North Brooklyn’s garden experts share their tips for greening your home
By Meghan Cass
It’s springtime in Brooklyn and outdoor spaces are getting all the love. But if you aren’t one of the few blessed with a rooftop or yard, then the time is ripe to cultivate your own indoor container garden. Often considered inferior to open-air efforts, indoor gardens have their own advantages. “You can keep tropical plants alive indoors all year, and even force bulbs like tulips and paper-whites to bloom in the off-season,” says Grace Martinelli, owner of Graceful Gardens on Driggs Avenue.
In addition, indoor plants scrub the air, provide pleasing decor, and often earn their keep in the form of food, flavoring, or natural medicine. No matter what your situation, there’s some form of plant life that’s perfect for your space. And local green gurus Annie Novak, Kimberly Sevilla, Tassy Zimmerman, and Martinelli have all the info you need to get you growing.
1. Know thyself (and thy lighting)
Before you embark on Operation Vegetation you need to evaluate how much natural light your apartment gets on a daily basis. Since city lighting can be subjective, Kimberly Sevilla, owner of Rose Red & Lavender on Metropolitan Avenue, recommends using a product called SunStick Home ($9.50) to get quantitative info. The photosensitive device measures the area’s foot-candles, and provides a chart of plants that can survive and thrive based on your results.
But just as important as your natural resources are your natural inclinations towards plant care, Sevilla warns. “Know what kind of plant person you are,” she says. “Plants are kind of like dogs—you can be a poodle or a Great Dane person.” Are you looking forward to fussing over your floral friend; misting, pruning, and manipulating it daily? Or do you prefer a low-maintenance type that’s most happy left to its own devices? Answer honestly and you’ll be rewarded with a successful and enduring partnership. Now armed with the facts, you are ready to choose your new leafy companion.
2. Meet Your Match
There are several ways to source a plant, depending on your gardening goals, philosophy, and budget. While purchasing from a local garden shop is always an option, growing from seed is a frugal and satisfying way to get started.
“I buy seeds mostly online,” says Annie Novak, founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and the Growing Chefs organization. “If you get [seeds] at a hardware store, there’s a little bit of a markup and they may be damaged by temperature fluctuations.” Novak lists Hudson Valley Seed Library (www.seedlibrary.org), Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), and Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) as reliable sources for growers.
And there’s nothing like the thrill of turning your kitchen scraps into beautiful houseplants. “Most people have tried to sprout an avocado pit, and that plant can do really well in an apartment,” says Novak. “[Without pollination] you won’t harvest fruit, but you’ll still get a plant that filters the air and increases green space. I think there’s still a lot of value in that.” Other Farmer’s Market finds include garlic, chickpeas, and sweet potatoes.
Another budget-friendly tip? “Buy plants you can propagate,” advises Tassy Zimmerman, owner of Sprout Home on Grand St. “And make friends with other gardeners,” adds Sevilla. “You can share and trade seeds and clippings as well as tips and advice.”
Read on to find your match made in houseplant heaven.
Everything is not illuminated: If a lighting assessment confirmed that your apartment has more in common with a cave than a greenhouse, don’t despair. There are plenty of beautiful plants that will thrive in the shadowy corners of your Brooklyn abode. “Many tropical plants are selected to thrive in people’s homes,” says Sevilla, citing Peace Lilies, Anthuriums, and Rhipsalises as solid choices. “Sansevieria—the snake plant—is very hardy and also does well in low light,” she says.
If you have medium indirect light, Martinelli loves the color that lipstick plants and purple passion vines bring to a room.
Taking it easy: Indeed, many low-light plants are simple to maintain and good for beginners. ZeeZee plants are very low-maintenance and store water in a tuber underneath the soil each time they are watered. “I call them the ‘bachelor plant,” says Sevilla. “They just love to be left alone.”
Zimmerman favors the neon pothos, a variety of the common cascading houseplant in a fashionable chartreuse color. “Just water it once a week and let it dry out between waterings. You can also root the clippings and grow additional plants,” she says. Cacti, succulents, and orchids also require infrequent watering and get by well with minimal effort.
Edibles: The urban agriculture movement has many people dreaming of harvesting their own Brooklyn-grown produce. But if your landlord vetoes the ten tons of topsoil you want to dump on your roof, you can still grow edible plants in your home. Vegetables are some of the most sun-needy plants, so for indoors I recommend trying other things like citruses. They need a very warm and humid environment, but you can manufacture those conditions,” Novak explains. “In the winter when I am trying to keep my plants alive I’ll cover them with plastic bags to keep them moist, and it’s like an artificial rainforest.”
At Rose Red & Lavender, Sevilla is excited about the dwarf cherry tomato plants that just arrived at the store. The $24 “Minimato” variety is specially bred to thrive in less than medium indoor light and is small enough to sit on a windowsill.
Also new are their variety of patio fruit trees growing in their on-site greenhouse. “Herbs do great on a windowsill in the summer,” adds Martinelli, “but in the winter you may need to add an additional light source.”
Poison control: While the focus of this guide is on the health and well being of your houseplants, remember that many indoor varieties are toxic and can pose a threat to your children or pets. “Philodendrons tend to be more toxic than other plants, and the pencil cactus is really toxic,” warns Zimmerman. “Pets will naturally stay away from most spiky cacti, but the pencil cactus doesn’t have spikes, so be careful.” Some non-toxic houseplant options include Peperomias, Begonias, spider plants, and African violets.
For thrill-seekers: Advanced indoor gardeners, or those looking to add a truly exotic species to their mix, may want to test carnivorous plants. At Red Rose & Lavender, Sevilla carries Venus flytraps and Pitcher plants that capture prey in deeply cupped leaves. “These are really cool things to bring into your house that very few other people have. They’re some of my favorites right now,” she says.
Some find it easiest to feed their flesh-hungry flora mealworms from the pet store, or bits of ground beef. For tropical varieties, Sevilla advises customers to spray them with diluted orchid food once or twice a year. American breeds do well by catching insects outside for a few hours a month. Air plants, which need no soil to grow, also make great conversation pieces. “They are really making a comeback,” says Martinelli. “People love that seventies retro look.” Keep them healthy by running them under water once a week.
3. Staying Alive
Food, water, and soil. Seems simple, doesn’t it? All plants are different, though, so be sure to research the specific needs of your species. Below are some general guidelines to get you started.
Creative containers: When choosing a home for your floral friend you are bound only by size and your imagination. “If you see the roots starting to wrap about the inside of the container, it’s time to repot,” says Martinelli. “Try going up two inches in diameter at a time.” Once you have the logics down, it’s time to get creative. “I like to use found objects as planters,” says Sevilla, who has repurposed old sinks, Clementine boxes, and olive oil cans as planters. “I also love to build flower boxes out of wooden pallets. There’s so much construction here in Williamsburg and a lot of the wood you find is good quality.”
At Sprout Home, Zimmerman stocks all kinds of unusual containers, but for those with little counter space she recommends hanging baskets or globes and fabric containers called Woolly Pockets that can be installed on an indoor wall.
Feed the beast: Forget that neon powder plant food. “Plants need a variety of complex nutrients and the best way to get that is though a fertilizer made of organic products,” says Novak. “I highly recommend doing worm composting in your house and using the castings—or poop—as a dressing for your plants. It’s like the difference between eating whole foods versus taking vitamins.” Sevilla agrees.
“Stay away from the big commercial soils like Miracle Grow. They have chemical fertilizer in them that’s junk food for plants. And a lot of the soil at the corner grocery or dollar store is made of waste product from sewage plants and construction debris. They are awful.”
DIY-ers will want to mix their own potting medium with a base such as farm humus, an aggregate for drainage (perlite or sand work well), and an organic fertilizer. If you are not ready to go the worm route, you can pick up manure pellets, seaweed kelp, or another natural food source at a good local garden shop.
Once your plants are potted, feed them about once a month to keep them healthy.
Water well: One of the most common causes of plant death is drowning. If you are unsure if your plant needs water, try Annie Novak’s “brownie test.” “I stick my finger down the side of the pot into the soil and feel how wet it is near the roots. It should be like a brownie that’s just out of the oven in terms of moisture and consistency,” she says.
A gentler way to add moisture is by misting with a spray bottle. “People don’t tend to mist enough, and most plants appreciate a good spritz. Also, bugs tend to like it when the air is really dry so added humidity helps keep them away,” said Zimmerman.
And in a dusty apartment, many plants can even benefit from the occasional lukewarm shower—just make sure it’s a gentle setting to avoid root damage.
Make the cut: Pruning is also a commonly misunderstood practice that can help improve the health and appearance of heavy foliage plants like pothos, ferns, and basil.
“You want to prune anything dying or dead. Once it is brown it’s not going to turn green again,” says Zimmerman. “Instead of pruning individual leaves, cut the stems down to the next leaf set. It will cause the plant to grow another set of leaves and encourage bushy growth.”
4. Now Get Growing!
Indoor gardening requires patience and flexibility, but if you take a tip or two from Brooklyn’s greenest, you’ll be on your way. And the next time someone boasts about their beautiful Brooklyn backyard, just think of how happy you’ll be come September when they are raking leaves and you are relaxing in your very own indoor Eden.