On a sunny windowsill in fourth-year Raymonde Council’s apartment sits not one, not two, but almost thirty houseplants. They range from leafy snake plants to tiny succulents, rooted in reused Starbucks cups and cereal containers. For Council, her “family” of plants brings her a sense of pride.
“This is something I did and this is very much the product of my process,” she said. “And it’s pretty aesthetic, I like looking at plants and doing my own thing with them.”
Plants can provide a way to personalize and bring life to a dorm room or apartment for college students.
For School of Communication first-year Brooke Slonaker, plants bring a bit of the outdoors to the inside her room. She said she values time in the outdoors, as a Montana native, but cold Evanston winters dissuade her from spending much time in nature.
“Being out in nature is a big part of my life and brings me a lot of peace. Having little pieces of that is really nice,” Slonaker said.
Slonaker lives in the GREEN (Group Residence for Environmental Engagement at Northwestern) House, where she enjoys a community of sustainably-minded plant-enthusiasts to trade tips and tricks. Over winter break, several students gathered their plants in a common room and asked Gloria, a member of the maintenance team, to water them.
Yulan Guo, a Weinberg third-year, never expected to be a plant person. She remembers her confusion watching students carry armfuls of plants into their dorms on move-in day. Now, she prefers plants over posters for decorating her apartment. She said she loves how they bring life into her room.
“You’re very lucky if your window has a good view, and usually it's not a tree, it’s another building or roof,” Guo said. “It's nice to wake up and be around green stuff sometimes.”
Plants are a dorm-room and apartment decor staple, but not everyone is an immediate plant expert.
Council received her first plant from a succulent give-a-way event during her third year at her boarding school, and she said it didn’t last very long because she didn’t know how to properly take care of it.
“I loved it a little bit too hard. It actually died because I overwatered it,” Council said. “I didn't even know that you shouldn't water succulents every three days.”
Overtime, she’s done her research, learning how best to water her plants, what type of light they each need and how to propagate new ones.
But for college students who are likely living alone for the first time, taking care of themselves is hard enough; keeping plants alive and well can be nearly impossible. Here are some tips from experts and plant-lovers to help you keep your green little friends alive.
The Plant Shop Evanston, located on the corner of Sherman Ave. and Grove St. is a cozy, sunny space filled with plants ranging from $4 succulent plants that can fit in your hand, to unique tropical variety and small trees. Employee Kelsey Burress said she loves working with plant-beginners to figure out what options would be best.
“Ask questions,” Burress said. “I want to set people up for success. I like seeing people be successful with their plants, it's very gratifying.”
Burress said the main thing to consider is how much light your dorm room or apartment gets. North-facing windows receive the least amount of sunlight, with east, west and south-facing windows getting more (respectively). And for the geographically-challenged among us, if you live on Northwestern’s campus, the lake is east.
Slonaker said taking care of their plants in a dorm room was more difficult than they expected.
“I didn't anticipate a lot of the intricacies of it, like having enough light from only one window,” Slonaker said.
Burress said there are lots of hardy, low-maintenance and beginner-friendly plants that thrive in a dorm room or apartment. She recommends snake plants, Sansevieria, Zamioculcas Zamiifolia (ZZ plants), pothos, Philodendron and cacti.
Watering over breaks
When suggesting plants to students, Burress asks about their schedules and how frequently they can dedicate time to watering their plants.
For people who can’t stop killing their plants, Burress said they're likely overwatering them. She advises people not to water on a set schedule, and instead feel when the soil is dry. Additionally, you want to water your plants less in the winter which will replicate the reduction in precipitation.
A main struggle of students is keeping plants alive over winter and summer breaks. Guo drove her plants home from Evanston to New Jersey to make sure she could keep her plants alive during break. She had to drive carefully, as every sharp brake flung the plants out of the car seat.
When leaving plants at school for long breaks, Burress said there’s a way to keep them alive. Stringing a wicker cord from a cup of water into the base of the plant will slowly diffuse the water and keep the plant hydrated.
Other tips and tricks
For plant-lovers looking to expand their skills, Council recommends propagating existing plants. She uses old takeout containers filled with soil as make-shift greenhouses and lines them with succulent leaves to grow new plants. She explains that replanting nodes (small stems growing off the main plant) in water will also help the node grow its own set of roots.
Council knows that taking care of a lot of plants at once can be overwhelming. Even after years of experience, she tries to only buy one or two plants at a time. For newbies, she said research and patience are key.
“Find the cheapest plant you can and research as you go, figure out what it is and research it, do it at your own pace,” Council said.
This research helped Council take better care of her own plants. She excitedly showed off the leaves of a Marble Pothos plant, holding it up to her Zoom camera. Marble pothos have distinct green and white leaves that almost appear tye-dyed. While the older leaves are solid green (meaning the plant lacks sufficient light), newer sprouts boast the distinctive marbled pattern.
“It was rewarding to take care of something and see it go well,” Council said.