In a time of prolonged shelter, the houseplant rises to the occasion

Adrian Higgins

THE WASHINGTON POST – When the coronavirus shutdown and quarantine swept over us in March, there was a run on flour, yeast, toilet paper and disinfectant. After a while, the sheltering masses came to see that what they really needed was a houseplant.

“Once people settled into the new normal, while spending most of their time at home, we started seeing a positive trend in live-good sales,” Brett Guthrie, chief operating officer at Bell Nursery, a major East Coast grower, told me via email.

Sales typically fall off after the spring, but this year, “we are seeing this continue well into the summer,” he wrote.

Folks are stocking up on plants to spruce up their home office space and even to bring an exotic air to their staycation space – many houseplants, after all, hail from tropical rainforests. Try this recipe: three potted palms, a cold drink and a soundtrack of Bob Marley.

Who needs Hawaii or the Caribbean? (Probably most of us, but I’m trying to be upbeat about our current circumstances.)

I suspect another reason that people are purchasing houseplants – either for delivery or at retailers that are now open – is that there is the lingering sadness over all those abandoned plants back at the office.

To take my mind off that, I now sit and watch current affairs and news programs on the TV, not for the perspicacity of the pundits, but to see how they’ve decorated their home offices.

‘Saints Row: The Third Remastered’. PHOTO: VOLITION INC

Some of the wall art is so bad, it’s good, but I’m on the lookout for the quantity and quality of the vegetation. Tip to commentators: Enough of the bookshelves – we know you’re smart; load up on far more houseplants and tropicals.

It is the season for active growth for houseplants, and the vegetative progression gives you a sense of just how distant the workplace is for those of us who abandoned ship in mid-March. Since then, I’ve seen a potted lemon tree add a third to its biomass and erupt into fragrant, waxy bloom; it’s now on its way to producing a dozen fruits, swelling by the day.

Having a green thumb is nothing more than not neglecting a plant. Give it some light, repot every year or two, feed it regularly but not excessively when in growth and, most of all, pay attention to the watering. Watering is straightforward – you water a pot thoroughly but only when the soil surface feels dry. Pots should drain. On no account keep the soil wet.

While you’re checking the soil moisture, use some scissors to groom the plant. Remove unsightly leaves, take off faded stems and wipe the leaves gently with a damp cloth. The plant will look and function better.

Most houseplants love to be outside at this time of year in the heat and humidity. There are some serious provisos, as Angela Weber Hetrick of the United States (US) Botanic Garden points out.

First, most houseplants are shade plants, and to place them in full sun, especially with no acclimation, will lead to significant scorching and dieback. A plant in the shade at 10am may be feeling the full fury of the sun by the afternoon. Pay attention.

The second key element is watering. A plant indoors in air conditioning may need watering once or twice a week. One outside may need watering daily, depending on the size of the container, the type of pot and its location. If you have your plants outside, remove the saucers to prevent waterlogging.

I starve my plants a bit, because I’m not a fan of chemical fertilisers, though synthetic slow release or liquid feeds are convenient for the houseplant gardener. Many organic feeds smell like a farmyard, tolerable outdoors but not the sort of indoor aromatherapy you need. I have found a dried kelp meal that has an aroma that is agreeable if not adorable. It recalls a rocky beach, full of clinging seaweed and an ebbing tide. In the middle of a pandemic, it could be worse.