INTRODUCTION TO GROWING HOUSEPLANTS FOR BEGINNERS

Indoor gardening has all the excitement. challenge and pleasure of outdoor gardening – but with the bonus of comfort. Whatever the weather you can tend and enjoy your plants.

Houseplants also make it possible for everyone to experience the joys of gardening – whether they live in a high-rise flat in a city or in a country home with a large garden. Even the disabled can have the satisfaction of tending pot plants or an indoor miniature garden. And as with most hobbies there are many rewards that are not always obvious before one becomes involved – delightful though they are the ubiquitous rubber plant (Ficus elastica) and busy Lizzie (impatiens) do little justice to the vast range of wonderful plants waiting to be grown in the home. Only two ingredients are necessary for a more colourful and more interesting home: imagination and the will to try new plants.

The only restraint on the use of house-plants is imagination -provided the right plant is chosen for a particular situation. you can have them standing on the floor, window-sill, mantelpiece and hearth (provided there is no fire I. climbing round the window frames, cascading from indoor hanging-baskets or pots suspended in macrame holders, or even climbing up poles or trellises as a kind of living room divider.

No room with a window is unsuitable for a plant of some kind: bedrooms, bathrooms and loos can all be enhanced by a well-chosen plant. Even halls and stairways – frequently inhospitable places in older homes – can take an ivy (Hedera helix), a grape Ivy (Cissus rhombi-folia, syn. Rhoicissus rhomboidea) or an aucuba. In warm, light halls the scope is widened of course – although it would be unwise to try anything that might object to icy blasts when the front door is opened in winter.

Always try to build a collection of plants with a plan-in mind. Decide clearly on the role the plants are to play – whether they are to be a focal point or merely decorative objects.

Try to buy plants to fulfil a particular need, and endeavour to resist the temptation to buy plants requiring conditions you cannot provide.

The ideal is to have a greenhouse or conservatory, or a growing room equipped with special lighting, in which plants can recuperate between spells of duty in the home. If such conditions can be provided there is every chance that even the more difficult plants can be grown successfully, otherwise it is best to settle for those kinds likely to thrive with the conditions and attention you are able to offer them. By all means buy the more difficult plants if you are prepared to regard them as expendable – if bought in good condition they will probably provide many weeks of pleasure and enjoyment before becoming weak or sickly – but as a rule knowing your limitations is most of the secret of success with houseplants.

DECIDING ON THE PLANTS

One of the fascinations of gardening is the constant challenge of growing difficult plants, especially when experience has been gained; but nothing is more certain to snuff out the flame of enthusiasm at the beginning of this hobby than to start with tricky ones. GETTING OFF TO A GOOD START

A good houseplant will be an object of beauty and interest in the home for many weeks and months – probably for years, if looked after carefully. Buying one should therefore not be approached with the casualness of purchasing a bunch of flowers, which you know will only last a short time. If a plant is in ill health or been subjected to adverse conditions, no amount of nursing and coddling is likely to revive it sufficiently to make a strong, healthy plant. Houseplants are inexpensive if they give you months or years of pleasure, which most of them will do. but costly if the failure rate is high. It should also be borne in mind that the effort involved in looking after a poor plant is just as great. often greater, than it is looking after a healthy starter.

Quality is as important in plants as in any other commodity – do not be tempted to go for the cheapest unless you know it is good value. Be prepared to shop around – you will frequently find an amazing difference in price and quality from one type of outlet to another. And remember, going to a garden centre is no guarantee of good plants -they may be subjected to as much maltreatment there as anywhere else. Learn to discriminate, watch for tell-tale signs of good care, and take the plants home and acclimatize them carefully. Then you can be certain of getting off to a good start with your houseplants -which is most of the way to success.

Where to shop

Gardeners acquire plants in many ways – from jumble sales and bazaars, and exchanging with friends, to ordering from nurseries specializing in particular plants. But most of us buy from shops. nurseries or garden centres, and these are likely to provide all the houseplants the average enthusiast is likely to require. Only when a special enthusiasm for a particular group of plants has been generated will it be necessary to go to more specialized sources, where the less common houseplants will be stocked.

Houseplants can be chosen to suit a variety of positions, from desktops to darkened corners and bright windows.

Anyone who starts to grow houseplants is likely to fall victim to the charms of a particular group of plants, however, and that is the time to join one of the specialist societies. If your interest lies with cacti, hromeliads. ferns, saint-paulias. or orchids, you will find a society that can offer a shared interest. plants or seeds, and information on nurseries supplying some of the less usual species.

For most of us who just want a collection of beautiful and dependable house-plants, it is best to use ordinary shops. florists, horticultural sundriesmen or garden centres. Part of the fun of collecting houseplants is to keep an eye open in your favourite shops for any new plants that take your fancy, or that you have been looking for. Far more important than the type of outlet is the way the plants are treated and displayed. It is on ibis, and not the number or range of plants, that a plant seller should be judged.

What to look for

How the plants are displayed is important. Avoid any shop that displays its houseplants outside – even in winter some sellers stand their plants on the pavement or on market stalls, which makes an attractive display but does nothing for the well-being of the plants. Cold draughts can be fatal to a plant. many of which may have come straight from a warm greenhouse. No matter how attractive they look, or how cheap they may be. do not buy. Inside the shop, the way the plants are displayed will also indicate how well they have been cared for. Irregular watering can also cause problems, and plants wrapped in paper can hardly be receiving adequate water. If they are standing on trays or on shelves with nothing beneath the pots for water, it is another indication that they are not likely to be receiving proper attention. Ideally, they should be displayed in trays containing a capillary mat – a thin black or green felt-like material, which is kept moist and from which the compost in the pots is able to extract some moisture. Although such mats should not be swimming in water, beware if they are bone dry – watering has been neglected. Apart from whether the soil is too moist or loo dry. there are other tell-tale signs:

Lift the pot and look underneath. If there are many roots coming out of the drainage hole, the chances are it should have been potted-on (given a larger pot) earlier and may now be starved of food: even if it looks in good health, you want to avoid the need to pot-on too soon after getting it home, as it is important to get it acclimatized with as little disturbance as possible before subjecting it to any shock. Wilting could be a sign of excessive watering, too little watering or diseased roots – whatever the reason the plant is best left in the shop. The same goes for any plant with leaves browning at the edges or that are yellowing or distorted. In short, the foliage should be strong and fresh-looking, with no sign of injury. Pests and diseases should also be left in the shop, so look carefully – not only for any kind of creepy-era wlies but for eggs too. These may not be visible to the naked eye. so it is best to avoid all plants in the shop if you find adidt pests. Diseases will usually be manifest as mottled, blotched, or mouldy leaves, and obviously these must be avoided. Houseplants are sometimes offered for sale ready wrapped, with just the head of flowers or foliage clearly visible, or they may have a transparent sleeve or collar as protection. Don’t take such plants at face value. They may be perfectly line specimens, but unless you remove them from the sleeve or wrapper, you’ll never know until it’s too late. With cyclamen in particular, the line upstanding plant may turn out to be weak and straggly. If the seller objects to you inspecting the plant properly, you should take your custom to a more professional source. Plants are sometimes offered for sale in specially designed sealed bags. These are in effect miniature Wardian cases – the forerunners of today’s bottle gardens. Provided they are not displayed in full sun. which could produce an excessive temperature in the bags, these plants should fare well. The bags are designed in such a way that you can see exactly what you’re buying, and you should not open the bag to inspect the plant – if you don’t buy it the special environment will have been destroyed. But do check that the one you buy has a fully inflated bag -if it is not firmly expanded the plant will probably have suffered. It is necessary to be clear about the type of plant you want – whether it is to provide a brief but spectacular display. or a more subdued but pleasant show. probably of foliage, for many months, or even years: whether you want a small plant for the window-sill or table, or a large specimen to stand in a tub on the floor. Sometimes it is worth paying for a brilliant or spectacular flower even if

you know the plant may have to be discarded afterwards – all-the-year-round chrysanthemums are an example of flowering pot plants that make an attractive but unrepeatable show (they will have been specially treated with chemicals and grown under strict lighting conditions to induce flowering in a pot out of season), but you can plant them outdoors and they may produce flowers at the normal time and on tall plants in future years. Nevertheless they make such a good show that they are still much cheaper than most cut flowers to provide blooms over the same period, and there is something infinitely more satisfying about observing a growing plant develop from tight buds to full and glorious bloom. Whether small specimens or large ones are bought it is largely a matter of patience… and price. Large specimens are always the most imposing, but they are naturally more expensive – they have had to be grown for very much longer in the nursery (and naturally that costs money). If you want to build an extensive collection of houseplants. and are prepared to wait for the results, small specimens are the answer, for they are naturally less expensive. On the other hand, if money is no obstacle, the large specimens that

can be bought from good suppliers will probably be healthier and more robust than you are likely to achieve yourself in the home, for they will have been growing in greenhouse conditions, which can never really be matched indoors. On the other hand, there is nothing more satisfying than to have grown a large and mature specimen plant from a young seedling or cutting by your own care and skill over the years. That is something no bought superplant can bring.

The journey home

Always ask the assistant to wrap the plant well, if this has not already been done, making sure the paper or bag completely covers the plant. A suitable carrier-bag often oilers the best protection from cold winds, and makes the carrying less of a balancing act. It naturally makes sense to buy your plants at the end of a shopping trip, so that they do not have to be carried round longer than necessary – which not only puts them at risk from temperature fluctuations, but increases the chance of physical damage.

Don’t leave plants in the boot or interior of a car which is parked for long periods in hot weather. The temperature can very soon soar to a level that is unacceptable even to tropical plants.

It is also common sense not to travel with them in the boot if there is any risk of them toppling or being crushed. It is always best to hold or carry them. When you get the plants home, acclimatize them gradually: and pamper them a little bit more than you would normally. If the compost is dry, water it immediately, otherwise wait until it needs it. Place the plants in a warm room, out of draughts and scorching sunshine during this period. Maintain a humid atmosphere by spraying the plants with a line mist at least twice a day.

After a week or two. when you are confident that they have overcome the shock of transition from greenhouse to shop and finally home, you should be able to place the plants in the position you intended.

Remember, in many cases they will have been in a warm, humid greenhouse in good light only a few days before, although if they have been in a florist’s shop they may have become partially acclimatized.

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