Get Back to Nature: A Guide to Indoor Gardening
While indoor gardening may smack of the ’70s, the new verdant invasion has a more curated, sculptural and bespoke persona. ‘There’s a huge return to indoor plants,’ says Johannesburg-based garden designer James Barry. ‘Everyone from Gucci to Designers Guild is getting back to nature.’ With apartment living – and stress – on the rise, our need for the natural world gains ever more momentum. ‘There’s a whole new generation of chlorophyll junkies out there,’ says James. ‘I grew up surrounded by masses of ferns in macramé holders. By the time I began my own indoor collection, I was in minimalist mode – all hardcore succulents and big, thorny offerings. The good news is that we’re revisiting the plants that worked in the past, gems such as peace in the home and aspidistras. Everything’s cyclical; we’re just looking at them in a more contemporary and considered way.’
In the digital world, #succulents has over 3.6 million posts on Instagram alone. ‘I think older Millennials, in particular, are warming up to plants,’ says indoor plant curator Sylvia McKeown. ‘Our lives are heavily tech-focused, and we’re finding a balance by bringing nature into our homes. We’re also open to the responsibility of caring for living things. Plants breathe life into a space in a way that simply can’t be replicated.’ Sylvia runs Betty’s Botany, a Joburg-based firm specialising in curated solutions that best suit her clients, their homes and, most importantly, the plants. ‘We’ll always look closely at the natural light and the time people have to dedicate to gardening,’ she says. ‘From there we recommend a list of entry-level plants that are known to handle some stress, plus a more unusual selection – not just the basics. Why go for a standard green ficus when you could have one with pink-variegated leaves?’ Sylvia also advises interior designers on plant choices for their clients. ‘Designers may be insanely clued-up on modern Italian furniture, but won’t necessarily have all the plant knowledge that they need. We’re able to match their vision (such as beautifully geometric forms) with plants that fit the homeowner’s lifestyle and location.’
Unapologetically plant-mad, Sylvia sources both exotic and indigenous plants for indoor use. ‘My late grandmother had a country garden on a plot near Pretoria. It was a cacophony of wild things, completely un-curated, and every inch of the house was filled with garden flowers. Later I would spend extraordinary amounts on cut flowers to replicate that, but I soon learnt that potted plants offer so much more reward – and value for money.’ From her first string of pearls succulent to an exotic staghorn fern collection and favourite air plants, Sylvia is now part of a thriving plant-obsessed community. ‘I gradually unravelled the hidden world of specialist plant breeders on Facebook,’ she says. ‘I’ve travelled across the greater Gauteng area to find the best suppliers for my clients, and they in turn shared their contacts in other provinces. If you need a large-leafed Judas palm from KZN, I know where to find it!’
Where there are plants, there have to be pots, and product designer Joe Paine is no stranger to the world of modern planters. ‘Indoor gardening is still pretty niche, but the emergence of high-quality containers, like the range from Indigenus, is a good indication of where it’s heading,’ he says. In a collaboration with Betty’s Botany, Joe now offers his clients a fully customised planting service. He’s also just launched the Drippp planter – a semi self-watering system that effectively avoids root rot. Sylvia will curate the plants for his new showroom space at 99 Juta Street in Braamfontein, opening early in October. ‘I think the key to indoor gardens is choosing vessels that are sculptural, varied and interesting,’ says Joe. Ultimately, it’s about softening harsh environments, cleaning the air and filling a house with live art.’
Perhaps one of the biggest changes since the 1970s plant era is the move towards textural, layered greenery. Rather than choosing varieties for their fleeting blooms, those in the know are creating zones of healthy, leafy abundance. ‘Right now, look out for variegated plants – they’re the best way to add a more graphic presence,’ says Sylvia. The spider plant (a ’70s classic that propagates well), mother-in-law’s tongue (a hardy, sculptural succulent) and philodendrons (quick-growing, trailing plants) all have bi-coloured foliage. ‘I think there’s definitely a move towards dramatic foliage rather than flowers,’ agrees James. ‘The trend for clusters of colourful cymbidiums, for instance, seems to be making way for bold leaf shapes. Take retro plants such as the delicious monster – it’s definitely crept back into my heart, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.’
If you’re after the tumbledown appeal of hanging or trailing species, opt for easy-going greenery such as chain of heart, peperomia (radiator plants), Boston or sword fern, or pothos, the ivy arum. ‘The old-fashioned wandering Jew is very rewarding, too,’ says Sylvia. Where height is required, try standing plants such as ficus, fan palms, croton and tree philodendron. And for the budding plant enthusiast, Sylvia recommends pots of begonias. ‘There are hundreds of varieties, and they are super low-maintenance and relatively inexpensive,’ she says. If gardening has never been your forte, don’t despair. ‘Identify the areas of strong and low light in your home, and position your plants accordingly,’ says Sylvia. ‘You’re trying to replicate their natural environment. They will grow towards the light and will indicate what they need. It’s a good idea to turn your plants on a regular basis so that they receive light from all angles.’ Ever-popular succulents do best on sunny windowsills and should be watered once the soil has dried out completely. ‘As a rough indicator, when any leaves turn yellow, you’re watering too much,’ says Sylvia. ‘If leaves turn black, you’re watering way too much, and if the leaves droop, you’re not watering enough. I always use a catching dish and add felt to help retain water.’ She also advises to watch out for mealybugs – the furry aphids that appear as white fuzz on your plants. ‘Combat them right away by spraying with a weak solution of dishwashing liquid.’ With care, patience and a little luck, a rewarding green space is well within reach.