Episode 125: The Care and Feeding of Houseplants (and Postcard Connections)

I was wandering around my house this morning, shuffling in my moccasins, with a little watering can in my hand, flitting from plant to plant. As I sat down to write postcards this morning, I noticed that a couple plants in my postcard office were stressed. Drying out. Drooping. (Let’s not even talk about the avocado I grew from a seed in the summertime, only to have it wither and die nearly overnight.) I have to up my watering routine. As I walked around giving a needed drink to the palms and ferns and mothers-in-law tongues, I thought about how often plants should be watered.

As with everything, I looked it up. 

The Empress of Dirt wrote this in response to being asked that common question from all of us who grow houseplants: How often should we water? As often as they need it. Yes, as often as they need it. 

She explains a little more: 

It’s a cheeky answer, but it’s also the right one. I started out thinking a routine such as watering houseplants once or twice a week would be right for my varied collection of plants.

Each plant is an individual with different needs. And they go through cycles throughout the seasons, just like outdoor plants do in summer and winter. This could be flowering, fruiting, producing seeds, or months of rest in the darker months.

During some cycles the plants are thirstier, either due to growth or drier indoor conditions, and sometimes they can go long stretches while the potting mix remains adequately moist. 

Yep, it’s dry in here. And the conditions for my plants have changed a lot since the open window days of the summer. Here we are in the dead of winter. The furnace kicks on constantly and blows hot, dry air in the rooms. And sunlight is hard to find. My houseplants need a new watering schedule. Which leads me to the topic of today: How often to you need watering?

And although I’m not talking about. drinking water (you should do that — Mayo Clinic says eight glasses a day), I’m talking about the watering of your psychic energy. You know that little burst of dopamine you get each time you get a new piece of mail? That’s the best kind of watering.

How often do you like to get a postcard or piece of mail from someone? And how do you find out how often someone you write to needs watering? (Please don’t tell me you wait until they’re withering like I did with a couple plants in my office.)

There’s science behind all of this. This is the science about how and why postcards connect people. An article in Psychology Today titled Why We’re All Addicted to Text, Twitter, and Google describes the Dopamine Loop that we get into with social media — and to some extent with slow mail. Here are some excerpts from that research:

Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward. The latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn, and survive. It’s not just about physical needs, but also about abstract concepts.

FRANK HERE: Pay attention to the seeking behavior. That’s an essential ingredient, and why I asked about how often you need watered with postcards. Now back to the Psychology Today article.

Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information. Research shows that it is the opioid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure. These two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid) are complementary.

The wanting system propels you to action and the liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop.

The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied. Evolution again — seeking is more likely to keep you alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor.

It’s easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking, which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.

Interestingly, brain scan research shows that the brain has more activity when people are anticipating a reward than getting one.

FRANK AGAIN: Do you let people know you’re sending a postcard or a letter? And do you show them what you’re sending? Anticipation is a powerful drug. And a great song…now, back to more dopamine data.

Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system.

FRANK AGAIN: This is like when our mail shows up. We could have an empty mailbox. Or a single postcard. Or many. It’s unpredictable. And that’s what gives us a dopamine jolt. One last point from Psychology Today:

The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So, when there is a sound when a text message or email arrives, or a visual cue, that enhances the addictive effect. 

Okay, jeez. I started out talking about watering plants, and now it’s all dopamine all the time. There is a psychology around all of this, and if you’re interested in more research on the topic, I’d be glad to delve deeper. For now, let’s say this: We like getting postcards. And postcards connect people.

I asked you earlier how much feeding and watering you needed. I’ve been thinking about that myself. I guess for some people it’s satisfying to hear from them once a year at Christmas. I like getting those Christmas letters that wrap up an entire family’s year in just a page or two. I like hearing from other people more often. On top of that, I like hearing from people I didn’t even know the previous year. It goes like that.

So, what’s your feeding and watering schedule? Does it change throughout the year like it does with my plants? Right now, it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and for those of us who live in cold climates, the furnace runs, and hot air dries out the plants pretty quickly. The plants need more water now. Do you? Do you like getting more mail in winter when the days are short (and grey, like they are here in New England from December through April)? And do you have less of a need for postcards in summer when you’re more active outside and have more things to occupy your mind?

I don’t know the answer to these. But I’d love to hear back from you.

Early postcard connections are easy. Here’s a postcard. And here’s a postcard back. But then what? I’ve never gotten this intermittent reinforcement down smoothly. In fact, it’s why when anyone asks me if I want to swap postcards my instant answer is…no. I don’t like the one-for-one-for-one-for-one approach. You’ve heard me say that before. I tend to write in bursts. Which also means there can be long lulls.

How do you do it? Do you ask people how often they’d like to get a postcard? Do you gauge your choices based on how a recipient reacts when they get a card from you? (That’s another whole show…do you let people know when you get mail from them?) Again, leave me a message and let me know. I’m gonna pose this question to the people I write to. I’ll do it on a postcard.

Also, is there such a thing as too much? Not as in not appreciating it. The science of satiety tells us we get signals when enough is enough. But those signals don’t always arrive at the same time. Ever have just one more piece of pizza? Then regret it later? Makes me wonder a little about postcards and mail. I’ve seen people show pictures of their mailboxes with sad faces when they have a few pieces of mail. How many is enough? (In terms of pizza…for me, too much is just enough. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.) I’m curious about this. What’s your number?

Which leads me to wrapping this up. You know, there was something satisfying about going around and watering the plants in my house today. I talk to them. I can hear the gurgling when I pour water over them and it’s almost like they’re talking. They seem really grateful. And I’m grateful to be the waterer.

Let me turn this discussion on its head for a second. I’ve been talking about incoming postcards. But there is the satisfaction we get from sending postcards. Right? And I don’t want to ignore that. So, my first question to you was about getting — now it’s about sending. How many cards do you send? How often do you like to send cards to people? (I know you’re answering me right now — and that answer is A LOT.) Postcards connect people. And that’s both in the sending and the receiving.

Maybe that’s the lesson it took me an entire show to come around to.

Postcards connect people. And you do what makes you happy.

The Feeding and Watering of Plants and Postcard Connections Happens Here

One comment on “Episode 125: The Care and Feeding of Houseplants (and Postcard Connections)

  1. Teresa Edmunds says:

    I like the view out the window and in the room. A postcard retreat is the thing of happy dreams. =D
    Is there really ever too many postcards in a mailbox? I don’t think so. But for me, I get joy in seeing even one snail mail surprise. Two is heavenly and three…blows my mind! =D I suppose more than 3 might not increase the thrill, but those are good days too. I rarely let people know a postcard is coming, but I might increase that to share the dopamine. 😉

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