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ISSUE 120 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/14/2007

Green plants spruce up sterile spaces

By Miriam Samuelson
Contributing Writer

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Residence hall horticulture at St. Olaf is an underground movement comprised of an amalgamation of students: the aesthetically aware, the born-and-raised gardeners, the health concerned and the adventurous. After interviewing former and present plant owners on St. Olaf's campus, I found that these budding horticulturists all have very different relationships to their plants.

There are those who have sentimental attachments to their plants – they often name the plants and care for them like pets. Elise Mulder '08 and Amy Hutton '09 share a room decorated with three plants. “We have them for aesthetic purposes and oxygen production,” Mulder said, “but I have a sentimental attachment to some of them.” Indeed, the roommates still speak lovingly of Edmundo the Cactus, who died a few semesters ago.

John Walters '08 made a $3 impulse purchase at Target last fall that has since turned into an integral part of both his dorm room and his life. “It's a Mass Cane plant,” Walters said, “about three feet high. I named it Tiberius Constantine. When I was gone over interim, it suffered a little neglect. Someone living a floor below me took it into her loving care.” Walters is hopeful but not optimistic about Tiberius' survival.

Another faction of plant owners exists at St. Olaf. Those who take gardening very seriously. John Sopiwnik '08 says he has “a love for gardening cultivated by [his] family.” His mother made him work in the garden as he grew up, and the passion has continued even into the confined space of a Mellby dorm room. His plants, which fill an entire wall of his room, do not have names; Sopiwnik maintains a strict horticulturist-plant relationship. However, he sees these plants as an integral part of his dorm atmosphere. “Dorms tend to be very sterile, white environments,” he said as he looked over the leaves of a fern hung above his window, “and for me, that's not a comfortable academic or living atmosphere. Plants are a way to create an environment that's healthy.”

And then there are those who do not intend to actually grow plants, but stumble upon them due to poor hygienic practices. A senior who chose to remain anonymous for health and safety concerns had a clogged sink last semester. He continued to brush his teeth and perform other normal sink-related activities, and one day he and his roommate noticed a green shoot growing out of the drain. Elated at the prospect of having grown a plant inadvertently, they planted more seeds in the drain and placed a “grow light” in the corner. “The problem has since been taken care of,” said the senior, “but we were pretty proud of ourselves.”

However, dorm plant ownership has its hassles as well as its benefits. Chris Torstenson '07 lamented the many plants that have died in his care during his four years at St. Olaf. “I had a peace lily and a small bamboo plant, and both of them died from frostbite,” Torstenson said. “I also tried to grow a bonsai but the bugs got to it.”

Indeed, Torstenson is not the only student who has had to face subzero temperatures and pests. In response to the gnats that hover around one of her plants, Mulder suggests placing the plant outside for a night “to freeze the gnats off.” However, this requires a plant that can survive a night outside in the Minnesota winter. Spraying leaves with a solution of a squirt of dishsoap to a quart of water can accomplish the same effect.

In fact, most dorm plants must be as resilient as college students – they must be able to survive the extreme lifestyle that one adopts in a dorm room. Much as we college students deprive ourselves from sleep for weeks on end and then fill our bodies with substances at odd hours in the morning, we may also tend to our plants this way (even those for which we have the most distinct fondness). Mulder's solution: “Get a plant that can survive extremes. My leafy plant can go without water for two weeks, and then when you flood it with water because you realize you've neglected it for too long, it thrives.”

Although setbacks to dorm horticulture do exist, most plant owners would never give up their livelihood. “Growing plants might take a little care,” Sopiwnik said, “but the positives of having plants in your room far outweigh any negatives.”

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