I have been looking forward, for some months, to receiving a review copy of Tovah Martin’s The Unexpected Houseplant. Whilst I have 8 houseplants in my house I do feel as a keen gardener and plant lover that I could do better. Why haven’t I? I wonder if it a lack of interesting houseplants being available or whether my compartmentalized brain focuses on outside gardening. Whatever it is I want to sort it out and to extend my love affair with plants into the house. So I had to smile when I read; “Green thumbs aren’t in your genetic makeup. This myth is really just a rationale for attention deficit disorder in the botanical direction.” As Tovah says we remember to look after our pets and children so we should remember to look after our houseplants. I suspect the difference is that a hungry pet or child is quite hard to ignore whilst a thirsty/hungry plant just dies quietly. However, Tovah argues that you need to establish a relationship with your houseplants. It isn’t just a case of buying a plant at the supermarket and bringing it home and plonking it on the coffee table.
The principles we apply to growing plants in our garden apply here too. You need to find the right spot for your plant to make sure it has enough light and the right temperatures. However, very refreshing, Tovah doesn’t go into the whole prescribing this temperature or that light level for a plant and or include diagrams of rooms showing what to put where as I have seen before. As she says south and west exposure are best for sun-loving, east for shade loving and probably best to avoid north. Temperature should be whatever you find comfortable. As for humidity, she derides the whole idea of misting plants saying that if you were to do that you would have to mist “night and day 24/7 to have any impact”. If you think a plant needs more humidity place it on some gravel in a saucer. She also recommends re-potting plants when you buy them and removing them from their plastic pot into something more decorative. For her this is part of the process of getting to know your plant and part of adding a decorative feature to the house. You have to be attracted to the plant from the get go or you will never form a successful relationship. At this point I looked at the Calathea I bought this morning, having been inspired by the book, with its plastic pot hidden inside a decorative pot. I think a good terracotta pot might look better and we need to start bonding.
To inspire and encourage you the book includes 220 plants you can grow indoors. All of the photographs were taken of Tovah’s plants at her home so you can see she knows what she is talking about. The plants are grouped per season with extra small sections on herbs, indoor bulbs and succulents. There is even a section on houseplants she wouldn’t recommend as they are just to fussy. There are also a number of omissions from the book such as the ubiquitous spider plants as they are considered just too dull. Each plant is described and Tovah writes about her experience of growing it, where it works well etc plus there is a quick reference box on its requirements.
I was also particularly interested and intrigued about the range of plants. My knowledge of houseplants is very limited, as limited as the selection available in the supermarket and local garden centre and it is a very traditional view. I would never have thought of growing primulas as a houseplant or a camellia, though of course I do know that they were originally grown in glasshouses in this country. What about Pulmonaria and Tiarella – in my head those are standard perennials in my garden border but I may just try one indoors. Instead of putting all my succulents in the greenhouse to overwinter I have bought two Aeonium Schwarzkopf indoors and I have noticed I find myself smiling when I walk into the dinning room and see one of them gleaming on the windowsill.
When you realise that Tovah leaves in New England and has weeks when she is snowed in you can understand her fascinating and addiction to houseplants. I found it particularly interesting what she said about an indoor garden, as she terms it, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). She believes that by having an indoor garden and being surrounded by greenery that the winter blues don’t affect her. If it works for her in an environment where they have real winter I am wondering if it would help lift my spirits on one of our grey and damp winter days.
I have really enjoyed The Unexpected Houseplant. I like Tovah’s no nonsense writing style, she writes as if you were having a chat around the kitchen table. As she says why should there be a mystic about houseplants, why do gardeners say they can’t grow houseplants – it is just a lack of attention. I am feeling buoyed up to have a real go and this is just the right time of year to collect a few choice plants around me and see how we get on. If you are at all interested in growing houseplants you will enjoy this book, even if you aren’t I would recommend it as it is a good read – charming, engaging, witty and you never know you might have a change of heart.