If your plant’s roots are circling and trying to escape through the drainage holes… take the hint! Roots should be within soil, not surrounding it; your plant has outgrown its home and is ready to upsize into a bigger pot. Even without this telltale signal, your plant will need to be repotted every year or two with spanking new soil for a nutrient boost. Try to do this in the spring.
Tropical plants, ferns, palms, and orchids like it steamy and should steer clear of heating contraptions that will dry them out. These plants will love hanging out in more humid rooms such as the kitchen or bathroom. You can add pebbles and a little water to their saucer to boost humidity. Replace the water with a fresh batch from time to time and don't let pots sit in the water... prop them up so that they are above the water level. They will also enjoy a daily spritz from a mister.
There is no need to mist cacti and succulents in-between waterings… nothing will make them more homesick for the desert. Like all plants in your home, consider where they come from and aim to emulate their natural habitat.
Know yourself and what sort of plant you are looking for. There’s a plant out there for everyone. Some plants can be needy, insisting that you cuddle up every night together; they will delight in your sweet nothings and pampering. Others like sansevieria (snake plant) or zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ plant) are low maintenance, happy to keep things casual, meeting up occasionally for a quick drink.
What’s your schedule like? How often are you away? Research them beforehand, consider their profile against yours… how compatible would you really be together in the long run?
Let’s step back into the choking mists of time. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Victorian London was a suffocating place. Polluted and grimy, this was not the place for Nathaniel, a physician by profession, to indulge his passion for botany. Over the years, he had attempted to grow ferns in this environment with very little success.
Nathaniel lived in London’s East End, on Wellclose Square, a short distance from my current studio in Shoreditch. I imagine him walking the same streets, observing, hypothesizing and pondering the outcome of his botanical experiments.
Nathaniel’s penchant for plants would eventually result in the invention of the Wardian case, a precursor to the terrarium as we know it today. I may be jumping ahead of myself here and perhaps I should describe the incident that sparked this particular discovery.
Nathaniel was out for a stroll in the Kent countryside one day in 1829, when he discovered the pupa of a Hawkmoth. He placed the cocoon; along with the organic matter to which it clung, into a hermetically sealed jar and waited for the moth to pupate. However, little is known about the fate of the moth, as the fern that sprouted and thrived in the jar eclipsed its meager existence.
An uncontaminated atmosphere, moisture, and the appropriate light provided the ideal environment for plant growth. This would prompt Nathaniel to put pen to paper and write to Sir W.J. Hooker, first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, informing him of this discovery.
Nathaniel’s finding was perfectly timed, given the Victorians’ burgeoning interest in exotic plants and ferns, as it would allow them to be protected from city air pollution. This obsession for ferns or Pteridomania invaded all aspects of life. As well as the living species being displayed in homes [in Wardian cases], fern motifs and designs were commonplace on carpets, curtains and wallpaper. Even custard cream biscuits couldn’t escape the design of a fern’s fronds being stamped onto them.
The good doctor’s breakthrough and invention of the Wardian case changed botany and plant exploration. It allowed for explorers to safely transport plants back to Kew and elsewhere from their expeditions. Wardian cases protected plants from salt water and rodents, keeping them sealed and contained in their own biosphere.
Growing plants under glass became fashionable again in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the creation of the Bottle Garden. This new imagining of the terrarium required a skill for wiggling plants through thin bottlenecks and the patience of a saint.
The terrarium remains a beautiful way of bringing the outdoors inside, providing the conditions essential for a moisture-loving, tropical garden to flourish within our dry, centrally heated homes.
In some of the terrariums you attempt, keeping calm whilst trying to squeeze a niggly plant through a tight opening will seem near impossible. Stress levels begin to soar and what should be a moment of serenity and reconnection with nature may instead make you want to throw the whole maddening thing in the bin.
Overcome such trials and tribulations with a little preparation and a DIY terrarium toolkit, fit for a green-fingered demigod.
You Will Need
Long chefs tweezers / Chopsticks (The Picker-Upper)
Straws (The Dirt Blower)
Card / paper funnel (The Dropper-Inner)
Baster / Pipette (The Water-Squirter)
For the bamboo stick tools
Steel spoon (The Digger)
Steel fork (The Raker and Moss-Fluffer)
Paintbrush (The Cleaner-Upper)
Blade (The Pruner)
Bored cork or rubber bung (The Soil Compressor)
Sponge / kitchen paper (The Cleaner)
Scissors / aquarium plant scissors
1. Cut the hollow bamboo to around 30cm (you can usually purchase these pre-cut at your local flower market or garden centre).
2. Slide your tools into the bamboo. Often spoons, forks, paintbrushes and blades will slide straight in, however you may need to split the bamboo if you need a bit of extra give. To do this, take a small craft knife and cut a cross into the end of the tip… there, it should fit better now.
3. To keep tools in place, wrap twine tightly around the bamboo surrounding the tool and tie a knot. Ensure you are forceful with your wrapping. Is the tool secure within the bamboo? There is nothing worse than losing your spoon to the dark depths of a terrarium, then having to create another tool to fish it out.
4. Use pliers to bend fork tines and the spoon bowl to create a rake and spade. As you start using your tools you may want to adjust them to suit your requirements.
5. To make ‘The Soil Compressor’, squeeze a piece of bamboo into the hole of the cork or rubber bung, so that there’s no give. A couple of drops of superglue around the hole should keep it securely in place.
Watch your collection of bespoke tools expand over time… you’ll become used to having to hand whatever you need to access the far-flung corners of your terrarium.
Fertilizer is a good idea, but if you are starting out and your main concern is simply keeping your plant alive you don’t need to get worked up about it. Fertilizer can transform your houseplant from weedy to wonderful, but too much will cause your plant to overdose and die.
If you decide to fertilize, it is best to do so in the warmer months when the plant is growing. Dilute fertilizer with water and administer in small doses. It is comparable to vitamin supplements. Plants are good at producing their own food but most will need a boost from time to time. Another way to restore your plant’s nutrients is by repotting it with a batch of fresh soil.
Falling head over heels in love with a plant is easily done. It is tempting to purchase a plant based purely on its handsomeness, then proudly walk it home and position it in a spot that needs cheering. However, I recommend picking a plant based on your light levels. Contemplate the position you have in mind for a plant; is it sunny or shady? Direct sunlight can cause sunburn and singed leaves; most plants need bright but indirect light, so should be positioned a few feet away from a south-facing window.
If your plant is looking a little limp, pale and shedding leaves it may need more light. Plants getting too much sun will have soil that is baked dry and their leaves may be crisp.
Do your homework, search online for, ‘plants that like a north facing, bathroom window’ for example. Figure out which direction your windows face using a compass and learn what will thrive there, then make a shortlist of suitable plants. From this list, you can make a decision based on what you find most aesthetically pleasing.
Rotate plants monthly to stop them becomming lopsided as they will grow towards the light.