After months of self-isolating, this weekend I masked-up and joined the queue for my garden centre. As someone who normally visits nurseries or plant shops at least twice a week, it was a huge relief to be surrounded by all the greenery. But perhaps what was even more exciting were the enormous numbers of young people waiting patiently in line to get a houseplant fix. Working in an industry that has struggled for decades to figure out how to make itself relevant and accessible to those under 50, it’s wonderful to finally see a new generation discovering the joys of the natural world through indoor gardening.
But with so much frankly terrible advice on houseplants out there (ironically on the very social media platforms that have created this new flowering of interest), I also had to repress the desperate compulsion to advise the 20-somethings on the plants they were buying. However, doling out unsolicited advice is a bit more socially acceptable in a magazine column than to random people in queues, so here are my top tips for those starting out on their adventure in the great indoors.
Cacti and succulents are experiencing a huge spike in interest, and there is one simple tip that will eliminate the key cause of death and ill health. Place your plant no more than 1m away from a window. Despite glass appearing transparent, it filters out almost all UVB rays. For every metre you go from a window this can halve, then halve again – something these desert dwellers can’t handle. If you don’t have any sill space, consider another plant.
Ferns are the number one houseplant people tell me they struggle to grow, and the problem is almost always simple: lack of moisture – in particular, the consistent, stable moisture levels these plants love. As even the best gardeners can lapse from time to time, the solution to this is to pick large, waxy-leaved species, such as bird’s nest ferns and staghorn ferns. They have developed a shiny coating as a way to prevent water loss. Maidenhair ferns are lovely, but not a great choice for total beginners, unless you’re up for a challenge and lots of dedication.
When it comes to the oh-so-trendy terrariums, the secret really is to ignore everything you have seen on Pinterest and never, ever plant cacti or succulents in them. The glass creates a low-light, high-humidity environment within, which is a perfect microclimate for plants from the rainforest floor, but the exact opposite of what desert dwellers need. Go for ferns, mosses and orchids instead.
Finally, if you are a timid first timer and want something unkillable, ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) and cast iron plant (Aspidistra eliator) are almost bombproof. A delivery man once left an aspidistra in my mum’s bin cupboard, which she eventually discovered a couple of months later, only for it to appear totally unscathed.
Most importantly, don’t give up. I say it a lot, but it’s true: the only secret to having green fingers is persistence.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek