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How to care for house plants

Read our expert tips on how to take care of indoor plants to create a beautiful green space in your house, including a guide to the best indoor plants.

Hobbies and interests
Posted 13 July 2020
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Indoor gardening ideas – create an oasis in your home

With the benefits claimed for plants including stress reduction and cleaner air, it’s no wonder that indoor gardens are growing in popularity. According to research in 2021, the average Brit spends £300 on houseplants a year and is ‘plant parent’ to around seven pot plants, with spider plants and peace lilies being the most common. Keeping potted plants happy makes an ideal hobby for retirement – and works brilliantly in a light, bright retirement apartment or bungalow. But how do you create the perfect indoor garden? We’ve asked the experts for advice.

What are the best house plants?

Here’s six of the best indoor plants to get you started: 

Spider plants are among the easiest, and fastest, indoor plants to grow. Their long, curved ‘spider leg’ leaves make them ideal hanging plants and they don’t need much light, so you can put them almost anywhere.  

Ferns have had a major comeback. The Boston fern is one of the easiest to grow, and its graceful arching fronds look good in a hanging container. The delicate maidenhair fern is pretty but craves humidity, so is best in bathrooms or on kitchen windowsills.

Mother-in-law’s tongue is a vigorous and very low-maintenance succulent with erect, sword-like leaves.  

Monstera obliqua is an unusual relative of the cheese plant, with heart-shaped leaves dotted with oval holes. It’s fast-growing and works as a hanging plant, or you can grow it up a pole. 

Air plants (Tillandsia) are small plants with curving, tendril-like leaves that don’t have conventional roots but produce a small root system to anchor themselves onto rocks and trees. They absorb water and nutrients directly from the air. They look attractive and unusual hanging in wire baskets. 

Banana trees have architectural leaves, and the smaller versions can make striking house plants. They like warmth, light and water, but don’t expect any fruit – just enjoy them for their dramatic good looks. 

Writer and former Guardian gardening editor, Jane Perrone, has a wealth of experience on indoor plants. She has written a book on iconic houseplants - Legends of the Leaf and presents a regular plant care podcast ‘On the Ledge’. She says, “When I go into a home without any plants, I always feel like there's something missing. That said, when I go into a home where the houseplants are badly neglected, it makes me really sad!” We asked her for advice on buying houseplants for beginners.  

How should a beginner introduce houseplants to their home?

“Firstly, do your research - don't just go and buy the first houseplant you like the look of. Plants have different needs, so what might thrive in one environment may struggle to do so in your home. Start slowly with one or two plants and get the knack of looking after them before you expand your collection.

If you’re looking for low-maintenance plants, ideally you want something that doesn't need a lot of fuss or regular repotting. Moth orchids are a good choice as they don't often need repotting, and only need watering once a week. When you do water them, simply run them under a tap from about 60 seconds.”

What are your favourite houseplants?

“That's like trying to pick a favourite child! I love them all, but I do have a soft spot for the Gesneriad family (which includes African violets). As well as being easy to grow, they’re beautiful and they flower too. These plants include Streptocarpus (otherwise known as Cape Primrose), Petrocosmeas and Smithianthas (also called Temple Bells). The Hoya (wax plant) plant family is also beautiful and will thrive indoors, and succulents are a great pick too.”

Can I grow edible plants indoors?

“You can successfully grow things like pea shoots and microgreens on your windowsill, or even compact varieties of chillies and tomatoes during the summer. 

If you’re looking to create an indoor herb or edible garden, make sure to start small and only grow what you like to eat! I’d suggest that you buy some herbs in pots from a good garden centre and place them in a bright spot where you can keep an eye on them daily. The best spot to do this is usually on your kitchen windowsill.”

What are the benefits of houseplants?

Research makes some big claims for the benefits of houseplants including removing air pollution, reducing stress, aiding recovery from illness and improving productivity.

Jane says, “There’s lots of evidence that plants improve our mood, and we are drawn to them. Edward O. Wilson, describes it ‘as biophilia’ - ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. ‘Biophilia’ essentially suggests that we possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and suggests that a few plants on your windowsill can be beneficial to your mood and wellbeing. Which is particularly relevant if you have mobility issues and as you can essentially bring nature indoors.”

How to care for houseplants

To create a striking indoor garden, the ideal is to find a nook or cranny with good natural light and fill it with plants, but how do you keep them happy? We asked Principal Horticultural Advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society, Leigh Hunt to share his advice on caring for indoor plants.

Where’s the best place to put my plants? 

“East and west facing windowsills are the ideal position for most house plants as it’s not too sunny and hot, and there’s good light all year round.

For the sunniest windowsills, the most fashionable of houseplants – cacti and succulent – are ideal. There’s a wide range of shapes to play with here. From tall and thin cacti such as Cephalocereus senilis (which is known as the old man cactus as it sports a grey beard) to the spiky zigzags of Aloe vera, which is also renowned for its medicinal properties. Cacti need little care, so appeal to people who go away a lot. They need watering only once a week in summer and hardly at all in winter. They like light but need to dry out in between watering. And since they release oxygen at night, they’re ideal for a bedroom. 

Orchis however prefer a table near a window. They need less light and will often scorch if put closer.”

How often should I water my plants? 

“All houseplants like their compost to be kept just slightly damp rather than saturated. However, cacti and succulents will tolerate drying out for a few days longer. Check with your finger how wet the compost is before watering if you are unsure. For better results, between April and October, apply a houseplant feed according to the instructions on the pack.

Orchids need watering as soon as the compost dries. Just place the pot under the tap and sluice the water through the compost for 30 seconds or so, until it gushes out the bottom. Allow to drain and return to their decorative pot.”

Five top tips for making your indoor garden outstanding

  1. Get the mix right
    Leigh says, “When choosing plants for visual impact, think about contrasting leaf shapes and colours. Here’s one stunning combination you could try: the upright blue leaves of the fern Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’ next to the trailing creamy variegated creeping fig Ficus pumila ‘Variegata’, plus the bold bronze of a Begonia ‘Bethlehem Star combine well.”

  2. Group your plants together
    A dedicated area for your houseplants will feel more like a garden and look more dramatic. ‘House plants look good clustered together in the corner of a room or next to a fireplace,’ says gardening author Stephanie Donaldson, whose blog, The Enduring Gardener, has a keen following. ‘Choose plants with leaves of different shapes and sizes, combining one large plant with two or three smaller ones. They’ll create their own humid micro-climate and keep each other healthy.’

  3. Make your containers into a style statement
    Use different stands and multi-level stools or side tables to display your plants and to add interest and depth. The vast choice of contemporary plant pots and containers gives you the chance to make a style statement - try complementary or contrasting colours. Hanging pots are all the rage and just need a secure hook above the window. Glass objects such as bon-bon dishes and vases (which can also be planted) help to reflect the sunshine.

  4. Invest in one larger plant
    Alice Sharville, owner of Spiderplant in Brighton, recommends a large floor-standing plant to give a room the wow factor. ‘You can make a big impact by spending £50 on a mature cheese plant or philodendron. Mature plants are also easier to look after as they’re well established.’

  5. Get the light right
    Remember that the direction your windows face can affect how happy your plants will be. South-facing windows can mean too much direct sunlight in summer, scorching those shiny leaves. ‘For a south-facing window, choose a cactus, yucca or bird of paradise, which don’t mind the heat,’ says Alice. ‘East- and west-facing windows should be fine for most plants, and north-facing, too, if there’s good light.’ 

McCarthy Stone retirement apartments with their large windows or balconies are well suited to indoor gardening. You can also enjoy large and beautiful shared gardens without all the hard work.

Find your perfect retirement property now. 

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