If you have been gardening for any amount of time, you’ve experienced how being with plants can bring great joy. My guest this week, self-professed plant killer turned plant lady Maria Failla, has penned a book that explores how and why plants lift our spirits, and she’s here to share the wellness benefits of raising houseplants and gardening.
Maria is the host of the Bloom & Grow Radio podcast and the author of “Growing Joy: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Cultivating Happiness (and Plants)” which will be published on June 7. She started her podcast as a side project while living in a tiny apartment in New York City and working in theater. When the pandemic hit New York, she was suddenly out of work but had the opportunity to focus on the Bloom & Grow brand and soon came an offer to write her first book.
What separates “Growing Joy” from other houseplant books is it is a self-care guide first and a plant-care guide second.
Before proceeding any further with our discussion of “Growing Joy,” I want to take a moment to remind you that I have a new book coming out in September, and it’s available for pre-order now. The title is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” and I’m very excited for you to read it. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
How ‘Growing Joy’ Came to Be
“When I got into plants as an extremely overstimulated millennial living in New York City in 500 square feet, I brought plants home — houseplants initially — because I wanted to make my home look beautiful, and I wanted to nest with my boyfriend who is now my husband,” Maria recalls. “But what I realized, I came for the design but I stayed in this hobby for the wellness benefits that I think we all as either outdoor or indoor gardeners experience.”
Maria says she was screen-addicted. She woke up each morning and had her first coffee with her phone in her hand, watching YouTube and scrolling Instagram. But when she became a balcony gardener, she enjoyed her morning coffee with her plants instead of her phone.
“That moment where I was able to just create some space for myself using plants as an excuse, not only helped me reconnect with nature — because I was so deeply disconnected with nature after living in New York City for a decade — but it also gave me space to reconnect with myself,” she says.
The way that tending to gardens provides “me-time” for outdoor gardeners, Maria’s time with her houseplants did the same for her. It afforded her the opportunity to be alone with her thoughts.
“How easy is it for us to go through the day and not have any time for original thinking anymore because of all the distractions?” she asks. ”And plants became my wellness tool, my vehicle for reacquainting myself with myself.”
Maria says she could see her life reflected in her pot of herbs or when she learned how to prune her monstera for the first time.
“I personally am someone who has read every self-help book in the world,” she says. “I’m a huge self-development enthusiast. I love finding those teachable moments.”
Maria has a throughline on her podcast called “Plant-side Chats.” It’s a recurring segment in which she talks about life lessons that she has learned in the garden. That led to a representative of St. Martin’s Essentials, a lifestyle imprint of St. Martin’s Press, asking Maria if she would consider writing a self-care book focused on plant care.
“Growing Joy” includes a “plant killer to plant person” crash course for newbies to plants, but that’s not the thrust of the book.
“The heart of the book is really about cultivating an emotional connection with plants and therefore cultivating an emotional connection with yourself through plant care,” Maria says. “It’s my love letter to plants. I feel like it’s just my little distilled worldview on how I think plants are the answer to making the world a kinder and greener place.”
Her love of plants also helped her make adult friendships in New York City when she found the plant community online. The list of benefits to being a plant person just goes on and on!
I have been a guest on Maria’s podcast a number of times and have enjoyed talking with her about seed starting and fall gardening. I appreciated Maria’s insights and lessons in “Growing Joy” as well as the beautiful illustrations by botanical artist Samantha Leung.
Reflection Amid a Pandemic
Maria wrote “Growing Joy” to help herself as well as others go through seasons of their life and the highs and the lows.
“When the pandemic hit and theater evaporated in front of my eyes, I got the opportunity to evaluate what Bloom and Grow would look like as a real grown-up job, instead of just this like side hustle,” Maria says.
Broadway was her career focus while Bloom and Grow was still a passion project. Maria had booked a Broadway show after auditioning with a theater for 10 years only for it to be shut down by COVID-19 two or three days before opening night. “That broke my brain a little bit,” she says.
After taking some time to recover, she looked at her options. She knew other performers waited tables for their side hustle, and they couldn’t work as New York’s restaurants remained closed.
She recalls thinking: “I am so fortunate that I have this podcast about gardening — and people really got into gardening in the pandemic. So what would my life look like if I evaluated Bloom and Grow full-time?”
It was just a week or two later when the St. Martin’s Essentials book editor reached out to her.
When it came time for Maria to write the book, she had moved out of her apartment with her future husband, lived with her parents for six months to save money, and moved into a cabin on 5 acres in the country. It was quite the change of scenery from her 500-square-foot apartment. She was far from friends — she saw more wild turkeys than people that first year — and COVID caused the postponement of her wedding three times.
Maria says she was crying a lot at the time that she had to write a book with “joy” in the title. But the book was better for it. “In writing this book, I really had to really sit with these practices and sit with practicing what I preached,” she says.
She had moved in December, and her houseplants did not appreciate that. On top of the stress of the move in winter, she hadn’t been watering them and tending to them like she used to. She also hadn’t called any friends in three weeks, stopped going to therapy and the gym, and was feeling isolated. But noticing the miserable state of her plants served as a wake-up call.
“I think as gardeners, we all go through these seasons where we’re really on our gardening game, and then we kind of fall off of it. I know with houseplant parents, it’s the same thing. I committed to engaging with a plant every day, and slowly but surely — it’s a line in the book — slowly but surely my plants perked up and slowly but surely I felt myself come alive alongside them.”
She believes plant care offers a real opportunity to learn how to care for yourself. Remembering to water plants also reminds us to take care of ourselves.
Getting Rooted in Routine
“Growing Joy” includes more than 60 practices to get you engaging with plants and yourself, Maria says. This includes both science-based and spiritually-based practices. “And then there’s really kooky practices that I like to do,” she adds.
She aims to help readers merge their self-care routine and their plant-care routine.
“Creating a routine around your garden or houseplant-care practice is so important because it gives you those opportunities to check in with your plants on a daily basis and also gives you those opportunities to have that ‘awe moment,’” Maria says.
Adults don’t get to stand in awe of things the way kids can — and they’re missing out. But when we engage with plants, we can be amazed by the peduncle on our hoya or the first flower on a tomato plant, she says.
By “routine,” Maria doesn’t mean a watering routine. People get that confused, think they should be watering every day, and they end up overwatering their plants, she says. “They want to tend to their plants, and they want to engage with their plants, but there’s so many other things you could do with your plants every day besides watering.”
One of the most important routines Maria encourages readers to get into is to look at a plant before they look at a screen in the morning.
“That’s where we lose ourselves, right? When we wake up in the morning and we immediately give away our agency and our sense of self to our phones or computers,” Maria says.
Because our alarm clocks are on our phones now, phones have become the first thing we touch in the morning. It’s so easy to turn off your alarm clock and open Instagram or a daily newsletter, but it’s so much better for us to wake up in a slower space and be with ourselves rather than engaging with a screen that will stress us out.
Engaging with houseplants or taking a deep breath outside in your garden first thing in the morning is, for our mental health, such a better way to start the day.
The moment that you put that phone in your hands — other than to turn off the alarm — you start to lose control and allow the phone to set the course of your day and your state of mind. Finding some way to take control, whether it be journaling, praying, meditating, etc., even for a few minutes, makes all the difference. It sets you up for success and sets the tone for the day. And it’s empowering.
Maria says it can feel “itchy” to not be with our phone because we’ve been trained to not be alone with our thoughts and our minds. She encourages everyone to challenge themselves to look at a plant before they look at a screen for 30 days and to share with her on social media how things change for them.
Forest bathing is an idea that comes from Japan, where it is called shinrin-yoku. It means taking in and enjoying the forest atmosphere. Maria says several scientific studies back up the effectiveness of this practice, and mental health professionals are now prescribing forest bathing to patients.
Maria shares that when she was feeling low and lost after losing her job as a performer, her mother suggested she get out and walk in the woods every day for 20 minutes. Having learned about first bathing in Dr. Qing Li’s book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness,” she gave it a try — and she credits it with changing her life.
“I had understood forest therapy, and I had understood the studies that I read that prove all of these amazing benefits that being with trees can do for you,” she says. “But I don’t think I really understood the medicinal value of forest bathing and just being in nature until I started, in a very regimented way, immersing myself in nature in the forest every day.”
Maria’s mother was already in the habit of going for forest walks and often talks about gardening as medicinal. In fact, Maria quotes her mother in the book: “Gardening: good for your head, good for your heart and good for your ass.”
When Maria started seeing the seasons change on her daily walks, from spring into summer into fall, she was able to come back to herself, she says. She shares that after losing her job she didn’t feel like singing because it reminded her of what she had lost. But in the forest, she began to imitate the chirping of birds
“The first moment that I wanted to sing again was actually on one of my walks,” she says. “And that’s actually how I found my voice. There was this inexplicable therapy that was happening on that daily basis of me just walking around, being in awe of nature, looking at the sun filtering through the leaves, seeing whatever animals were around to hang out with whatever was in bloom that day.”
Being around trees helps us in ways that can be hard to explain.
“When you’re around trees that have been around so much longer than you have been, and they’re gonna be around so much longer after, that gives you perspective into your tiny little problems,” she says.
And it doesn’t need to be an elaborate overnight trip or a two-hour hike. Just 20 minutes can make a discernible difference.
I’m fortunate to work at home and have my garden right outside my door. When I need a break from my daily stress, I step into the garden for a walk and begin to look at plants. Before I know it, I’m humming or singing because being among plants puts me in a good mood. Suddenly, I am totally happy, and I didn’t even catch myself in the transition of that moment.
I also like to have my lunch outdoors on a gliding chair in peace and quiet, with no music or podcasts playing — just the rustling trees and birdsong. I feel dramatically different afterward.
In “Growing Joy,” Maria has a section on the autonomic nervous system and the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system, explaining the reasons why being outdoors in a peaceful environment is a restorative moment for your nervous system.
Lessons Learned from Redwood Trees
I got goosebumps reading what Maria wrote in “Growing Joy” about redwoods: Stand up straight and proud. Slow and steady wins the race. Keep going, even after something tries to burn you down; you are more resilient than you think. Grow strong roots, share them with those around you. Support others. Your uniqueness is what makes you resilient. There is power in silence.
Maria hugged her first redwood in 2019. She notes that they are fire-resistant because of the tannins they contain. One tree she visited was hollowed out from a fire, but still growing.
“I just thought that was the most poetic thing I’d ever heard: getting burned down but growing through it,” she said.
“Although this book is about me and my story, this book is about you and what you’re going to take from it,” Maria says. “I want everyone to have these mind-blowing, heart-opening moments that I have with plants. So throughout the book, I share my stories, but then at the end of all my stories, I have ‘dig deep’ prompts that take the themes of these stories and have you dig deep in yourself.”
“Dig deep” means getting beneath the surface, and asking yourself “why?” one more time, Maria explains.
On an emotional basis, this practice helps us get to the bottom of our struggles. For gardeners, we dig deep literally when we plant, and we dig deep in our research as we grow more curious. We learn how to garden, and then learn why we garden that way, and then we experiment ourselves.
Make More Plants, Grow More Joy
Our mutual friend Craig Lehoullier, a tomato expert, appeared on an early episode of Maria’s podcast and afterward offered to send her micro-dwarf tomato seeds. The compact tomato plants were perfect for an apartment gardener such as herself at the time.
“He sent me this whole envelope with all sorts of different seeds, there were all sorts of different types,” Maria recalls. “And I got to experience seed starting for the first time.”
Her first seed starting setup included an egg carton, seed starting mix and a period-cramp heating pad on a cookie sheet, covered with plastic wrap. She went through the steps that Craig shared with her on the podcast and had an amazing experience. (In an essay in her book, she equates seed starting with putting on a theater show.)
“Starting a tomato seed and watching it grow into a plant and then harvesting from it in one season is so amazing — I mean, if that doesn’t light you up, I don’t know what will,” Maria says. “It is the most joyful experience that I had ever experienced before, as a former plant killer living in New York City.”
Craig gave Maria more seeds than she could use, so she separated the extras into individual bags that she gave out at a plant swap with other apartment gardeners. Craig’s small gesture, for the cost of a stamp, showed how we can spread kindness, and Maria, in turn, passed seeds on to others, inspiring them as well.
In furtherance of spreading kindness and building relationships, Maria dedicated chapters of “Growing Joy” to explaining how to host a plant swap and how to connect with others through plants.
As a member of the joegardener Facebook group for some time, Maria often witnesses how gardeners help each other out and lift each other up.
Biophilia & Biophilic Design
German social psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term “Biophilia,” which was later popularized by naturalist E.O. Wilson. It refers to humans’ innate appreciation of nature. Biophilic design integrates natural elements into architecture and living space to mesh our built environment with nature.
“As humans, we are intrinsically designed to be connected to other living things,” Maria says. Biophilia is about taking that truth and figuring out how to become closer to nature, she explains. This includes our plants as well as our pets. “We should be around life, not plastic,” she says.
Biophilic design does not mean taking an anthurium leaf pattern and putting it on a couch, Maria clarifies. “It’s evaluating how we can bring the outdoors in to lead to better wellness, but on a much larger scale.”
It’s a building design that asks how sunlight and southern exposure can be optimized. And how can we put plants indoors, and how can we install living walls?
A study of workplaces and biophilic design found that employees desire more natural light and plants in their office buildings, Maria notes. On a smaller scale, we can include biophilic design in our home office space by adding houseplants.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Maria Failla. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
How have plants helped you engage in self-care? Let us know your results and experience in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Qing Li
“Biophilia” by E.O. Wilson
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.