Nick's Garden: How to buy the right houseplant

Like a pet, houseplants require a great deal of care and attention. Here's what to consider before making a purchase.
Although many retailers stock houseplants as accessories to more important purchases, Dubai Garden Centre specialises in the care and sale of them. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Although many retailers stock houseplants as accessories to more important purchases, Dubai Garden Centre specialises in the care and sale of them. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

"Would you keep a cat in a bath tub?"

After five years working with indoor and tropical plants at a central London nursery, it was a question I asked customers with increasing regularity and bitterness.

It resulted, my manager and I agreed, from a kind of horticultural post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the sight of one too many specimens that had either been burnt, drowned, starved or desiccated by their hapless owners. It was time for me to move to the gentler world of outdoor plants, where plant buyers were less likely to bring failed plants back for a professional post-mortem and where sights of plant abuse tended to be less frequent.

Few plants are treated so casually as houseplants. Often sold by retailers that have little or no experience looking after them, they are marketed as accessories to more important purchases - furniture, food, hardware, even pets. This novelty status, coupled with their relative cheapness and ubiquity, seems to make houseplants an expendable purchase for many people. As an attempt to remedy this unhappy situation, and to give you (and your next plant) the greatest chance of success, I'll use this column and the next to go through some of the key questions and issues that I used to subject buyers to before I allowed them to take even a single houseplant away from my care.

This week I'll cover first questions and lighting, and in my next column I'll discuss watering, feeding and containers.

It's always best to prepare. Make the purchase of your houseplants a conscious decision. Firstly, ask yourself if you actually even want a plant. Like a pet, it is something that requires regular care and attention. It is also something that will grow over time and have costs associated with its upkeep. If you simply want an ornament to fill that awkward space by the door, then maybe that's exactly what you need. Why not save yourself the cost and heartache of a houseplant?

Secondly, before you even leave the house, identify the spaces where you'd like to grow your plants and make a note of key factors such as light levels, potential drafts (especially from air conditioning), the total amount of space available (consider the eventual size of your purchase) and the proximity to potential sources of heat.

Also consider the general atmospheric conditions in the room. Is it maintained at a constant level or is it allowed to alternate between cool but humid and hot and dry? Can you afford to sustain certain conditions for the sake of a plant?

Buying a plant that has little or no chance of survival is a waste of time and money, so however much you may have fallen for a particular species, if it is not suitable for your chosen location, leave it on the shelf. Ultimately, it will be much more satisfying to choose a specimen that can thrive and develop in the conditions you have at home than it will be to struggle with one that is ill-suited to your home environment.

At this stage, it is also important to make sure that you are realistic about the amount of time you have to care for your plants. If you are frequently away from home, you may be better off with a small collection of houseplants that require infrequent watering, whereas if you rarely stay away then you can consider growing as many houseplants as will fit into your house or your schedule.

Of all the environmental factors affecting plant growth and health, light levels are among the most important. All plants need light, and even those that tolerate low light conditions require some sort of illumination for part of the day. Light can come through windows as natural light, and from overhead lights and desk lamps as artificial light. Natural light is usually brighter. It is also important to understand the different characteristics of light that affect plant growth, namely quality, intensity and duration.

Light quality refers to the colour or wavelength of the light that reaches the plant. As we all know, sunlight can be divided by a prism (or raindrops) into the colours of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Red and blue light have the greatest impact on plant growth, while green light is least effective (it's the reflection of green light that gives plants their colour in the first place). Blue light is primarily responsible for vegetative leaf growth, and red light, when combined with blue light, encourages flowering. For the serious gardener, this will determine the types of light used in certain rooms because fluorescent strip lights provide a different quality of light in comparison to incandescent and other bulbs.

For the amateur indoor gardener, however, light intensity and duration are more pressing issues. Unfortunately, light levels in most homes are below that required for most houseplants other than those that are tolerant of shade. Except for bright sunny rooms, most houseplants will only succeed in front of windows, but by putting a shade-loving plant in a south- or west-facing window, you could easily roast it. Placing a sun lover in a north-facing window could just as easily result in a weak and sickly specimen.

Of course, it's always possible to use a light meter to evaluate the intensity of your light, but for plants located near windows, you can get a rough idea by placing a sheet of white paper where the plant will sit and holding your hand about 30cm above the paper. If a clearly defined shadow results, the location receives bright light. If a muted but clearly definable shadow results, the light is medium. If your hand shadow is barely visible, the amount of light is low.

Choosing the right plant for this spot is now simply a matter of matching the plant's requirements to the conditions available. Details of different species's needs are readily available online. Only now are you ready to make that informed houseplant purchase.

Nick's Garden appears every week in House&Home. Contact the author at For information visit


Garden buy: Hot Pot BBQ

Barbecue season doesn't last all year, and so for several months we're inevitably left with redundant covered dust-gatherer cluttering the terrace. But what if your barbecue was cunningly disguised as an attractive compact herb garden?

The ingenious Black and Blum Hot Pot BBQ is just that. Remove the top half of the terracotta pot and you'll find a smart stainless steel charcoal grill; replace it and you have a neat little growing space in which you can plant herbs to season your barbecue dishes and smarten up your terrace. It's simple, compact and perfect for even the smallest balcony.

Black and Blum Hot Pot BBQ, £99 (Dh597),

Published: June 16, 2011 04:00 AM


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