An indoor affair

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

How to start your obsession with the world of indoor plants.

The colour green – as humans we respond to the colour in all its hues. It resonates with us; both soothing and relaxing and, at times, exciting us. We enjoy it outside, but often overlook, or have just forgotten, to incorporate it inside. So, why not extend this enjoyment of the green experience by bringing some of it inside? We do this through the use of indoor plants.

If you already have indoor plants in your life, then consider yourself lucky to have started on that journey and maybe look to challenging yourself with plants that require more skill. If you haven’t yet been bitten by the indoor-plant bug, or are thinking about it, then a whole new exciting genre of plants awaits your discovery.

There are many reasons to incorporate plants into your living space, apart from the obvious fact that they pump out one of our favourite gases, oxygen (yay!), so let us delve into the world of indoor plants and start to get excited about them and their possibilities.

From a décor perspective, indoor plants not only add a layer of additional interest to your room, but can add homeliness and help counteract any blandness or sterility. A room without plants (and for that matter, books) can feel two-dimensional – adding plants humanises the space, and gives a ‘someonelives- here’ look. They are also handy distractors to draw the eye away from any ugly bits in your room, and can be used as focal points.

Using plants indoors can be on any scale; from the artfully placed succulent in a white pot to an exuberant explosion of verdant greenery on a scale reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Which way you choose to go will depend on several factors. Whether you want a fun, quirky, sophisticated, elegant, ethnic or rustic flavour, there will be a plant to oblige.

There is also a plant for any budget – be it modest or infinite. From getting a bit from a friend, to a small starter plant from your nearest department store, or a large imposing plant in an Italian pot, there is a plant for any outlay. So too, there are plants for all levels of horticultural expertise; ranging from the forgiving entrylevel such as the aspidistra, also called the cast-iron plant for obvious reasons, to the more demanding tropical plants.

In terms of input, indoor plants give back so much more than they ask of us. They can often struggle on with minimal input – think of hospital waiting rooms – but how richly they reward us when we put in a bit of effort and fulfil their needs.

Indoor plants can also play an important role for those who are housebound or poorly – if they can’t get out to nature then this is a way of bringing nature in to them and never underestimate the value of nature in these situations. This was particularly brought home to me when I read the book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, which tells the story of a pot of wild violets with a secret snail given to a bed-bound woman, and the fascination that this ‘indoor plant’, and its inhabitant, bring to this woman’s life. Whilst I use the term ‘indoor plant’ loosely with the violets, the point remains the same; that joy can be gained on any level from furnishing your close quarters with growing things – and you can add livestock for additional excitement!

As with all things, the availability of different indoor plants can be in, or out, of fashion. It is a bit like dog breeds – it’s all fluffy bichon frises and miniature schnauzers at the moment, but where have all the Alsatians and Dobermanns gone? They have been dealt to by the vagaries of fashion, and so it is with plants. At one stage everyone had the ubiquitous rubber plant but now it is seldom seen – maybe it’s time for a retro rubber plant revival to go with the terrariums and macramé holders that have resurfaced?

There is much to learn about caring for indoor plants. But your very first lesson should be devoted to some pre-purchasing advice and considerations.


How to choose your indoor plant

There are two methods you can employ – the Impulse Method or the Informed Method. The Impulse Method needs no explanation and I shall advise you, in a stern schoolmarm voice, to eschew this method in favour of the Informed Method. This is the method we shall use to begin our plant collection.

So, before you skip off to the plant shop with your money in your hot little hand, pause and have a think.

Consider the environment the plant will be coming into; particularly the amount of light and the temperature and how much control you have over this. Can you amend these in any way and, if so, how easily and how much? I know I have temperature limitations in the depths of winter in my old wooden villa and this is a factor in my plant choice. Choosing the plant to fit the existing environment is so much easier on the stress levels of both you and your plant than trying to make a plant fit when the enivronment isn’t really appropriate for it.

How much time do you have, or wish to spend, on your plants? Don’t buy a plant that needs daily watering if you are a busy, busy person. Go for easier-care plants. Likewise, if you are inexperienced, choose the easy and usually cheaper plants to start off with, until your skills and knowledge improve. Look at friends’ houses and see what is successfully growing there and see if the same sort of plants would work at your place.

Having had your think, you are at the buying stage. Indoor plants can be bought from garden centres, supermarkets, florists, markets and specialist growers. Ideally you would be buying from a place that could answer your questions about the care of your plant, such as a garden centre, so go for that as your first choice. The plants will also have been kept in ideal conditions. Often supermarket plants will have been kept in low light or been inexpertly watered so look at them with a critical eye before making your decision. Also, plants outside shops may have been exposed to conditions too harsh for them, such as wind and sun. Once again, proceed with caution.

So, you see a plant you like the look of, go through your mental checklist. Look at how healthy it looks, paying particular attention to how fully ‘clothed’ it is with no bare branches, fallen leaves or buds. Avoid plants with wilting, damaged or diseased leaves – turn the leaves over to check for any lurking nasties. Brown tips or edges on the leaves as well as any discolouration is not a good sign either.

Is the pot the right size? Too small may mean it is starved and rootbound (look for roots coming out the drainage hole). You will have to deal with this as soon as possible and the plant may not recover from being re-potted when it is so compromised. Too big a pot and the plant can be difficult to keep at the right degree of moisture and it can look out of scale or, worse, silly.

Also check the potting mix – is it too wet/ too dry? One way of telling is to pick up the plant and hold the pot in your palm and feel how heavy it is or isn’t (too heavy indicates wet; too light is dry). Also check if the potting mix has shrunk from the side of the pot indicating too dry. And check the pot for white patches or slime – neither are desirable.

Note at this point that some plants will be short-lived plants; particularly the flowering plants. So, if you are looking for longevity in your plant check that this is indeed the case. When buying flowering plants, ensure the plant isn’t in full flower – you want there to be a lot of buds that are yet to open.

Check there is a label – it’s helpful to have the proper plant name and to have cultivation notes to hand. These may be fairly basic, however, so do a bit more research to get a more complete picture of your plant’s cultivation requirements.

When you have bought your plant, ask that it be wrapped to protect it from the elements. Many of these plants have lived a princess life and don’t cope with cold winds and so on. Avoid leaving your plant in a hot summer car or a cold winter car – make the plant purchase the last bit of shopping you do before heading home.

Oh and just check that the plant is not toxic to children or pets before you buy. If you have ‘chewers’ in your house either re-think your choice or put the plant up high. The saying “no children or animals were hurt in the growing of this plant” applies at all times!

When you get your plant home, put it in a moderately warm spot out of direct sun and draughts to acclimatise it. Unwrap it if it’s been wrapped as plants can distort if left covered. Check if it needs a drink but don’t over water; we just want it moist. Leave it there for a week to get it settled into the new environment – don’t keep moving it around trying to find a proper home for it – just leave it be until the week has passed and then move it into its final position.

An exception to the above is when you bring a flowering plant home, such as a cyclamen, chrysanthemum or azalea – these need to go into their permanent position with as much light as you can possibly give them. Let the affair begin!