What’s not to love about indoor plants? They are attractive, integrating nature and a touch of color into indoor spaces. In addition, studies show houseplants clean indoor air, reduce stress, and even promote employee productivity in offices. But are houseplants sustainable?
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the potted plants you purchase at the store have an environmental impact. Unless you buy plants directly from the nursery that grew them, your houseplants will have a transportation footprint. Tropical houseplants may come from abroad and have a big carbon footprint. And most plants you buy will be potted in disposable plastic pots that end up in landfills.
Fortunately, you don’t have to forego having houseplants. Like many aspects of modern life, there are many steps we can take to reduce the impact while enjoying the benefits. Let’s explore how to have a truly green thumb with houseplants.
Issue: Greenhouses & Plant Nurseries Have a Big Environmental Impact
Most garden centers don’t propagate and grow the plants they sell, they source them from plant nurseries. Unlike food, which often has labels stating the country of origin, plants rarely come with a label indicating where they originate. Plants may travel a very long distance from nurseries to garden centers, and nurseries typically use disposable plastic pots.
In addition, nurseries use synthetic fertilizers to speed up plant growth and pesticides to prevent damage from pests. These garden chemicals can be harmful to pets and harm indoor air quality. Another issue with commercial greenhouses is that they have a considerable energy footprint for heating, especially if they are located in cold climates.
Solution: Propagate Plants From Cuttings
Whenever possible, propagate your indoor plants and reuse plastic pots. Allowing time for your cuttings to grow into a full-sized houseplant takes longer than buying a plant from a nursery, so some patience is necessary. But it can be fun to watch your new plant develop. Many popular houseplants are easy to start from cuttings, including spider plants, snake plants, Christmas cacti, and jade plants.
To expand the variety of indoor potted plants in your home, ask friends or family members for cuttings of plants that you don’t currently grow. Or you can expand your friends’ plant collections as well as your own by organizing a plant swap. Also, plants that you’ve grown from cuttings can make great low-impact holiday or birthday gifts.
Issue: Many Indoor Houseplants Have Short Lifespans
Although they certainly add a splash of color to indoor spaces, some indoor plants are only vibrant or ideal for one season. For example, mums will only flower once indoors, and poinsettias often lose their appeal after the holidays. But replacing one-season houseplants by buying new ones isn’t a good idea because of the environmental impacts associated with nursery-grown plants.
Solution: Choose Long-lasting Houseplant Varieties
Instead of selecting indoor potted plants that will only last a season, try to minimize your purchase of new plants from nurseries. This can involve using your green thumb to get a second bloom from poinsettias or selecting houseplants that bloom each year to add color to your home.
Solution: Take Good Care of Indoor Plants
Proper care is critical to keep houseplants healthy. Otherwise, you will find yourself replacing plants that have gotten sick or died. If a houseplant isn’t doing well, explore why.
- Is there proper drainage? Most plants need a drainage hole at the bottom of the pot.
- Is the soil moist but not water-logged or overly dry? Some plants will get yellow leaves from too much water.
- Is the plant getting the ideal amount of lighting? Some plants thrive in direct sunlight, but some prefer indirect light.
- Is the soil depleted and in need of fertilizer? Early spring through summer is the best time to fertilize indoor plants. You can also use no-waste soil amendments that many plants enjoy.
- Is the container the right size? If you need to replant it, try to reuse pots instead of buying new ones.
Keep in mind that different plants need different conditions to flourish. For example, some prefer acidic soil, while others are sensitive to too much sunlight or overwatering.
Some plants simply won’t thrive in your home. If you don’t have a lot of sunlight, avoid plants with high sun requirements. If you move and realize that some of your plants are languishing in your new home, give them away to friends instead of watching them wither away.
Solution: Start With Easy-to-Grow Varieties
If you are new to growing indoor plants, or you don’t have a particularly green thumb, start with houseplants that are a bit more forgiving about soil conditions and light levels. For example, snake plants don’t need much water to grow and adapt well to different light levels. Likewise, spider plants, jade plants, pothos, and philodendrons are suitable for novices and easy to propagate from cuttings. If you travel and don’t have someone tending your plants, select ones that don’t need frequent watering.
Issue: Many Houseplant Supplies Are Unsustainable
Potting soil often contains peat, which is a finite resource and not sustainably harvested. In addition, mining peat causes habitat loss and releases the three main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. It is also a finite resource because it takes so long to regenerate, like fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, most commercial nurseries use peat-based compost or potting soil. Commonly, plastic pots from nurseries contain virgin plastic made from petrochemicals. They are difficult to recycle, so they often end up in landfills.
Solutions: Reuse Houseplant Pots & Use Peat-free Soil Mixes
Whenever possible, use peat-free soil mixes. Reusing plastic and ceramic pots also reduces waste. Some thrift stores sell second-hand plant containers or reuse the ones you have for numerous plants. If you have unneeded pots, see if friends or family would like them. If you want to recycle plastic pots, determine if they are accepted by recyclers in your area and clean them to remove dirt before putting them in the recycling bin.
Simple Steps for Sustainable Houseplants
Although houseplants can make our homes and offices vibrant, they have an environmental impact and can introduce toxins into our homes. Thankfully, the steps that make it easy to reduce their impact can also save money. The most sustainable way to expand your houseplant collection is to grow new plants from cuttings of other plants. And by using greener houseplant supplies, like peat-free potting soil and natural fertilizers, you can keep them sustainable.