Look,” says Ellen Henke, a blue-eyed, garden-fresh Irish lass in granny specs. “Plants don’t need to be talked to, touched, loved or listen to music. That’s all a lot of faddist hokum.”
Henke may sound like la belle dame sans merci, but she knows about plants. A landscape gardener’s daughter, she grew up amidst the in-and outdoor greenery of a fabulous Westchester estate tended by her Irish immigrant dad. She is now a plant doctor herself—a Columbia Ph.D. in botany, a landscape designer and teacher of horticulture to a fast-growing class of plant enthusiasts at New York’s Botanical Garden. And she will have no truck with the currently fashionable theories propounded in such books as The Secret Life of Plants. “They don’t respond to you at all,” she insists. “Only to the correct care you give them.”
Having forsaken laboratory research in favor of “heading for the mud itself,” Henke, 33, experiments with a veritable forest of plants she and her husband George, an IBM executive, tend at their Pleasantville, N.Y. home. She finds the biggest mistake most anxious indoor gardeners can make is to “overlove their plants,” and her advice sounds like a Marine drill sergeant barking commands:
“Don’t worry about casualties. If you’ve experimented with a plant, and it’s not responding, kiss it goodbye! Why get depressed?
“Push your plants to the limit. If you want to use them to decorate a dark corner, do it. If a few leaves turn yellow, that’s no tragedy.”
To provide her clients with clear, no-nonsense directions on raising plants, she began typing up instructions for them on index cards—a “fingertip reference system,” which is now being marketed as Plants-at-a-Glance. It is a guide to 78 common houseplants, arranged desk-calendar style, and, claims Henke, is easier to use than a gardening book, “of which there are millions. How can people develop a green thumb if they’re thumbing through books?”
Perhaps most important to raising successful plants, says Henke, is to buy a healthy one at the start. Be sure to check the roots, she urges. How? “Just knock the pot against the side of the counter to loosen the plant, turn it upside down, take a quick peek at its roots. They should be white. Then pop the plant back in the pot. You might get some problems from the salesman, though. So be sneaky.”