How To Stop Killing Your Houseplants
Interior of Calienna, Vienna, Austria. All photographs courtesy of Calienna
Ms Miriam Cervantes, who turned a love of flowers and plants in London into a green-fingered hub in Vienna, tells us her expert tips on how to keep your houseplants alive for longer.
When I lived in London, I was in Victoria Park quite close to the Columbia Road Flower Market. I started to get into this world of nature and plants. It was a subconscious thing. Every weekend, I would want to go there to the plant shops in the area. This passion of mine grew on the side and got bigger and bigger. During the week, I was so busy, moving from one digital screen to the next. There was very little connection to nature. I found it calming and meditative to be around plants.
When my husband, Christian, and I came up with Calienna in Vienna, we didn’t just want to be a plant shop – it was important to bring something to the community. Our mantra is: grow every day. We want to communicate practical notions about bringing plants into your life, nurturing them and understanding the benefits they have. They are very calming to the mind. They increase creativity. They clean the air. There are more philosophical aspects in terms of getting to know yourself better, too. We carry a range of books that are in the self-help section, including titles by The School Of Life. We wanted to create a hub of calmness that should allow you to explore yourself a bit more and bring nature into your life.
Let there be light
Whenever you buy a plant, ask about the light needs of the plant. Observe your home with that in mind. Think about when the light might come through the window. In which directions do your windows face? Maybe, despite having a south facing window, you have a tree blocking the sunlight. If you have a lot of direct sunlight, then you can go with cacti or succulents or yucca palms. If you never have direct sunlight, try a low-light-tolerant plant such as the ZZ plant or sansevierias. Light is to plants what food is to humans. Some need more, some less.
The Brighamia Insignis, “The Hawaiian Palm”
Give water the finger
Most people tend to overwater plants. They always think they’re going to forget about their plants. I have heard that 80 per cent of plants die because of overwatering. You might overwater a plant once and it looks sad and yellow, and you think you need to water it more. But it gets worse. We tend to pick a day and water all our plants without thinking. But the weather might have changed. Our own schedule is not relevant. Try the finger trick. Stick your finger into the soil. With the majority of tropical plants, you only water them if the top quarter of the soil is dry. Succulents and cacti, you can hold off longer than that.
Don’t forget humidity
Humidity is very abstract; we don’t really know how much we have in the air in our homes. The atmosphere in nature will be very different to what we have in our houses. You can adjust it a little bit according to the type of environment your plant is used to. Plants such as calatheas or ferns enjoy a higher humidity. You can recreate that in the home, for example in winter when the radiators are on and the air is drier, if you have a humidifier. Alternatively, put some pebbles and water in a saucer and put the plant on that to create a humid environment. Or you can stick it in the shower.
A selection of tropical plants, cacti and succulents at Calienna, Vienna
Know its roots
If you buy a plant, learn where it comes from. At Calienna, we write down the details of the plant, so people know. For example, if it comes from a super arid environment, you can assume the plant enjoys direct sunlight and doesn’t need watering every week. It might come from the misty, foggy undergrowth of a forest, like calatheas or ferns, so you might need to regulate the humidity. There are also plants such as philodendrons that come from diverse climates. They tend to be adaptable. I like to recommend these to plant first-timers. Our customers tend to buy various plants over the years then realise which ones fit best with their home and lifestyle.
Listen to the plant (and love its imperfections)
Plants constantly give us signs to let us know how they’re doing. If the leaves are droopy or yellowing, you’ve probably gone overboard with the watering. If the leaves are dry and crispy, they need a bit more care. But remember to love its imperfections. Instagram has pushed the plant trend in recent years – especially for monsteras or fiddle figs. But Instagram has beauty ideals and everything looks so insanely perfect. Over time, plants develop their own growth and go off in different directions. They will have imperfections here and there, the same in nature. I love the plants that are unusual in how they grow.
Detail of The Monstera Variegata plant
Our homes stay at constant temperatures, but plants know when its winter or spring and they adapt accordingly. We should change how we treat them, too. In the northern hemisphere, the tropical plants are in their growth phase between April and October. They tend to drink more water and more sunlight means the water evaporates more. That’s the best time to fertilise a plant as well – the soil runs out of its natural nutrition. In winter, they reduce their growth and they go dormant, so you can feed them less.
Grow and learn
Society expects instant gratification, we expect things to happen at the click of a finger. Plants do make your living room look nice but they will also teach you patience. Nature moves at a different pace. Sometimes it takes months to create a new leaf. It helps you to slow down a bit. We’re a bit like therapists at Calienna – people come in worried about their plants. We help them on their journey. People are often looking for a manual, but you can’t give that. You need to give people more abstract advice. Every home is unique, so trust the process and observe. That’s where the fun comes in. Nature is messy. Grow every day – that’s our motto.
Perfect plants for the first-timer:
ZZ plant (zamioculcas zamiifolia). The ZZ raven is a particularly beautiful and beloved variety
Sansevierias (ie, whale fin, moonshine)
Epipremums (ie, marble queen, happy leaf, pinnatum)
- Hoya (eg, krimson queen, linearis, wentii)