By Victoria Holder
As the popularity of gardening increased last year, growing our own food to become more resilient, so did the popularity of growing indoor plants. With so many more people working from home, the importance of plants and their effect on our mental health by simply being in our lives became very evident. Segments on gardening TV shows were dedicated to it, and magazines were writing about it. Customers were flocking to produce stores indoor plant sections and snapping up all the potting mix.
In my own experience caring for plants within city office buildings, I saw firsthand how they can completely change a space, the feel, the look and the productivity. In permaculture, we ask should we do something, not how, and I often struggled with this when trying to keep plants alive. So, what yields were we achieving? Did the value that plant brought to a space warrant putting it there?
I have no scientific backup for this, but I often witnessed the plants in the most stressful, high-pressure offices repeatedly wither and die. Could these plants be absorbing all that tension and creating a better environment by simply being there? Obviously, my job was to keep these plants alive. Still, instead of thinking I had failed, I liked to believe that plant had fulfilled its purpose and that lovely man with such a stressful job was able to breathe a little easier and go home slightly happier simply because that plant was in his office. My boss at the time referred to my KPI's as the killing plant index. Still, he also understood a plant can only survive so much. Therefore, it would stealthily replace sad plants so that the customers could be happy.
My permaculture brain relishes design, and indoor plants deserve the same attention as our productive outdoor plants do. Their yields may be different, but by marrying the plant's needs with our needs and what the site is capable of, we can all thrive.
Starting with a plant analysis:
Where does the plant initially come from? How big will it grow, and how quickly? Does it like to climb and need support? What size leaves does it have, flowers? How much light, water, and nutrient does it enjoy? Does it need humidity to flower like the anthurium? Does it propagate quickly? What pests is it prone to? Is it dangerous to children or dogs?
Next, a site analysis:
Mapping out the microclimates within your home that could potentially provide the ideal environment for plants. This would include light and shade and its strength at different times of the year, reflective surfaces, airflow, temperatures and the variations - consider times of air conditioning and heating. Consider access and your movement patterns through the site as a phase I recently heard comes to mind "what you see survives". If the plant is too high to reach or tucked in a corner you never walk past, will it survive? Also, plants can suffer if constantly being brushed up against in a walkway. Consider your focal points within the site and from different areas to create maximum impact.
Understanding your own needs and limitations:
Consider what time you have to commit to these plants, what skills you have to help care for them and what you need to learn. Do you like lush tropical plants like philodendrons, delicate strappy plants like peace lilies, climbing pothos, tall feature trees like fiddler figs, low maintenance happy plants or Zanzibar gems that can survive on the mere suggestion of water.
Designing with maintenance in mind:
Leave plants in plastic pots and simply slot them in and out of decorative pots; you will be grateful for this when the plant outgrows its pot and needs the next size up. Plus, you can change and move things around quickly, particularly as the angle of the sun changes throughout the year. Consider pots with water reservoirs if plants are ravenous or you are away a lot. Covering the soil with decorative rocks is like adding mulch in the garden. It keeps moisture in and keeps soil temperature constant. It can also help with soil born pests.
Feeding your plants:
In permaculture, we start with soil biology. Having a plant indoors in a pot means we have taken away its ability to draw from the earth what it needs. Responsibility shifts to the intervener! As a professional plant waterer, I would feed my plants every 4 weeks with either liquid blood and bone or a powdered soluble fertilizer. We would joke that I was the plant's dealer, keeping them in the supply of their coffee or another powdered white substance. But joking aside, these plants would not survive or thrive without giving them the nutrients they need. Plants under stress will also suffer from pests and disease as they would in the garden, so keeping them happy reduces the need for pest control.
And some glossy, shiny leaves complete the look; there is no point in having healthy soil if the plant is covered in dust and spiders' webs.
I hope this helps integrate plants into your indoor spaces and value the many yields they can bring.