Dispatches From "The Jungle Upstairs:" How I Went From Plant Blind to Pro Plant Mom

jungle upstairs

Ciara Benko

I used to be “plant blind.” Growing up, I was always surrounded by plants, but I never really noticed them. To me, they were just the sea of green that made up the rolling hills behind my grandparents’ house, or the living furniture that peppered the corners of our dining room. 

Each year, my grandma would come over the day before Thanksgiving to help us prepare for the 27 hungry people that would be turning up on our doorstep. She would dole out tasks to my sister and I: “iron the napkins,” “polish the silver”—but most importantly, “wipe down the plants.” 

My grandma would meticulously wipe the leaves down with a soft cloth, each gentle swipe revealing an entire year’s worth of dust built up on the now gleaming foliage. She encouraged us to speak to them; to ask the Ficus how his day was and let him know that he was loved. 

The next day, those houseplants would fade into the background again—our friend the Ficus resuming his role as a piece of furniture standing tall next to the TV.

In 2015, I moved into the apartment where I still live today. A pre-war walkup (and a proper two bedroom!) in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I finally felt like an adult. I could buy real adult furniture and make this feel like a real home. And, the most exciting prospect of all: I could buy PLANTS.

I finally felt like an adult. I could buy real adult furniture and make this feel like a real home. And, the most exciting prospect of all: I could buy PLANTS.

I was working in PR for a home décor company at the time, devouring every interior design magazine and décor blog you could possibly imagine. To me, plants were a lush, enticing addition to your “perfect shelfie.” They were the “height and texture” that you needed to draw the eye up from your chicly styled side table. 

For the first time I had the space—and the sunlight—to support my new obsession. 

My first purchase? An eight-foot-tall Fiddle Leaf Fig. (I really went for it.)

My downstairs neighbor and friend tipped me off to an unbelievable plant shop in Chinatown, and within weeks, I’d become a regular. I was buying two to three plants every weekend, quickly filling my new space with snake plants, rubber trees, ferns, a tiny Monstera—that one day would tower six feet high and command an entire corner of my bedroom—among countless other plants that I didn’t know how to care for (or even what they were named). 

I lived for the idea of creating my own indoor jungle. But I didn’t take the time to give any forethought to the plants I was bringing home. Plants were décor.

Casualties were starting to become the norm. As quickly as I was bringing them in, my green friends were dying off on the reg. I’d tell myself, “welp, I guess that wasn’t the one for me,” slip on my sneakers and head back down to Chinatown.

And then, one day, as I was standing at the counter with a ZZ Plant on my hip and a twenty-dollar bill in my hand, the woman peered over the register, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “you cannot buy any more until you prove to me that you are keeping them alive.” 

The woman peered over the register, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “you cannot buy any more until you prove to me that you are keeping them alive.” 

Was she joking? Maybe. 

Was she right? Yes.

I opened up my computer and typed in “tall plant with dark green leaves and light green speckles.” I scrolled through the Google images until I came across a plant that looked identical to the fresh new baby sitting on my coffee table. “Chinese Evergreen,” the caption read. “Thrives in medium to low light. Water when the top two inches are dry.”

This was news to me! I had been watering all my plants once a week. I even had a “designated watering day,” which until then, had made me feel like a good plant mom. I never realized what a big deal the placement of the sun was. I had thought that all houseplants were kind of… the same? 

Let’s just say that I’ve had a whole new lease on life since that day. I woke up to the fact that no two plants are truly the same. Now, I treat each of my 70+ houseplants differently, depending on each of their individual needs.

Before I bring any new green friends into our home, I do my due diligence and research three things: sunlight, water, and humidity. 

I woke up to the fact that no two plants are truly the same. Now, I treat each of my 70+ houseplants differently, depending on each of their individual needs.

Some plants can tolerate low light, and others need to be front and center on the windowsill (and may even need grow lights to supplement the lack of sun during winter months!). 

I’ve learned that the direction your home faces makes a real difference when it comes to even being able to support certain plant life. We have east-facing windows, which bring us bright sun in the mornings, and low light in the afternoon. Using the compass app on your phone is a great way to determine which way your home faces.

I water throughout the week on a rolling basis, checking the dirt in each pot to see if the top few inches are dry, and, if they’re not, I’ll check back again the next day.  

I’ve invested in a few humidifiers to keep the humidity levels high. And, of course, I wipe down my plants regularly with a soft cloth and ask them how their day is going – just like my grandma used to do.

A few years ago, I started an Instagram for, well, my plants. It started out as a medium for me to post pretty pics of my jungle—at the start, I didn’t use my real name—but it’s developed into a wonderful community of people who love plants, just like me.

This past July, I stood at the register in Chinatown with a Calathea Orbifolia on my hip. I sheepishly pulled out my phone to show the woman on the other side of the counter my feed, filled with thriving, happy plants. 

“See?” I said, “I’m really doing it.” 

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