In March, a friend of mine asked me to take care of some of her plants while she went travelling. She had donated half her possessions, packed the rest of her life up, and was preparing to travel South America for at least six months – possibly indefinitely.
In the four days between handing the keys to her flat back and her scheduled flight departure, the UK was locked-down in response to covid. Instead of exploring the rainforest, my friend was now living in her parents’ spare room for the foreseeable future, with no room for a wardrobe – let alone potted plants.
All of this to say, at the beginning of lockdown, the number of plants in my humble flat more than tripled. And, because most of these plants weren’t mine, I suddenly found myself much, much more focused in plant care and keeping my little green friends alive.
I realised pretty quickly that I was far from alone. Both my real-life friends and online communities were suddenly investing in their plants and sharing indoor garden ideas. I’m sure there was a degree of confirmation bias (and of course advertising algorithms based off my “likes” and internet searches), but it seemed like everyone was taking comfort in plants.
Why everyone should have houseplants
Cultivating an indoor garden has so many benefits – especially when we’re spending more time than ever at home. For starters, plants immediately make a room feel alive, welcoming and lived-in. It’s amazing how flowers or even just a little bit of green decor can improve the ambience of a room.
Not only that, but a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers reported feeling less pain, anxiety and fatigue. I’m definitely on board with anything that offers to alleviate the fatigue of 2020!
It’s suggested that caring for plants also reduces stress and, to be honest, how can watching something slowly grow out of thin air and water not be a therapeutic process?
Indoor garden ideas: The basics
When it comes to planning your indoor garden ideas and choosing the right plants, there are three things you need to consider.
First, how much space are you aiming to give your plants? Your indoor garden could be as small as a windowsill or as big as, well, your whole house. Of course, plants will usually get bigger in all directions, so start slightly smaller than your “ideal” indoor garden size.
Another important step is assessing the available light in your home. Different plants will thrive in certain levels of light, and struggle in others. It sounds really simple, but it was only once lockdown started and I was able to routinely observe my plants and move them around that I really appreciated the impact!
Light is actually the most crucial part of growing healthy plants. An under-watered plant will forgive you much quicker than a plant that’s had badly managed light – and I’m speaking from experience!
This diagram helped me get started (but, like I say, watch what works for each individual plant). In the picture, the light coming from the windows is from sun-facing windows – so in the UK, that’s south-facing windows.
Finally, be realistic about how much thought and effort you want to invest in the ongoing maintenance of your plants. Each one will need individual attention in the form of watering, light management, fertilising, composting and repotting at some point.
Having a realistic view of which plants you can grow in your home will set you off on the right foot. Choose the plant for the care plan – don’t try and commit to more care than you’re ready for just because the plant is pretty.
Some plants are, frankly, divas, that will wilt and turn yellow no matter how much you seem to pamper them. However, for every one of these types, there are five equally beautiful plants that simply thrive on neglect.
Where are the best places to grow plants indoors?
Well, if you haven’t gathered, that will depend entirely on the plant species and the individual plant. Here are some tips though:
- Bathrooms usually have limited light but are better for providing moisture and humidity.
- Kitchens are ideal for herbs (because that’s where you’ll use them), especially if they’re sunny – take a look at these indoor herb gardens for ideas.
- Bright windowsills are good for cacti and plants that need direct light (but be careful of scorching delicate succulents).
- Bookshelves at the back of sunny rooms are a good neutral spot for giving plants indirect light.
- Darker corners of bedrooms or inner hallways are perfect for shade-loving plants (as long as they still get some light)!
- Balconies – okay, not technically indoors – are good for vegetables and herbs, and for drying out over-watered soil.
Again, maybe this is obvious, but remember that you can (and should) move plants around each season to help them get the best light.
What do you need for growing plants indoors?
The absolute basic equipment for caring for your indoor garden:
- A variety of plastic “inner” pots in different sizes (specific tips further down)
- Saucers or trays to put them on (I used plastic party plates for a long time)
- All-purpose compost
- Watering can or large jug
- Gardening scissors
The stuff that’s nice to have:
- Decorative “outer” pots (check they fit the “inner” pots)
- Specialised compost for different plant types
- A spray bottle
- A mini fork or trowel for repotting (or an old kitchen utensil)
There are a couple of other bits and pieces that might be useful for specific types of plants, but I’ll go into more detail once we start looking at the best kinds of houseplants to grow in the UK. Choosing the right pots can also get slightly more nuanced than you might initially think but, again, we’re going to cover it in a specific section a little bit further down!
Indoor garden ideas: Choosing the right plants
If you’re new to the houseplant game, I strongly suggest starting with some plants that will tolerate a bit of neglect. That doesn’t automatically mean they have to be boring though! These are my top picks for striking, easy-care houseplants:
1. Spider plants
Spider plants are virtually indestructible. I’ve neglected them, left them in dark corners, forgotten them on sunny windowsills, underwatered them, over-watered them and been too lazy to repot them for years on end. Turns out, they don’t really mind.
Even better, if you show spider plants even a little bit of love, they’ll sprout a long stem that blossoms with beautiful little white flowers, before growing into a little baby spider plant.
You can leave the baby spider plant attached (and the mother plant will eventually grow more), or you can trim it off and pop it in a jar of water. Make sure the end of the ‘umbilical stem’ is submerged, and the baby will quickly grow a new set of roots. Change the water every few days, and after 3-4 weeks your baby should be self-sufficient enough to move it into a pot of compost and, voila, you’ve doubled your spider plants.
For this reason, don’t bother buying a spider plant – just ask around until you find someone you know that has one and can give you a baby (or three).
2. Prayer plant
Loved for its distinctive, pink-streaked leaves, the prayer plants have seen a huge surge in popularity with newbie indoor gardeners. By the way, it gets its name from the way the leaves reach upwards once the sun sets, as if in worship.
Prayer plants initially need a bit more attention than some of the other plants on this list, mostly to make sure they’re getting the right conditions. For starters, they don’t need much sunlight – the leaves will be pinkest in partial shade or indirect light.
However, they’re keen for humidity, and you’ll need to keep their soil moist as much as possible. This is where I recommend having a misting bottle of water and occasionally giving your prayer plant a generous spritz to keep it hydrated. Prayer plants are also wonderful candidates for that shady corner in your steamy bathroom!
3. Pilea / Chinese money plant
Okay, I don’t actually have one of these (yet), but it’s next on my shopping list! Pilea are popular because of their cute round leaves, and because you’re fine to let the soil get totally dry in between watering (although it does love a misting).
Like spider plants, pilea are pretty easy to propagate, so you can do a kind of green market trade with your plant-loving pals (at a safe distance, of course). With a sharp knife, cut the plantlet stem just beneath the surface of the soil, and put the cutting in a little jar of water – much like the spider plant. Once you see the roots growing, you can move it to compost.
4. Fiddle leaf fig
Fiddle leaf figs are EVERYWHERE right now, and for good reason. Their big, dramatic leaves instantly make a statement in whatever room you put them in, and these plants are pretty darn easy to take care of.
Make sure you keep them in medium light – away from harsh sun but not in the shade – and keep the glorious leaves well-misted every few days.
Be warned that, with enough attention, fiddle leaf figs can reach up to 6ft indoors!
Pothos is another one that can tolerate being forgotten about for a couple of weeks, as long as it’s in a relatively shady spot. Pothos will naturally trail downwards, meaning they look fantastic from a hanging basket or the top of a tall bookcase.
If you’ve got the patience, you can actually get a pothos to grow upwards – but you’ll need a frame or trellis for them to do so.
A loved pothos will reward you by just growing and growing and growing. Use your gardening scissors to clean cut away sad-looking stems and mist it frequently.
6. String of pearls
These kooky little plants are all over the internet right now, with people enamoured with their weird, pea-like tendrils. They look great trailing off the edge of a shelf, but even better in a little hanging basket from the ceiling.
Apparently NASA rate these beauties highly on their study of the best air-purifying plants (as if you needed another excuse to get one)!
Be careful about watering though – they like a thorough watering, but too much retained moisture can cause the beads to rot. Never, ever mist them, and try to water from the bottom where possible. Let the soil dry out completely before re-watering – watch for the beads shrinking or shrivelling to tell you they’re thirsty!
7. Monstera deliciosa
I think monstera are absolutely gorgeous, but there are several varieties that need different levels of care. The deliciosa, or ‘cheeseplant’ variety are pretty straightforward to look after.
Keep monstera well misted and watered to keep their humidity up. Their preferred light levels are semi-shaded, but they’re not too fussy – this is another plant that can be quite happy in a shady bathroom. However, new leaves don’t feature the classic holes that give the plant its nickname, and they won’t form if the room is too dark.
If you spot curious brown tendrils creeping up from the soil, these are aerial roots. In their natural environment, monstera cling to large trees and climb up them – so you can give them a moss pole to climb up, or gently prod the roots back into the pot.
To get your plant as big as possible – a monster monstera, if you will – re-pot it every 1-2 years.
8. Sansevieria (snake plant)
Again, there are several varieties of snake plant that all have slightly different features. However, they’re all pretty chill if you utterly neglect them.
Sansevieria can typically handle any lighting conditions (although the more the better as long as they’re not being scorched), and only need watering once every few weeks. They actually kind of prefer to be left alone!
Sansevieria is another plant that’s been able to demonstrate air-purifying qualities, so lots of people feel they sleep better with a snake plant or two in their bedroom.
Thanks to its dramatic shape, the sansevieria gets some pretty cool nicknames. In Japan and China they liken it to a ‘tiger’s tail’, and in Brazil it’s called the ‘Sword of Saint George’. In parts of Africa, it’s associated with war deities and storm-bringers. Not bad!
9. Herb gardens
Next time you buy fresh herbs from the supermarket, pay a little bit more (like, £1.50) to get some that are still attached to the plant, and never buy herbs again.
Mint, basil, and chives all grow exceptionally well with a little bit of pruning and frequent watering. Plus, they smell lovely and will encourage you to make your cooking just a little bit more imaginative.
When I decided to keep my supermarket-bred basil, I had more Caprese salads than you could shake a stick at, and my mint plant supported many, many mojitos.
Unfortunately, my mint never fully recovered from being babysat at a friends house, and I once let my basil get some sunshine outside… only to forget about it for a week. Don’t do that.
10. Pot-friendly veggies
No, I’m not joking – you can absolutely grow vegetables indoors as long as you have a sunny windowsill. Chillies are almost idiot proof (I say that, but it did take me a few goes before I got a successful harvest), and tomatoes are pretty happy in a bright kitchen corner, too.
If you fancy the idea of adding some home-grown veggies to your table, take a look at our kitchen garden ideas. Making our homes more sustainable is so important right now, so while we’re on that topic, take a look at our composting tips too. They’re mostly about composting in a garden, but there are some suggestions for counter-top composting too!
What pots do you need for houseplants?
Not all plant pots are created equal, and a lot of people don’t realise that those pretty, decorative pots you find in the homeware section aren’t actually good for your plants on their own. Why? Because they don’t provide any drainage – meaning that excess water just sits in the soil and damages plants’ roots.
If you want to display your plant in a pretty pot that doesn’t have drainage, your best bet is to buy “inner” pots, “nursery” pots, or pot “liners”. They’re those cheap plastic pots that seem to only come in black or that ugly shade of orange. These allow excess water to trickle out of the bottom of the pot to disperse and evaporate much quicker.
Alternatively, you’ll either have to drill drainage holes in the bottom of your decorative pot, or fill the bottom third with gravel to stop water rotting your plant’s roots.
Lots of people like clay or terracotta pots, especially for plants that really hate being over-watered. This is because the porous nature of clay helps excess water evaporate super quickly.
If you’re not using “outer” pots, you’ll need something underneath the drainage hole to catch the water. You can get specific saucers for this, which come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. My favourite lockdown purchase was two long, rectangular saucers that fit perfectly on my windowsills.
More houseplant watering tips
Here are some of the most valuable tips I’ve learned since paying more attention to my plants:
- Many plants tolerate too little water better than too much. Waterlogged soil will rot the roots and kill the plant.
- Radiators will dry out soil really, really quick, and lead to an early demise for your plant. When you turn the heating on, relocate your plants.
- If you notice the tips of leaves are turning brown, it could be due to the minerals in your water supply. Try using leftover water from a boiled kettle (obviously when it’s cooled), or letting your jug/watering can of water sit out for 14 hours before using it.
- Not sure if you need to water? Wiggle your finger into the top of the soil. If soil sticks, there’s plenty of water still in there.
- If you’re using saucers, put water in the bottom, rather than watering the plant from the top. That way the plant takes only what it needs, and you can empty out the excess after 20 minutes or so.
- Left your plants unwatered for a long time, or watering succulents? Grab a deep tray and let them soak in water for half an hour (drinking through the drainage holes).
- Clean your plants! Use a cloth or feather duster to gently remove dust from their leaves. Okay, it’s not a watering tip, but I didn’t have anywhere else to put it.
Is it still all sounding like a bit too much? I get it – after killing countless potted friends, I spent a good year collecting artificial plants (which are still going strong)! Maybe a Japanese-style zen garden is more up your street? Rocks won’t mind if you neglect them for a few weeks!