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The art of indoor gardens

The recent garden-unfriendly weather has sparked a new interest in interior horticulture

Inside job: mosses used to decorative effect 

Growing houseplants fell out of fashion sometime during the eighties, but our recent weather probably made most of us long to garden under cover, and a new book by Isabelle Palmer, The House Gardener, is just the boost this way of cultivating plants needs to kick-start a revival in indoor growing.

Centuries of plant collecting – from returning Crusaders to Victorian plant hunters – have resulted in exotic specimens finding their way inside houses and glasshouses for their protection and survival. During the 15th century, explorers brought back succulent species from all over the world, including euphorbia from India, while orchid cultivation started seriously in this country during the 19th century, resulting in orchidelirium, when passions were raised to the level of tulip mania. Then fashion somehow decreed the death of the houseplant, but current interest in growing, with the need for all of us to surround ourselves with living greenery to boost our mood, is bringing houseplants back to centre stage.

After the success of her first book, The Balcony Gardener, Isabelle has adapted her talents from small-space gardening to interiors, and shows us lots of innovative ways to display all sorts of houseplants, including mosses, pitcher plants, ferns, air plants, bromeliads and orchids, and my favourite succulents and cacti. She displays plants in fireplaces, on the wall framed as pictures, and in unusual containers with many specimens enclosed in glass, taking inspiration from the Victorians with their terrariums and Wardian cases, creating miniature gardens and even tiny living landscapes.

Living in the city, Isabelle is aware that outdoor space is often at a premium. “During the winter, while looking out of the window and dreaming of summer, I started thinking: what if you wanted to have that little bit of green, but didn’t have any outside space at all? This turned my attention indoors.” Houseplants bring their natural glory, their form, their colours and sometimes fragrance into the home, and add the finishing touches to all sorts of interior schemes.

Inspired by Isabelle’s enthusiasm, and deterred from venturing outside by yet another burst of rain, I’m planning to rescue a decorative hanging basket – a recent car boot find – from the battering of the south-westerlies, and reinstate it over the bath in my recently decorated bathroom. Turning to the back of the book, I found “Key Plants for Shady Positions” then, even better, “Key Plants for Bathrooms” and decided on a maidenhair fern (Adiantum). Reading on, I was informed that this tropical native demanded high levels of humidity that were not practical in most homes, and should therefore be grown in a terrarium. Back to the drawing board, and eventually I decided on Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata), which act as natural humidifiers, absorbing common air pollutants.

Bypassing sections on how to water, advice on holiday watering, feeding, boosting light levels (by keeping leaves clean), potting on, pruning, propagation and spotting diseases, I was pleased to find guidance on potting compost. I will go for lightweight, peat-free Dalefoot wool and bracken compost (dalefootcomposts.co.uk), and follow Isabelle’s useful instructions to paint spray the coir lining to match the basket, then give it a good soak in water before I install it. It’s always reassuring when books not only inspire but offer practical advice as well.

I often bring outdoor plants inside for a short holiday to show off when they’re at their best, and always try to pick flowers to display in favourite containers, but have until now been the kiss of death to houseplants. I must try harder, because indoor plants are good for us (see plants-for-people.org). Apparently their presence eases the stress that leads to disease and they remove harmful airborne contaminants, absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen – but sadly most human environments are not good for plants, so their fate is entirely in our hands.

Isabella Palmer’s tips

Make sure your plants are suited to the light levels and temperature of the room.

Try to avoid direct sunlight and don’t place houseplants on top of radiators.

Avoid deep shade where plants won’t get enough light to photosynthesise.

Keep plants away from draughts and temperature extremes.

Pot on regularly. Aim to repot into larger containers every two years.

A long-spouted watering can and a mister to increase humidity are essential tools.

Water wisely. Never overwater, and add sufficient drainage material to prevent roots drowning.

Allow plants to rest over winter and move them to a cooler position away from windows.

Be vigilant and learn to spot potential problems before they take hold.

Think long term and plan your displays to get maximum impact.

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