How To Not Kill Your Houseplants (And Ward Off The Winter Blues, Too)

    Woman tending to her houseplants
    Published 22 October 2020. Written by Francesca Clarke.

    If you’ve yet to catch on to the joys of indoor gardening and the world of houseplants, then read on because the benefits reach far beyond an Insta-worthy row of succulents on the kitchen windowsill. 

    As well as being an effective form of ecotherapy – a salve for the embattled brain – plants bring physical benefits, too, releasing oxygen into the home, helping to control humidity and purifying the air. 

    ‘But my fingers are more fickle than green!’ you cry. A grey day at the supermarket, your attention is caught by the rosy, speckled petals and arching grace of an orchid. Far too swiftly this is followed by the disappointment of discovering its transformation to a crisp, bare stem just a few weeks later. We’ve all been there. 

    So why do so many of us persevere? And what’s the key to houseplant success? Indoor plant popularity was already seeing strong green shoots well before the pandemic hit, but after the UK went into lockdown, in a simple act of self-care, we began to focus on the easy pleasures of home life. As a result, summer sales of indoor plants jumped 53 per cent compared with that same period in 2019. 

    With almost half of adults experiencing at least one episode of depression in their lifetime, there’s no side-stepping the importance of looking after our mood. Stephen Buckley, from mental health charity Mind, explains: ‘SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a form of depression that affects people at certain times of year. In winter, getting natural light outdoors can be really helpful, but bringing nature into your home can also boost your mood. Owning houseplants can help to reduce feelings of stress and anger. Completing a small, achievable task like watering your plants also creates a feeling of accomplishment that may lift your spirits.’ 

    TV presenter and gardener Monty Don also cites gardening with helping to lift his depression. ‘When you plant something, you invest in a beautiful future amid a stressful, chaotic and, at times, downright appalling world,’ he wrote in Gardeners’ World magazine recently. 

    So, if you’re new to indoor gardening, or you’ve not had much luck in the past, where to begin? Veronica Peerless, author of How not to Kill Your Houseplant, advises starting off with three simple rules:

    Rule #1: Do your research. ‘Just like garden plants, indoor varieties have needs. Unfortunately, houseplant labelling doesn’t seem to have caught up with this idea, many giving you little more than a plant name. So draw up a wish list and find out more online. The Royal Horticultural Society is the gold standard, but online shops such as Patch Plants and Crocus do the nitty-gritty well without confusing jargon.’ 

    Rule #2: Think right plant, right place. ‘Pop your plants where they will be happy, not where you think they’ll look best. Most are natives of the rainforest floor, so thrive in bright but indirect light. In practice, this means a couple of feet from a window. Exceptions are cacti, which cope with bright sunshine, and air plants and kokedama – these love atmospheric moisture, so hang them in the bathroom.’

    Rule #3: Watch how you water: ‘The biggest cause of houseplant death is overwatering. It’s a myth that indoor plants need a lot of H2O (the only exception being carnivorous plants). In winter they need even less. Water when the top inch of the compost has dried out – and then only to the dampness of a wrung-out flannel. Your pot must have drainage holes (plants rot in waterlogged soil). Place this pot either on a saucer or inside an ornamental solid-bottomed ‘cachepot’ and make sure you tip away any excess an hour after watering. Confusingly, the symptoms of over- and under-watering are often the same. If you notice a plant wilting, don’t immediately rush to the sink; think first about when you last watered it.’

    Woman holding a plant above a desk

    Top five most unkillable houseplants

    Meg Spink, plant doctor at Patch Plants, recommends keeping things simple at first. ‘Everyone is capable of developing their green fingers, and the best way is to start with an easy-to-please plant. We like to call these ‘The Unkillables’. 

    1. Sansevieria trifasciata (aka mother-in-law’s tongue) ‘The beginner’s houseplant, but that’s not to say she’s boring. Her magical benefits include helping you sleep better.’
      Great for: the bedroom
      Care: water lightly then leave her alone
    2. Aspidistra elatior (aka cast-iron plant) ‘Large dramatic leaves, nearly indestructible and can handle reasonable neglect. No wonder he’s been popular as a houseplant since Victorian times.’
      Great for: a room that’s not too bright
      Care: water lightly and give the leaves an occasional dust
    3. Zamioculcas zamiifolia (aka Zanzibar gem) ‘She looks like a cross between a fern, a succulent and the world’s oldest plant, a cycad. Her tolerance for shade makes her invaluable.’
      Great for: poorly lit areas
      Care: water lightly, wipe away dust with a soft cloth
    4. Dracaena fragrans (aka dragon plant) ‘An impressively tall specimen who, in return for just a little attention, will gladly show off his elegant leaves.’
      Great for: a decently lit bathroom
      Care: water lightly; if not in a bathroom, mist occasionally with water
    5. Golden pothos (aka devil’s ivy) ‘A best seller for good reason. She’s easy to care for, looks wonderful tumbling from a bookshelf and was found by NASA to filter the air of many household pollutants.’
      Great for: a well-lit kitchen or bathroom
      Care: water if the top of the compost is dry; mist occasionally if not in a bathroom or kitchen.

    Read more about the health benefits of gardening here

    Three houseplants

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