We here at Washington City Paper aren’t what you’d call plant people. Our office gets little direct sunlight and the only plant you’ll find here is a succulent that shuffled off this mortal coil years ago and hasn’t yet been disposed of. But plants, in general, are enjoying a moment in the sun and intersecting with different aspects of life in D.C. From new retail shops that teach curious students how to cultivate blooms and craft bouquets to the maneuvers required to legally grow marijuana indoors, plants are in and they can make your life better. They even thrive in the depths of Metro tunnels. As the days grow longer and the city’s green spaces become brighter, it’s worth considering the humble plants we encounter every day and the reasons they’re blooming (er, booming). Welcome to the Plant Issue.
When D.C. voted to decriminalize marijuana, the new law included a strange provision that some have dubbed “Immaculate Possession.” Perhaps the purpose of the provision was to keep someone like Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) from shutting down the legalization effort with his particular brand of political meddling—NIYBYEism (Not In Your Back Yard, Either).
Contrary to my initial interpretation, Immaculate Possession—sadly—does not mean that an angel comes down from heaven and fills you with reefer even if you didn’t ask. No. Current D.C. law says that you can possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis, but prohibits you from buying it without a medical prescription. For the purely recreational user, Immaculate Possession means that you must control the means of production yourself if you want to stay legal. A better name for it might be the “Closet Commune” provision, since growing your own weed is the only real loophole.
So, cannabis comrade, have you ever grown anything indoors before?
Even if you have only grown an indoor lemon tree like a good millennial, or cycled out succulents as they inevitably succumb to your poor management, you can actually grow cannabis yourself, believe it or not. I have had a poor track record with keeping plants alive, yet was able to get three (out of three!) plants to harvest on my first attempt. Even as a novice, your interest in hooking yourself up with a steady supply of herbal introspection will probably carry you over the finish line, even if your first crop doesn’t become the centerfold in High Times or reach a potency sufficient to tranquilize grizzly bears.
While you are deciding whether you want to test your indoor green thumb or wait until future legislation paves the way for recreational cannabis sales, might I recommend you read a book such as Marijuana Growers Handbook by Ed Rosenthal? You’ll gain an in-depth appreciation for each stage of the process, discover what supplies you’ll need, and learn how to plan out your project. Also, you should definitely read D.C. Code 48-904.01 to fully understand the law if you are determined to turn your closet into a cheeba factory.
Your growing technique will vary if you choose to go the hydroponic route, but a basic soil setup is what I used on my initial and subsequent attempts. First, I went with an LED light because LED consumes less energy and puts off less heat than the alternatives—even if LED lighting might not produce the very highest yields. Additionally, I used a 3 foot by 3 foot tent, coco soil, and a fan attached to a carbon filter to reduce the smell of indoor liquid fertilizer and eventual flowering. In my experience, a tent with a carbon filter in a room behind a closed door is sufficient to contain the smell of your guest-room garden when you have company over for dinner. You should have all of these items ready before obtaining your plant material, since you wouldn’t bring a fish home without an aquarium, would you?
So, about that plant material. You can’t buy seeds or clones (small, specially prepared cuttings from a vegetating plant) per current law. However, maybe your grey-market cannabis came with some stray seeds? Check any plants grown from unsexed seeds at around six weeks to make sure you see pistils at the base of the branches and not pollen sacs—the latter represent a yield-destroying male plant. Or maybe you have a friend who could give you a female plant clone, you know, because of friendship? Whatever your source, please do not press the nice people working in the grow shops around town to help you obtain these items—they can’t help you under current law, and you might sour a relationship with someone who is an invaluable resource for supplies and expertise. The good news is that once you get your plant material, you can use your own clones for future grows.
Cannabis is a hearty, robust plant that will grow rapidly under something close to the right conditions. In the vegetative stage, which lasts 10 to 20 weeks, you will keep your lighting source on for long hours, fertilizing and watering as needed. At some point, you will have pruned your special bonsai into a size and shape that meets your yield goals, at which point you will decrease the daily lighting interval to mimic fall, sending your plants into their roughly 10-week flowering stage.
Watching the tiny knob-like trichomes on your flowers fill up with cannabinoid substances like THC and CBD will add to your appreciation of what exactly is happening in this strange little plant. As you trim your first crop of what will probably be small, airy, strange-smelling buds, don’t judge yourself too harshly—it’s your first try!
The process isn’t over, though, so put away those rolling papers. After drying your buds for a few days, they will need to cure for at least a month, during which time their potency will increase. The wait is worth it! My first crop smelled like a baby diaper when I harvested it and gave me a headache when I tried it. But, six weeks later, the aroma was much more recognizable and the effects more enjoyable.
Sitting there with my crumbly, brownish buds, was I happy that I spent the last six months on this project? Yes and no. On the one hand, the start-up costs are considerable (around $500). Depending on your consumption, home growing can pay for itself over time, but producing dispensary-quality cannabis will take a considerable effort. The best news is that whatever you grow will be your buds—and that’s a pretty good story to tell your friends as you’re passing around a joint of your own making.
While enjoying the rapid changes that have legalized cannabis locally—remember that these changes have preceded our societal obligation to free from incarceration those across the nation who previously enjoyed what is now legal. Generations have suffered harm under the ill conceived criminalization of a still-mysterious plant that has already, despite still being illegal in most places, provided the base material used in multiple FDA-approved medications.
Green plants have taken up residence in Red Line stations.
A 2017 article from Apartment Therapy describes maidenhair ferns as “finicky plant divas.” The long, delicate, green tendrils are beautiful to look at, but require extreme care if you want to cultivate them in your home. They do best when exposed to indirect afternoon sun in a room kept at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Good luck maintaining those conditions on a daily basis.
Many of the 200 species within the Adantium genus do better in dark, moist places, like the stone faces of waterfalls. And, it turns out, Metro tunnels.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the flashes of Kelly green peeking through the platform-level lighting cages at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station and several other stations on the west side of the Red Line were placed there intentionally. Ferns, after all, are very trendy, and Metro is trying to improve the morale of its riders and make its subterranean stops look more inviting. (Remember the hubbub when Metro painted the walls at Union Station white?)
The maidenhair ferns, though, took up residence on the walls voluntarily and traveled, as plant spores do, through the air.
At Woodley Park, the ferns congregate around leaking pipes and other water sources. The best view of them comes on the right side of Glenmont-bound trains as they pull out of the station. From that vantage point, you can imagine a subterranean jungle growing under D.C. But as nice as they look, should plants be taking up residence in Metro tunnels? Might they impact Metro’s operations?
According to Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta, the ferns aren’t much of a problem. “The ferns do not cause adverse effects to the lighting system,” he writes. “For environmental reasons, Metro does not use chemicals to prevent their growth. The ferns are removed as needed during scheduled work on track bed lighting.”
Because the process of removing the ferns requires slightly more effort and the ferns aren’t affecting trains or lights, they can prosper underground for untold amounts of time. The unexpected splashes of green brighten the otherwise dreary gray of Metro’s tunnels and might make your daily commute a little more exciting.
But while WMATA is content to leave the underground greenery alone, don’t assume the transit authority is suddenly in favor of all plants. Critics derided its decision, in 2013, to remove flowers installed at Dupont Circle station by Henry Doctor, the so-called “Phantom Planter” who installed spring bulbs and morning glories before Metro hit him with a cease-and-desist order. Because soil remained on the terraced slope of the station, weeds and other random plants would occasionally sprout at Dupont in the intervening years, but even those were cleaned out eventually. As of early June, the plant matter that remained was gone.
Like a grassy field that becomes dotted with dandelions overnight, flowers and tropical plants have sprung up everywhere: not just in pots and on windowsills, but bedecking greeting cards, clothing, and social media feeds. The spider plant and macrame hanger craze of the 1970s has come back around, and this time, it may be no mere trend, but the sign of a larger lifestyle shift. The international plant craze has firmly taken root in D.C., and plenty of shops and services dedicated to purchasing and caring for plants and flowers are ready and able to take on the demand.
An early brick and mortar spot heralding the plant trend was Urban Jungle, which Cody Alexander began in 2015. He bought an orchid during a chaotic time in his life, and found its presence reassuring. That prompted him to purchase several more and learn what he could about the famously persnickety plants. The idea of opening a plant business evolved out of that discovery period. “I wanted to share my knowledge with other people, what I had learned from killing hundreds of plants,” he says. Urban Jungle fulfills much of its business online, but also maintains a showroom and conducts frequent workshops. “No matter where you get your plants, let me educate you or help you know what to look for and get healthy plants,” Alexander says. “Nobody’s born with [a] green thumb. It’s learned.”
Education was also a key component for Lily Cox when she opened her Shaw “plant and flower studio,” REWILD. She got her professional plant start with her freelance business, A Strange Flower, hosting plant design workshops and creating floral projects for restaurants and other clients. Of the customers who visit her shop she says, “People come in with lots of questions, and they want to watch us pot the plants, they want to know what we’re doing. It’s the same with the terrarium bar, the potting station. Everything is set up for people to interact with.” She’s continued to host her own workshops at the shop and brings in other teachers for classes on natural dying, orchid care, and watercolor painting. “I was trying to figure out why people were gravitating toward workshops so much,” she says, “and I think D.C. specifically is just in need of a creative outlet.”
Amanda McClements, who opened Little Leaf off 14th Street NW in 2016, agrees that what people put in their planters has become a form of expression. “People are so specific about the plants they want. They want to be able to handpick what they’re bringing home,” she explains. Similar to a renewed interest in vinyl record collecting, the plant movement seems to be a part of a larger trend away from increasingly digital existences. “It seems to be about creating an environment that is peaceful and calm and supportive of your well-being,” McClements posits. “Especially to younger folks, because things are crazy in the world and there are a lot of things we can’t control.”
For Holley Simmons, who opened flower shop She Loves Me in Petworth earlier this year, plants becoming a point of relaxation goes hand in hand with a concept she calls “the Californication of the East Coast.” “Things happen out West, then make their way East,” she explains. “I think as part of that movement you see introducing a lot of greenery into your home, especially succulents, since they’re native to that area.” Though she uses her shop as a homebase, Simmons still conducts workshops and pop-ups around the city. “It’s an opportunity to bring our aesthetic, our look, our vibe to a different neighborhood,” she says. “Flowers are welcome everywhere. There’s no corner of the city that wouldn’t benefit from them.”
Perhaps the citywide craze for flowers explains why even as new shops continue to open, traditional florists are also seeing an uptick in business. Some are even tweaking their operations to adjust for changing tastes. Lee’s Flower and Card Shop has been family-owned and operated since 1946, and in 2012 was sold to Stacie Lee Banks and her sister. They’ve dedicated a section of their shop to what they’re calling Cross Pollination, where local artisans and entrepreneurs can pop-up and sell their wares free of charge. More shoppers are visiting the store, too, thanks to extended weekend hours. Though flower arrangements and bouquets remain Lee’s specialty, the houseplant surge has been a boon. “Plants have been phenomenal for our business,” Banks says. “We can’t keep them in the store! We get new shipments, then they’re gone.”
Caruso Florist has changed even more dramatically than Lee’s Flower and Card Shop over the years—the business started on push carts in 1903, selling fruit, vegetables, and flowers, before transitioning into a brick and mortar store. Michael Caruso is part of the fourth generation of the family to operate the shop. He’s noticed a shift in the customer base toward younger people interested in buying plants for themselves. “You can tell with the influx of young people moving into D.C., they’re really adept to plants to have in their office, and coming in just buying flowers for their office once a week,” he says. He adds that advances in shipping and ordering online have revolutionized how the floral industry sources its flowers. “You really have gotten away from the middle man, because everything’s gotten so efficient that you fly things straight from the farm to Miami and truck ’em up to D.C. or fly them into Dulles. We get an awful lot of things direct from growers, instead of sitting in a wholesale house for a couple days.”
The increased ability to source flowers was integral to the business model of the elephant plant in the room: UrbanStems. Founded in 2014 during D.C.’s mini tech boom, UrbanStems sought to disrupt the traditional supply chain that forces many operations to fight for a piece of the inventory. The company built its model on direct connections to farmers around the world, and changing its offerings to prioritize what’s seasonally available. Though they’re best known for bouquets delivered in distinctive boxes, UrbanStems representatives explain that they’ve shored up their houseplant offerings, and are even building out a dedicated potting facility in Hyattsville. Though independent shop owners acknowledge that the convenience of UrbanStems is hard to beat, they maintain that plants are better experienced in person. McLements suggests that “it’s about walking in and smelling the smells, touching the fabric, breathing that humid plant air.”
With so many buying options available, will some wither on the vine? Simmons thinks the trend may be hitting an apex. “You’ll probably see it slowing down in terms of people opening. Like any market, there’s a saturation moment,” she says. Others think there’s enough interest for everyone to get a piece of the green, and believe this enthusiasm for plants is here to stay. “Things we’re doing like hybridizing, we’re creating new things every day and making stronger plants and more household friendly plants,” Alexander says. McClements thinks that perhaps people are tapping into something that will have a lasting impact. “I’m adamant that plants are not a trend and should be a part of life regardless,” she says. “Once you start noticing and taking an interest in plants, your world is richer.”
So you thought you’d just go to a retail plant nursery and pick out something that smells good, looks pretty, or is easy to keep. Like the rest of life, it’s not that easy.
“Don’t buy plants that are invasive,” implores Damien Ossi, a veteran wildlife biologist for the DC Department of Energy and Environment. Ossi says invasive plants, vines, and trees—species not native to the Mid-Atlantic region—wipe out the natural order of things.
“The biggest thing about invasive plants is that there are a variety of different species. They ... take over a natural area,” Ossi warns. “You then have fewer species of native plants which leads to fewer and fewer insects, and then fewer mammals and birds. It’s sort of a cascade and you end up with a monoculture.”
There are long lists of both good and bad plants for the region. What’s an ignorant gardener to do? First, ask retailers if their plants are native to this area. Don’t buy them if they’re not. Then educate yourself.
Ossi recommends a book from the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service with a rather severe title: Plant Invaders of the Mid-Atlantic Natural Area. Ossi says it’s really a professional book for invasive plant managers but “it’s a good resource just for a list of plants to avoid.” Fortunately, you can read it for free online.
He also suggests a visit to the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington. The U.S. Department of Agriculture property is a natural treasure trove with a dedicated whole native plant collection in its fern valley. “That’s a good place to go to learn because all of the plants are labeled,” Ossi says, and something is almost always in bloom. The U.S. Botanic Garden operated by the Architect of the Capitol has an outside garden area of native plants.
All of the above information is free at those sites. Once you know more, “you can create small spaces that may attract butterflies, birds, or other interesting things to look at,” Ossi says.
The University of the District of Columbia has an active urban forestry and horticulture program, and some of its activities are accessible for local residents who are not students.
Ossi frequently speaks at community workshops and often can be found on Kingman and Heritage Islands trying to rid those sites of invasive woody vines and bush honeysuckle.
A native of Takoma Park, he graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and has a masters degree in environmental management and landscape ecology from Duke University. “I grew up camping, hiking and canoeing, so I have always had an appreciation for wild and natural areas,” he says. Right out of college he “worked with whooping cranes and sandhill cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.”
At his home in Greenbelt, Ossi purposely chose an end unit adjacent to a natural area. He has planted additional native plants to complement nearby oak trees and native azaleas. He speaks proudly of his milkweed plants, which attract monarch caterpillars, four of which recently metamorphosed into butterflies. “So yes,’’ he laughed, “ I do live what I preach.”
Maybe you just scored your first backyard, or at least a wide enough windowsill to try to grow something you can actually eat instead of a flower that’s only fun to stare at. First time plant parenthood can be intimidating: Succeed, and gardening might become a permanent pastime. Fail, and it’s tempting to give up for years. Natalie Carver, the horticulture director at local organic garden company Love & Carrots, selected five easy herbs and vegetables to plant that can help grow your confidence.
What is it? Basil. “It’s the taste of summer. Everyone wants to grow it. It doesn’t last very long once you harvest it, so it’s worth growing fresh at home and clipping it right before you use it.”
How much sunlight does it require? At least four hours of sunlight, but it’s pretty forgiving.
What makes it easy to grow? It doesn’t need as much sunlight as say tomatoes or peppers.
What would I have to do wrong to kill it? You can harvest it the wrong way. “You don’t want to pluck off individual leaves. Pinch the tips early and often and the plant will get bushier and bushier every time you harvest.”
What is it? Rosemary and lavender
How much sunlight does it require? Six hours or more and the plants will do better. “The thing with these perennial herbs is the flavor will be stronger the more sunlight they have.”
What makes it easy to grow? They’re low maintenance and great if you have a tendency to not water your plants. As Mediterannean herbs, they don’t need much water. They’re rugged and long-lasting.
What would I have to do wrong to kill it? Over-watering will cause problems. Two or three times a week and they’re good. “Plant it with some rocks in the bottom of the hole or plot, it helps with drainage.”
What is it? Parsley. “I think it’s an underrated herb. It’s not something that people usually buy for their dishes, but having it at home is really nice. It adds something green to whatever you’re cooking.”
How much sunlight does it require? About four hours of direct light a day.
What makes it easy to grow? Plant it, water it, and it’ll produce all year, even into the winter. “Your basil is going to die, your cilantro is going to die, but parsley is going to grow all season into the following year.”
What would I have to do wrong to kill it? “You really can’t unless you neglect it to the extreme. It has a really deep taproot, so it can handle erratic watering.”
What is it? Various peppers. But not bell peppers, because they only give you 5 to 8 peppers over a long growing season. “A single habanero or jalapeno plant will give you zillions.” Also try lunchbox peppers, “the cherry tomatoes of peppers.”
How much sunlight does it require? At least seven hours of sunlight. Ideally more than eight.
What makes it easy to grow? They’re not disease prone and they’re not as attractive to pests as other vegetables. “Everybody loves tomatoes, but tomatoes are really disease prone and need a special style of pruning ... Peppers are resilient.”
What would I have to do wrong to kill it? Underwatering them. “You don’t want to water the leaves. Water the roots. They need water every day in full sun.