Dorm Plants and How to Keep Them Alive

Halpert's houseplants. Photo credit to Lily Damron.

Looking into third-year biology major Ella Carlos’s space in her Goodwin triple, one might notice how every available space is filled with small pots and succulents. Carlos said she propagated most of them from plants in her mother or grandmother’s garden, but she also collects cuttings from interesting plants she finds in her daily life and sticks them in water or soil to see if they will root.

“It’s nice to have little things to take care of. Watching something else grow instead of worrying about your own growth. Dorm rooms can feel confining and artificial sometimes, and it’s good to have little bits of life in there,” Carlos said.

According to biology professor Diane Anderson, there is a scientific explanation of the pleasure Carlos takes from her plants.

“Just having the visual, the green, the sense of life in your room, I think is really positive,” Anderson said. “It’s a mental thing called biophilia, which scientists think is just an innate part of humans – an attraction to nature.”

For those looking to take on some plants, or to improve the plants they already have, Anderson had a few suggestions. First, find out what kind of plant you have. If the plant is store-bought, Anderson said the tag will have information about how much sunlight and water it needs. She stressed that although people worry about their plants getting too little water or sun, a common pitfall is overwatering until plants rot, or leaving them in the sun until they scorch.

If there is no tag or the cutting was taken from an unknown plant, Anderson recommends using an image analysis app or Google Lens to get more information, because every plant has different needs, even among common types like succulents. Knowing the plant type will also lead to information about the kinds of nutrients a plant needs.

“With the potting soil that they’re in they’ll probably be fine for a few years, but then they use up the nutrients in the soil. So you need to either add fertilizer or you need to re-pot them,” Anderson said.

Anderson recommends getting a plant like a succulent or a pothos that is sold as a houseplant if it is going to be watered infrequently and kept in a corner somewhere. If the plant will have more access to sun, a native succulent like a crystal and ice plant or an herb like oregano or basil is also a good option. 

Second-year biology major Tess Halbert, who is caring for ten full-sized house plants currently, recommends pothos, hoya, snake and ZZ plants. She got most of her collection from En Concordia, a local shop off of Cañon Street, where the staff helped her understand how to keep each plant alive and repotted them as needed. For some of her finicky plants like the pin-stripe calathea, she even has a misting spray bottle and a pH tester to engineer the perfect environment for it to grow.

If you do not want to spend much money on plants, like Carlos, you will need to propagate a cutting. Anderson recommends succulents. 

After finding a plant you want to grow, Anderson said, “If it’s a big [succulent], you can just break off a piece and just pull off the last three leaves, put that in the soil, and it will grow roots from everywhere it has leaves. They’re just super easy to clone. And if they get too tall and they’re ugly looking, just chop off their heads and put them back in the soil and they’ll grow.”

Carlos, who is in the process of propagating a purple heart plant in a flower vase, warned it took her cutting weeks to show roots, so patience was needed. She explained that the cells of the plant have to revert to pluripotent stem cells from their normal state and turn into root cells, which is an involved process.

Still, part of the fun for Carlos is getting different cuttings and seeing if they root, and Halbert said she enjoys learning all of the exact needs of her plants… unless they are random rescues.

“If you’re up to the challenge, go to Walgreens to get the discount ones and bring some plants back from the dead,” Halbert said.

Written By: Lily Damron