Turning a New Leaf: Keeping Houseplants Alive

Turning a new leaf: How I'm keeping my house plants alive

One night last week – an hour before Home Depot closed – I got the sudden overwhelming urge to buy a houseplant. No contemplation necessary – I dashed out of the house in search of one. I must have blacked out as soon as I got to the store cuz when I came to I was sitting in a jungle formerly known as Eli’s car.

Welcome to the jungle – Eli's car full of plants.

One plant turned into 5: a snake plant, a ZZ plant, 2 jade plants, and a larger-than-I-realized fiddle leaf fig. This was probably ill-advised given my track record. I once killed a jade plant & 2 succulents within just a few short months of owning them – so much for "indestructible"! This is all to say that my new plants are probably doomed, but I'm really gonna try harder this time to keep them alive. Starting by actually finding a home for each of them that suits their needs, rather than just putting them wherever I think would look prettiest in the room.

Indoor plants are just too good to give up on...they totally elevate a room with dimension, color, movement and life.  They’re especially great in small spaces that otherwise can start to feel claustrophobic & stale. I especially like tropical plants that trick me into feeling like I'm in Fiji about to go to the beach instead of in DC about to go to work.

Living in an urban, attached rowhouse kinda limits my options for acceptable plant real estate – there isn't much natural light & I like to keep the blinds closed while I'm at work for security reasons. On the bright side (ha!), 2 of the 5 plants I picked out promise to do just fine without a ton of sun, so there's a chance I can give the other 3 what they need. Here's a quick introduction to the newest members of our household and how I plan to care for them, as well as an honest assessment of their chances for survival. I know there are some expert gardeners reading this, so please chime in to let me if I’m doing OK or royally screwing it up!

Fiddle Leaf Fig (figs not included)

Fiddle leaf fig sunbathing in the guest room

I often second-guess my design choices – do I still like the color of the walls? were the built-ins the best way to go? who am I? where did I come from?–  and yet the moment I carried this guy over the threshold I was all, “I LOVE EVERYTHING.” No matter where I put him, everything around just seems to gel better. That must be why all my favorite designers & bloggers insist on them. That being said, after doing some research (which sounds much more exhaustive and scientific than “After googling it…”) I've decided to rename him to the Fickle Leaf Fig (AKA Mr. Fickle for short), cuz man is he needy! Here’s a quick rundown of his (many) likes & dislikes.

Lots of sunlight – but only the indirect kind.

Whoops – my house might fall under "cruel and unusual punishment" for a plant of his caliber. I do have a few dependable sunny spots that might work, but the only one that has enough available space for a TREE is the guest room/office. Eventually I’d like to bring more natural light into the house with skylights & glass doors, which could be Mr. Fickle's passport to travel the far reaches of the house. Until then, my mission is simply to keep him alive and ogle his beauty.

High humidity.

Lucky for Mr. Fickle, DC is a humid mess from May until October. Unlucky for him, it's now November. (wait, WHAT?!) I don’t plan on buying a humidifier, but I'll reconsider if the situation gets really dire. For now, I’ll just use a spray bottle filled with warm water to mist the leaves every few days like he’s Kim K. (Note to self: buy spray bottle)

Apparently vents are a silent killer of fiddle leaf figs everywhere. Too much air flow (hot or cold) can dry him out, so I’ve positioned him away from those. I’ve heard that in the summer months I can even let him play outside as long as I keep him out of direct sunlight – then he can truly appreciate all the humidity this swamp has to offer! 

Water somewhat sparingly.

Fiddle leaf figs prefer well-drained soil and should only be watered when the top inch of soil feels dry. As long as I remember to check, this shouldn’t be a problem. Of course there's an app for that, called Koubachi that I may have to check out. Watering is always the hardest part for me. My plants get sad and the experts say, “You’re either watering too much or not enough.” That’s like saying, “Your cat is either dying of starvation or he's morbidly obese…it’s hard to say. You could try feeding him more or less, but make the wrong choice and he's a goner!” Is that supposed to be helpful?? But I digress. I’m just gonna check the soil once a week by sticking my finger in the dirt to tell if it’s wet or dry, just like I do when I need to test if a cake is baked all the way. Also, I need to find a snazzy planter with the appropriate drainage holes.

Repot when the roots start to show.

I shouldn’t have to worry about repotting this winter, but next spring I’ll check the bottom of the planter for roots. If they start growing out of the bottom holes it's time to get a bigger pot.


The leaves on this guy are bigger than my head, and that's saying something! Just like anything else, they collect dust. Unlike my lamp, if Mr. Fickle gets covered in dust he can suffocate and die. That should be motivation enough to dust the house more regularly!

Chance of survival in my house:

Medium. Okay, more like medium-low, but a girl can dream, can't she?  I’ll keep you posted, hopefully with updates of how much fun Mr. Fickle is having and how he doesn't even mind me calling him fickle nor does he miss Cameroon at all! Cross your fingers, people.

Snake Plant

Snake plant laying low in the laundry room

Less luxurious & show-horsy than Mr. Fickle, but still very interesting, attractive and green. The snake plant (aka Mother-In-Law's Tongue) prefers a regimen that's more my speed.

likes indirect sunlight but can get on ok without it.

From what I've read it sounds like any amount of indirect light should be fine, so this plant has a lot more options in terms of finding a place to live. Let that be a lesson for picky people everywhere! For now I’ve set him by the back door in the laundry room, aka my favorite place to chill. I’ll probably move him when it starts to get really cold so he doesn’t freeze every time I open & close the door.

Water sparingly.

If this plant starts to turn yellow it means he's thirsty. I like that he promises to give clear signals – communication is the key to a beautiful relationship!

chance of survival in my house:

I like his odds!

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

ZZ plants are some of the lowest maintenance plants, so I've placed mine in a nook that only gets slight amounts of light. 

Yes, this picture is dark – welcome to my house. : ] I think this is the first peek of my hallway on the blog, and as you can see there ain't much goin' on yet. The ZZ plant is trying to change that and encourage me to put some artwork up on the walls... I hear you, ZZ Top, I promise it's coming.

Sunlight optional.

You may recognize this plant from all the times you pinched its leaves as a kid in the mall trying to prove to your friends that "yes, it is TOO a real plant!" He’s real, he's lush, he doesn’t need much – which is why he'll do just fine here. He even gets a very small glimpse of all the light Mr. Fickle is enjoying in the guest room, and that gives him hope for a better future. (clearly I've moved on from plants and am now waxing poetic about the 99%)

Water sparingly.

Like the snake plant, ZZ Top prefers well-drained soil and doesn't need to be watered much. In fact, I hear it’s better to forget to water than to overwater, and we know how good I am at that! 


If he dies I am officially the worst and should be banished to live in an old shopping mall that doesn't even have a Pottery Barn or mattress store to sleep in.

Jade plants

Jade plants like full, persistent sun

Despite my better judgement and the dead jade plant already weighing on my conscience, I bought 2 smaller plants. Their squishy-looking leaves are just so majestic, I can’t help myself!

sunlight necessary.

Jade plants like full sun. My last one (God rest her soul) was perched on the living room built-ins – close to the front window but probably not close enough. The front window doesn't get great light anyway, because it faces north and looks out onto our covered porch. I'm learning from my mistakes and giving these guys prime real-estate by all the south-facing windows my house can offer. I've got one on my nightstand (pictured above) and the other in the breakfast nook (aka the laundry room, pictured below). Since the temperatures are starting to drop I was careful not to place them too close to the window, where they could catch a cold and die. 

Jade plant getting sun in the laundry room

Water sparingly.

Are you noticing a theme here? Just like all the other plants I got, jade likes well-drained soil and infrequent waterings. I think I took this advice a little too close to heart last time...crystalized stems probably equal "thirsty" ... just a guess. That being said, you're supposed to water more in the summer and less in the winter, so for now I'll leave these guys alone and hope for the best. I mean, I'll give them a little water every few weeks.

fertilize every 3 to 4 months.

In the spring I'll add fertilizer to the soil to encourage growths, and then again in July or August. I definitely didn't do this with my last jade plant, and I think that expedited her swift decline.

Dust when dusty.

These guys are right behind the fiddle leaf fig in my new dusting routine!

Chance of survival in my house:

I'm feeling cautiously optimistic that my last jade experience was enough to scar me into properly caring for these little ones. Odds are decent.

So now you've met the whole fan-damily. I'll report back every now and then to let you know how they're doing, what they're wearing, and any grand adjustments I've made to keep them alive. If you've got plant advice, please lay it on me in the comments! 

Trying Not to Ruin the Wallpaper

It's done! It's done! The powder room is done!

Wallpaper is "Mountains" by Miss Print courtesy of Wallpaper Direct, soap dish & hook are from Signature Hardware, and mirror is from Homegoods

If you’re confused because you saw me finish the wallpaper 4 months ago, then that makes two of us. What feels like an eternity in blogging years was double that IRL (that's 8 months, in case it's too early to be doing math where you are). And yet the powder room was still not finished! What was the hold-up, you ask?? 

Gardenia soap dish form Signature Hardware & "Mountains" by Miss Pixie wallpaper

A spot for the soap & hand towel. A small thing, I know – & yet so important. I should probably be embarrassed, but I’m too busy being relieved. It was like running the race of my life and then crawling the last 20 meters in Crane Pose. Anti-climactic much?

I've never given much thought to the soap & hand towel sitch in other bathrooms. The soap goes on the counter, the towel goes on the towel bar. #NoBrainer And yet suddenly it wasn't so obvious once I found myself with a doll-sized bathroom, a doll-sized sink and wallpaper that I'm terrified of putting holes in. What I really wanted was this mirror from Anthropologie (or this one!) with an attached shelf for soap because that would be a 2 birds 1 stone scenario – but I couldn't bring myself to spend $300 on a mirror for the powder room. Maybe someday...

I was driving myself crazy looking at affordable options & liking none of them when I stumbled upon these little cuties on Signature Hardware’s website. They were simpler and more rustic than anything I'd considered before, but I think that’s what I liked most about them. The wallpaper is the true star here, and these guys are perfectly happy to be out of the limelight and revel in their understated charm.

      Gardenia Soap Dish

      Gardenia Soap Dish

 Solid brass hook with porcelain knob

 Solid brass hook with porcelain knob

I was gonna have to suck it up and put some holes in the wall. Four to be exact – enough to nearly give me a heart attack! So I did what any normal person does when they think they're having a heart attack – I consulted the all-knowing interwebs. Obviously. Experts seem to agree on this method for protecting the sanctity of your wallpaper: cut an upside down V in the wallpaper, peel it down and put your nail hole directly in the drywall. Then, when you decide to move whatever was hung there, you should be able to paste the paper flap back where it was for a seamless repair. It sounds pretty clever – but I'm hoping I never have to find out if it actually works. I just went with it, and so far so cute.


Signature Hardware's Gardenia soap dish & solid metal hook in oil-rubbed bronze

All the success stories I’ve read to date talk about using this trick for itty bitty nail holes. I, on the other hand, needed some big honkin’ craters for drywall anchors and screws. That complicates matters because any repairs would require me to remove the anchors, spackle the gaping hole where my heart used to be and sand it down to be level with the drywall I can no longer see – all without messing up the wallpaper. Should be fun! This is either a really dumb idea, or it’s a perfect example of "scaling up." Don't worry, guys. I have some spare paper lying around if things go totally bananas.

If you have wallpaper and feel like taking a leap of faith with me, here’s how I hung these fixtures:

1. I started by choosing a position on the wall. This gets its own step because what's usually a simple task feels like a high-stakes gamble when wallpaper is involved. I wanted the soap & towel to be convenient to reach when standing at the sink so guests don't have to bend down, reach up, or smush their arms like a T-Rex to dry their hands. I also wanted them to sit at a point in the pattern that would help me camouflage future hypothetical repairs.

Powder room complete with Signature Hardware soap dish & towel hook as well as Miss Pixie's Mountains wallpaper

2. Next, I leveled the hanging plate and just barely marked my holes with pencil. When I say "just barely," I mean my mark could have been confused for a microscopic dust particle. It’s a miracle I could see it at all.

Use a level to mark the position for a soap dish

3. Then I held my drywall anchors up to the wall & centered it on the microscopic-dust-flake-of-a-mark to determine how big of an upside-down V I needed to cut. The answer, to my dismay, was “Really big.” : [

I held the drywall anchor up to the wall to mark the size of the cut in the wallpaper

4. Then for the “Here goes nothing” moment — I used an Exacto knife to cut the upside-down V big enough to comfortably surround the drywall anchor on all sides....... What's done is done.

5. Gently, carefully, nervously I peeled the wallpaper back from the wall and bent it down. My two cut-outs looked like evil Jack-o’-lantern eyes saying, “What have you done?!”

I peeled back the wallpaper to make room for my drywall anchors

6. Then it was time to bring out the big guns, and by guns I mean drill. I drilled 1/4” holes on my original marks and then screwed in the cool drywall anchors that came with my soap dish. Those eyes just got a little creepier...

Drywall anchors in

7. From there it was a matter of attaching & adjusting the hanging plate so it was level. I screwed it in most of the way, checked the level and then tightened it down. The actual soap dish hooked onto the plate with a little screw. 

I used my drill to drive screws into the anchors

It was essentially the same dealio for the towel hook, but with smaller holes and cutouts. Thank god. So there you have it. This room is fully functioning now! And my little Low-Cost-And-Found stool that I made from a lampshade is doing a fine job holding that extra toilet paper!

The powder room is finally finished after adding Signature Hardware fixtures for hand soap & towel.

This entire powder room makeover cost me less than $150, and the results are not too shabby if I do say so myself! It wins the honor of being the first "finished" room in the house. Also the smallest. ; ] Huge thanks once again to Dana Miller of HouseTweaking & Wallpaper Direct for gifting me this awesome wallpaper. The pattern is "Mountains" by Miss Print. 

From the Window, To the Wall

Last weekend I finally worked up the courage to install the medicine cabinet that's been sitting on top of the dryer for about a year. I was so excited to score it for $25 at Second Look Consignment – less excited about cutting a big hole in the drywall to install it. I could have mounted it on the wall, but a mirror jutting out 4 inches from the wall felt like an invasion of the little space we have. I put it off for a long time for fear of what lies beyond the wall (GoT, anyone?). There could be any number of things: pipes, wires, electrical boxes, or wall studs to name a few. I finally faced the uncertainty last week, and it turns out reality is stranger than fiction. 

Do you see what I see? A bow, a bow, dancing in the night!

I discovered a secret window. Apparently when the extension on our house was built, no one bothered to remove the original window…or the blinds... or the Christmas bow from 1949 (actual year unknown). I was sawing away at the drywall and discovered it while Eli watched World War Z on surround sound downstairs – so I was pretty sure I'd just unearthed a portal for the undead. My only defense was the saw in my hand, but it's been a week and I still have a heartbeat, so I think we're in the clear. Any zombie-like resemblance or behavior can be blamed on a lack of sleep and dehydration ; ]

For about a second I considered opening the adjoining wall in the bedroom so we'd have a window and natural light in the bathroom, but then I regained my sanity. Clearly no good could come from a drive-thru window to the loo. If only I'd found something more useful – like a wall of gold bars or a suitcase full o' cash! The last person who lived in this house grew up in the Great Depression, so there's still hope.

According to a This Old House tutorial I read, installing a medicine cabinet should be a pretty straightforward process. In my case it was what I like to call "an opportunity for creativity." The window wasn't going anywhere easily, and its rock-solid frame was butting into the space we needed for the cabinet. Let's say it together, "Bummerrrr."

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's go back to the beginning, so I can show you the whole process from soup to nuts. Rest assured, this story has a happy ending.

Before: Builder-grade mirror looking less than wonderful
After: A thrifted medicine cabinet brings a bit of elegance to a small bathroom

I started by measuring the back of the cabinet, which would need to slide into the wall ( 12" x 16" x 4" ), and then I used a measuring tape and laser level to mark the position so it was centered over the faucet. I had Eli hold the cabinet up to the wall so we could determine a height that worked for both of us. It turns out our happy place is about 11 inches between the bottom of the mirror and the countertop.

Once we had our placement drawn on the wall with a pencil, I used a studfinder to mark wall studs in the vicinity. This is the point at which I rejoiced because – YAY – the studs were perfectly centered around the faucet! I should be able to slide the cabinet in between them easy peasy. Ha ha, joke was on me. You know what they say: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. See my reflection in the hole below? Let's call that foreshadowing.

I carefully cut a small hole with a jab saw to check for wires and pipes.
I cut a small hole to check for pipes or wires

I used a jabsaw to carefully cut a 4" x 4" hole within my mark to do some reconnaissance. This Old House recommends driving a long screw thru the drywall to use as a handle for pulling it out once it's cut, which I thought was pretty clever idea. I did my best not to jab beyond the drywall (since I didn't know what was back there), and then I used a flashlight to look for pipes, wires or electrical boxes. Finding none of those things, I cut over to my actual mark and made my way around the larger rectangle. Clearly visible was the glint of glass, but I was too intrigued to turn back now!

This is where things got hairy. While I was busy laughing about the window (or zombie portal...?), the lil Christmas bow, and how lucky we got with the studs, Eli was keenly noticing the issue with the window frame. Typically, studs are 2" wide and 4" deep, so it makes sense that medicine cabinets are 4" deep to take full advantage of that space in the wall. In our case, the stud on the left was rotated because the window frame was all up in its grill, making the stud only 2 inches deep. Including the drywall, we had about 2.5 inches of usable space for our 4-inch deep medicine cabinet. Ughhhh.

The medicine cabinet won't fit all the way into the wall
The 2x4 was rotated to accommodate the window that was in the way of the stud

We had a few options. We could have slid the whole mirror to the right of the window frame, but that would make our mirror off-center and we'd have to cut the stud on the right. We also could have stuffed our valuables into the wall, re-attached the original mirror, and pretended like nothing ever happened ("What hole in the wall? ... Oh you mean our safe!") I didn't like either of those options, so I decided to build a new wooden frame around the outside of the hole that would make up the 1.5 inches we lost.

But first, I had to add 2 x 4s at the top and bottom of the space to support the cabinet. I cut them down to size and secured each piece one at a time. I lined it up to be flush with the opening and drove 1.5 inch drywall screws thru the wall and into the wood. Then I pre-drilled a hole going through the new wood and the original stud at a 45-degree angle and followed up with 2.5" decking screws. I secured each block to the left & right wall studs, so those suckers are SECURE. 

We screwed in new 2x4s at the top and the bottom of the hole

In a perfect scenario, we could have slid the cabinet in at this point, driven a few screws through the sides and called it a day. Alas, the window necessitated a few extra steps before any days could be called. Next up: building the outer frame. The edges would be visible when the cabinet was open (or by looking at it from the toilet...but why?), so I went with select pine board with nicely finished sides...none of that knotty bizness. I picked up a 6 foot piece of 1" x 2" select pine board (measures 0.75 in x 1.75 in) and cut it into 4 pieces to make up the frame. We used a triangle and 1" screws to fasten the sides together at right angles. 

Pine trim cut to create a frame
We used a triangle to make the corners of our frame square

Next we had to attach the frame to the wall. We lined it up with the hole and checked to see that it was level before we pre-drilled thru the frame, thru the drywall and into the studs. The drill started making awful screaching sounds, which we learned is the sound of wood rubbing against wood. To make it stop, we had to pull the drill out every so often and clear the bit of wood before going in for more. We used a countersinking drill bit so that our screws wouldn't stick out on the face of the frame. Each time we drilled a hole we came back with a 3" wood screw, and continued like this every 4 inches or so around the perimeter (the photo above is before we had all our screws in). Then I used wood filler to cover up the screws. Below you can see the difference between a basic pre-drilled hole and a countersunk hole.

What the pre-drilled hole looks like if you don't countersink
What the pre-drilled hole looks like after you've countesunk

While the wood filler was drying, I applied a waterproof, paintable, silicon caulk along all the seams. When caulking, I lay down a thin line of the stuff and then drag my finger down the edge to smooth it out. I let everything dry overnight and then applied two coats of paint the next day to match the walls. In a previous post (or two??) I said the color in the bathroom was Drizzle by Sherwin Williams. That's wrong. It's actually Sparkling Spring by Behr (730E-2) – my bad! 

After the paint dried, the frame looked like an extension of the wall. Obviously the mirror wouldn't be flush like I'd hoped, but a 1.75" bump-out is much more palatable than a 4"  bump-out (had we just mounted it on the wall).

We removed the mirror to make it easier to install the cabinet and then used four 1.5" screws & four 3/4" screws to secure it in place. Why the different lengths? I'm glad you asked. The holes closest to the back lead to wall studs and the holes in the front lead to the new wooden frame. I used longer screws in the back for extra security and shorter screws up front so they wouldn't poke through the outside of the frame. Once the screws were in, I gave it a few hard yanks to make sure it wasn't going anywhere, and then reattached the mirror. Tada! ... Almost ...

After painting the frame, it looks more like an extension of the wall than anything else.
With the mirror door on, you can see how small the actual medicine cabinet is by comparison

There was still one minor detail: shelves. I didn’t notice they were missing until very far along in the process – not that I would have cared since I got the cabinet for such a steal. Luckily the nubbins for holding shelves were still there, so I just had to make something to rest on them. I decided on glass, cuz I was feelin' classy & dangerous. 

I picked up a piece of replacement glass & a 3-piece glass-cutting kit from the hardware store. I measured the distance between the shelf-holders on the left & right, and the distance from the back of the cabinet to the front. Then I followed another This Old House tutorial to make the cuts. In short, you mark your cut, tape down a straight edge along your mark, and use your cutting tool to score the glass in one fell swoop. Then you tap the back of the glass behind the line you scored until you hear it *crack* and then slide it over to the edge and *snap* it. If you want to try it out I fully recommend watching the TOH tutorial for further deets and safety precautions (like wearing gloves on both hands the whole time...tsk tsk). 

Using a straightedge and glass cutter, the first step is to score the glass in one fell swoop
After scoring the glass, I tap the opposite side of the crack to make the break
Next, I slid the glass over to the edge and fold it cleanly to break off the piece I needed

The glass shelves are now in and lookin' sharp (literally and figuratively). Eli has voiced apprehension about his big paws getting sliced, so we'll see how long they last. I haven't had an issue, but it's a valid concern that I think can be addressed by adding a thick line of clear caulk to the edges – to be continued. It feels great to get the toothbrushes and toothpaste off the counter, and my contact case and floss have happily relocated from the metal bowl over the toilet. The "after" shot below was my debut in Real People, Fake Arms. At least now I know I've got a fall-back career modeling for mannequin arm makers. 

Finally! I can get my toothbrush off the counter

At the outset, I guessed this project would take less than 2 hours. HA! That was a gross underestimation. The window really threw me off, and it wasn't until the end that I realized the shelves were missing, so I had to make a few surprise trips to the hardware store. We had the cabinet duct taped up for about a week (as seen on instagram), but I'd estimate the actual project time was more like 6 hours (drying wood filler and paint included). That said, the whole project cost less than $50 and the bathroom definitely looks & works better – so it was totally worth it! Hopefully I didn't scare you out of installing one of your own. Plus, who knows? Maybe you'll find a fortune in your walls instead of a stinkin' Christmas bow.

There are just a few things left to do in the "master" bathroom now. I still need to pick out a new light fixture & a paint color for the vanity, and I want to swap the door swinging into the room for a sliding barn door. Upgrading the mirror and getting stuff off our small counter sure feels good, though!

Here's where we are now, with some final to-do's in the master bath

I hope you all have a fab holiday weekend!  Is anyone tackling a project they've put off for too long? I'm hoping we can stain our deck and get some pool time before summer abandons us.