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  • Jennifer Jewell


A New Garden Ethic, by Benjamin Vogt (New Society Publishers, 2018)



Energized and energizing, that is Maria Failla. Maria is a houseplant enthusiast – which as a description might be something of an understatement. There is little so contagious as enthusiasm – that of young love or first love and when you are first smitten by the plant and garden cupid, it is no different. Less than a year ago, Maria believed she was a succulent and plant killer by nature. Now she is the proud plant parent of more than 60 indoor plants in her and her partner Billy’s small New York apartment and she is the creator and host of a self-produced podcast called Bloom & Grow Radio - specifically for indoor plant people - urban jungle dwellers, houseplant enthusiasts and succulent killers alike. Maria is an actress and descendant of Italian gardeners and farmers. Her journey to becoming attuned to the needs and desires of her plant collection is a pleasure to share.

Maria joins us today via Skype from her Bloom & Grow headquarters in New York City.

Maria began her indoor plant and podcast journey less than a year ago in order to teach herself more about the care and keeping of interesting house plants. As an actress working on a three month contract with Cats on Broadway, she had mornings free and a new shared apartment with her boyfriend Billy. Maria was sure she was a plant killer with no natural tendency for caring for plants. But in a moment of confidence as to how her career, her love life and her life in general were going she decided she wanted to give growing plants one more try despite previous attempts, which had led to sad plants and her own sense of disappointment. But as she describes, her first success (with the help of her mother) at tending to living, growing things hooked her. She is sharing her story about her steep learning curve, her improvements over time and the positive impact on her life since she began to experience small successes along the way – with herbs, and then a jade plant and then….well, you'll have to listen to the story.

Today, Maria is a “plant parent” as she describes it to 50 or 60 house plants and outdoor plantings on a 3 foot by 1 foot balcony in her New York City apartment. She is learning about the care and keeping of her plant family as she goes in large part thanks to the guests she invites on her podcast Bloom & Grow Radio.

"I think plant people are the kindest people I’ve ever met; And the more I think about it the more it makes total sense, because gardening - indoor, outdoor, however, whatever kind of garden you have - if you just have a jar of basil growing on your windowsill or you have the most epically designed garden ever - the root of gardening is kindness."

Maria Failla, Bloom & Grow Radio

In the course of our conversation, Maria mentions that Snake plant – also known as Mother in Law’s tongue, Sansevieria laurentii, which Maria mentioned was known to help clean the air of toxins. After our conversation, I went to research this a bit and came across a fascinating 1989 report by NASA on just this thing. While there’ve no doubt been lots of studied since this one, the reason for this NASA study and its results were striking to me. Here’s an excerpt, but I will put a link to the full study in the weekly episode write up.

"Two major problems with indoor air pollution are the identification of the trace chemicals and their correlation with disease-like symptoms known as sick building syndrome. Energy-efficient buildings that are filled with modern furnishings and high-tech equipment off-gas hundreds of volatile organics which possibly interact with each other. Even at concentrations below present detection limits, some of these chemicals and reactive byproducts may adversely affect inhabitants of these buildings…” The first and most obvious step in reducing indoor air pollution is to not use off-gassing materials in the first place. “Another promising approach to further reducing trace levels of air pollutants is the use of higher plants and their associated soil microorganisms. Since man's existence on Earth depends upon a life support system involving an intricate relationship with plants and their associated microorganisms, it should be obvious that when he attempts to isolate himself in tightly sealed buildings away from this ecological system, problems will arise. Even without the existence of hundreds of synthetic organic chemicals off-gassing into tightly sealed environments, man's own waste products would cause indoor air pollution problems. The answer to these problems is obvious. If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature's life support system….this study covers two years of data on the potential use of houseplants in solving indoor air pollution problems on Earth, and has gone a long way toward reminding man of his dependence on plants for his continued existence and well-being on our planet.” Among other chemicals that plants such as snake plant, which was among the most effective 10 plants studied, clean from the air are Benzene, Trichloroethylene and Formaldehyde…."

While Maria’s garden practice is still as she says "figuring it all out" – and I might add, we all share in THAT gardenlife practice – her love for the plants grows bigger each day. And as with all of us, they are so clearly our very life support systems. Thank you NASA for this very clear articulation (despite oddly worded 1989 language and word choices - haha).

Right off the bat in my conversation I semi-jokingly state that I hate houseplants. I don’t really hate them, and I do in fact have two – so please don’t tell them I said that. But I am intimidated by them, I think, and there is something about them I struggle with. They need too much? They don’t need me enough? I’m not sure….Maybe they’re more subtle than the outdoor plants I am used to interacting with – those are in constant flux of growth and decline, budding, blooming, seeding – even woody perennials change reliably.

Maybe I need to adjust my expectations, and pace - not be so impatient with my two house plants? One is a really pretty well established cutting of an angel wing begonia brought home with me from a visit to my Aunt Di in Vermont. She’s had her elegant begonia collection since she lived in New York City herself for more than 20 years in her 30s and 40s (she's almost 83 now). She has perhaps 12 different species – all different and interesting and she prunes, repots and feeds them every spring before they go outside for the summer.

So far, my one begonia is doing nicely and as Maria indicates with many of her plants – it is energetically so pleasing to have my Aunt Di in my house through the presence of this cutting.

My other house plant is actually two plants in one which sits in a book shelf in my office. I’ve had it for about a year, and I have no idea what these two plants are but they were given to me as rooted cuttings by Adrienne, one of the women in my Short Story group. We thought about creating a book group, but we were all busy enough we couldn’t commit to whole books in addition to what we each read for work, so we negotiated to be a short story group. At least once we’ve even read a short- short story. Adrienne was moving and so prepared a small pot of cuttings just like mine for each group member. And I keep remembering to water mine every now and then and it keeps growing in kind. It’s nice that way. And based on the NASA research above on how house plants help clean the indoor air we breathe, that little pot of two plants is more than keeping me company as I work.

Since I talked to Maria, I’ve been talking more to both my house plants. I think we’re all happier for it. Do you have houseplants? Do you like them? Which are your favorites? I’d love to hear – send me an email through the contact page at Cultivating

Maria has another observation in the course of this conversation about a correlation between taking care of plants well leading to taking better care of ourselves. I like this thought – and I believe it to be true. Like any relationship, that between us and our plants is a reflection of who we are – as I write on the website, our garden practice is some version of our own signature, or fingerprint. When we are not feeling well in body mind or spirit, our plants and gardens are bound to reflect this, but in my experience they almost always make us feel better if we let them. Likewise, when I’m feeling good, they still make me feel better. So what do we have to lose? Every day in the company of our plants and flowers is better for it.

Maria also notes her guest and her listeners have expanded her own life almost as much as her plants have – their knowledge and humor and generosity amaze her. I couldn’t agree with her more. I love talking about, reading about and writing about the amazing variety of ways we plant people cultivate and grow from our own places, but even more than that I enjoy sharing it with and growing with you – so thank you for being on this conversational journey with me.

Most things are better shared – how we cultivate our places and how we grow from it certainly is.

Follow Maria and Bloom & Grow Radio on Instagram or Facebook.

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