Here We Blow Again


Oh, the inconvenience; first Ciara, now Dennis, putting paid to any plans we had to tend our allotment or work in the garden this weekend. We could have braved the elements, but it would have been no fun at all and terrible for the earth. Nothing for it other than to stay indoors and wait for calmer conditions. Could February’s weather be any more inconsiderate? Must it only be windy on Saturdays and Sundays? How long will it be before Storm Ellen whistles down our chimneys, saturates our soil and rocks our roses?

Don’t misunderstand me, I have dozens of pressing indoor jobs that need doing, but I am looking for any excuse not to do them. I’ve ordered seeds and summer bulbs (both have arrived and are awaiting planting time) and I’ve tidied the workshop; I’ve even read a few books, but what I really want to do is go outside and get my hands dirty.

Each winter the number of plants in the garden room increases. They seem happy grouped closely together.

On wet, wild weekends like these I have to entertain myself by tending to our houseplants. Since moving to The Watch House permanently almost three years ago their number has burgeoned. There must be over one hundred and fifty now, scattered over windowsills, shelves and floors across four storeys. They range from ferns to cacti and include several large specimens that came from Cornwall with The Beau last summer. Two new plants joined their ranks this weekend – Euphorbia trigona ‘Rubra’, the African milk tree, a Valentine’s gift from The Beau, and Aporocactus flagelliformis ‘Melanie’, the rat tail cactus, an indulgent gift to myself.

Indoors is our final frontier. The last piece of real estate that’s not already packed to the gunwales with plants. Good news is that there’s room for a few more.

The bathroom on the first floor is both light and warm. Hanging from the ceiling is my new rat tail cactus, Aporocactus flagelliformis ‘Melanie’.

At least once a fortnight I like to go around the house checking my houseplants for dead leaves, mould, pests and diseases. It’s easy to forget about them in the winter months, especially when it’s dark when one goes to work and comes home at night. In a centrally-heated house, pests such as scale insect, whitefly, greenfly and red spider mite can get out of hand incredibly quickly, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for tell-tale signs of trouble. In most cases pests can be wiped off with a damp cloth rather than using nasty chemicals. Plants that prefer a humid atmosphere – ferns, bromeliads and aroids – require regular misting to prevent them from dehydrating. Standing pots on trays of gravel also helps.

Plants that prefer humidity, such as Tillandsia usneoides (Spanish moss), will appreciate the mist created by a hot shower. Underfloor heating reminds Cyperus papyrus (Egyptian papyrus) of its home on the banks of the Nile.

I find the main cause of house plants looking sickly at this time of year is simply lack of light. When days are short and sunless, even those that would normally curl up and die on a bright windowsill need considerably more light to stay healthy. I know the feeling! I will start feeding towards the end of March to give them a boost before summer.

Draughts are the other winter menace, imperceptible at armchair level, but if I sit on the library floor or on the stairs I can feel them extending their icy sinews around the house. Plants such as calathea detest drafts and will quickly develop crisp-edged leaves unless moved out of harm’s way.

Dieffenbachia ‘Reflector’ is an excellent plant for this cool, west-facing bedroom populated by an army of plush toys. It requires minimal attention and always looks fabulous.

As with outdoor plants, I learn what works indoors through trial and error. Plants are easily moved if they start to look unhappy. I steer clear of most flowering plants, apart from the odd abutilon, streptocarpus or orchid, as these tend to be a lot more demanding than foliage plants. (Primulas are my nemesis – I love them, but they always die within days of coming indoors.)

A tall mirror helps to reflect light within another spare bedroom.

The Beau is in charge of watering. During the winter this is a once-a-week, hour-long task, except the garden room where a weekend refresh is appreciated by some of the pot-bound residents. Airplants are misted daily if we remember and succulents are kept on the dry side. As a rule under-watering is far easier to remedy than over-watering: during the winter a soggy potful can take an age to dry out, by which time the poor plant may have started to rot. We keep our spare bedrooms cool but not cold so that plants are not encouraged to grow too quickly towards the light and become ‘drawn’.

We try hard to harvest enough rainwater to keep lime-sensitive plants such as tillandsia and stag’s horn fern healthy: they detest our chalky tap water here in Thanet. If Dennis lives up to his reputation the washing-up bowls we put outside to catch the rain will be full by morning. As I write the wind is building and the woodburner is drawing beautifully. The dogs are prostrated before it, glad to be home after a wet walk. Time to down tools and pour myself a gin and tonic. I recommend you do the same. TFG.

Sparmannia africana ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, large-leaved house plant which can be placed outside during the summer months.