When it comes to nurturing house plants, the rules can be tricky and uncertain. But that’s what makes the successes so appealing. By Margaret Simons.

Potted rules for indoor gardening

Vanilla planifolia, or the vanilla bean orchid, is a plant that needs a lot of love.
Vanilla planifolia, or the vanilla bean orchid, is a plant that needs a lot of love.
Credit: AAP / UIG / BSIP

The leaves of the affected plant are soft and stems are tender. Whereas leaves of the underwatered plants are dry and crisp to touch.


I came across these words on a gardening blog after my stepdaughter brought me two pot plants, both near death.

I fancy that only the purveyors of gardening advice could write such a pair of sentences – didactic, rhythmic, florid with adjectives and slightly antiquated. Who says “whereas” in the real world?

It is a word with resonances of a peaceful, less frightening time. One in which comparisons could be made with confidence, and the diagnosis of plant pathologies conducted with a calm and ordered mind.

One of my stepdaughter’s plants was an English ivy, the other a parlour palm. Both were dry and crisp to touch, and the ivy had mottled leaves.

I told her they needed water. She said she stopped watering them because last time I told her she was overwatering. How to tell the difference?

I talked about inserting her finger into the potting mix to the first knuckle. If she felt damp, she should not water. But this was not sufficient certainty.

Ever since I met her, in the early days of my second marriage, when everything was hope and light, we have had a running joke: she is the tidy, methodical one, and I am not.

If the task is to wipe a bench, she does it in orderly strips, whereas I dab randomly at crumbs and sticky spots and finish off with a swirl of the sponge. She sweeps floors using a grid pattern; I adopt a sort of hub and spokes approach.

When it comes to gardening, what she most desires is a set of rules. And so I searched online for a form of words that might help and found these two sentences, surrounded by pictures of tender stems and crisp leaves.

I read them aloud, adopting the kind of portentous falling tone used by poetry readers on Radio National. I was all rounded vowels and melancholy. “The leaves of the affected plant are soft and stems are tender…” That, in case I haven’t made it clear, is how you know you have overwatered your plant.

I ran a sink of water and put both the pots in it up to the brim.

“Why are you drowning them?” she asked me.

“If you let it dry out too much, the potting mix resists water,” I told her.

“Is that even a thing?”

I compared it to a very dry sponge, of the kind one buys in multicoloured packs of five from the supermarket.

If your sponge has dried right out, when you first put it under the tap the water runs off. Persist, or soak it in a bowl, and suddenly it embraces the water and swells.

I was trying to soak the potting mix to get water to the plants. As they soaked for about 15 minutes, I trimmed off the dead foliage from the parlour palm, leaving a single sentinel leaf, crisp at the edges but green at its centre.

I doubted my powers to save this specimen. When I brushed against the stem, the plant rocked on its base. Parlour palms are rather pathetic plants in many ways. They have shallow and ineffective roots. In this case, I suspected, they had rotted from previous overwatering, which was followed by drought, and now it was probably all too late.

They are meant to be hard to kill and can live for years in the same container, require only filtered light and can survive with little water – though not the complete drought my stepdaughter had imposed.

By now, she had become defensive.

“So how much should I water?” she asked me.

“It depends,” I answered, and she rolled her eyes.

I tried to find a poetic tone to match the lovely sentences from the gardening blog. It’s winter, I said, and we are at the bottom of the year. Life of all kinds slows down. Even the weeds. We live in a kind of suspended animation in our houses, keeping a consistent temperature by day, letting the chill in at night.

The sun dips and light is lower, and our indoor plants – so many of them coming from the warm, wet tropics – live with heaters on one side and the cold shock of window glass on the other.

Most will need less water than usual, and if you overdo it their roots might rot. On the other hand, the air is dryer, which means underwatering is also possible.

So it is that house plant care is tangled on that continuum between the soft and tender stems of overwatering and the dry and crisp of dehydration.

“Just give me some rules,” she said.

“Half a cup of water once a week,” I said, with no real idea whether this was right or wrong, for these plants at this time. “And one scoop of slow-release fertiliser for the six months of the season, more in spring.”

Gardening is not an activity that yields easily to binaries or certainty. It requires close observation, backing a hunch and the preparedness to be constantly humiliated by failure. That’s why I like it.

The English ivy, I said, should be in her bathroom because it likes humidity. As for the parlour palm, one of the reasons I think it is a ridiculous plant is its name. Who has parlours these days? Only people who say “whereas” in normal conversation.

She left the plants with me in a kind of intensive care.

My own house plants have become like pets. There is the giant monstera, king of the roost, that drops air roots out of its pot. They snake across the floorboards and get sucked into the vacuum cleaner. Its leaves stroke my hair while I watch the television.

If I overwater this plant it weeps from the leaves in a process called guttation, which is another unlovely word for something beautiful, involving jewelled droplets on the leaves each morning.

Then there are the peace lilies. I have four of them in different pots, all propagated from an original that lives in the bathroom. I have overwatered this plant, and a few months ago the leaves went grey and drooped – “soft and tender”. I pulled back on the water and thankfully it recovered. Now it has little spears of white flowers standing erect.

On my writing desk I have a pot shaped like a typewriter, and in it the spikiest cactus I could find. This is because writing is a pointy, painful activity.

When the words defeat me, I touch the cactus, prick my fingers, and then carry on at the keyboard. When things are very bad I bring down my hand on it hard. Always bracing. One kind of pain diverts from another.

My indulgence, the plant that needs the tenderest love, is a vanilla bean orchid. The gardening advice books say that when grown inside, it will likely never flower – and if it does you have to hand-pollinate the flowers if you hope to get vanilla pods and seeds.

It is not meant to be grown in Melbourne. In its natural habitat it springs from the bark of a tropical host tree and swings and clambers zigzag fashion through the steamy treetops.

My vanilla orchid lives by the television. Over three years it has crawled a few centimetres up the twigs I have poked into the pot to support it.

This morning when I checked the English ivy, it was already sprouting a couple of new leaves. In these anxious times, as we shelter in our parlours and parlour substitutes, it made me feel like a miracle worker.

But the real miracle is that unless we kill them with our ignorance, things keep growing. Even now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Pot luck".

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