herbs, and light-loving plants. North-facing windows give you good even—but not too bright of light—and I like to have plants like begonias, jewel orchids, and prayer plants in northern light. East will give you very good light throughout the day, which will allow you to grow a range of plants; and west will give you some indirect, ambient light and some sunset, which may be better for lower-light tolerant plants.

Books and ferns happily co-exist.
Above: Books and ferns happily co-exist.

GD: What if you live in a life-free space, such as a garden-level apartment?

SRO: All plants for the home require light, so if you live in a cave, or have a room without windows, think about supplementing with a grow light and find out which plants work best under those lights. Some plants that do rather well under typical LED or fluorescent lights include Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema sp.), Dracaenas, Philodendrons, Sansevierias, African violets (Saintpaulia sp.), and Nephthytis.

Oakes&#8\2\17; evolving potted succulent and cacti collection.
Above: Oakes’ evolving potted succulent and cacti collection.

SRO: Determine whether you are a good “plant mommy” or “plant daddy.” If you think you’re good at taking care of plants, then perhaps you can opt for more high-maintenance ones. If you’re not, then look for ones that can thrive with a little benign neglect.

 In Oakes&#8\2\17; kitchen, potted herbs in jars, on supports she built with her father, take center stage.
Above: In Oakes’ kitchen, potted herbs in jars, on supports she built with her father, take center stage.

GD: Are there any plants you recommend not growing indoors?

SRO: I’d typically say trees that you’d see in the northeast, like oak or maple. Typically they need a little of a cold spell and a lot of root space than we can provide in our homes.

Over the years many of Oakes&#8\2\17; herbs and edible plants have found a home near the kitchen window.
Above: Over the years many of Oakes’ herbs and edible plants have found a home near the kitchen window.

GD: Do certain plants thrive in certain rooms?

SRO: I am always rotating my plants, but sometimes for different reasons. Mostly it’s because they get too large, or because some might get crowded out from faster growing plants. In the winter, I have drafty windows, and the majority of my plants don’t care for drafts, so I move them away from the windows. Other plants can get too much sun, particularly in the heat of summer, so I will occasionally move them back for fear their leaves would get bleached.

 An orange wall in the living area offers a vibrant contrast to all the green.
Above: An orange wall in the living area offers a vibrant contrast to all the green.

GD: What’s your advice for streamlining care and maintenance when you have so many plants?

SRO: I’ve installed a 150-foot expandable hose, which is attached to a pipe of my kitchen sinks, which has reduced watering time dramatically. I also love using simple and affordable watering hacks, like HydroSpikes and humidity mats, which help keep plants moist through the use of capillary action.  I don’t have a big shower, but if I did, I would definitely be piling plants in there.  If you want to get a little more high tech, installing drip irrigation or sub-irrigation on certain plants can help. That’s how my vertical garden is set up.

 Potted plants mounted in wall shelves.
Above: Potted plants mounted in wall shelves.

GD: We’ve said this before, but you’re like a mother with a flock of (green) children. Who is your oldest? And dare we ask if you have a favorite?

SRO: It’s tough to say the oldest plant because I might have inadvertently purchased an ancient one, but I know the first plant I got for my home in Brooklyn—and that’s a Ficus lyrata. I got it around seven years ago and I’d guess it’s probably around 10 years old. However, I have a lot of Euphorbias and other slow growers and I would venture to guess they are far older.

A woman and her plants. Oakes has a degree in environmental science and entomology from Cornell University. She enjoys beautifying the community garden, giving local garden tours, and plant workshops at the local garden center, all of which she documents via @homesteadbrooklyn. Photo by Joey L.
Above: A woman and her plants. Oakes has a degree in environmental science and entomology from Cornell University. She enjoys beautifying the community garden, giving local garden tours, and plant workshops at the local garden center, all of which she documents via @homesteadbrooklyn. Photo by Joey L.

GD: Were you born with a green thumb?

SRO: People always ask this. No one is born with a green thumb. A good gardener comes to be a good gardener by actually growing plants. So if you feel sheepish because you killed a couple plants in your life, don’t let that hinder you from trying again.

For more greenery-filled urban spaces, visit our posts:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various houseplants with our Houseplants: A Field Guide.

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