Filtering out pollutants and purifying the air, houseplants offer a chance to re-engage with nature, as well as an ever-growing community online, says Elly West
I’m not always a huge fan of revivals as they make me feel old, but the boom in sales of houseplants is one that I’m thoroughly enjoying. Adding a plant to a room brings back the feelings I had as a teenager, instantly personalising my space and creating impact without spending a fortune. My teenage bedroom was filled with plants, and I still remember my parents’ despair when I brought home a two-foot umbrella plant on the foot-rest of my 50cc moped at the age of 16 (not something I would recommend!)
This was the early ’90s so, thinking about it, I was either extremely ahead of my time or behind it – the 1970s being more typically associated with indoor greenery. Of course, we are talking about the days before social media. Today’s houseplants seem to be a lot more style conscious in their surroundings. Instagram and other social media sites have probably contributed to their comeback and are the prime place for people to show off their interior styling, as well as being a great source of ideas and inspiration.
The trend started with succulents but it has grown and now seems to be all about grouping. Instagram hashtags such as #plantshelfie and #plantsmakepeoplehappy showcase great ways to display your plants together, and it’s hard not to smile at #allmyplantsononething.
But for me, a houseplant makes a house a home. It’s a living thing to nurture and, unlike other indoor decor, it changes and grows (hopefully!) if it’s well looked after. There are also lots of health benefits associated with keeping plants in the home. As they photosynthesise they release oxygen, and many are said to have air purifying qualities as well, filtering out pollutants and suppressing mould spores and bacteria.
When you’re choosing a plant, think about where in your home you want it to go. Ferns are more suited to shadier, humid spots, whereas cacti and succulents can cope with a sun-drenched window-sill. Also, consider how you are going to display your plants. Groups of threes or fives work well, and if you’re short of window-sill space, look out for decorative stands or hang your plants from hooks fixed to a beam in the ceiling.
There’s also the opportunity to glam up your displays and accessorise with the right pot. Choose one that works with your existing décor and with the shapes and colours of your plants. Don’t be afraid to experiment – old wooden boxes and other reclaimed items make interesting containers – just make sure they are lined with something that won’t leak.
The most asked question when it comes to houseplant care seems to be ‘how often should I water?’ While succulent plants such as aloe vera and cacti can cope for weeks, if not months, in dry soil, others will start to wilt. Keep an eye on your plants and if the compost feels dry, give them some water. You want your plants to have water available without saturating the soil and suffocating the roots. Overwatering is probably the most common cause of death for a houseplant. Line the bottom of the pot with stones before adding compost, and make sure it has holes in the base so excess water can run away.
Most plants can get by with minimal attention, but if you really want them to thrive, give them a regular liquid feed. Follow the instructions on the label, but most houseplants won’t need feeding more than once every couple of months during the growing season. Wipe the leaves to keep them dust free and shiny, and to allow maximum light absorption. You’ll also want to pot them on into bigger containers as they grow, when the roots are starting to show through the holes at the base. You can buy special houseplant compost, but any multipurpose or loam-based compost will do.
Hayley Wright, owner of The Mighty Quinns Flower Emporium (themightyquinnsfloweremporium.co.uk) is passionate about houseplants and extols their benefits in both the home and the workplace. Her shop, on Wapping Wharf in Bristol, is small but packed with greenery, and houseplants are a large part of the business she set up two years ago. With a background in art and fashion, she now sells plants to businesses and private customers.
“I have lots of corporate customers wanting to green up their office space. It’s all about well-being – that’s really important right now. Cacti are proven to take radiation out of the air, so are great for an office environment,” she explains, and stresses the scientific benefits: “Sansevieria is one of the best plants for purifying the air and can actually help you sleep, as it’s very active at night.
“Houseplants have become popular again as they offer a chance to re-engage with nature, which is particularly important with city living. Lots of my customers live in flats and apartments – and it’s generally nice to have something living inside our homes.”
Plant of the month
Houseplants make great Christmas gifts, so if you’re thinking of treating a loved one, or want to green up your own indoor space, here are a few of my favourites…
• The good old spider plant is practically foolproof for novice indoor gardeners, and remains on my list of favourites because I love the way it merrily produces baby plants on long, arching stems. It has attractive variegated leaves and will survive, if not thrive, on very little maintenance. It’s also happy in low light levels, so makes a popular choice for bathrooms.
• Aloe vera is another tough cookie, and I’ve got one on my kitchen window-sill that I’ve had for nearly 20 years – given to me by a work colleague in my first proper job on a local newspaper. Over the years it’s been potted many times, the old, tatty, yellow bits discarded and the fresh, succulent growth placed in fresh compost. It’s virtually indestructible and has probably survived a good six months without water at times. Plus, in the kitchen, it’s a handy remedy for burns – just snap a leaf in half and rub the cooling gel on the skin.
• Boston ferns are among the best air purifiers and are another easy-care choice that will instantly add green impact to your home. I love the way the leaves unfurl and grow in all directions – it needs space around it to show off its splendour. Boston ferns like a humid atmosphere and indirect light. To increase humidity, mist regularly, stand the pot on a tray of pebbles and water, and avoid positioning it near a radiator. If it’s not happy, you’ll soon know about it, as the leaves will turn yellow.
Elly West is a garden designer. For more details, visit ellyswellies.co.uk