Like many of his friends, Jake Foster considered leaving his Brooklyn apartment and retreating to his parents’ home in Dallas to escape the endless drumbeat of coronavirus. But first he had to devise a plan for his 60 house plants.
He thought about rigging up a drip watering system, but it was beyond his engineering skills.
“I sketched out a few ideas in my mind, but nothing that wouldn’t end up flooding my apartment and killing all my plants,” said Mr. Foster, 33, a software engineer. “So I ended up staying here.”
As the weeks have passed, Mr. Foster has unexpectedly become a good Samaritan to plants left behind by fleeing New Yorkers. Riding his bike around the city, he’s picked up more than a dozen plants discarded on street curbs or left outside apartment buildings.
“The intent wasn’t that I was leaving to find plants, but the more I started doing it, the more plants became available to me,” he said. “There’s an unwritten law that once you start looking for something, you find it everywhere.”
While some departing residents have left plants on streets, flora of all shapes and sizes have also been abandoned in now-empty apartments, office buildings and commercial spaces. Friends and neighbors who have remained in the city have been called upon to care for deserted plants, and watering services have stepped in to care for greenery left in workplaces.
“Everyone has their priorities,” said Lauren Sottile, 27, a retail associate at Greenery Unlimited, a plant nursery and biophilic design store in Brooklyn. “If you’re looking out for the safety of your children, you may not be thinking about your plants as a first priority. But for a lot of us, plants are like our kids.”
Ms. Sottile was sad to leave her “kids” behind when she temporarily moved back to her parents’ home in Holmdel, N.J., several weeks ago, so she has been borrowing her father’s car to drive in once a week and care for the 120 plants that fill the Greenpoint apartment she shares with a roommate who left the city in late April.
She then swings by her boyfriend’s apartment — he left in mid-April for Indiana — to feed his 15 plants, including a fussy fiddle-leaf fig, before dropping in at Greenery Unlimited’s warehouse to help fill plant orders. Although their retail shop in Greenpoint is closed, the company’s online and delivery orders have been booming, as many who have remained in the city are discovering their green thumbs for the first time.
The same has been true at Urban Garden Center, in East Harlem, said Sarah Gatanas, who handles customer service and special events at the 61-year-old garden store. “Starter seeds have been flying of the shelves,” she said, describing business at the 20,000-square-foot, largely outdoor plant center, which has been open to limited foot traffic during limited hours. (Horticulture businesses are allowed to operate during New York’s coronavirus shutdown.)
“I can’t believe how many people living in apartments in the city think they’re going to grow their own corn plants,” said Ms. Gatanas, 40, though she understands the impulse. Stuck at home and seeking to add air-purifying greenery to their lives, people are taking up gardening and utilizing their patios and balconies to grow vegetable gardens.
Now that the weather is warming up, any outdoor space — even a fire escape — can provide a solution for people who are unable to take their plants back to their childhood home or their rental cottage in the Catskills. On a recent return to her apartment, Ms. Sottile moved many of her plants to the fire escape outside her bedroom window to let nature water them.
Ms. Gatanas suggested leaving plants in a partially filled bathtub, or investing in self-watering planters. She also noted that some low-maintenance plants like pothos, snake plants and peace lilies are particularly resilient and can last several weeks without any attention, but beyond that, she recommended asking a neighbor or friend to drop by for a little maintenance.
While many city dwellers are still living in their homes and taking care of their plants, the situation is different in the thousands of offices that have emptied out since the shutdown began. From elaborate lobby botanical installations to humble desk plants, the greenery in offices throughout the city is likely to be looking a little wan at this point — unless of course your company has hired the services of a plant caretaker like Juliette Vassilkioti.
The founder of My City Plants, Ms. Vassilkioti provides plant consultations, installations and maintenance for mostly commercial clients in Manhattan, along with an online shop for plants and plant products. These days, she is spending much of her time visiting 17 different office buildings to care for the plants in businesses that have shut their doors. Taking the ferry over from her home in Roosevelt Island, then walking, the 49-year-old plant custodian spends a couple of hours at each site, watering, trimming, cleaning and rotating the plants. Large plants, she said, can go six to eight weeks without much attention, but smaller plants need biweekly care.
A lot of these plants are more than just thirsty, Ms. Vassilkioti said. To save money, building operators have turned off the lights and reduced air-circulating heating and air-conditioning systems, both of which are vital for plant health. So part of her job is to shift plants into whatever natural light and air is available.
For those working in buildings where interim plant maintenance has not been provided, Ms. Vassilkioti predicted that returning to work may not be a pretty picture, though she offered some solace.
“People are going to come back and find their plants dead and it’s going to be very stressful,” she said. “But it’s OK to say ‘goodbye’ and get a new plant. Plants are supposed to make us feel good, and right now we have so much other crazy stuff going on, we don’t need to feel sad.”
Mr. Foster isn’t ready to give up on any of his plants, even the most unsightly of his rescues. “I think I might catch and release this one,” he said of the half-dead Wandering Jew plant he found hanging from a tree branch down the street from his apartment. Now revived, the purple and green trailing plant is taking up too much of his 600-square-foot apartment in Clinton Hill.
“I thought if it was taken care of and looked good, it would be more apt to be taken in by someone,” he said. “It’s nice to think that somebody out there would see it, and want to snag it.”
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