Despite being green-fingered on the allotment and in the garden, it seems as though there is a whole other set of skills to keeping house plants alive. Ironically, the first ever plant I got was, in fact, a house plant. And that developed into spending more and more time outside visiting gardens until I was finally able to tend my own outside space.
There was a point a couple of years ago when I felt my style in the home had to marry my style in the garden. But I couldn’t keep old, mouldy, terracotta pots inside with cottage garden plants. For one, there is no equivalent. So I struggled with my house plant identity (I just made this up). Then, one day, I decided I didn’t care. My style in the garden is, if anything, eclectic. Surely I could translate that indoors. So, my pots of choice tend to be those made in West Germany with a touch of retro.
Admittedly, we don’t have huge plants in the house. They are all relatively easy to maintain. The lesson I’ve had to learn is watering.
In the garden, all pots have drainage holes, and you tend to identify the signs of when it is time to water – wilting. You get into a routine, and you check what needs pruning, picking or hydrating. In the house, however, watering tends to be forgotten, at the bottom of the chores list. And that is where the problem lies, it is seen as a chore.
Markings on the furniture
And so, because we forget, we feel guilty. And with guilt we shower our beloved house plants in way more water than it needs – with nowhere to go. Selfishly, I first considered my watering habits because, having rented for most of my adult life, I get paranoid that we have caused damage to the place we call home at any one time. As a result of the paranoia, I picked up one of my pots to inspect the plant and I saw what I can only describe as a “bumpy circle”. It was as if the base of the pot had reacted with the paint on the windowsill, causing the paint to bubble in small pinpricks.
This baffled me. But it wasn’t a one-off. It has happened at different properties with different plants and different pots. It has happened on a north-facing window and a south-facing one. The only solution I could think of was to place a coaster under the pot, and that seemed to work. It didn’t explain why it had happened, though. And so I continued with my coaster-under-the-pot approach until I started to kill a plant I had received as my 30th birthday present.
Overwatering with love
The leaves on my precious Calathea had started to curl up and dry out. How bizarre! Maybe it’s not getting enough water! Wrong. Turns out it was getting too much water at once, and so it stood in water for days until it managed to eventually drink it all up.
In the end, I decided to change my watering habits. Instead of traipsing round the house giving water to every pot, I would collect the pots from around the house and put them in the sink, which would have an inch or so of water. Bingo. I leave the pots in the sink for about half an hour, sometimes longer if I get distracted. I then pull the plug and leave the pots for a further 10-15 minutes so they can get rid of the excess water.
Does my plant need water?
Of course there are plants such as cacti or succulents that do not require a lot of water, but I have a rule of thumb that has worked for me so far. Ideally, I would water the plant once a week or once a fortnight. That never happens. What ends up happening is that I put it off until the sink isn’t being used (i.e. dishes to wash) and ultimately I end up forgetting.
So, when I think it’s high time my plants get some water I will pick up the plastic pot. If it feels light and the soil looks dry, I will put it in the sink. Once you take them out the pot weighs considerably more, so you end up being rather good at telling if water is needed or not.
With orchids, the roots need to turn a grey-ish colour. When you give them water you will notice the roots turn green, that means it has enough water. I have written about caring for orchids with the input from the British Orchid Growers Association.
Now, my overwatered Calathea looks great. After changing the watering regime, I noticed it was producing new shoots (possibly normal and not related to the change), so I cut back the leaves that had curled and we are now 3 months into the new routine. No brown curling in sight!