From the very beginning, Shawna Christian has cared about plants. This past month Shawna Christian celebrated the one-year anniversary of opening her shop, Tansy, a bright, airy storefront in Burbank, CA bursting with gorgeous plants, eclectic decor, personality and warmth. Shawna’s journey with plants started ten years ago when she started renovating her house and backyard. “It was this ten year journey for finding stuff for my home from all around the world and making it bright and colorful, and creating this backyard that turned into a garden of Eden.”
Shawna realized that she couldn’t wait to spend every spare moment in her yard tending to her plants. She started realizing that she could stay out in her garden for up to eight hours without having a single conscious thought. “It was like my version of meditation,” she says. “When I decided to open up a shop I wanted to bring what I was experiencing in my own home and garden to a place where people could come and start their own journey with their own homes and their own plants. I found such joy and peace with it.”
I talked to Shawna about some of the common mistakes people make when they start cultivating their green thumb, and advice she has for beginners.
1. Start Out With Easy Plants.
“I think the biggest issue for most people is not understanding the type of plant they want,” Shawna says. “People will walk in and they’ll gravitate towards the really cool looking one or the one with a lot of colors.” A lot of times, she says, new plant owners get ambitions beyond their abilities, and overextend themselves. “Buying difficult plants is not the way to start, because you’ll kill it, you’ll get disappointed and you won’t want to do it again.” Shawna recommends starting with easier plants to get into the rhythm of attentiveness before moving on to plants that can’t survive being forgotten about or ignored.
For beginners, Shawna has a few starter plant recommendations. She says a ZZ plant, or Zamioculas plant, is a great place to start. “They’re stunning plants, and some of the easiest plants to take care of.” They’re a great plant for lower light environments, which can be ideal for people who live in houses or apartments without a lot of natural light. “Not everybody has these big windows with all the sunlight coming into their home. Most people live in apartments or places where there’s only specific pockets of light, but they want to be able to put plants everywhere.” She says that basically the only thing a ZZ can’t handle is direct sunlight, because it can burn. “You can stick it in a closet for a month and it won’t die.” ZZ plants are also able to store water in their root systems for months, meaning that they only need to be watered about seven times a year. “They’re just the easiest plants in the world and honestly they’re beautiful.”
Another low-maintenance staple is the Sansiveria, also known as the snake plant or the mother-in-law tongue. Another low-light plant, the Sansiveria also needs only occasional watering, around seven times a year. “Both of these plants can be ignored,” Shawna says. “As a first time plant owner it’s really easy to forget you have to take care of a plant. You’ll go a month and a half and realize you didn’t water it. Both of these plants are easier than sin. You don’t have to do much to keep these plants beautiful and luscious.”
2. Make Sure Not To “Over-Care” For Plants.
When you’re new to plant care, it can be easy to overwater or give them too much exposure to light in an effort to make sure they get enough. “For the most part people tend to overwater because they don’t know what the plant needs,” Shawna says. It’s particularly easy to overwater plants if they’re in pots without draining holes, because the roots can end up sitting in excess water they don’t need.
Shawna says it’s easy to understand what your plants are telling you if you know what to look for. “On average if you get plants that have yellow stems, yellow leaves, and are a little bit squishy to the touch, that’s overwatering. If you get brown leaves or droopiness, that tends to be under-watering or too much sun.”
One thing that first-time plant parents tend to misunderstand is that there’s a difference between caring for indoor and outdoor plants, specifically when it comes to the amount of light they need. A lot of indoor plants are shade plants, meaning they’re only ever meant to get partial sunlight. Yes, Shawna says, “they do need a little more constant light if they don’t have that outdoor piece, but any light through a window is magnified.” Morning to 2pm light is especially brutal, she says. “It’s like an ant in a magnifying glass. If that’s the kind of light they want, then they probably want to be outside.” Parking your new houseplant on a windowsill that gets direct sun might seem like the perfect choice, but chances are it’ll give your plant more light than it can handle.
3. Talking To Your Plants Really Can Help.
“They’ve done scientific research that says your plants will thrive better if you talk to them. It’s the weirdest thing,” Shawna says. “There’s a whole science with plants. They obviously don’t have mouths, they can’t speak, they can’t smell, but they have a nervous system.”
She says plants are a lot more responsive to their environments than people might think. For instance, a plant will grow better if it’s in a planter surrounded by others of its same kind as opposed to plants of different species. “Even though they are somewhat of an inanimate object, there’s something really magical about them.”
4. Growing A New Plant From A Succulent Cutting Is Easier Than You Think.
Many plants can propagated somewhat easily from cuttings, but succulents in particular need almost no help to regenerate. Succulents are draught tolerant plants that need little care, and when pieces of a succulent are disconnected from their life force they quickly start looking for a place to root. Shawna says that when a piece falls off of a succulent, or if you get a cutting from one, the first step is just to leave it alone. “Don’t water it, don’t put it on a wet paper towel. Just walk away. Within two to three weeks you will start to see a root pushing up from that cutting, looking for a place to root. You can literally turn around, plant it and start a whole new plant. Succulents are really specific; there aren’t a lot of plants you can do that with.” She says Tansy has a trough outside full of succulent pieces that have started to root after falling off of various plants.
5. Do Your Research.
Shawna’s biggest piece of advice for new plant owners is just to make sure they understand a plant’s needs or maintenance level before investing in one. “When you’re a new plant owner just start easy. Don’t go and buy the rare hard-to-find plant. There’s a plant craze now. People are buying plants left and right and will get too many plants and they can’t take care of them. Each one has its own personality, its own water and light system. My advice is to go slow and do your research.”
This story was originally published on July 3, 2020, and was updated on November 3, 2020.