Thursday, January 3, 2008

How Often Should I Water This?

WARNING: The following contains a bit of a rant. Readers of delicate constitution or sensibilities should not continue reading. Neither mr_subjunctive nor Blogger, Inc., nor mr_subjunctive's unnamed employer, nor Google, Inc., owners of Blogger, nor your internet service provider, are responsible for any injuries, whether physical or mental, nor any distress or anxiety, incurred by readers who proceed below this point. Readers with rant sensitivity disorder are welcomed to the internet and advised: You're so going to hate it here.

Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela'

How often should I water this?

Almost everybody asks this at some point, if I'm helping them choose a plant. Which is good, as far as it goes. I mean, you should want to know how often to water, the same way you should want to know how much light to give the plant.

And I always say, you should water this one when the surface of the soil is just barely dry, or when the top inch and a half is dry, or when it's dry about halfway down, or something like that. There's a subset of customers for whom this is not good enough, though. I've been asked, in all seriousness, how one would know when the surface of the soil is dry. And when I answer (probably with a stunned facial expression) that the way to tell is to, you know, touch it, they act like I've suggested something completely ridiculous and unreasonable. Oh no. No, I couldn't possibly.

Anthurium NOID

Fortunately, I have a backup, which is to say, well, you can pick it up and water when it's light in weight. People have, on occasion, acted like that's ridiculous, too. (You must be joking. Surely one shouldn't have to touch a plant in order to care for it. And I'm certainly not going to lift it. What are you, crazy?) At that point, I should tell them about our water meters, though I'm always so shocked and appalled (The stupid! It burns!) that it slips my mind that we have them, and anyway I've never used one so I'm not sure if I trust them or not anyway. Though I suppose for customers like this they'd be better than nothing. I mean, the plant is not going to communicate telepathically with you, to let you know when it needs to be watered.1

What people really seem to want is for me to tell them to water every Thursday, or every ten days, or only on the 15th of the month. They don't realize that plants don't use calendars, and don't know what day of the week it is. Plants need water when they need water, which is to say, when their soil has dried out to a certain degree. And even if a plant could be watered on a schedule like this, I have no idea what your home is like or where you're going to be putting the plant, so I couldn't give you a schedule anyway. A plant that needs water only every ten days in a dark, humid bathroom might need water every six days in a bright, warm kitchen, or every three days in a sunroom. The best I can do is make a guess based on what it would need in my own place.

Begonia rex-cultorum 'Harmony's Red Robin'

And this whole phenomenon makes me want to scream, and occasionally to throw things, because if you aren't willing to occasionally touch dirt or lift a pot, then you have no business owning live plants at all, and you should get the hell out of the store right now. Also, you probably shouldn't have an aquarium or a hamster, either, and you should definitely not be allowed to have a cat, dog, or child. In fact, I'm not entirely sure you should even be going home by yourself, so is there someone we can call to come pick you up? I mean, I know that there are people out there who have happened on a schedule that works for their plants, and they've been watering their jade plant (Crassula ovata) every Saturday afternoon at 3 PM for the last twenty years and it's doing just fine. But what the people who do this won't tell you is, they tried keeping the same schedule with fifty other plants, and the jade is the only one that survived.

So, just to be clear: if you're thinking about buying a plant, keep in mind that you may have to get a fingertip dirty from time to time. If this is too much for you, I hear they're doing lovely things with artificial these days.2 Watering on a schedule is not a good substitute for, you know, paying attention.


Photo credits: all me (my most recent batch of acquisitions from the Dec. 30 order, actually. Two birds, one stone.).

1 At least not right away. Telepathy takes months, sometimes years, to develop. I'm only sort of kidding.
2 This is a lie. I've seen the stuff they're doing with artificial plants, and it is my fervently held belief that none of it is lovely, and it's very rarely even competent. But if you're not willing to dirty your finger then I really don't care what your place looks like, and I sort of strongly doubt that you care either. Or else you care too much. Either way, I can't relate to you, so buh-bye.


Anonymous said...

Hey Mr_S, I wanted to point out this quirky site that you can send people to....They have telephone call message reminders to water each plant, and each one has a separate voice...It's something I saw online, but as I was reading this wonderful blog this morning I thought of it. Maybe you could get in an affilliate plan with them. hahahaa


waterroots said...

Hilarious! I loved this article; it was a great way to start the day.

Your observations (rants) are so true about many 'wannabe' plant growers. I can imagine you meet all kinds at work!

Anonymous said...

mr s, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone had asked me this question. I get a bonus twist, too - since I'm at their office, and their plant is usually at home, I generally don't even get a clue about what kind of plant it is! My version is usually, "Uh, excuse me, Plant Lady, I have this plant at home, I'm not sure what it is, but it's green, I'm watering it once a week, is that good?" AAARRRGHH!

One trick I've read about is to freshly sharpen a pencil, stick it into the soil, and see if the wood is wet. I suggest that to women with lovely manicures, although I've never tried it myself (manicures are never an issue here!) Although I think if you're too lazy to lift a pot, you're probably way too lazy to find a pencil, sharpen it, and use it.

I've never seen a moisture meter I like. Supposedly there are some decent ones out there, if you pay enough money and take really good care of them. I have a client that has one in a plant, and it always reads "dry", even when the plant is sopping wet. My understanding is that most of them don't actually measure moisture, they do something involving electrical conductivity and dissolved salts in the soil. Hey, you're the chemist, maybe you can do a blog entry on this (I love to create work for you!).

cirrat said...

LoL. This is what I am teaching my husband. He gave up on potted plants at one point completely, because he was given a cactus, when he was a teenager, and he went along with the popular belief of 'cacti do not need any water' and killed it. Then he got another and he decided not to repeat the same mistake - and killed it by overwatering...

Something like ten months ago (just a few days before our wedding) he saw a carnivorous plant he loved at the first sight and he bought it. This is the first plant ever that survived longer than two months in his hands... It's the sarracenia purpurea and I suspect that it is mainly due to the no-maintenance factor - you put it in the direct sunlight, you fill the cover of the pot with water and you just add water when needed. It can go 2-3 weeks without any supervision at all...

Then he got himself a zamioculcas and he read very carefully all the recommendations for watering. Then he turned to me and asked "Do you think I should water it?"

I was cruel and told him to stick his finger into a soil. You have to understand, he has a particular quirk about keeping his hands clean. He doesn't tolerate even hand cream and whenever he touches something dirty or oily he has to go and wash his hands as soon as possible. He washes his hands after doing the dishes... :-)

But! He learned to do that. Because the zamioculcas is HIS and nobody's touching HIS PLANT :-)

He's still grimacing anytime he has to touch the soil, but if he's able to do that, then anybody can - unless they are too snobbish and I would recommend the flowery screensaver or USB-plugged plant that double-serves as a ventilator or something :D