The Unexpected Houseplant – Book Review

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.






Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

13 thoughts on “The Unexpected Houseplant – Book Review”

  1. Thanks I really enjoyed this post – a bit like the author of the book, I spend far too much time bereft from outdoor gardening here due to winter weather (Gales and rain for me) – so its a book that I’ve been interested in finding out more about.

    Odd that the old favourites like spider plants aren’t considered – one gardeners favourite is another gardeners evil I suppose. I love spider plants – maybe its just the ‘free’ propagation opportunities they offer!

    Thanks for recommending it – I’ll see if the library gets on in pronto before I buy be nice to have a feel of it too.

    Much appreciated! Enjoy your new relationship with your indoor plants. I find I’m either great at them or they die – must try and build a ‘I won’t kill you through neglect’ relationship with my new ones!

    Does she grow many edibiles as houseplants? That’s the only way I manage to stave off the neglect issue…….


  2. Actually, you know, Helen, I know lots of very keen, excellent gardeners who don’t succeed with houseplants, myself included (keen not necessarily excellent). I admit to prefer having cut flowers indoors rather than plants in pots. An excellent review. Christina

    1. I think my problem is that I dont really see my houseplants, they are all so dull that they fade into the background. So I have got some more exuberant ones which I might notice

    1. Hi djdfr – you are so right. I have added a couple to the two I had in the living room and already the feel of the room has changed

  3. Oo I did enjoy your review of this book- I shall look out for it, and shall have a re-think about houseplants!
    I used to have lots, many years ago, but this house is woefully short of useful windowsills!
    However, I feel inspired to go & look for something interesting for the ‘sill-less’ lounge- it’s always a challenge!
    Thank you- inspired without even reading the book!

  4. I gave up with houseplants years ago after having killed my fair share of rubber plants, christmas cacti, and other usual suspects. I would grow indoor stuff in a conservatory or greenhouse but not in my ‘living’ rooms any more.

  5. Living in New England myself, finding places to keep plants warm enough and with enough light through the long winter is a challenge. I have four indoor plants – two were given to me by a friend, one was a gift from my grandaughter, and one is 35 years old. I have pushed my luck with other varieties and failed, so I’ve learned to be happy with my four ‘plant friends.’ Thanks for the great review of the book.

  6. A most thorough and and thoughtful review Helen – thank you. I usually I just have to look at house plants for them to curl up their toes and expire. I have been improving though so will have look out for the book for inspiration. Funnily enough I on the subject of spider plants I
    grow them outdoors in the summer as container plants. Trying to think of bringing pulmonarias and tiarellas indoors but not quite succeeding.

  7. I don’t succeed with houseplants much but I try…we only have N facing windows that get any little bit of indirect light…I do alos have plants in my office …they are not mine but given over to me to help them recover…then I keep them there as they flourish…wish I had more indoor light for houseplants..the few I have do OK.

  8. Thanks – this is interesting (and yet againt the amazon wishlist grows – it’s like some giant ravenous beast). I’m rubbish with houseplants and I wonder if this would give me the kick up the bum I need. I’m well awarethe problem is mere laziness.

  9. I should probably read this. I do have a relationship with my houseplants — either they are happy to be watered once a week or they die :-). Maybe I could expand my collection of houseplants if I could expand my houseplant behavior repertoire. -Jean

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