Alys Fowler

Houseplants that I have loved

If the cold has you trapped inside but you have the gardening bug why not try gardening indoors using Alys' top tips? 

I don’t know if its old age or just that all this typing is making me a fair weather gardener, but I am no longer prepared to get cold joints. If the weather is miserable, these days I’d rather garden indoors. Thus I have an ever increasing forest of houseplants to tend to.

Increasingly I find this kind of gardening just as satisfying as the stuff I do outside. My indoor plants are a diverse bunch that come from around the world and so make the strangest bedfellows. I have air plants from Mexico sitting next to ferns from rainforests in Brazil, desert cacti from the new world nestle next to drought tolerant succulents from the Mediterranean and in my kitchen citrus trees hang out with carnivorous climbers from Thailand. I like living with these tropical friends, they improve the quality of my indoor environment by filtering pollutants out of the air and bring no end of pleasure softening my interiors. They bring the room alive, growing, flowering, fruiting and changing as the seasons pass with very little work from me.

I’m a sucker for every discounted houseplant at supermarkets and garden centres so they are often a motley crew with any number of requirements, but over the years I have found a few to be true stalwarts when it comes to withstanding neglect, no natural light and sporadic watering.

Mother-in-laws tongue, Sanseveria

Sanseveria Plant

Along with the spider plant this is probably one of the best known houseplants for being fool proof. Sanseveria are drought tolerant, so it doesn’t matter that much if you go on holiday and forget to water and yet if someone over waters and they sit in water, they can manage that too. They can take bright, direct light and soldier on in dim conditions too. Clearly forcing them to withstand the extremes is torture. If you want to keep your plants happy, then ideally Sanseveria need to be grown in bright, warm conditions and only watered once the soil has completely dried out. My favourite species is Sanseveria cylindrical which comes from Angola and grows in very dry conditions so is incredibly drought tolerant.

Instead of the usually flat, tongue shaped leaves associated with its common name, Mother-in-laws tongue, the leaves are curved inwards so that they appear round. It’s a strange spiky thing that is perfect for that very bright window that is hard to get to and thus you don’t water that often. In the summer, when it is in full growth, you only have to water once or twice a month at most.

Chain of heart, Ceropegia woodii

ceropegia woodii plant

This plant is native to South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and as its name suggests is a trailing plant with delightful, tiny heart shaped leaves. Definitely one for Valentine’s day. Although it is not the easiest plant to get hold of (eBay/ online might be your best option). With just a little bit of attention I can promise that you will have this one for life. In its native habitat it grows in dry, desert conditions and at the base of the long chain of leaves is a small round tuber that sits on the soil leaves that allows it to save up and store water. Often these tubers also appear along the chain of leaves. If you want to propagate and make new plants you just need to snip off just below the tuber and stick this in a little pot with soil. The tuber will quickly root and you’ll have a new plant. For this reason, the plant is sometimes known as the rosary vine, because the tubers look like rosary beads. It has very sweet, tiny flowers that look like old fashioned smoking pipes.

In the winter you have to water it every six weeks or so, in the summer once a month. There are signs that the flower needs watering as the plump leaves tend to wither a little which indicates the plant is thirsty. It must never sit in water as this is practically the only way to kill it. If it needs re-potting then make sure the compost is very free draining, adding 50% grit or perlite to any houseplant compost.

Although this plant loves bright conditions and can happily take a south facing window, it can also withstand being grown under artificial light conditions, meaning it can sit in the far corner away from a window as long it’s near a light source. In darker conditions the leaves will grow paler, in bright conditions the leaves will become a deeper green. As this plant is a trailing plant it can be grown in a hanging basket, but it also looks wonderful growing on a book shelf or trailing down a stairwell.

If these houseplants sound a little too small or spiky and you want something lush and tropical you can do no wrong growing a Kentia palm or Howea forsteriana. Now no palm is as robust as a succulent for neglect of watering and a Kentia palm will grow into a big, beautiful houseplant with love and will look sad with neglect. Thus in the summer months it will need to be kept moist, which means watering it regularly but never allowing it to sit in water or completely dry out. If it sits in water the roots will rot quickly and the plant will droop (as if it looks like it needs watering). Check the soil by dipping your finger into the compost to see if it is moist, rather than wet, before watering again. If you underwater the tips will quickly start to go yellow. However, in the winter you can slow watering down, so that the soil completely dries out between watering.

Kentia palms are good houseplants, definitely the easiest of the palms, because they can withstand lower light levels than others. They do best in filtered sunlight conditions, but will survive in hallways, lobbies, toilets and similar places where the light levels tend to be around 250 lux.

If you are going to keep your palm in such low light levels, then be kind in the summer and allow it a little jaunt outside. It sounds strange but you’ll keep it very happy if you allow it to sit outside in some summer rain. It won’t stand bright conditions or direct sunlight which will scorch its leaves, but cloudy conditions and a little rain will wash off any dust and allow it some much needed humidity. If you can stick it outside for several hours in the rain, I promise it will grow much more healthily for it. If you don’t have the option to go outside, a cool watering, every once in a while, during the summer months, works equally as well.