In the past week, almost all of my friends have been sending me graphic photos. Black spots, fungal infections, crispy fronds… Okay, you got me, the depravity being shared tends to be houseplant based.
It’s something I’ve come to expect this time of year. As the gardener in everyone’s contacts, I’m the green-fingered equivalent of a doctor at a party offering up advice free of charge and without an appointment.
As my Whatsapp will attest, many houseplants just aren’t cut out for London’s winter weather. They’ve mostly evolved in tropical and subtropical climates, where there is a steady amount of daylight all year, temperatures don’t fluctuate too wildly (and certainly don’t reach freezing point), and there is high humidity.
In contrast, the average London home spends winter fluctuating wildly between centrally heated warmth and draughty cold with dried out air and six hours of daylight at best.
This means there are nearly always a few plant casualties this time of year, so don’t feel downhearted if a plant that you’ve cared for so well for since the summer suddenly turns its back on you. It’s not personal.
Do try and work out what went wrong in your relationship to reduce the risk of the rest of your plants facing the same fate. Nine times out of ten your plant’s premature demise will be a result of too much or too little water, light or humidity.
We are past the shortest day, so if a plant is looking sad but still clinging on to life, give it a chance before you relegate it to the compost bin and try the following instead.
Keep an eye on the watering; saturated soil can induce root rot very quickly.
Plants near a radiator are going to dry out much more quickly so check on them more often. Many plants go dormant when there’s little light, dropping many or all of their leaves. If the stems are still green they’re not dead: water occasionally, keep somewhere warm and bright and new leaves should emerge in spring.
If parts of leaves have gone brown and crispy, it’s typically an indication of a lack of water or humidity. Don’t remove a leaf if more than half of it is green — leaves produce energy for the plant and aid its recovery, but yellow leaves may indicate a lack of light or nutrients. It’s a bit early to start feeding plants, so try moving a sad plant to a brighter spot instead.
What to see outside in January
With spring in sight, the Chelsea Physic Garden reopens on Sunday with a special walking route dedicated to its snowdrops and winter flowering plants.
Many winter cherry trees are also in full flowering swing and they’re a fairly common sight in London. Next time the sun is out explore your local green spaces and see how the natural world battles on through January, despite first impressions.