Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Plants Aboard

Jul 04, 2018 12:00AM

By Janice F. Booth

Your bottom’s scrubbed, the canned goods stowed; you’ve added new cushions, and you’re weighing anchor for another boating season on Maryland’s creeks, rivers, and our beautiful Chesapeake Bay. But as you sit back in your deck chair or pour a celebratory drink in the galley, perhaps you’re looking around and thinking, “How can I brighten up this cabin so it doesn’t look just like the thousands of other boats we’ll see this season?” Or, perhaps you’re not a great fan of life aboard ship. Maybe you’d rather be home, on the patio, watching your garden grow.  

Okay, I have a suggestion that might help—even inspire a renewed delight in your seaworthy vessel. How about adding some greenery to your yacht? A few plants in the saloon or on the aft deck might help personalize your living areas, both above deck and below. Resting your eyes on a trailing philodendron or the lavender blooms on an African violet might provide added charm to your time aboard ship.

If this sounds like something you might want to consider, let’s talk about the why and the how of plants on board. First, the whys: Plants soften and warm cool interiors. Plants calm and cheer us, as has been shown through environmental studies—hospitals and businesses have changed their interior designs to give patients and employees views of gardens or simple clusters of plants. If you enjoy cooking, fresh
herbs or even small veggies growing right there, aboard ship might be fun and impress your dinner guests.

A clarification, with a nod to journalistic integrity: You may have read that plants clean the air.  Well, as lovely as that idea sounds, it’s misleading. NASA researched the effectiveness of plants on space stations to purify recirculating air. And, frankly, you’d have to turn your galley and saloon into jungles to gain any noticeable improvement in air quality.  Sorry. 

Now, let’s consider the “how” of onboard plants.  There are a few problems that you’ll have to overcome. They are:


Light—a lack of light if you’re adding plants below decks, and harsh light if you’re installing plants in the cockpit or deck areas.


Watering—if you’re an occasional boater, plants that can tolerate drought conditions will be best.  If you’re on board often, figure out how to water your plants without sloshing water and fertilizer across the deck or galley.


Soil and planters—choosing planters that are appropriate in size and design and choosing growing medium that will provide the nutrients your plants need without tumbling out of the planters when the seas become a bit choppy.


Securing the planters—figuring out how to keep your plants from going overboard,
rolling around the decks, or tumbling about the cabin. Okay. So, let’s get started. Plants that work best are easy to grow, hardy, needing little pruning or fussing over. (After all, you’re on holiday when you weigh anchor. You won’t want to add another onerous chore to your shipboard tasks.)

First, the low-light plants. They’ll be fine if they get some light through the portholes or the hatches. They don’t need a great deal of sunlight, but they’ll require some:  

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgessi): pretty blossoms of pink, rose, or white once or twice a year, easily propagated.

Aloe vera: particularly useful plump, succulent leaves. Break off a piece, slit open the leaf, and rub the clear liquid on burns and scrapes for almost instant relief.

English ivy (Hedera helix): lush and undemanding, easy to prune and propagate.

Lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana): grows in pebbles with only a small amount of water, almost care-free.

African violet (Saintpaulias): lots of purple or white blossoms throughout the year, requires little attention, but avoid wind or drastic temperature changes.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum): solid green or variegated, these lively plants are almost impossible to kill.  Let them “do their thing,” and you’ll have lots of baby plants to share with fellow boaters. 

Philodendron: another of those versatile, pretty, hardy plants. Perfect no-fuss greenery.

Now, for plants that can handle the stronger sunlight in your cockpit or on deck.

Jade plants (Crassulaceae): beautiful, lush plants that prefer to be left alone. They’ll flourish, shine, and impress your guests. Avoid over-watering.

Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum): great for hanging baskets; the “tails” grow 2-3 feet long with occasional pink flowers at the tips of the tails.

Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum): sweet clusters of flower-like petals, some small and others a bit larger; works well in shallow containers; needs little attention.

Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata): another nearly indestructible show-stopper; long,
slim leaves rising from the base, curving slightly as they rise.

A fun idea among some boaters and marinas is to hold a “Bring a Plant for Cocktails” party.  Boaters gather for food and drinks and bring along one or two starter plants from their own boating garden.  That way, you get a plant with proven durability, and you share some of your little “volunteers.” 

As for watering your plants, you know your boating schedule—whether you’ll be around often enough to keep plants alive that need some regular attention.  If you’re an occasional boater, then the plants I’ve listed that need little water will work best. You can try some of the little wicking systems that are available through plant sites and nurseries, but I have not found them to be very helpful. You might have better luck.

When you purchase your plant(s), they may be in light loam, which is fine for growing indoor plants.  However, you’ll want to repot each plant, or clusters of plants.  When you do that, try to repot using soil-less mediums. You can use potting mix or planting soil both of which are loose, lightweight, and free of insects or diseases. Avoid grabbing some dirt from a nearby flowerbed or discarded planter that may lack nutrients and perhaps carry infestations or disease. You’ll have better luck with fresh, rich soil. You may want to cover the planter’s surface-soil with tiny pebbles or fine bark. This will help hold your soil in place should the planter tip or be jostled—likely possibilities aboard ship. 

Of course, the planter you’ll choose for your plants will depend on the size of the plant and your décor.  If you’re thinking of hanging plants from hooks in the saloon or superstructure on
the aft deck, planters that are lightweight will be best. You may have to lift them down for watering and long passages at sea. 

Anything can become a planter, but be sure you allow for air and water movement when you transplant. You’ll probably choose planters that do not have drain holes—who wants water draining onto the teak sole or mahogany chart table?  That means you’ll have to layer the bottom of your planter with tiny pebbles and loose bark before adding your plant and soil.  You want the water to work through but not settle among the roots. The bottom of your planter becomes a reservoir for water and air, eventually evaporating and replenishing the soil.

Look carefully at your clay pot, antique sugar bowl, glass jar, or whatever vessel you’re considering as the new home for your plant. Think about stability. If the container is tall, will it be vulnerable to a stray elbow jab? A low center of gravity is safer and more stable in almost any setting.  Look too at the bottom of the new plant holder. Is the bottom fairly large? 

You can help stabilize your planter on the table or bookshelf. A good solution is a non-slip rubbery shelf-liner or placemat.  It’s easy to cut out a piece of the liner that matches the shape of your pot. The non-skid material, usually rubber, is easy to clean and stow when not needed. 

Another clever solution comes from Carolyn Shearlock’s column in The Boat Galley. Take some silicon caulk. Smear it around the base of pot.  (You can use a putty knife or plastic knife to avoid sticky fingers.) Leave the pot upside down until the caulking is thoroughly dry. Flip the pot over, fill it with your non-soil medium and your new plant. There you have it. The pot sits securely on almost any flat surface, even when that surface tips or bounces a bit. 

A third solution for non-skid is Velcro tape. In my opinion, this should be a solution of last resort. While heavy-duty Velcro really sticks together, there are two pieces or sides to the tape that must connect. Each side attaches with adhesive. So, you have the danger of that adhesive residue sticking both to the planter and to your counter, tabletop, or bookshelf.  

Finally, remember that if you cross borders, say to Canada, the Caribbean, or Europe, you’ll have to declare your plants. Even if they’re allowed into a foreign port, the U.S. Customs officers may not allow you to bring your plants back into the U.S. Check in advance with U.S. Customs and Border Protection ( You can also find additional information about bringing your pets and plants across borders from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ( 

Whether you choose one cheery geranium for your cockpit or an elegant small palm for your aft deck, you’ll find pure pleasure in watching new leaves sprout, buds open, and your plant grow and flourish under your care. 

One final, comforting suggestion: If all else fails, if leaves turn brown and stems droop, there are lovely silk plants and flowers that can come to your rescue. Try to save your bamboo or spider plant, but if you lose it, just pop in a few stems of silk philodendron or ivy.  You can even add a silk daisy or two.