What plants can survive me?
February 13, 2018 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I've killed most plants I've tried to grow through, frankly, a combination of ignorance and neglect. However I have managed to keep some oxalis triangularis (purple shamrock) thriving over several years indoors, even propagating it through repotting. I'd like to know what other plants I am likely to be able to keep alive on a New York City fire escape (moving them inside during the winter if necessary).

I would love to have a nice little mini-garden out on my fire escape. Last year I tried keeping basil and mint and dill out there, but my failure to water the plants every single day killed them within a couple of months. However, maybe it's just that herbs are pickier than other sorts of plants?

I am seeking plants which:
-Are perennials
-Thrive in pots
-Can live both indoors and (at least in spring/summer/fall) outdoors (in zone 7b, not that I really know what that means)
-Can survive several days in a row without water, or even die down to the ground completely and then spring back once watered (like the oxalis does)
-Don't need special care like pruning or fancy fertilizer to survive
-Bonus points for edibility

Thanks for your help in making me not a murderer!
posted by showbiz_liz to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Geraniums are tough as nails if they get lots of sun. They'll be sad and sickly without it, but with good sun, you can water them erratically and do nothing else for them and they'll thrive. In an office with good light, I kept one alive for years and years and hardly ever remembered to water it properly, as opposed to pouring it some out of whatever I was drinking. I'd get flaky for a while and it'd die back, but it came back to life as soon as I watered it again.

Then I moved into a darker office and it died immediately.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:25 AM on February 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've kept a couple of aloes alive for several years at this point -- they're desert plants, so they can go quite a while without water. I tend to water every 1-2 weeks in the summer, and then more like every 1-2 months in the winter, and they're doing great. They live near a window in the winter and in the shade of some bushes on the front steps in the summer.

I also want to recommend a self-watering pot for plants that need more attention than you normally can give; I've found it very helpful in putting a little more resilience in my plant system.
posted by spindrifter at 9:27 AM on February 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

You could also try self-watering containers. The pots have water reservoirs you fill once in a while so your plants have a steady supply of water without needing you to fill it.
posted by gladly at 9:31 AM on February 13, 2018

Sansevieria is the queen of unkillable houseplants. Can leave it in a dark closet with no water for a month and it will be fine. Enjoys being root bound, good at cleaning air too. Does not like overwatering though, that’s the only thing that can hurt it, and it’s fairly hard to do that if it’s potted properly with good drainage.

Also Ficuses are very hardy, and come in a zillion varieties.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:38 AM on February 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Rosemary is a hardy herb that can stand intermittent watering (or so says the rosemary plant on my front porch)!
posted by msbubbaclees at 9:51 AM on February 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Pothos are incredibly hardy. If you're able to hang it above your balcony, the vines will dangle down, or you could simply thread it through the balcony rails and let it do its thing. Or keep a trellis in the pot and wind it upwards. They survive indoors and out, even in lower temps -- and can flower, but don't usually. (The flowers are not very impressive.) They can also be grown from a cutting in water.

Warning: The leaves contain insoluble calcium oxalate which is toxic to pets and children. If you have any that like to graze, do not get one.
posted by zarq at 10:09 AM on February 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Spiderplants, but they make babies, and then you'll have a million spider plants.

posted by aniola at 10:15 AM on February 13, 2018

spiderplants if you've got shade, tomatoes if you've got sun.
posted by aniola at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2018

Dusty Miller (more) is another hardy perennial foliage plant that does extremely well in New York climates. We used to use it as a border around our small garden in Queens, but it can be grown in containers. Just make sure the pots have decent drainage. The leaves have a distinct silvery-gray fuzzy quality which can be quite striking when placed as a border near brightly colored flowers. Miller can be brought indoors during the winter (although our plants survived being iced over and snowed under in winter, so they can be left outside year-round.)
posted by zarq at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2018

Came in to also suggest rosemary.
posted by General Malaise at 10:19 AM on February 13, 2018

+1 for sansevieria (snake plant). I bought one in the flower district about a year ago and water it maybe once every 6 weeks if I happen to remember (and my apartment gets very dry in the winter). I keep it inside on a windowsill that gets indirect sunlight most of the year. I have yet to get around to repotting it from the plastic container it was sold in.

For edible plants, I've had the best luck growing sage. When I had outdoor space, I'd have the plants outdoor in the spring-fall and then prune and bring them inside in the winter. I am really really bad about watering plants, but my sage plant survived for about 4 years this way. Thyme was also pretty resilient. For outside plants, make sure you have proper drainage in the pots you're using, so they don't get too water-logged if we get a week of heavy rain.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:22 AM on February 13, 2018

One last suggestion, although it might seem counterintuitive because they (unfairly) have a bad rep as somewhat fragile.

Snapdragons. Perennials. Somewhat hardy. Can stand a frost or two and can be grown indoors if they have enough sunlight.

Suggest you buy plants that are already a decent size and potted. Snapdragons can be a bit fussy to get started from seed. (See instructions here.) They're brightly, beautifully colored (and if you have more than one breed in the same space they will interbreed and give really cool color combinations from year to year. They only require watering once a week, assuming they're not receiving rainfall.

Like pothos, they're poisonous. Don't eat them. Don't let pets or children near them who like to graze.
posted by zarq at 10:27 AM on February 13, 2018

Seconding Sansevieria. Schlumbergera (christmas cactus) is also quite hardy.
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:43 AM on February 13, 2018

I'm here to n-th pothos and spiderplants. Both very hearty. I also once rescued off the street something that after a little googling I think I've identified as a dragon tree and it is very easy to care for. My general plant care routine is to soak them with water every few weeks when I remember and all of these plants have thrived under my less-than-tender care.

Also, although I have just outed myself as semi-negligent, I actually have a ton of plants and keep the majority of plants I take under my wing alive for years, and I have killed, to date, at least 4 rosemary plants, usually within a few months of getting them. So they're not so easy for everyone.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:44 AM on February 13, 2018

Mint is pretty much impossible to kill. It’s like a weed that you make tea from.
posted by corb at 11:04 AM on February 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cast iron plant is also pretty good, and is a great house plant.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:42 AM on February 13, 2018

I can't recommend self watering containers enough. I made a few knockoffs of the EarthBox (example), and I've had great success with a variety of herbs.

The key is that normally there are two ways to kill plants - over and under watering. My planters have drain holes so it's not possible to over water - excess water pours out before it can drown the roots. This eliminates one way to kill plants, but it also makes under watering much harder - there's a reservoir so I don't need to remember to water as much, but also since I can't mess up by over watering (drain holes) I am much more liberal about giving water whenever I think of it, without having to look back and wonder if I'm adding too much.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 4:38 PM on February 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Okay, so I want to soothe some of your concern about being a plant murderer: If you got a couple of months with a basil plant, that's just about as much as a basil plant will give you, whether you're a vigilant waterer or not. (If you hadn't let it get all dried out and crispy, it would have started to flower and not be as tasty and gotten all leggy and weird and eventually died at the end of the summer anyway. Basil is a tropical/subtropical annual and will never overwinter. Standard gardening advice is to start basil seeds every couple of weeks to get a full summer of it; it is very much not a permanent plant under any growing conditions.)

Also, do you still have the pot you grew the mint in? Even if it died to the ground completely last summer, I would bet you $5 that if you put it outside right now it will send up shoots when the weather warms up in the spring. (I have accidentally brought spearmint from my first post-college apartment to two different houses in pots I thought just had potting soil in them; I am nearly 40. From fragments of roots, it is sending minty apple-green shoots up out of the ground right this second as I type. Mine lives in somewhere inadequately irrigated so goes dormant in summer but cannot be killed.)

Oregano/marjoram and thyme are perennials and do well enough in pots, and they're sunny Mediterranean plants, so they won't completely fry in hot weather. Rosemary is good too, but more finicky about cold weather (it must be brought in over the winter.) None of these are gonna love being inside, but may make it. (They get woody and weird after a few years too, so the goal with them is not to keep them alive indefinitely anyway.)

A key to container gardening is that while it seems like smaller pots will be easier to manage, larger pots are much, much more forgiving. They hold more water, they dry out less quickly. (Self-watering containers are also not a bad idea.) No one can keep anything alive outdoors in the 4- to 6-inch pots plants are sold in unless you mist daily (and are in a greenhouse). I have used EarthBoxes (a brand of self-watering container) and liked 'em pretty well.

Finally, being a "good gardener" means buying a lot of plants. If one doesn't work out, buy another one and replace it. I mean, grow basil! It's a fantastic summer annual, and if you buy it somewhere relatively cheap (I'm on a different coast, but our Trader Joe's sells quart-size plants for like $5), you can treat it like a living bunch of basil and use it in cooking for six weeks or whatever and then throw it away when it's used up or fried (I'm a professional garden writer! I do this!) Ditto parsley, which is fun to have around. They are not going to be inheritable by your grandchildren under any care conditions.

Some plants that are tough but not edible are houseplants including tradescantia (often called wandering Jew), sansevieria (mother-in-law's tongue), phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids), and peace lily (spathiphyllum; I had one in college that I repeatedly let wilt completely and then revived with Diet Coke and ice every couple weeks).
posted by purpleclover at 4:45 PM on February 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have pothos and two types of philodendron (I think), plus a spider plant and Christmas cactus (a cutting of a cutting of a plant that was in my great-grandmother's kitchen!), all of which do well surviving lackadaisical watering, and propagate easily for bonus gifts for friends and family! I usually water once a week, but often it's been once every two or three weeks. I've killed rosemary twice from over watering, although this year I'm doing better and it's still alive. I've kept a Meyer lemon going for four years now and this year it got its first ripe lemon, and the flowers smell lovely.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 6:14 PM on February 13, 2018

You may like to look into larger pots, self-watering pots, wicking pots, mulching, or simply water-storing amendments (NOT polymers - we're talking coir, biochar, etc.) for your potting mix. I mean any plant goes without water for long enough it's going to die (except, apparently, orchids) but those approaches will give you a bit more wiggle room.

Gardening of any kind is a habit that sometimes takes a little getting used to. If you can get into the habit of giving your pots and containers at least a cursory glance in the morning before work, or when you get home, to see if they need anything (or are getting too much of something), your problems will be solved. Perhaps an alarm on your phone? "8:00PM - CHECK PLANTS" Make it easier for yourself by keeping a small watering can right next to your tap as well.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:18 PM on February 18, 2018

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