How do you feel when you see a group of gorgeous houseplants for sale? Anticipation and excitement; or that sick jealous feeling of wanting something you can’t have? Money and space aside, the biggest thing in the way of you having beautiful plants in your home is a little bit of empathy.
You want stunning, eye-catching and interesting plants to cheer up your rooms and bring in a bit of glamour. But you get soggy or crispy plant corpses. Over and over again.
You know you’re a houseplant killer, there’s no point trying any more. You’ve tried all ten ‘Top 10 Hard to Kill Houseplants’ and killed them all. I am willing to bet that you‘ve killed a cactus; yes, even a knitted one.
I am here to help you buy a plant that will live happily in your home for more than a few days. Along the way, you will start to think like a plant and see what it wants from you and your home. You will feel confident and excited when you see new plants. Ready?
Let’s go back to the beginning. There you are looking at a big display of beautiful plants, which one do you get?
Stop. We need to go back before the beginning. Let’s go back to your house. Coffee would be great, thanks. No milk or sugar, ta.
Where do you want to put your plant? Next to the tv? Ok, let’s go over and stand in the spot (no, you don’t have to pretend to look like the plant, stay calm). From where you are (and where the plant will be), can you see the sky through a window?
No? Find a different space, and start again. If you can’t see the sky, there isn’t enough light for a plant to live. They can’t live on artificial light; or rather not the sort of lights that will enhance your decor or your relationship with the local police, anyway.
Yes? Good. Would you be in the sun at all in that position? You don’t actually have to stand in that position all day (or all week, waiting for a sunny day), but check it every so often to see if it gets morning sun (tends to be weaker), sun all day, or afternoon sun (tends to be stronger), or none. Bear in mind this changes a bit from summer to winter, but again, you don’t have to stand in the spot all year, unless you need a hobby. Just make a rough guess.
Next, is there any air movement? This can vary from an icy blast all through the winter when the front door is opened, to no air movement except the occasional deep sigh. Most plants like some air movement, but not chilly drafts.
Next: is it dry or damp? Most places in centrally heated homes are dry, bathrooms and kitchens often have times when they are humid, but are otherwise dry. Plants prefer humidity, but most will put up with dry air. Some homes are damp with a lot of condensation, mould or limited heating. Plants will not hate this but they will not help the situation.
Next: How much space is there? Can you stand in the spot and reach up high as well as wave your arms around? Or is it the sort of space a mouse would struggle to swing a clutch bag in? Plants grow, so the plant that fits perfectly into your space, won’t fit perfectly in a year’s time. It will also grow towards the light.
Are you happy to buy a plant that needs trimming back every few years? Or do you want something that stays more or less the same size for a long time (hint; these tend to be expensive, because they are slow growing).
Next: How warm is it? Do you have central heating on 24c all year round, or do you keep it at 15c and use a hot water bottle? Do you have a fire, or is the area not heated at all?
What I really mean is how cold is it? Most indoor plants won’t live below 10-15c. Cacti and succulents will just about live down to between 2-5c. If your space goes down to below freezing you will need to look at a slightly different range of plants, which I will cover in a late blog post.
Reach back in your memory and tell me if you have had plants in that spot before? I don’t mind how many you have killed, each one will help a future plant live. None have died in vain. For example, have you had a couple of maidenhair ferns and a poinsettia there? If you have, relax. Everyone kills maidenhair ferns, they are like little plant lemmings sent out of the nursery to earn money. Poinsettias can survive, but win awards for ugliness the older they get, and are best put in the bin on New Year’s Day. Don’t count things that you are certain died because you over or under watered them
Has anything lived in that spot happily but isn’t there any more? For example a plant destroyed by the swoop of a Labrador tail, or one that grew too tall.
So you have notes on a post-it or in your head that would go roughly:
Light, but no direct sun
1.5m tall x 1m spread with a max 30cm pot.
cacti & succulents don’t like that position
had a palm but it got too big.
Finally, hop on the sofa for a bit of psychoanalysis. Are you a nurturer or neglecter? Do you overwater plants, or forget them and underwater them? Both are quite easy to deal with, you just need to know what you are. I am a neglecter, so my plants tend to go thirsty, rather than drown.
You have your mental post-it, your psychoanalysis you can go shopping. The best thing to do is to find somewhere where you can talk to an indoor plant person. If you can’t, you may need to try looking at the labels. They are not nearly as helpful as they should be. Most indoor plant labels are designed to be read by anyone, so they are simplified so much they mean nothing. But you may find a good one that offers information that you can compare to your list.
If you are alone in a sea of plants with no help you will need to apply some guidelines (not rules, guidelines).
Leaf colour: deep shiny green tends to mean plants are good for areas with no direct sun; silvery leaves, wooly leaves, spikes or succulence (swollen leaves) tend to mean plants need full sun. Coloured leaves; purple, yellow, stripes etc tend to be best for no direct sun.
Most houseplants are happy in the same temperatures that you are when inactive. So if you are comfy in your home all year round reading without an extra jumper, don’t worry about the temperature. Ditto humidity.
Plants with big leaves often grow faster and further than small ones. They are also more difficult to trim tidily. Cheaper plants often grow faster.
Don’t buy reduced or sale plants until you have a few living ones under your belt. Reduced plants are harder for beginners to look after.
I will do a longer blog post on shopping in the future, as there are quite a few things to look for, and pitfalls to avoid.
When you get your new plant home, put it in its spot and leave it to settle in for a few weeks. It needs time to orient its leaves towards the light (you might notice them changing their angle over time). Because of needing to adjust to their environment, they are producing less energy and may need less water than you expect. As plants naturally spend all their lives in one place, they suffer if they are moved a lot. They show this by not growing, and sometimes dropping leaves. So don’t panic if it doesn’t look fantastic a week after you bought it, it will probably perk up in time. Patience and observation are key in caring for plants.