Plant care apps are more distracting than useful

It’s easier to enjoy your houseplants without your phone.
A man looking at his phone and leaning against a windowsill next to a potted cactus about the size of a softball.
The more attention you pay to a screen, the less you can give your plants. Thom Holmes / Unsplash

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Pixels that reflect chlorophyll. Algorithms that dictate a watering schedule. There’s a whole new crop of apps that hope to revolutionize your relationship with your green companions. Plants have, of course, been around for hundreds of millions of years and startups are all about shaking up the status quo. But houseplants don’t need to be disrupted.

I began to collect my personal indoor garden after a brutal layoff, and watching them was an exercise in mindfulness: I smelled the soil, I pinched succulent leaves, I watched as some plants went through their almost undetectable daily pilates. They wilted, I watered them, and I found satisfaction in the way they perked back up. It was a crucial coping mechanism for me as I began the journey of freelancing, starting a podcast, and looking for new jobs. After my boisterous open-office life, I communicated with people solely via screens. Houseplants were my desktop reminder of the physical world.

A few years later, many people endured a more extreme version of my experience: the isolation from friends and coworkers, a sudden transition to working from home as COVID-19 spread across the world, and a lot of added stress. And, indeed, houseplant purchases boomed during the pandemic. Giulia Carabelli, a sociology lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, has been asking people about what plants mean to them as they protect themselves by isolating. She found that people used indoor and outdoor gardening to connect to their families, reduce their anxiety, create events (a bloom!) to look forward to, and even just to enjoy the pure act of caring for another living thing. Carabelli connects this to new conversations about mutual aid networks and a changed relationship with the natural world. 

In her piece, Carabelli mentions the writer Alice Vincent, who wrote that plants provide “a tangible way of connecting with nature that is absent from an increasingly screen-based world.” Now, to be fair, my experience with my plants was not totally screen-free. I did post about my plants on Instagram, though I enjoyed the app less and less as it entered its flop era and was inundated by ads. I learned the dangers of tangling my beloved hobby with social media.

So it was with a lot of skepticism that I downloaded Planta, which popped up first when I typed “plant care app” into the iOS app store. And my worst fears were soon realized. The app had me enter each plant and then fill in the last time I watered them, if I had repotted them, and what kind of container they were in. This presented some immediate problems. I water my succulents minimally to prevent rotting—only once this winter, about a month ago. I will water them more in the springtime when temperatures warm up and they start to grow more. But when I plugged my Haworthia into Planta and said I watered it “two weeks ago” (the other options were today, yesterday, a week ago, and not sure/never watered), the app recommended that I water it again, today. I’m… not going to do that. As says, “A Haworthia can live without water supply for many months but can die in one day because of rot.”

[Related: How to help houseplants survive winter]

I’ve come to this conclusion on succulent care because I’ve anxiously overwatered and underlit many succulents, only to wake up to translucent leaves surrounding a brown mound. I don’t think an app like this would prevent the painful experience of killing plants. Instead, it would probably keep me from paying attention. I might miss critical signs, like how soil shrinks from the edge of the pot when it’s dry or the way my tricolor Stromanthe sanguinea’s leaves curl when they need water. And it might have prevented one of my most satisfying discoveries of the last few weeks: my Venus flytrap loves being encased by a glass dome and now has four new heads and many more popping up. 

There are some situations where a plant care app might be helpful. Nikki Duong, my friend and frequent collaborator, used the free version of Planta to tell her less-experienced roommate how to care for her plants when she left New York City for California during the pandemic. If you’re just getting started on your plant journey, you can use Planta’s plant info button to learn its ideal light and temperature, among other facts. If you want to commit to screenlessness, there are many cute plant books out there that will guide you in how the plant’s natural history dictates how you should treat it today. 

For those who are turning to plants for the reasons Carabelli listed—connection, stress release, and the act of caring—continued use of these technological crutches will only lead to detachment from a tangible, mutually beneficial relationship.