Houseplant hour: The man who hated aspidistras

This week I bring you a houseplant horror story W.F. Harvey. William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) was a writer best known for writing horror and macabre stories. Born into a wealthy Quaker Yorkshire family he trained in medicine. He served during WWI in various medical roles. He suffered lung damage during the war that caused issues for the rest of his life.

After the war, he worked in adult education until ill health forced his retirement. During his lifetime three short story collections were published. Then after his death, in 1937, a posthumous collection was published following the 1946 film release of his best-known work, the beast with five fingers.

Harvey’s horror stories are interesting as they don’t follow one theme or formula. Many horror writers write one story in different variations, but Harvey’s follow different directions.

The story today is in the open domain now for copyright purposes. It offers a warning to abusing your houseplants, particularly that stuffy symbol of the Victorian middle class, the aspidistra.

The man who hated Aspidistras

The earliest memories of Ferdinand Ashley Wilton were green memories—of aspidistras. The aunt with whom he lived at Cheltenham was fond of the plants. As you entered the hall of Claremont Villa there was on the right an upturned drain-pipe painted a sage green and decorated with arum lilies. This contained Miss Wilton’s umbrellas and her father’s walking-stick. Projecting into the hall on the left a fretful erection of mahogany supported a mirror, hooks for cloaks, and two shelves. On the upper shelf was a porcelain bowl that contained the cards of callers; on the lower, in a sea-green earthenware pot, precariously rested the first of the aspidistras. The second stood in the dining-room—in summer in the fireplace, in winter on the ledge of the window that faced south. In the drawing-room was the third, raised high above the ground on a fluted wooden pedestal. The fourth and last aspidistra stood on the round table by the couch in Miss Wilton’s bedroom. At night it was carried out on to the landing, for Miss Wilton, remembering something that her doctor had once said about sick-rooms and flowers, thought it on the whole wisest that she should sleep alone.

The aspidistras dominated Ferdinand’s life. They were always liable to be upset, so that he was not allowed to run about in the hall or dining-room. When he was very small he had a fancy that they repeated to Miss Wilton the many things that he had done amiss, and especially did he distrust that fourth plant, which stood at night, a sleepless sentinel, on the landing close to his bedroom door. As he grew older he learnt, reluctantly, how to sponge their leaves with soapy water. When a gentle rain was falling he would carry them into the garden in order that they might enjoy what Miss Wilton called a thorough soaking. But if Ben, the poodle, were in the garden he had to be brought in straight away and dried. The laws governing the vegetable and animal worlds seemed to Ferdinand strangely different. In very dry weather the bath would be half filled and the four aspidistras would stand in a row for hours partially submerged. Ferdinand was not allowed to sail his boat among the gloomy islands of this archipelago, but if his conduct had been satisfactory he was permitted to pull the plug before going to bed. Ferdinand was still a very little boy when he was sent away to school. He was constantly ailing and even when he was well he received more than his due share of kicks and bruises. In the matron’s room he felt as if he were back again in Cheltenham, the pot of aspidistras reminded him so much of his aunt. On it he vented the hatred of his schoolboy world. When the matron was called out of the room he would share with the aspidistras vegetable laxatives and iron tonics, or impart to their leaves an unnatural glow of health by polishing them with Scott’s emulsion or liquid paraffin. A vertical section of the pot illustrating Ferdinand’s activities would have shown a thimble, three hairpins, a number of needles, the case of a clinical thermometer and, an inch below the surface, an almost complete tessellated pavement of sugar-coated pills. When, however, in a rash moment, Ferdinand, in applying the contents of a bottle of tincture of iodine to the leaves, found to his alarm that the black stains were irremovable, the fat was in the fire. The matron made a formal complaint, but nobody owned up. The ten more or less ailing boys who had visited the room on that fatal morning were indiscriminately punished. To them it was known that Ferdinand was the delinquent. He did not escape. Like the aspidistra he was poked and prodded and shaken to the roots. Boyhood passed. At the university Ferdinand achieved a certain success. He published a volume of verse and was founder and secretary of the Mid-Victorians. He only met two aspidistras during the whole of the time he was up, one in the porter’s lodge whose leaves he would absent-mindedly trim with pocket scissors, and the other in a dentist’s waiting-room. Miss Wilton died. She left to her nephew the villa at Cheltenham and four hundred pounds a year. Ferdinand was able to devote himself to literature, and from Bloomsbury lodging-houses wrote his first series of Antimacassar Papers. It was at this period of his life that he found himself once again under the influence of aspidistras. He began by nagging them, treating them as ash-trays, pen-wipers, and cemeteries for safety razor blades. He ended by torturing them. One, he slowly did to death with weedkiller; into another, following the example of the Good Samaritan, he would pour in oil and wine. A third he garrotted with rubber bands; a fourth, slowly succumbing to a solution of bath salts, filled his room for weeks with the faint perfume of lavender. A horticultural detective would, of course, have quickly got on the track of the Bloomsbury murders, but no suspicion ever fell upon Ferdinand. He was so inoffensive, so subtle, so respectable, and in his own way so quietly ornamental. His requirements were so few and he needed little looking after. His landladies were always sorry when he went. The aspidistras never got over his departure.

Ferdinand, of course, should have realised that it is dangerous to indulge in hatred. The man who hates open spaces as likely as not will be killed when crossing a square. It isn’t the motor car but the square that kills him. Ferdinand had his warnings. Once on a wet morning a pot of aspidistras fell from a third-storey window ledge on to the pavement at his feet. On another occasion when travelling by train a sudden stop brought down from the rack a heavy and bulky package that indubitably involved risk of injury to passengers. If Ferdinand had not been sitting with his back to the engine he would have been struck on the head by the most monstrous aspidistra he had ever seen.

He was smoking one day in a despondent mood when his friend Basset Tankerville chanced to call. The Blue Review had noticed his latest volume of essays with less than its usual appreciation. ‘Listen to this,’ said Ferdinand to Basset. ‘“We begin to be conscious of the limitations of his point of view—the interstices of a Venetian blind. He is the embodiment of the aspidistra.” And then,’ said Ferdinand, ‘they have the impertinence to give half a column to a review of Gertrude Stein.’ ‘Glorious jingles,’ said Basset. ‘You should really try your hand at them yourself. “Ferdinand Ashley Wilton with his dashed aspidistras that wilt unless fertilised. With black tobacco ash. Ad astra Aspidistra.” But seriously, you do remind me of the plants. You are becoming more and more green with envy, more and more pot-bound. And, by the way, have you ever thought of how applicable to aspidistras is St Paul’s description of charity? That specimen which I see before me suffereth long and is kind. It vaunteth not itself, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. And the same, Ferdinand, in a large measure is true of you. You and the aspidistra are one.’ Those light words of Basset Tankerville, spoken as they were in jest, marked an epoch in Wilton’s life. They stirred the vegetable fibres of his being. His conversation became more and more torpid. The wit that had enlivened the Antimacassar Papers vanished and though from time to time he still wrote, his style—polished and stately as it was—became dull. He left London to live once again in Cheltenham, but it was as an invalid that he lived. Though he took the waters regularly his skin acquired an unmistakeable greenish tinge which the dark green cloak he always wore made all the more noticeable. A little odd, his housekeeper thought him, and very old-fashioned, but Mr Wilton gave next to no trouble. On sunny days she would pull up the Venetian blinds and place his chair in the window, where he would sit quietly for hours occasionally sponging his long leaf-like hands with soap and water. He was happiest, however, when the faintest of drizzles was falling. Then the man who hated aspidistras would be wheeled out into the rain to enjoy a thorough soaking.

My classroom aspidistra, solid enough to survive a gloomy classroom and four year olds.

After thought

A warning to plant keepers. Have you become the plants you look after? Hope you’ve enjoyed the story. Are there any plants you need to ask forgiveness from? For more houseplant conversation check the twitter hashtag #houseplanthour A fortnightly conversation on Tuesday all about houseplants.

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Dr Hessayon: the most famous writer nobody knows

This blog is prompted by a discussion on who did the illustrations for the expert series. The expert series is a series of books written by Dr David Hessayon. They are best sellers. It has been estimated that one in two households own one of his gardening books. It has been estimated that one in two households own one of his gardening books. The Guinness book of records listed him as the best selling non-fiction writer of all time. I’ve tried using the power of the internet to find out about the illustrations with no success.

Right in the middle of the in-laws gardening shelf-an expert guide

The illustrations in the books are clear and demonstrate exactly what you need to know. Many more modern styles don’t communicate their meaning in the way these books do. The houseplant expert is still regarded as the houseplant “bible” by many. Commissioning illustrations for books like this is costly. The illustrator either has to have a good knowledge of the subject or be directed in what is required. Sadly, I have got no further with discovering what work went into these books, but I have read a lot of stories on Hessayon. For one of the most successful garden writers of all time, there is little information about the man. He is, apparently, famously reclusive. I’ve managed to connect a few dots together from the internet. I can’t speak to the accuracy of some of the sources, but interesting nevertheless.

My copy of the houseplant “bible”

I was vaguely aware that he had made a fortune, but little beyond that. The story is engaging but tinted with sadness at what may have been lost with his retirement from writing.

David Gerald Hessayon was born on February 13th 1928 in Manchester. His Cypriot father, Jack, was a watchmaker. He lost his mother, Lena, when he was six. A fact he attributes to part of his success.

A kid says in his mind, “It’s a bloody unfair world and if I’m not smart, things could turn out even worse”. I think that’s true for me. I knew that things do happen, that it’s not a bed of roses and that you’re going to have to fight to survive. Life has got a cruel edge.

David describes the garden as just a little plot with four square beds, some lilies and a hydrangea. As his father’s health wasn’t too good he helped. It wasn’t so much for a love of gardening, but for a love of his father. Which, as a father I certainly know Alice comes to help me for the positive attention she gains in that time.

He attended Salford Grammar School. The school which amongst others has given us: Albert Finney, Peter Hook, Mike Leigh and David Quinn. He grew up helping look after his fathers small garden.

“I was blessed by being poor,” said Dr Hessayon, who prefers to be called Dave. “We had no money, but my father’s great love was this little garden in front of the house. I gardened from five years old to please him.

“Each plant was a green pet and I got to know everyone. It sounds mad, but having so few and not having money to start again, you appreciated each plant.”

David studied Botany and Chemistry at Leeds University, graduating in 1950. He worked as an assistant lecturer in Manchester and then gained his PhD in soil ecology at Manchester University. The PhD document was one of the reasons for becoming an author.

‘It was green with gold letters on it…. I thought, “This is what I want to do”.

In 1949 he met his U.S. born future wife Joan. He went to work for her father in a Missouri newspaper. They married April 2nd 1951. Over the years they have had two daughters: Angelina and Jacqueline.

In 1955 he began work at Pan Brittanica Industries (PBI). Here he made agrochemicals. The company is best known for Baby Bio, a product familiar to almost all gardeners. In 1959 he bought out his first book, through PBI, “Be your own gardening expert”. The basic idea of these books was “easy to follow advice and information you can trust.

“The real secret of my work is that people feel at ease with them. People say they are the kind of books which they could have written themselves, which is really the best compliment.”

Over the years I believe 28 books have been published covering pretty much any aspect of gardening you could want information on. As already said, the houseplant expert is considered a definitive text. The books don’t suffer from fashions. There are mentions of rock gardens, gravel gardens, houseplants and other styles that have gone in and out of fashion. If there is something you fancy doing with your garden chances are Hessayon wrote about it. The presentation of the books is probably seen as quite old-fashioned. But, the illustrations and text give you exactly the information needed.

Some of the book push gardening techniques that are unpopular now. As an employee of an agrochemical company and later managing director (1964-91) and then chairman of the board (973-1993), the book often push weed killers that are no longer legal or considered good gardening practice. That said, you can still read and choose the techniques you want to use.

In 1993 a legal case was made against the company claiming the chemicals potentially caused cancer. It’s interesting looking back on the case in light of the recent Monsanto case. In this case, Monsanto is paying out despite no conclusive direct link being made to cancer. While I do garden without the use of weedkiller I’ve found the case interesting for its success and changing attitudes. The case against PBI, however, was dropped.

Many of the chemicals PBI produced have been banned by EU regulations. Hessayon has been outspoken about the regulations on these chemicals. Time will tell whether the agrochemical companies can create more products that conform to regulations. Or will we see more biological controls such as nematodes?

Charity shop bargain find

The irony of Hessayon writing the “green garden” in 2009 was commented on by many reviewers (thinking gardens review). In 2010 B&Q withdrew the expert series from their shelves in favour of Alan Titchmarsh’s how to garden series, despite significantly fewer sales. The Titchmarsh books covered the same subjects, had similar covers, but sold for £1 cheaper. I own a few and they are nice introductions to the subjects, but sadly don’t contain as much detail as Hessayon expert books.

David has criticised some of the TV garden makeover shows for the damage they have done to gardening. Which I have to say shows like ground force presented a fairly unrealistic version of gardening. A step away from the unrealism of a Chelsea show garden. One of the few shows of that style I’ve enjoyed was Monty Don’s Big dreams, small space. But this revisited gardens over a good period, so the gardens had time to develop. It also gave us Jack Wallington’s wonderful fern wall.

“People were expected to make a garden in less than 48 hours ‘before your wife gets back’. But in that time you could do nothing. You couldn’t even get the soil ready for a lawn. So I didn’t think much of that. The gameshow makeover garden in 48 hours was not very amusing.”

In 2013 he announced his retirement from writing. He listed the internet as one of the reasons for the demise of the gardening book. If people want to look something up they no longer need a book, they can look it up online. Sad, but probably true. If you look at the best selling garden books they are largely either TV gardeners or coffee table books of the Instagram kind. The actual content is often lacking. Not always, I refer to Carol Klein’s book on propagation regularly and Monty’s down to earth had lots of useful information. But many releases are now style over content. Plants being placed in the wrong places to create a good photo. His statement that to sell a book it needs to be something you can’t find on google is probably true. But, it saddens me that new gardeners may miss out on book knowledge gained from books like the expert series. Advice online differs massively in quality (my own included). Whereas Hesssayon is a qualified expert. While there are many sources of excellent information online it feels like something has been lost.

“Now it’s look at my garden or look at other people’s gardens. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something you can’t look up on Google.”

Davids contributions to gardening have been well recognised with the RHS Veitch memorial wedding in 1993. This is awarded to people who have made outstanding contributions to science and horticulture. Also in 1993, he received the National Book Awards lifetime achievement award. Then in 2007, he received an OBE.

“At 80 you run out of ambitions. I never had great ambitions. But I’ve been damn lucky. When you’ve been at the top of the bestseller lists for 50 years, you run out of ambitions.”

So having spent an afternoon reading through the various online sources I still don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of this gardening legend. I apologise for any inaccuracies. I can only go off the limited information on this reclusive man available online. If anyone has any further information I will happily correct any mistakes. For now, I would like to thank David for the information he shared with many of us over the years. For those of you who have never encountered them check your charity shops and used and new on Amazon. For those of you familiar with the books what’s your favourite?

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Competition

I have one copy of the expert guide to houseplants. If you are interested check my Twitter and retweet and like the pinned post. Running until the end of Geo-Fleur’s Kickstarter campaign. It’s all or nothing with Kickstarter. The campaign is still off target, so please share. Even if you don’t want to pledge to Geo-Fleur, you have the chance to win a very useful book.

Geo-Fleur plant subscription

An update on this blog. Geo-fleur is no longer operating as a subscription service. A more recent blog can be found here listing alternatives still in operation.

In my previous blog, on buying houseplants, I had mentioned plant subscription services. One I mentioned was Geo-Fleur. In this blog, I’m going to look at my experiences with Geo-Fleur.

Geo-Fleur

Geo-Fleur is a Yorkshire based company. It was started in 2014 by Sophie Lee and has been gradually growing. There are several shop based stockists of their plants.

The Hepworth Cafe-Wakefield

North Star coffee shop-Leeds

Laynes espresso-Leeds

Fred Aldous-Leeds and Manchester

As well as the stockist, they offer their plants by subscription or you can choose plants, pots and books through the online shop. Workshops on terrariums and kokedama are currently available to book. Sophie Lee, the owner, has made her contribution to houseplant literature with her book living with plants. In this basic plant care is dealt with, along with a number of DIY projects. I’ve only got the kindle version of the book, but I imagine it’s quite a lavish coffee table book from the reviews.

Plant subscription

Geo-Fleur offer a plant subscription. This seemed like an odd idea to me when I first heard about it and I suppose it is. You subscribe to receive a surprise plant each month. The aim is to send out rare and unusual plants each month. The plant is sent in a pot or other suitable receptacle. They can be purchased in 1, 3, 6 or 12-month subscription packages. It becomes cheaper the longer a period you subscribe for.

They suggest the subscription as a gift, which I think is quite a nice idea. You can pay for someone to have a direct subscription posted to there door. This saves you needing to wrap or sort out postage of a present. It could make a good gift for a plant lover of interior nut.

Along with the plant and pot you receive a plant related accessory and notes on the care of the plant. Within the constraints of posting the subscriptions are currently UK only and limited to small plants. That said, plenty of small to mid-sized fascinating plants that can fit. Have a look through Twitter or Instagram for the #PlantPostClub hashtag to see previous boxes.

Alternatively, there is the post grow club. Instead of a full plant you receive a cutting and instructions on how to grow on. While this will take longer to grow it allows bigger plants to be offered by subscription.

My box

My first box contained a string of hearts (ceropegia woodii). Also known as rosary vine you will see this plant and string of pearls featuring hanging from bookshelves in fashionable photoshoots. A world apart from my child-friendly house. This is an evergreen succulent native to South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. It grows up about 10cm before trailing down up to 4m. The leaves are about 1cm and heart shaped. In good light they go darker. Whereas in the house you will usually see them looking paler. In 2017 it gained the RHS award of garden merit.

Its trailing nature makes it a good choice for hanging pots. Alternatively, it can sit on a bookshelf or high shelf. It likes good light, plenty of sunshine, though not too much direct sun. It doesn’t need too much attention. The soil needs to dry out between watering.

The plant subscription string of hearts I received appears to be in good condition. It was packaged well with the vine coiled well. It came neatly packaged with wrap and cut tissue to keep it safe. It came in an attractive hexagonal pot with a drainage tray. String of hearts doesn’t like sitting in water, so this is a good set up for the plant. After watering the excess water can be drained off.

My surprise for this month was a plant person badge. It’s a nice quality enamel badge. Fit on my bag along with my RSPB goldfinch. Geo-Fleur also sell a plant killer badge. We’ll see whether I need that a few months into owning my string of hearts.

The plant care instructions are presented stylishly on a postcard-sized note. I can see these would build up into a nice collection if you subscribe long term.

Price wise, it costs £25 for a single month subscription. It’s cheaper if you pay for more months. String of hearts cost from about £5 to £20 without a pot. So with a rather nice ceramic pot and postage, it is a reasonable price. Towards the top price end, but it is a well looked after plant of a good size.

Overall, I’m happy with my first experience of plant subscriptions. The plant is a nice little addition to my house. It’s possibly not one I’d have bought for myself. I’ve not really considered buying vines and climbers before. That said it looks good where it is. As I clear my spare room I have a better spot in mind for it. Both better for the light requirements and the look of the vine. I look forward to seeing what I get next month.

Kickstarter

I have mentioned in a previous blog, but Geo-Fleur has started a Kickstarter campaign. So forgive me, but I’m going to repeat myself. For those of you who don’t know Kickstarter, it is a website where people fund money to help projects. It has become a popular format for funding game development and gadgets. People pledge money and if the campaign is successful they gain rewards. The company sets a target of how much money they need for their project. If they get enough pledges they receive the money. If they don’t get pledges up to the target you don’t pay anything and the rewards don’t go ahead.

haworthia and pot up for grabs

Geo-fleur is looking to expand the business. They are looking to invest in a larger greenhouse and develop a collection of rarer plants. In exchange for funding these improvements, you can choose from a number of rewards. There are a number of lovely looking handmade pots up for grabs. There is also a reduced price available for you to get a plant subscription. So if the concept interests you it’s a chance to buy in cheaper. Make your pledge if interested and share on your social media of choice. The campaign is halfway to the target, but the whole amount has to be pledged for it to go ahead, so please add your support if you’re interested.

Check it out on kickstarter

Competition time

To add a little support to Geo-Fleur’s Kickstarter campaign I have a little giveaway competition on Twitter. I found another copy of The Houseplant Guide by Dr Hessayon in my local charity shop. For those unfamiliar with the houseplant expert is generally considered one of the best houseplant books ever published.

To quote the blurb:

Quite simply, the best-selling gardening book in the world. Over a million copies have been sold in the U.S., and nearly 14 million worldwide. According to one reviewer – “after the Bible, the best-selling reference book of all time.”

It tends to be my go-to book for checking care and problems with plants. On the ledge podcast makes regular references to it. If you have any interest in houseplants you should own this.


To enter check my twitter feed and you should find a pinned post. To be in with a chance of winning like and retweet the post. I will run the competition until the end of the Kickstarter campaign when I will pick a winner at random to send the book onto.

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An update on this blog. Geo-fleur is no longer operating as a subscription service. A more recent blog can be found here listing alternatives still in operation.

 

Houseplant hour-where to buy plants

Having written about why you should buy houseplants it seems worth looking at a few places you can buy houseplants and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each option. I haven’t tried all the options, some will depend on your geographic location of what you will have access to.

Garden centres and nurseries

Within most garden centres there is almost always a section dedicated to indoor plants. The variety varies massively from garden centre to garden centre. You may only find a handful of succulents, an orchid and a spider plant. These days you will probably find a bit more. If you look around your local garden centres you’ll find one that probably has more choice. Within my locality one has more bonsai, while another has a good orchid range. Generally, garden centres will look after the houseplants well, with the exception of a few specialist plants with more particular needs. The price is usually reasonable for a good quality plant. You can see the plants condition and take it out of the pot to see if it’s pot bound or infested with any pests.

Alternatively you may be fortunate to have a specialist nursery. These may offer you a better range. The advantage of a specialist nursery is that the plants will probably be a passion of the owner and at there best. Most of our plants including houseplants come from Holland, but you may be lucky and have a source closer to hand. Attending local plant fairs can put you in touch with local sources.

You may also have small greenhouse businesses. Near my in laws is a sign outside a driveway that takes you to a specialist cacti greenhouse. The money raised goes to help children in the third world. Plant sources like this often don’t advertise. You just need to keep your eyes peeled as walking and driving through areas.

Supermarkets and high street shops

It has become the norm now that supermarkets stock a number of houseplants as gifts. The variety is often limited to succulents and orchids, but it gives a cheap source of windowsill plants. The little Tesco succulents currently sell for £1.50, but they quickly establish and grow giving you a decent plant. The supermarkets vary in quality. Many of the plants will be left to die slow painful deaths with no one assigned to look after them. So it’s worth keeping an eye on supermarkets for when new deliveries come in. Alternatively, watch for when the plants have been taken to the point of death and have been reduced. I’m a sucker for a rescue project. Much of the lavender in the garden started as bargain rescue plants. Succulents will usually recover with a small amount of care. Even if they don’t you’ve got a spare pot for dividing plants.

As said supermarket plants are often over or under cared for leaving them in bad states. They are also often filled too heavily with the particular plant. Calla lilies and sansevierias are prime candidates for this in the supermarket. They can then be divided to give you multiple plants. Supermarket plants tend to be potted in coconut coir, whether it’s appropriate or not, so often good to re-pot in the correct compost.

In my experience Morrison’s seems to look after their plants the best. They appear to have people assigned to look after and give them the occasional water. Tesco and Asda offer about the same level of care. The plants are delivered and put on a trolley. If you get them on delivery day the plant will be in a good condition. If it’s been a week or more into its stay it will be looking the worse for it. The succulents often suffer from being picked over by customers and losing leaves. Aldi and Lidl offer quite reasonable plants, particularly ferns, but suffer from just being labelled foliage plant. Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s have the highest price tags, as expected, but are, ultimately, the same plants in a nicer pot.

A serviceable £4 sanseviria from Tesco

High street shops such as Next and homeware shops such as IKEA have also got on the houseplant wagon and are currently stocking quite good varieties. The last trip to Next saw a better range than many of the local garden centres. However, many of these did come with high price tags. That said, the plants did look healthy. But, if you’re paying top money for a lifestyle accessory it should look good to start with. I imagine many will not look as good after a few weeks in their wannabe designer homes when people realise they need care.

Internet shopping

The internet opens up more range to plant buyers. While people can be stung by buying online there are a lot of reputable sellers. But even the best seller will occasionally have delivery issues with plants getting delayed fatally in the mail. However, for the range of choice, the risk seems worth taking. Be careful when buying to check postage. While the plant may be a reasonable price, with a pot the weight goes up and the price of postage goes up.

A cheaper option online is to buy cuttings. eBay has many cuttings available. Buying on ebay has risks, but you can leave negative reviews if and paypal offers some protection if you get poor service. Many houseplants grow well from cuttings giving you a cheaper option for postage. I’ve only grown succulents bought this way, but it is rewarding. The care you put in initially means the plant means more to you and is more likely to be looked after than the quick easy store option.

Cutting swaps

Following on from buying cuttings there are a number of options for obtaining cuttings through swaps. House plant swap group on facebook and houseplantswap.com offer online options.

Organised events to physically swap plants do also take place. Obviously, certain plants that are readily available will turn up in abundance, while rarer plants will be snapped up fast. In my local area plant and cuttings, swaps do take place as part of a number of the plant fairs, but it’s mainly garden plants rather than indoor plants. The Instagram indoor plant trend not having had any major impact on sleepy North East seaside towns. But if you are in bigger cities I imagine these may be an option for you.

I have however ended up with cuttings through open gardens. Open gardens are good events in general for seeing what will work in your area in your gardens. But they also put me in touch with a number of local gardeners with wonderful knowledge. From the front of their houses, I wouldn’t have known the wonders existing behind.

Friends and family are also options for taking cuttings. My mum donates lots of cuttings and seedlings for my garden. In return, I have given her a few seedlings and chicks off my sempervivums. Always ask first though before cutting or they may not remain friends with you.

Florists and boutiques

As well as your high street shops selling houseplants florists and boutique shops often stock a limited range of houseplants. I’ve found this to be one of the most expensive routes. The florists usually stock a limited number of houseplants ready as gifts. The boutiques usually stock for gifts and for the designer houses. The plants I’ve bought in this way have usually been good quality, but amongst the most expensive I’ve bought for what they were. Annoyingly, many will have no labels either of exactly what they are. For cacti or succulents this is an irritation, but for other plants, this may prevent you from looking up the proper care they need. This is a common issue with the supermarket purchases as well. My local florists do normally have them nicely displayed though, so you get an idea how they may look at home.

Curse of the unlabelled houseplant, merely cactus

Seeds

As with garden plants, there is the option to grow your houseplants from seed. Growing the window box of herbs from seed has been a popular choice for a long time. Aldi has recently offered a cacti seed mix as a project for children. Although I can’t say I’m convinced by the combination of children and spikes. Growing fruit from pips is a nice windowsill project. Avocado’s seem to be a popular choice at the moment (RHS podcast). Many seed companies offer seed mixes for a number of house plants. Sutton has a good range of indoor seeds, although many are flowering and like foliage for indoors more than flowers.

Subscription services

While it might seem an odd concept buying plants by subscriptions, but there are quite a few companies offering just this. My Facebook and twitter adverts clearly feel I need these in my life as they come up regularly. Geo-Fleur offer a plant subscription service where you relieve a plant and pot and details of the care the plant need. They also offer a subscription to receive cuttings of larger plants. Bloombox offer the option to have a plant every 3 months so you can slowly build a collection. Or replace plants as they die, which might be the case for many people. They also offer a cheaper subscription for plants with no pots, but their pot choices do look good. I’d be tempted with the more expensive option. Sprout London offer an interesting option to have coffee and a plant delivered. However, as a coffee hater, I’m glad to see there is an option to subscribe for the plants without coffee.

While some people will like the surprise of getting a plant with no choice for some people this will just be impractical. All of the three I’ve listed do sell the plants separately giving you the freedom to choose exactly what you want.

Kickstarter

It seems a good time to do a shout out for geo-fleur. Geo-fleur is a subscription company mentioned above. They have started a kickstarter campaign. For those of you who don’t know kickstarter, it is a website where people fund money to help projects. It has become a popular format for funding game development and gadgets. People pledge money and if the campaign is successful they gain rewards. The company sets a target of how much money they need for their project. If they get enough pledges they receive the money. If they don’t get pledges up to the target you don’t pay anything and the rewards don’t go ahead.

haworthia and pot up for grabs

Geo-fleur are looking to expand the business. They are looking in invest in a larger greenhouse and develop a collection of rarer plants. In exchange for funding these improvements, you can choose from a number of rewards. There are a number of lovely looking handmade pots up for grabs. There is also a reduced price available for you to get a plant subscription. So if the concept interests you it’s a chance to buy in cheaper. Make your pledge if interested and share on your social media of choice.

Check it out on kickstarter

Brexit

While not one for scaremongering, it seems worth noting we have no idea how Brexit will run its course. But seeing as the majority of our houseplants come from Holland it seems a good time to buy that plant you’ve been pondering or become more familiar with UK sellers who may be able to put their prices up.

Hope you’ve found this weeks blog useful. While writing this blog I found Jane Perrone’s blog on the same subject. She’s covered almost exactly the same material I had planned. Worth a read here for some extra links. Also, keep an eye out for Gardener’s World magazine feature on houseplants next month.

Leave a comment if there is anywhere you’ve found useful for houseplants.

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Mossarium

Following on from the open bottle terrarium and blogs looking at houseplants I’ve had a go at another mini-project. A mossarium works much the same as the open bottle of terrarium. For a how-to guide read here. People make really fun mossariums using items like toy dinosaurs and fairies. I am just aiming for a fairly closed system that keeps the moss alive.

Moss is an amazing plant. It acts as a wonderful sponge for carbon and it has been suggested it may hold the key to lowering the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to combat climate change. At the Chelsea Flower Show moss featured in a number of gardens for this reason. A section of moss being more effective at absorbing carbon than an oak tree of a much larger size. So, I quite a fancy a little desktop reminder of the power of moss. I would also like a Japanese style moss garden, but I don’t have the time to build or maintain one. A mini moss patch will suffice for now. Alice helped put the layers in, so the distribution is a bit higgledy-piggledy. But she likes to help and I like to encourage an interest.

I’ve used a medium sized mason jar. The smaller ones don’t give space for the layers. The first layer is a layer of grit or pebbles for drainage.

Activated charcoal stops fungi growing.

A layer of soil.

Then the moss on the top. I’ve added to varieties of moss scraped from rocks under the hebes in the front garden. Then a spray with the mister.

The end result is quite nice. I may try a larger one with a few features in if I keep this going. I quite fancy a stuppa surrounded my moss or an ewok home.

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Open bottle terrarium

Today I’ve worked on two indoor projects: a mossarium (more on that another day) and an open bottle terrarium. I’ve had a fittonia (nerve plant) for a while now. Fittonia is largely grown in this country as a houseplant. It hails from South America, predominantly Peru. Its natural climate would be tropical rainforests. As such it requires high humidity. I’ve been achieving this through misting each day. However with the heat currently the fittonia is needing misting morning and evening. It is a perfect candidate for a terrarium. A terrarium is a closed tank, generally glass, that allows the water to be recycled as it is trapped within the tank. It creates high humidity, so gives people the chance to grow plants that would otherwise be hard to maintain. To make a closed terrarium you need a decent amount of space. James Wong recommends at least 30cm by 30cm. He knows a lot more than me. if you haven’t seen his terrarium table check out his twitter. It is truly a display of wonder. The current terrarium trend is for putting succulents and cacti into them, which serves no purpose. As already said terrariums create high humidity, so the opposite of what most plants you see going into them on Instagram need. As said a terrarium requires a decent amount of space, as I don’t have a decent space in mind for my fittonia I thought I’d attempt an open bottle terrarium. This will still increase the humidity around it, but it will be able to grow out of it. I may find this doesn’t work and I need to repot it when it outgrows the container, but I’m willing to experiment.

Equipment

To make the open bottle terrarium I have used:

  1. wide hurricane lantern.
  2. Small pebbles
  3. Activated charcoal
  4. Houseplant potting mix
  5. Fittonia plant

My container isn’t ideal as the rope will cover the layers going at the bottom, which are quite nice to look at. However, I already have this container and it is currently serving no good purpose.

Fittonia

Process

The first layer to go in was the pebbles. This goes at the bottom to give the plant drainage. While it likes humidity sitting in too much water can still rot the roots.

The next layer to go in was the activated charcoal. This is sold in pet shops for fish tanks and reptile tanks. It helps clean the water going through and stops the growth of fungi.

Next, a thin layer of soil was added. The plant was pulled from its current pot and shook off some of its existing soil and teased the roots out gently. The plant was placed in and then I gently built up the soil around it, trying to be careful not to cover the leaves.

I then gave it a light misting. I can gradually add more if it is looking too dry over the next few days.

It will still need watering as it is still an open system, but hopefully, the little rim it has will help it out a little bit.

Finished product

The end result is fairly pleasing. I’ve placed it in the bathroom where it will get some humidity anyway. I don’t know if it is too light a position, so will have to experiment a bit moving it around. The look isn’t quite right, the bottle should probably be a bit deeper, but fairly happy that it may survive another few months.

Hope you’ve found something of interest here. I will update in a few months as to whether it out grow it’s container straight away or shrivelled up and died.

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Why houseplants?

In the last few weeks I’ve reviewed several books on houseplants I thought I would discuss why I brought houseplants into my house. This year has seen a big trend for a return to using houseplants as part of interior decorating. The range of options within garden centres has expanded from just a few cacti and spider plants to include wider choices. Supermarkets and homeware shops are following the trend. My local Next shop is offering a range of houseplants more varied than many of the garden centres. People are opting for plants over pets. It’s never been easier to buy many of the options available.


Clean air

In the 1980s NASA conducted research on the effect of plants in purifying our indoor air. Many indoor environments, particularly office spaces, produce toxic agents such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Benzene is a carcinogen which has been linked to cancer and health problems. Formaldehyde is part of our cellular metabolism, but at higher levels can aggravate eyes and asthma. Trichloroethylene has been linked to central nervous system depression. They all contribute to sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms of which are: eye and throat irritation, headaches, fatigue, chest tightness and skin irritation.

NASA filled a chamber with plants and then pumped in these chemicals. After 24 hours 90% of the chemicals had been broken down. Many of the most effective plants were very common houseplants. Some of the chemicals were broken down by the plants others by bacteria in the soil. For NASA this information gave them a list of plants that could survive in low light and give the maximum benefit. Many were tropical or subtropical and adapted to growing under a leaf canopy with limited light. The conditions they potentially face in space, but also mirrors an office space or many houses.

The NASA chart listed the most effective plants at removing each of the chemicals tested.
Buying a peace lily came out as one of the more effective choices for removing all the chemicals tested. However, it is toxic to many pets. The chart does show which are non-toxic for anyone having to account for pets likely to chomp their plants.

On top of the NASA study, indoor plants have been shown to reduce breathing problems, reduce blood pressure, and reduce fatigue. They are also removing the carbon dioxide from our breathing and contributing fresh oxygen for us.

Psychological benefits

As a species we are designed for green spaces. Our eyes can distinguish more shades of green than any other colour. We have evolved for an outdoor life surrounded by plants. As around 85% of our lives are now spent indoors we are not living in conditions we are naturally suited to. Having access to outdoor green spaces is important, but becoming harder for many with green space disappearing. Bringing outdoors in is a more viable option.

Research has shown indoor plants can lead to an improved mood, reduced stress levels, increased productivity, higher pain tolerance and better attention spans. The psychological benefits of plants can be gained by looking out of a window into green space or by having rooms containing plants. Some research has shown just seeing nature images can help, but you would lose the clean air benefits this way.

For many of these benefits you need leafy green plants, cacti probably won’t cut it for most people. The research differs on how much of an impact plants have. Some suggest small impacts, while other suggest bigger impacts. Working with plants can reduce stress as opposed to working on computers. Part of me wonders if working on any physical task would suffice or whether gardening specifically offers unique benefits. Either way the research does suggest a life with plants gives psychological benefits.

Houseplants are frequently being linked to the practice of mindfulness. While I’m not keen on the trend for secular mindfulness connecting every activity to mindfulness looking after a plant can promote calmness. That is, so long as you choose something easy to care for. If you choose something needing constant care and attention you may not find caring for the plant as mindful. Looking after plants forces you to slow down. You can dedicate small amounts of time to checking plants over, pruning, watering and feeding. The plant will change overtime bringing surprises to enjoy.

Interior decorating

Houseplants have gone in and out of fashion as part of interior decorating. While for aficionados of the houseplant they never left their houses, but for most, the spider plants were removed. Currently though they are very much in vogue. This is probably the area that interests me the least, not caring much for trends. However, a plant picked out well with a good pot can enhance a room enormously. A carefully grouped collection of plants can make for a good feature in a room. However don’t just aim for the Instagram photo. With any plant you still need to keep in mind, “right plant, right place”. Different plants will suit different rooms and different positions within each room.

So with the news that air quality considered safe are still damaging it seems worth trying to make our own safe havens within our homes. There is no better time to look at adding a houseplant to your home. In the next few weeks I’ll be looking at a few options.

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DK-How not to kill your houseplant review

Amazon link Price £9.99 in shops, priced cheaper online.

Continuing on from my focus on houseplants I am looking at another basic introduction to houseplants.  Similar to the RHS happy houseplant book, this is a small hardback book giving an overview of houseplant care. The book is nice quality. The pages feel nice. The information is stylishly presented. It feels like a quality production. I feel like it should have a hitchhikers guide label on the front saying, “don’t panic” your plant will be alright. It simplifies down the plant care to vital information, much like the hitchhiker’s guide. Earth: mostly harmless. Plants: mostly water.

The book starts with some basic information. It covers buying your plants, what to look out for, how to pot it, place it, water it, feed it, pests and diseases. It covers all the basic care most houseplants will need and many of the common issues you are going to come across. The illustrations and photos show convey their messages clearly.

Then the majority of the book is given over to the different houseplants. Each plant has a profile. In these profiles locations, light levels, watering, feeding and care are explained. Common issues such as bug, reasons for plant wilting, leaves changing colour are given. Solutions to the problems to save the plant are given. A good range of plants are presented. All the plants that you can commonly buy from your garden centre and common supermarket are presented here.

Dotted throughout the plant profiles are suggestions for locations such as the desk, sunny spots, bathrooms, etc. In each of these sections you can find a few choices of suitable plants for each environment. The page numbers of the suggested plants are named for easy reference.

Overall this is a useful, little, reference book on houseplants. It acts as a good guide for which plants to buy for set locations. I’ve found myself referring to it lots for common issues and to check watering requirements. While this information is available easily online these days I find it useful to have it in print format to flick through. There are plants I would be unaware of if I had just tried browsing through internet pages. I would recommend this book to people starting out in bringing greenery into their houses. It will hopefully save many plants from mismanagement.

Hope you’re all enjoying the detour inside. What are your favourite houseplants?

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RHS Little book of happy house plants-Review

Amazon smile link currently £12.99 for hardback.

Over the last few years I have put a lot of work into gardening with children. The benefits of outdoor learning and engaging in nature are well documented so I won’t cover it again. I have also kept a number of house plants in the classroom. My bonsai sadly passed on through neglect during my paternity, but a number of others have thrived. I have developed a greater interest in bringing greenery and gardening indoors and over a couple of blogs I’d like to look at a few sources of information starting with a book review.

I bought this little book in the July Kindle monthly sale for 99p. While kindle isn’t my favoured format for gardening books at 99p I thought I’d take a gamble. Holly Farrell has written a number of small guides for the RHS over the last few years: Gardening for mindfullness, minature garden grower and plants from pips. She has also written about jam and growing fruit for cakes. The little RHS books are little introductory books to subjects.

This book introduces you to the basic principles of house plants such as dealing with microclimates, selecting the right plants for the right room and things to watch out for. It presents a number of the current trends for presenting your plants. There is basic advice on buying plants, selecting suitable pots, watering, tools, and compost. It has overviews of some care overtime such as repotting, supports and how to create specific presentations.

The chapter on presentation covers: terrariums, kokedama, hanging gardens, Christmas displays, a child’s sensory garden, an edible kitchen wall, greening your desk space and other projects. This section is probably the weakest with a number of the sections reading as if she isn’t writing from experience. The terrarium section for example talks about being able to make one from a container as small as a testtube. But I don’t know how many houseplants you can manage that small, readily available that aren’t going to outgrow a container that small. The suggestions of terrarium plants are sensible enough, but I get the feeling something created following the advice here would gain the wrath of Wong and deadplants in six weeks. Read here for more terranium mistakes. Article 1. Article 2. Kokedama are something I’d like to have a go at making, but this doesn’t go into enough detail to feel I could manage it. This is really the weakest chapter as none of it leaves you quite satisfied that you have enough detail or it doesn’t feel like it comes from someone who has enough experience to advise.

The chapter on staying alive offers practical advice on keeping the plants alive. It deals with watering and feeding and practical issues such as going on holiday. It offers a good quick overview of each task.

The book finishes with plant files. It describes a number of common houseplants giving you a basic profile of hardiness, type of plant and height and spread. It then splits them into locations and types: sunny spots, succulents, bright spots, orchids, shady and humid spots, bright and humid spots, air plants, shady and cool spots, and bulbs. In a short space it covers a good number of plants.

There are then a few links to websites of interest and further reading. Much of the recomended reading links you back to other books Holly has written. Interestingly no blogs are recommended, which now offer some of the best advice on houseplants. But then they also disappear as quickly as books are published.

Overall the book is fine as a 99p kindle purchase. I wouldn’t recomend it for more than a fiver. It would make a nice gift for someone looking to develop a house plant collection, but the RHS practical house plants book is currently cheaper and offers more detail. But as a starting point to see if you’re are interested in learning more it isn’t a bad choice. The presentation is good and the writing is generally clear. As a short guide it is too brief on areas, but OK as a starting point before looking into subjects further. For example terrariums and kokedama interested me from this book. But I’d need to look up more information to see if they were practical for me.

Overall worth buying if on sale if cheap, probably not worth £12.99 for it in hardback, but good for 99p on kindle.

Hope you’ve found this useful. I’m going to go into further detail of other houseplant books in future blogs as well as looking at some of my own house and class plants.

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