A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Houseplants in the Library – Beautiful and Educational

by on April 18, 2024

According to Gardenpals.com, “Houseplants are having their moment now. Much of it is thanks to millennials, plantfluencers, the plant-based movement, and work from home culture forced by the pandemic.” In early 2020 when the world shut down for COVID, many people got interested in houseplants. The Crofton Library in Crofton, Maryland embraced this trend and then some!  The current branch opened in 2002, transformed from a small location in a shopping center near a big box store, to a 25,000 square foot free standing location with high ceilings and lots of windows and light.

The branch, part of the Anne Arundel County Public Library system, has always had a few plants scattered around the building. Like most workplaces, there were always a few somewhat neglected ones in the staff lounge, and for several years there were a few huge, donated plants in the lobby that looked great at first, but slowly withered away due to lack of attention.

Fast forward to 2020, and the library is preparing to reopen for appointments after the COVID shutdown. They procured acrylic shields known as “sneeze guards,” but the desk design left large gaps in between the panels, and so to discourage folks from sticking their heads through the gaps, they put a couple of the larger plants in the space. This was the first time they had plants at the information desk, and they found that they were practical and added a nice touch. And so, they stayed, and then winter came, and they stayed. People commented on them sometimes, and they gave away a couple of spider plant babies, and life went on. The plants stayed, and the staff made sure they were watered and nurtured.

Then came October 2021, Catherine Jellison, Library Associate at the Crofton Library and the leader for this project had several large tropical plants on her deck at home that needed to come inside, but she had no room at her house. It seemed a shame to throw them away, so she asked the manager if she could take them to the library for the winter, to live in one of the large windows in the main part of the branch. She gave the okay, and the rest is history. Catherine shared that she was nervous when a new manager arrived. “Not everybody likes plants, so I was THRILLED when she was on board!’ She said that she appreciates that staff have been given space to innovate and expand what the library can be.

The plants loved it at the library (all that light!), and the customers loved the plants. In early 2022, the staff put up a display of forsythia branches at the info desk along with a sign explaining how to force blooms indoors. People really liked that too, and so they added more, similar educational displays throughout the year. Gradually, more and more plants from staff members made their way to the library. They tried to bring the most interesting, strange-looking ones that they had, to show people that there is more to houseplant life than spider plants and peace lilies (though they do have five peace lilies at the branch!).

Library Connection
As the plant collection grew, staff members wanted to make it an educational experience for the customers, so they created and attached laminated, attractive signage to each plant giving the botanical name, common name, and a QR code leading to care information for the plant. Although the initial inspiration came from one staff member, everyone enjoyed this project, and they all pitched in to care for the plants. They take great pride in the beauty of the branch and enjoy talking about the plants to the customers all the time. The QR codes on the plants make this part easy – staff don’t have to be experts on every plant, they just have to show the QR code to the customer.

It’s not surprising that there is a spreadsheet listing the proper names for all the plants and their location in the building – librarians keep good records. The most popular plants with the customers are the pencil cactus, the mistletoe cactus, the curly locks cactus, and the ponytail palms. They also have a 14-foot Ficus that gets a lot of attention. Not an hour goes by when someone doesn’t mention the plants or starts a conversation with staff about them. Caregivers and their kids read the names together, and people are finally able to name the plant they’ve had at home for years that looks just like the one on the desk. There is a plant on every study table so it’s an easy conversation starter.

A gardener from The Capital building in Washington, D.C. returned a book the other day and was SO impressed with the plants and the QR codes. He even took pictures of each one. Another customer brought her sister to the library who was visiting from California JUST for the plants.

Inspiration for Programs
In July 2023, the library started a monthly Houseplant Club, which has produced great attendance at all the meetings so far. They have a plant/cuttings/pots/etc. swap at the end of each meeting. One library programmer created seek and find terrariums for the kids to find little hidden creatures. The staff also sometimes gives out clippings to customers who are interested – the customers are always so excited and thankful to be getting a free clipping.

At just over 100 in total, the number of plants looks great without being overwhelming. The branch is exploring the concept of plants that customers could “check out,” like a plant library of sorts. Caring for a plant can be a wonderful experience for a young person, or a person of any age who has an interest and wants to learn more.

Opportunity for Partnerships
Over the past year, the Crofton Library staff members have also worked with a partner named Farm Unity to create a vegetable garden on library property for the community. Farm Unity provided the volunteers, the Library Foundation also provided some financial support, and the garden produced over 600 pounds of vegetables that were distributed to the community free of charge. Farm Unity is now working to create a pollinator garden next to the vegetable garden in the coming year. As spring approaches there is now a mobile greenhouse in the library with some seedlings that will be transplanted into the garden, so the community can see the process from seed to produce. Local non-profit EnSprout hosted a harvest festival in the fall and provided some crafts and activities for kids to learn about where their food comes from and how to take care of seedlings and plants. Another partnership that has flourished is a Farmer’s Market sponsored by the county that uses the library parking lot every Saturday weekend from May to November, giving local farmers and artisans a way to promote their businesses and sell their goods. The library has come a long way from dying houseplants in the lobby to a blossoming atmosphere of growth, learning and cooperation within the branch and community.