Which houseplant can't I kill?

Good question. And I get asked it a lot, usually with a chuckle. And I always want to answer, ‘Sure, if you can find me a cat/dog/gerbil you can’t kill.’ But I don’t, or not yet anyway.

The straight answer is that if a thing is living, then you can kill it. But if you want to be successful with the next houseplant you buy, then you can be. If you treat it like a living thing, not a paperweight.

People aren’t really born with green fingers or killer instincts. They have a combination of luck and knowledge, just like everything else. Luck is starting off with the right house (lots of light, even temperatures, lots of space). This can kid you into thinking you are a houseplant genius for a bit, it certainly did for me.

In the early 90s I lived in a flat with a glassed-in balcony. Like a conservatory stuck on a first floor flat. It faced the sea (south). I went from five plants to over a hundred in a year; and I thought I had the Touch. And then I moved back in with my mother, in her basement flat with no direct sun at all. And about 80% of my plants died, rather slowly. Partly from overwatering, because I was used to watering them to keep up with all that light-fuelled growth. And partly just from lack of light, they grew pale and skinny, desperately searching for the sun. Was I a bad grower? No, but I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

This period reduced my plants but increased my knowledge, and I now know to expect problems if I move from a light place to a darker one. And to be careful if I do it the other way round.

The plants you see in magazines and interiors shots are often moved (or brought in) to enhance that shot. So don’t look at a picture or post on instagram and think you can do what they did. It is the equivalent of paintshopping celeb photos or spaying food with oil to make it look glossy. This is art, not life. You are not a failure if you don’t look like that celebrity, can't make insta-worthy food or have a home like a jungle.

I have well over a hundred plants in my home, but they are clustered in pockets around the available light. Not spread romantically over the whole place. My bathroom doesn’t have palms lining the shower, it has sun lovers on the windowsill, because it gets a few hours of sun. Some areas have no plants at all.

I still kill plants by guessing wrong about their requirements in relation to my environment. They have to replace leaves every summer because I misjudge where the sun goes when I put them out in the garden and they get burnt.

 This  Ficus lyrata  leaf was a lovely green before someone put it in direct sun, without allowing it to acclimatise.

This Ficus lyrata leaf was a lovely green before someone put it in direct sun, without allowing it to acclimatise.