Fertilizer is a good idea, but if you are starting out and your main concern is simply keeping your plant alive, you don’t need to get worked up about it. Fertilizer can transform your houseplant from weedy to wonderful, but too much will cause your plant to overdose and die.
Simply put, fertilizer is a product you can add to the soil to top up nutrients that will be naturally replenished in the wild by decomposing stuff. If you decide to fertilize, most plants prefer a boost in warmer months when the plant is growing, however it is a good idea to google your plant’s prime fertilizing times to confirm this.
Dilute fertilizer with water and administer in small doses. It is comparable to vitamin supplements. Plants are good at producing their own food but most will need a boost from time to time. If your plant has been living in the same soil for a long time, another way to restore your plant’s nutrients is by repotting it with a batch of fresh soil. Check the compost packet and information how long its nutrients will last. Most plants live happily in multi-purpose soil except for cacti and succulents which benefit from cacti and succulents composts.
Let’s step back into the choking mists of time. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Victorian London was a suffocating place. Polluted and grimy, this was not the place for Nathaniel, a physician by profession, to indulge his passion for botany. Over the years, he had attempted to grow ferns in this environment with very little success.
Nathaniel lived in London’s East End, on Wellclose Square, a short distance from my current studio in Shoreditch. I imagine him walking the same streets, observing, hypothesising and pondering the outcome of his botanical experiments.
Nathaniel’s penchant for plants would eventually result in the invention of the Wardian case, a precursor to the terrarium as we know it today. I may be jumping ahead of myself here and perhaps I should describe the incident that sparked this particular discovery.
Nathaniel was out for a stroll in the Kent countryside one day in 1829, when he discovered the pupa of a Hawkmoth. He placed the cocoon; along with the organic matter to which it clung, into a hermetically sealed jar and waited for the moth to pupate. However, little is known about the fate of the moth, as the fern that sprouted and thrived in the jar eclipsed its meager existence.
An uncontaminated atmosphere, moisture, and the appropriate light provided the ideal environment for plant growth. This would prompt Nathaniel to put pen to paper and write to Sir W.J. Hooker, first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, informing him of this discovery.
Nathaniel’s finding was perfectly timed, given the Victorians’ burgeoning interest in exotic plants and ferns, as it would allow them to be protected from city air pollution. This obsession for ferns or Pteridomania invaded all aspects of life. As well as the living species being displayed in homes [in Wardian cases], fern motifs and designs were commonplace on carpets, curtains and wallpaper. Even custard cream biscuits couldn’t escape the design of a fern’s fronds being stamped onto them.
The good doctor’s breakthrough and invention of the Wardian case changed botany and plant exploration. It allowed for explorers to safely transport plants back to Kew and elsewhere from their expeditions. Wardian cases protected plants from salt water and rodents, keeping them sealed and contained in their own biosphere.
Growing plants under glass became fashionable again in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the creation of the Bottle Garden. This new imagining of the terrarium required a skill for wiggling plants through thin bottlenecks and the patience of a saint. The terrarium remains a beautiful way of bringing the outdoors inside, providing the conditions essential for a moisture-loving, tropical garden to flourish within our dry, centrally heated homes.
Know yourself and what sort of plant you are looking for. There’s a plant out there for everyone. Some plants can be needy, insisting that you cuddle up every night together; they will delight in your sweet nothings and pampering. Others like sansevieria (snake plant) or zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ plant) are low maintenance, happy to keep things casual, meeting up occasionally for a quick drink. What’s your schedule like? How often are you away? Research them beforehand, consider their profile against yours… how compatible would you really be together in the long run?
If your plant’s roots are circling and trying to escape through the holes in the bottom of the plastic pot… take the hint! Roots should be within the soil, not surrounding it or coming out of the top of the soil; your plant has outgrown its home and is ready to upsize into a bigger pot with some fresh new compost. Be warned repotting into a massive pot can cause shock. As a rule plant in a pot that’s maybe just a couple of fingers bigger than the one, you’ve currently got. To repot, spread your fingers around the top of the plant, before tipping it over and cradling the crown of the plant in your hand. Try to keep as much of the old soil as possible; some soil will fall away, so it is a good idea to put some newspaper down. Gently tease out the roots by squeezing the plastic pot.
Put about 5cm of compost in the pot that you're moving the plant into. Pop the plant into the new pot. You’ll notice a gap of a few centimetres between the brim of the new pot and the crown of the old one. It’s now a case of filling up the gaps with new compost and patting down.
Give it a huge drink, allowing water to start running out of the holes in the bottom of the plant’s pot. It's important not to let your newly potted plant sits in that runoff. This plant is going to get a hit of nutrients from the new soil, meaning you won’t need to feed it for a while. Spring & summer is the best time to repot your plants because that's when they’ll sprout the newest growth.