This charmingly idiosyncratic book seeks to enthuse its readers about the humble houseplant. Its arrival on my desk was perfect timing: as a landscape historian and fervently keen gardener, I have increasingly been wondering why my house is not full of beautiful, healthy plants. Some potted herbs in the kitchen and a dusty gloxinia upstairs are about all I can currently muster. So I was delighted to dip into this passionate, personal account of the wonders of indoor gardening.
The authors, two young women, are not professional gardeners or trained botanists. So the book has none of the regimented, scientific feel of many plant guides. Instead it opens with the story of one of them learning about indoor gardening at her grandmother’s house in North London, a magical place full of ancient cacti and succulents ‘each one so distinctly settled in its spot.’ When the two of them become guardians of the house, they rapidly learn about the plants and soon find themselves adding more, experimenting with new varieties and new locations, and following grandma’s innovative approach to pots and containers.
From this came a market stall selling plants and curious containers, then indoor gardening workshops, a website, styling work at weddings and in shops, and now this book, seeking to share more widely their philosophy and the expertise they have gleaned over the years.
Their enthusiasm erupts from the page, in poetic text and beautiful photographs of plant-filled rooms. We learn about “sun-soaked succulents” and “shaded jungle greenery” and see images that contrast the sparse softness of asparagus fern with the chubby abundance of the jade plant.
Parts of the book are aimed squarely at the novice, with simple instructions about choosing plants that will like the conditions on offer, and warnings that most houseplants die from over-watering. The individual plant profiles cover a pretty standard range – rubber plant, curly palm, Echeveria, Tillandsia and Old Man cactus, for instance, with instructions on light and temperature requirements, watering, feeding and propagation.
But the authors’ passions also lead us to more technically advanced and sometimes rather quirky activities. There are sections on making your own homebrew nettle fertiliser, creating retro macramé hanging planters, and constructing Nordic himmeli mobiles. These sections are fun and might well appeal to experienced indoor gardeners looking for a new challenge, but I suspect they are more likely to dismay the novice.
The book also has a sense of having expanded from more modest plans. This is most obvious in the subtitle (‘Living with Succulents, Air Plants and Cacti’), which fails to capture the large parts of the book that feature leafy tropical plants. The order is also difficult to grasp, with plant profiles and creative projects inserted with no obvious logic into a variety of chapters, which themselves have rather overlapping themes (living, knowing, nurturing, sharing, gathering). Near the beginning is a single page of Useful Terms, which is wonderfully eclectic, its 18 short entries taking in ‘areole’ ‘pinching’ ‘species’ and ‘worm castings’ but not humidity, for example, or spores or spines or propagation. Perhaps knowing they were going to produce a longer book might have allowed a more generous list.
Even with those caveats, the book is a pleasure to leaf through – the poetry and passion of the words and the delicious photographs and drawings have certainly made me determined to try again with houseplants. It would be a lovely gift for someone who has just acquired their first home, and looks stylish enough to serve as a ‘coffee table’ book. I applaud the two women who have made indoor gardening their passion, and hope their various ventures continue to thrive.
House of Plants: Living with Succulents, Air Plants and Cacti
Caro Langton and Rose Ray
Hard cover UK £20
[Available in Australia through Murdoch Books, New Zealand from fishpond.co.nz, USA and Canada from amazon.com]