Zena Alkayat, founder of gardening and nature magazine Bloom, explains how to tend to your houseplants and, as part of our Time to Make series, offers her tips on growing your plant collection.
Houseplants are generous givers. For very little input, they offer up lush foliage, characterful shapes and beautiful colours all year round, while their low-key needs water, light, nutrients give us a chance to interact with nature, even when we can't get outdoors.
As founder of Bloom, I'm often asked if there's a secret to healthy houseplants, some insider knowledge that keeps leaves green and stems aloft. And there is a secret: the art of noticing. To notice the changes in your home with each passing season, to note leaves reaching for light or curling as they run dry, and to respond to these clues with patience. Spring is usually the time give them a bit of extra love and attention, but houseplants will respond to care all year around.
The key thing to think about is light. Pretty much any advice you read will mention direct or indirect light, or even bright indirect light. There's also low light and moderate light, and probably every other type of light in between. The trick is not to get hung up on the terms, but to notice what's going on in your home. Think of it like an estate agent bright light would be a light and airy room that feels sunny to be in most of the day. Low light is the box room at the back that feels a bit grey, even on a sunny day. Direct light is a beaming ray that lands in a shaft or on the window sill.
As the seasons change, light through the windows changes. In summer, a plant that has previously sat in a corner, unbothered by direct light, may now be dealing with spotlight rays shining on it for a few hours a day. Many houseplants won't mind these shifts, but pay a little attention as you roam around your home at different times of the day. If a plant looks like it's struggling in too much light perhaps its leaves are curling inwards, turning brown or drooping move it to a cooler, shadier spot. Calatheas are the most likely to need help in backing away from the window in summer. In the darker months, plants like tradescantias, cacti and succulents will want to move toward windows to soak up the sun.
The other vital things to consider are repotting and feeding. A healthy, thriving plant needs space for its roots to grow and nutrients to stay strong. Spring is the best time to repot plants that have outgrown their homes, but you can do it anytime. Look for roots poking through a pot's drainage holes, or circling in a thick mass at the base of the pot (to check this, lift the plant gently out of its pot). Other clues include yellowing leaves, no new growth, or new leaves emerging and dying.
If it's time to upgrade a plant's living quarters, go for a pot that's one or two sizes larger than the existing one (about 24cm larger). Take the plant out of its current pot and shake away most of the old compost from its roots. Place it in the new pot with plenty of fresh compost, which will be packed with nutrients. Give it a good water to help it settle in.
If you aren't repotting, a fresh boost of nutrients will encourage plants to put on their spring growth spurt. To do this, either replace one third of the old compost with new (tip out the old and top with fresh compost), or feed your pots with an organic fertiliser, like liquid seaweed. Use sparingly and follow the instructions on the product to avoid loving your plants to death not all of them enjoy binge eating.
Cuttings are a great way to grow your plant family, and a stem cutting is the easiest method for plants including tradescantias, golden pothos, hoya and even monstera. Cut a stem below a node (this means below a joint on the stem where a leaf emerges, and assumes the stem is pointing up.), remove any leaves on the lower bit of the stem and pop it into a glass of water. Make sure to replace the water every week or so to prevent mould. Once the roots are about a finger's length, it's time to pot your plantlet in compost.
Some plants, such as the Chinese money plant, produce their own baby plantlets within the same pot these are called offsets'. If you can see a mature-looking offset, gently remove the whole plant (parent and offset) out of the pot. Using your fingers, try to remove the soil from around the roots of the offset so you can see where they attach to the stem of the parent. Using a clean knife, slice through the offset's roots so it comes away. Pop the parent back in its pot and top up with compost, and pot your new plantlet in fresh compost.
A spider plant is a great example of a plant that produces runners' baby plants that hang attached to the parent plant via a thin stem. To turn these mini clones into new plants, start by preparing a small pot filled with compost. Position the parent plant so that one of the hanging runners can rest on this small pot. Create a little hole in the compost and try to secure the runner in the hole with more compost on top if it keeps popping back up, use an opened paperclip or hairpin to anchor it down. Once secure, leave the runner attached to the parent plant via its stem until its own roots have formed (a month or two), at which point you can snip off the stem and enjoy your new plant!
Many plants can literally be split down the middle, or divided several times, to create new, smaller plants. Calatheas, the ZZ plant and oxalis are all happy to be divided. To do this, lift the plant out of the pot and using your fingers tease away the soil so you can see the root system. Decide how much of the plant you want to separate, and using a sharp, clean knife, slice through from the top of the compost straight down through the roots, allowing part of the plant to come away. Pot the two divided sections in to their own pots.
Images by Kim Lightbody.