Jo Arnell takes a closer look at houseplants for Christmas – and beyond – with help from The Glasshouse Project
It’s been a tradition to bring evergreen foliage into the home at this time of year for thousands of years. Decorating our interiors with evergreens increases wellbeing and symbolised everlasting life and hope for the spring’s return. It can get rather bleak once the festive season is over, the foliage has died and everything has been taken down. This is where houseplants can shine. Their great joy (providing you remember to look after them) is that they keep on giving all year round, bringing all the benefits of traditional evergreens, but staying alive for a long time after that.
We’ve asked Kali Hammerton Stove of The Glasshouse shop in Cranbrook for some tips on how to keep houseplants looking good through the winter months and for some inspiring Christmas gifts that will keep on giving – potentially forever more.
The Glasshouse Project
This ingenious project is a social enterprise working in disused prison glasshouses and providing second chances to ex-offenders. The Glasshouse Project not only provides a way for the ex-offenders to enjoy the benefits that being close to the natural environment can bring, but it can also provide them with a qualification that could help them gain employment on release.
The Glasshouse has teamed up with the local East Sutton Park prison to encourage the women to grow houseplants at the prison and to sell through their shop. Working with plants, being surrounded by greenery and learning through growing increases both physical and mental wellbeing, but in this case it also provides opportunities – and practical career solutions once the prisoners have completed their sentences and are ready to rejoin the workforce. Many prisons throughout the country have greenhouses that are falling into disrepair due to funding cuts and The Glasshouse aims to grow its programmes into more of them and expand the project to become nationwide.
Surrounding ourselves with nature and plants is beneficial to our health, but the plants themselves are also good for us and some are working hard in unexpected ways to make our environments healthier too. If you fill your house with living plants you will never need an air purifier. Not only are they taking in carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen into the room, many are brilliant at also absorbing polluting fumes and filtering the air. Even the humble Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) will remove formaldehyde that exudes out from things like napkins, tissues and synthetic fabrics. Pilea ‘Greysy’ is another toxin remover with anti-bacterial properties. It trails prettily, so is a great choice for a shelf or high window sill. Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) are really easy to grow and these powerful houseplants are a master of air pollutant removal – working hard to absorb ammonia, benzene, xylene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene throughout your home.
Houseplants and Christmas don’t always go together well. Light levels are low, but it’s cold by the window and with the heating on full blast, it can be hot and dry everywhere else. Not always the most wonderful time of the year if you are sensitive and need to photosynthesise. Happily The Glasshouse specialises in plants that will cope with these conditions well. “All of our plants like warmth,” says Kali. “To keep them optimal, they should be kept between 16-21˚C, so warm houses are actually ideal. Depending on vicinity to heat and light, all plants may require more water if the atmosphere is dry. We have several plants that are very easy to maintain including our Ficus microcarpa ‘Ginseng’ (available in 3 sizes) and any of our Sansevieria. All of these will do well in a very dry warm home, as long as they get a good soaking very occasionally.”
They have some gorgeous plants in stock that will make fabulous gifts. “Large plants are a great special Christmas present and make an impact, bringing nature inside,” says Kali. “We are introducing a new plant called a Phlebodium davana or Blue Feather Fern, which we love as a present.” This beautiful fern has leaves that are a lovely glaucous blue that looks perfect in interior settings. “For corporate clients and in our Cranbrook shop, we will also have our white hellebores potted in our handmade grey Italian clay pots.” Helleborus niger is also known as the Christmas rose, but will probably appreciate being planted outside once the festivities are over.
Some plants also have hidden benefits that could be very useful during the festive season. Kali suggests an aloe vera. Aloes contain skin-soothing compounds and a natural pain reliever – you can simply cut off a little section to use directly on the skin as a cooling salve. “A great party present,” says Kali, “to help with those Christmas dinner cooking burns!”
Winter is hard on all of us and houseplants suffer in their own way – showing their displeasure by dropping leaves, browning and shrivelling – and sometimes giving up completely. Those that may have enjoyed being in an airy situation in the summer are now suffering in cold drafts, others may not be coping well with stifling central heating. It’s not necessarily the warmth, but the lack of moisture in the air. Plants that are originally from jungles or humid tropical environments usually have big floppy leaves – a large surface area for photosynthesis in dimly lit forests and jungles and for getting rid of excess water. They will thrive in humid situations like bathrooms and kitchens, but will also appreciate regular misting with water. Placing them on trays of gravel will help to keep the air immediately around them moist as will grouping several plants together.
At the other end of the scale succulents and cacti prefer life on the dry side, so need to be positioned on the sunniest of windowsills, especially in winter. Their stems and leaves have evolved into water storage organs – and in the case of cacti the leaves have thinned and sharpened into protective spines. The time to water them is in the spring, when you can give them a quick soak, to mimic the brief flash floods that happen in the desert at certain times of the year. If you get the watering regime right they may show their gratitude and burst into flower. Once you know the situation that your plant would enjoy in the wild you start to understand how to keep them in tip-top condition.
If you want to bring in some evergreens, improve your wellbeing and brighten up the place for Christmas, then living indoor plants, rather than the cut stems of outdoor plants, could offer a modern and festive alternative. They make great presents too, but remember – houseplants are for life, not just for Christmas…
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