Life Lessons From My Urban Garden

Could your relationship with your plants clue you in to what’s happening with your love life?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Could your relationship with your plants clue you in to what’s happeni. Tang digs deep to unearth some truths

I confess I only got into urban gardening because of Instagram. The lush interior shots with tags like #jungalowstyle and #urbanjungle had me green with envy. But I’ve always hated gardening, so my first plant was just meant to be a throwaway hip photo prop.

Now, a year later, I have 30 plants. Worldwide, the trend shows the same upswing. As self-care, slow living and other wellness movements become lifestyles instead of passing fads, urban gardening, with its scientifically-proven mental health benefits, has grown too, by an estimated 30 per cent yearly since 2015. The vertical farming niche alone is projected to surpass US$13 billion (S$17.6 billion) by 2024, according to a new research report by Global Market Insights – and that doesn’t take into account the millions of casual windowsill urban gardeners like me.

While plants bring a host of benefits (see sidebar), the real reason I’ve stuck with mine is that they’ve been a personal life coach. It’s said that plants can react to music, that they can listen. Instead, I’ve found myself listening to my plants and learning from them, and here are some truths I’ve harvested.


In nature, things are either growing or dying. Nothing remains the same from day to day – your plant is either getting taller and putting out shoots, or it’s dying. Any time one of my plants appears stagnant and I don’t do anything about it, a day or two later I’ll see it drooping, wilting or yellowing.

Stasis is death; it’s not natural. This has been a profound, life-changing lesson for me. I’d always thought stability was an ideal state, something to strive for – without realising that the status quo leads too quickly to status uh-oh.

Routine and stability tip over so quickly into stagnancy, it can be hard to tell the difference, so I now choose to err on the side of growth. I don’t give my love life a chance to feel like it’s standing still. I do as I do with my plants, and constantly pay attention to how I can prod growth: For instance, by fertilising with a new joint interest (like learning a new language together) or pruning causes of daily friction (like my tendency to be late, or to leave dishes in the sink). I also apply this to other areas of my life, like work and family, ensuring nothing stagnates as far as possible. If my plants are growing every day, I should be too.


Every beginner gardener makes this mistake. After the initial diligence, you forget to water your plants, and they start to wilt. You panic and compensate by flooding them with more water. The wilting continues, and you’re utterly confused. Turns out, too much water is as bad as too little.

In relationships, it’s clear we should avoid the harmful, bad stuff like lies or selfishness. But it was absolutely counter-intuitive to me that too much of a good thing – attention, time, or even sex – could have a negative effect. Just like too much water or fertiliser actually harms plants.

It was a shrivelled, over-watered cactus that made me realise I was overdoing quality couple time. I was in the habit of turning down meet-ups with friends unless we could schedule them when my partner was also free, so as not to miss out on any opportunity for spending time with him. Not only was this annoying for my friends, my partner felt smothered.

Instead, I began pursuing my social life without checking against his plans first, and the increased time apart gave us both some much-needed space and material to enrich our conversation when we were together.


I didn’t bother when a few white specks first appeared on my iron tree. A few days later, they were on a third of the leaves. An Internet check told me they were scale insects, and that I should swab them with alcohol. This sounded tiresome. I didn’t have alcohol at home (at least, not any I would share with my plants). So I left it. A week later, a full-blown infestation had spread to three other plants. It eventually took two months to eliminate the pests.

It’s human nature to shelve messy issues you don’t want to deal with. I do this because I’m conflict avoidant; I dread trouble, and I procrastinate. The problem is, that almost always multiplies the future trouble for me.

I have always tolerated any emerging problem for as long as I can, hoping I’ll get used to it, or my partner will realise it on his own and stop the behaviour before I have to deal with it. I somehow thought this was a virtue – patience or forbearance – but my iron tree made me realise I wasn’t doing anyone a favour.

Addressing issues early minimises the harm done to everyone. Take it from me: “Look honey, I’d really like it if you waited for me to watch the next episode of (insert current Netflix binge) together” works better the first or second time he presses Play while you’re in the shower, not when he’s four seasons ahead and always revealing spoilers.


What is success with a plant? If you start with a seed, is it when it shoots? When it flowers and propagates? When it grows a metre tall? You get the drift. There’s no picture of what total success looks like in gardening, because there’s always another milestone you can hit. The nice thing is, every milestone comes with its own delight.

I think we each have a personal picture of a “successful relationship” in our heads. Mine is probably two white-haired people still looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, like some insurance ad. But as with plants, there’s no 100 per cent success. There’s always more beyond that picture – and lots on the way to it.

I love making up celebrations for everything, but have always feared it was a childish habit I should ditch. Instead of just waiting for the next anniversary, I mark little milestones: the first time attending a work event together; the first time adopting a pet together. (Also, pet’s birthday...) And I make an effort to turn personal milestones, like completing a project or breaking a bad habit, into joint ones by celebrating them together. My plants made me realise there was nothing wrong with extracting joy and a sense of progress from my relationship. Plus, it’s a useful way to avoid stagnancy! (See lesson 1.)


Plants don’t apologise for their needs; they don’t whine or demand. They just work steadily to get what they need, rearranging leaves to catch more light, sending roots deeper for water. Weeds force their way out from in between more “valuable” plants, claiming nutrients and space as they require, because they know not that they are weeds.

When I was younger, dating and relationships in general seemed to be about the search for a partner who could make me happy. Relationships were largely one-sided, consisting of me working at making my partner happy in the hope that he would do the same for me, until either one of us gave up.

It took many years before I realised what my weeds instinctively know: Happiness is too important a thing to entrust to someone else. It cannot depend on how others behave or treat me. If those weeds waited for my plants to make room for them to share resources, they’d never thrive. I realised – as Michelle Obama (also an avid gardener) puts it – “I was more in charge of my happiness than I was allowing myself to be.” Because I’m an extreme introvert, regular time alone to recharge is paramount to my well-being. I schedule untouchable blocks of time for myself every week without feeling selfish or guilty. I allow myself to make myself happy, because I understand that if I’m not getting what I need, the relationship isn’t going to work either.

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Need more reasons to try gardening? Here’s the science, and the best plants to cultivate.
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Peace lily


Research by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found that plants remove up to 87 per cent of toxins like benzene and formaldehyde from the air every 24 hours. These toxins are emitted by man-made things around us, from rugs and vinyl to ink and paint.

Try: Peace lily, spider plant 
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Indoor greenery is proven to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, which in turn improves your mood.

Try: Leafy green plants like pothos (money plant) and monstera deliciosa
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Aloe vera


You may remember that plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen – so they refresh the air for us. Since most plants do the opposite at night, opt for succulents and orchids for your bedroom – these plants release oxygen at night.

Try: Aloe vera, snake plant (mother-in-law’s tongue) 
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African violet


An Agricultural University of Norway study found that plants decrease fatigue, flu-like symptoms, colds, coughs and headaches by more than 60 per cent. Hospital patients with plants in their rooms have also been found to require less pain medication and recover faster.

Try: Any plants you find attractive! I like African violets or the hipster’s favourite, the fiddle-leaf fig.
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Remember the old “rosemary for remembrance” saying? There’s truth to it. Plants have been shown to improve concentration and productivity by up to 15 per cent, but rosemary specifically contains a compound which increases neurotransmitter levels.

Try: Rosemary