I needed a nice fluffy article this week. I’ve been trying to research plastics recycling this week and last and all the contradictory information is doing my head in. So this article is a bit of down time, and being a plant geek (as well as a sustainable geek) this is my idea of fun!
First and foremost this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive ‘how to take care of your houseplants’ article. There are far better qualified people writing excellent pieces on this very topic, which I link to below.
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Instead this article is for people who just want a few houseplants and want to do it as sustainably as they can. Unfortunately with houseplants we’re starting on the back foot in terms of sustainability. After all keeping outdoor plants from half-way around the world in artificially heated and illuminated rooms is the very antithesis to sustainability. Still, they are fun!
I don’t try and live the most sustainable life possible, I try and live my best life as sustainable as possible. There is a subtle difference but has a massive impact on my sense of well being.
I’ve owned houseplants for decades but only really got into them as they became fashionable over the past few years. I don’t have any of those massive plants I see on people’s Instagram account, partly because I don’t have the necessary light levels for those junglelike plants, and partly because I’m too cheap to pay over €12 for a plant!
So lets get into my tips for making your houseplant addiction just a little less damaging.
Aim to get as many plants as you can from cuttings or seeds. I’ve done this through a local plant plant swap group. I love it. Not only do I get free plants, I meet like-minded people who are more than happy to give plant care advice. One of my favs is the Dublin Plant Swap Group, and I’ve just heard of Cork Plant Swap
The benefit of growing from cuttings, apart from the low cost, is that you’re giving the plant to get established in your particular growing conditions. Also in my experience the plants that get offered are usually easy-to-grown ones, so your chances of success are much higher.
In her most excellent podcast houseplant guru Jane Perrone, shows us how to grow your own elephant’s ear plant by planting a taro tuber from an Asian food superstore.
If you do want to buy a new plant then here are a few Irish suppliers that have a healthy collection of houseplants to choose from
- Artful Green, Online
- Nicely Plant, Online
- Hopeless Botanics, Online
- Potty Mouth, Online & Dublin
- Verd, Online & Cork
- Mint Door, Online & Dublin
- Little Tree Box, Online & Galway
- Plant Frenzy, Online & Dublin
- House 4 Plants, Online & Dundalk
- Urban Plant Life, Online & Dublin
- Drinagh Garden Centre, Online & Wexford
- Ballyseedy, Online & Kerry
- Johnston Garden Centre, Online & Kildare
- Arboretum, Online & Carlow
If I’ve missed any out then let me know.
I’m not going to list pet friendly plants here because getting this wrong is high risk and I don’t trust Mr Google for stuff like this. Needless to say some houseplants are toxic to animals so do your research before you buy a plant. If this is of relevance to you this podcast episode on cats and houseplants might help.
I know some plants can tolerate tap water but why not treat them to rainwater if you can source it. Not only is it better for your houseplants it saves on the energy and chemicals that are required to process tap water.
If you don’t have a water butt you can catch water with the same device used to measure rain fall. Just search DIY water gauge and you’ll find out how to convert a plastic water bottle into a rain collector.
I only feed plants after they’ve been in new growing medium for more than 2 months, before then I feel that the potting mix is providing enough nourishment, assuming that it’s fresh potting mix of course. After the 2 months, I feed with seaweed extract and I like the Irish brand Ocean Leaves, which is hand-harvested certified organic Irish seaweed. Better Plants is another Irish organic plant food producer. Despite what I’ve heard I don’t find there is any smell from the seawood food that I’ve used.
I use special orchid food on my orchids because there’s needs to urea free and most houseplant foods aren’t. It’s the one synthetic chemical I allow into the house, but it’s used quite sparingly.
I hate buying compost in plastic bags and only do so for seeds and houseplants, This is because I don’t want to bring critters or weed seeds into the house.
I haven’t been able to find peat-free seed compost but can buy peat-free potting compost from Westland called New Horizon. I bought it in my local garden centre, Howbert and May for €7.95 for 50 Litres but you can also order it online from Quickcrop.ie or from Johnson Garden Centre for €7.99. Fruithill Farm in Cork do another peat-free organic compost from Klasmann, which costs €11.20. The Ethical Consumer has very conveniently given the rating of peat-free composts on its website. Interestingly organic doesn’t mean 100% organic. Organic compost only needs to contain 51% organic material to label itself as such.
If you grown carnivorous plants you might be interest in the peat-free compost called Thrive by UK Floralive.
You may have heard that peat in compost is unsustainable but do you know why? Apart from having completely unique eco-systems bogs are also very beneficial to the wider environment. They soak up water in times of flooding and slowly release it during dry periods, thereby helping to regulate water systems. When we cut bogs we cause the organic matter in them to be eroded, resulting in silting lakes and river beds, which can lead to increased flooding – something we’ve seen a lot of in Ireland in recent years. Bogs also serve as a ‘carbon sink’, i.e. it locks carbon into it. Due to the low oxygen levels the dead layers of peat are not able to decompose. Therefore, the carbon contained in the dead peat never oxidizes into CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere. By locking away this CO2, the bogs keeping it out of the atmosphere, which effectively slows down the heating of the planet and as a result climate change. Unfortunately when we drain bogs, microbes find a perfect combination of food (carbon) and oxygen in the drying peat, causing the locked carbon be released into the atmostphere as CO2. Globally, drained and decaying peat bogs release approximately three billion tons per year of CO2, or roughly 6 percent of all such greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.
I know seasoned houseplant parents amend household compost with many things including bark, moss, coir, vermiculite, perlite or grit for some of their fussier plants, particular succulents. To date I’ve only used grit but I’ve hear non-clumping cat litter can be a good, lighter and cheaper alternative.
It can be a good idea to repot some plants when you get them home from the shop. This is because most houseplants come in a growing medium designed for the very bright conditions of the nursery. Once they enter your more dimly-lit home the same growing medium might now retain more water than the plant can take up, causing roots to rot, which starves the plant and causes it to die.
Apart from houseplant compost and grit the only other thing I buy is bark chippings for my orchids. I find this stuff tends to last ages before breaking down and needed to be replaced. It’s important to use bark pieces are large enough to provide air pocks for the roots, otherwise they’ll rot. Something I intend to investigate is whether fresh bark chippings might work. I use bark chips from a local tree surgeon on my garden paths, and if I could use that instead of the packaged orchid chips, that’d be one less plastic bag!
Another option for orchids is to do away with the bark completed and just sit the orchid roots in water as suggested by Guardian journalist James Wong. He claims that sitting a Vanda orchid in a vase with 20% off the roots covered in just water will give this tricky plant all the care it needs.
I’ve heard of people growing other plants hydroponically, but it’s not something I know a lot about so won’t go into it for now.
Some people like to dress the top of their pots with grit. I find it a good way to keep fungus gnats at bay if I’ve an investation but don’t tend to use it otherwise, except to mix in with potting mix for succulents.
I really like the idea of using something lighter in weight and these crushed welk shells from Welsh company Shell on Earth might be just the ticket, especially as it’s made from a by-product of the shellfish industry. I also wonder if the lighter colour would be beneficial to light-loving plants.
Sometimes you buy plants planted directly into a decorative pot, often ceramic but sometimes terracotta, but most plants come in a plastic pot that you put into a catch / decorative pot. To be more sustainable and save a tonne of money buy your catch/decorative pots second hand. I’ve sourced quite a few from Facebook Marketplace, Adverts.ie and charity shops. Alternatively if you want to buy new then there are a few plant pots made out of recycled plastic, or you could go for a style that is timeless and that you won’t tire of like terracotta or plain white ceramic.
If you need plastic pots just ask your local gardening friend. Every gardener has more pots than they know what to do with. If that’s not an option and you need a specific size and can’t get it second-hand then do make sure that you at least buy a pot made from recycled plastic.
Domes & Terrariums
I’ve recently been converted to these after discovering that it’s the only way to keep plants on a table next to a radiator in my hall.
I’ve found that large jars work very well in lieu of domes, the trick is to find one that’s pretty. Recently I invested in an upcycled pickle jar dome from the social enterprise Glint as a dome for one of my humid-loving fittonias.
Galway based Wild Atlantic Garden also sells terrariums, along with other well-priced indoor gardening kit.
Keeping Plants Alive
The most sustainable way to keep houseplants is to not kill the ones you have. Quite straightforward but rarely simple.
Every plant needs slightly different growing conditions and finding out what they are is time consuming so I try to adopt just one or two plant at a time. That way I can devote the time require to really getting to know what their needs.
It’s also worth buying from a smaller company than a large supermarket or DIY store. In my experience plants grown by plant specialists are more robust and easier to care for. Yes, they’re likely to be more expensive but buying badly-raised plants is penny wise, pound foolish.
I’ve have two 10 year-old orchids (one rescued from a skip), an 8 year old poinsettia and a 6 year old amaryllis that flowers every 2 years. I have a string of hearts, a kalanchoe, a polka dot plant, and a stags fern that are about 2 years old each and then a few less than a year old including; a wandering dude, a chinese money plant, grey baby tears, a sand rose, two fittonias and an elephant bush.
I’ve a few other dodgy looking individuals that I’m hoping will leap into life this spring. To be honest I struggle with succulents, apart from the sand rose I’ve lost quite a few this winter. My well established echeveria’s got a fungal infection that I just couldn’t cure and the mini succulents I’d bought in autumn just fizzle up and died once the heating came on, despite constant monitoring. I suspect the growing medium they were in wasn’t free draining enough and their roots rotted.
Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you can’t give a plant what it needs. In those instances the most sustainable thing to do is to rehome a sickly plant to a person who has the conditions that it needs.
Keeping Plants Alive – Humidity
I’ve listened to countless planting podcasts and there are only four proven ways to achieve it. Stacking plants together, locating plants in a moist room like a bathroom, installing a humidifier and putting plants into a closed environment like a terrarium.
I couldn’t bring myself to buy something that uses energy for decorative plants so for me a humidifier is out. As I said above I’ve found that putting moisture loving plants under bell cloches or in terrariums to be a brilliant way to get around the problem of placing plants near radiators.
You may have heard that misting plants or putting them on a tray of gravel and water can help with humidity but having listened to hundreds of hours of plant experts it seems that neither of these strategies really provide enough moisture for the plants that need them. When I tried it myself I also found it made little difference. I can already hear the cries of dissent as I type those words, and as always if you think it works and it makes you happy, by all means continue to mist and use gravel trays.
People often ease off on water in winter, which is generally wise but it all depends on how hot and humid your house is. If you’ve plants in a kitchen – diner with a poor extract fan and low levels of light it’s unlikely you’ll need to water as frequently as someone with plants in a rarely use dining room with direct sun and a large radiator that’s frequently on. It’s all dependent on location and lifestyle, which means one-size-does-not-fit-all when it comes to watering advice.
For me the best way to judge whether something needs watering is to lift the pot. Over time I get a sense of how heavy a pot needs to be and if it feels to light I water. You can of course stick your finger into the pot to check if the compost is damp, and this is good until you get a sense of how heavy a pot should be but you end up with a mucky finger and holes in your compost.
I’ve heard very mixed information on moisture metres and for me unless they’re fool proof I don’t think they warrant the resources required to make, package, ship and recycle.
Keeping Plants Alive – Lighting
As with humidifiers I do not feel comfortable using energy to grow decorative plants, and so my plants have to be able to cope with the ambient light levels in my home, which is North-South facing. I’ve discovered that in winter my plants do better if I put them on south facing windows, even those that don’t like direct sun. The strength of the sun at this time of year is weak enough not to risk burning the leaves, but keep an eye.
I’ve heard good things about light metres so if your a data geek you might like to invest in one, but for me it’s just another purchase to avoid. I just keep an eye on the plant. If it’s not happy, I move it, simple as.
I do think it’s worth pointing out that light levels fall dramatically as you move away from a window, so don’t assume that a plant 1m away from one will get the light levels it needs.
Keeping Plants Alive – Stowaways
I’m purposely not using the term ‘pest’ in this article. Just because you don’t want them doesn’t mean they’re pests. They’re just doing what they do and could be a tasty treat for a creature if they were outside.
So that aside if you don’t want stowaways on your plants be sure to use sterile compost when potting up and examine new plants carefully to ensure you don’t introduce any new critters into your plant community. I like to keep new plants separate from existing plants for a few weeks until I’m sure they’ve no stowaways on them.
If you do find stowaways I prefer to wipe or wash them off than use chemicals. Firstly I don’t like using non-food grade chemicals in my home and secondly I’m cheap!
If I’m using water I simply wrap the plastic pot with a plastic bag and give the plant a shower with lukewarm water. I did this with what I think were thrips on my kalanchoe and although a few came back after a few weeks – which were tackled with another shower – I found this to be an easy, successful treatment method.
It’s worth bearing in mind that if you put your household plants outside for a holiday in the summer your likely to get a few hitchhikers on them when they come back indoors in the Autumn. It’s up to you whether this is acceptable or not.
We’re quite relaxed about insects in our homes. I take it as a sign of a non-toxic household, and although I’ve no proof I do think our healthy supply of spiders helps to keep the fly population under control.
I had heard of a nifty trick that I wanted to share with you. Owner of A Considered Life website, Sophie, says that she find that Tesco White Linen and Orchid Candle works very well as a trap for the fungus gnats!
Keeping Plants Alive – Drafts
Unless the air temp outside is balmy keep your houseplants away from drafts, which means moving them away from an open window. (Husband are you listening?)
Getting Orchids to Rebloom
Okay so I said this wasn’t a plant care article and it’s not but this is the one thing I’ve been very successful with and so I thought I’d share it with you.
Orchids seem to like my house and so I don’t have a problem getting them to bloom. I suspect it’s because my house isn’t heated at night in the winter and they like the drop in temp. I also think that because I tend to underwater everything, mostly because I forget, they think they better flower to save themselves!
I do feed them with orchid feed about 8 weeks after they’ve dropped their last flower, and then once a month thereafter. I generally get mine to flower once a year and I’m not greedy enough to ask for more than that. I would like more flower spikes per plant so I’m trying to encourage more leaf growth because I’ve heard that it takes 4 leaves to grow one flower spike.
Some people suggest leaving the old flower spike on an orchid after it’s bloomed, saying that it takes a huge amount of energy from the plant to grow a new one. Others say it’s better to cut it off once the last bloom falls. I’ve tried both. The benefit of the first option is you can get get flowers again sooner but sometimes the new flowering shoot grows at an odd angle to the old flower spike, which I don’t like.
I used to have my orchids in terracotta pots but the roots kept climbing out the top. I’d heard this is because they want more light, which turned out not to be true. Apparently orchid have two types of roots and one likes to be in the air! By the time I’d heard the truth I had already potted my orchid into clear pots so I’ll report on whether it makes any difference.
So as I said before I’m not houseplant expert, but I’ve learned so much from two people in particular and they are
- Jane Perrone, who hosts the most fabulous houseplant podcast Off the Ledge podcast. There is nothing about houseplants that she hasn’t covered over the past 4 years.
- Botanist and gardening journalist James Wong, who’s Instagram account is an inspiration.
- I also like the irreverent approach of Rafealle of Ohio Tropics. He’s not afraid to break the rules and is very upfront about his own personal experiences
- I think these plant guides from Plant Care for Beginners are to the point with no waffle. Love them