Article by Tony Pizzoferro
We have definitely seen an increase in interest in gardening, during the current crisis. We’ve seen repeats of Garden Rescue, Love your Garden and Gardeners’ World has seen its highest viewing figures in a decade as people spend more time tending their garden, allotment, window box or houseplants during lockdown.
Lifelong gardeners have always regarded horticulture as good for one’s well-being. So much so that gardening has been prescribed by doctors as a way helping to improve patients well – being and mental health.
Gardening is good for us on so many levels. It acts as a “restorative tonic” quote from eco gardening expert Karen Murphy whether it be tending a plot, growing fresh fruit and vegetables; cultivating a garden full of trees and flowers to cheer the spirits during a lockdown or after a day at work, tending a few pot plants on a window sill. They all bring together an opportunity to help get through the highs and lows of life. It was shown how important this was by the fact that tending an allotment or garden was considered to be exercise and continues to be permissible as long as you are socially distancing. It’s a way of escaping the ills of the world. A chance to forget the troubles around us, even though you’ve just spotted a hole in a Hosta leaf you have just been nurturing for the last few months and try and pursue the culprit!!!
Even before the Covid 19 there was beginning to be a resurgence of interest in the growing of house plants. This renewed enthusiasm has rekindled the discussion as to whether growing plants indoors is actually good for you.
In 1989 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) researched the benefits of using plants to alleviate the symptoms of “sick building syndrome”, where modern buildings with limited fresh air exchange has resulted in a series of health problems for people working in them. The results were inconclusive.
A review carried out by researchers at the Department of Plant and Environment Sciences at the University of Copenhagen looked at indoor residential concentrations of VOCs (Volatile organic compounds) that are found in indoor air and many of these can affect human health (e.g. formaldehyde and benzene gas) The review concluded that while the plant’s ability to take up VOC’s is well documented in laboratory studies the effect of plants on indoor air in complex environments like offices require further investigations to clarify the capacity of plants in real-life settings. Even if the research is inconclusive there is growing support for two potential benefits that growing house plants can provide. The first are psychological benefits which include an improved mood with reduced stress levels; increased worker productivity which included increased of reaction in a computer task; increased pain tolerance was particularly noticeable where plants were used in a hospital although plants and flowers are not allowed on hospital wards anymore.
The second are the physical health benefits that growing house plants known to encourage these include reduced blood pressure as well as reduced fatigue, anxiety and headaches.
It wouldn’t surprise you to know that some of the used in the study were those that we readily know and are making a comeback to a new group of house plant growers.
There is an ongoing discussion about the types and numbers of plants needed in homes to achieve health benefits. However the greater the number of plants used the more likely the benefit to air quality and overall wellbeing will be experienced.
Plants that absorb Benzene gas and formaldehyde include:-
Chlorophytum comosum (Spider plant)
An old favourite that everyone and anyone can grow as long as it has the lightest position possible although it dislikes strong summer sun. A guiding principle with all house plants concerning light levels is to research the natural habitat of the plant and try to replicate those conditions. Most house plants normally grow on the forest floor in a moist, dappled shade environment.
The spider plant has small, white, insignificant flowers growing on long arching stems which later produce young plantlets. These can be removed once some roots have developed and potted up as separate plants. If fleshy white roots appear out the bottom of the pot or on the surface then it is time to repot the main plant. This is easy and straight forward and can be done using compost that is 50/50 JI no3 and multipurpose compost. As with all house plants some crocks should be placed over the holes in the bottom of the pot as this helps with drainage and helps prevent the plant from getting waterlogged. It must be kept damp but not wet and be given a weekly feed using ½ strength Maxicrop organic fertilizer.
Ficus elastic (Rubber plant)
Once a popular everyone must have plant, it is easy to grow if a few points are adhered to. Firstly watering, funnily enough more house plants are killed by overwatering than not. Ficus cannot stand cold water, so use tepid water where possible. Next, don’t leave the plant standing in water for longer than is needs. Checking daily that the soil is moist and not wet will prevent leaves drooping and dying from being too dry. Giving the plant a weekly dose of diluted liquid fertiliser like Maxicrop will ensure healthy growth. Like the Chloropytum, the Ficus needs protection against strong sunlight. For a hot spot try Ficus elastic var. deorra which has attractive white edging to the leaves.
Dracaena marginata (Madagascar Dragon Tree)
An attractive, popular palm like plant. It is tall and stately with green, pink and cream striped foliage. Once again watering is key, keeping the compost moist from spring to autumn and just moist in winter. It is toxic to pets so should be avoided in pet loving homes.
Sansevieria trifasciata var.laurentii (Mother in law’s tongue)
Whilst being one of the best plants for purifying the air it also comes with a toxicity warning. It is, however, easy to grow thriving on neglect. The plant needs to dry out before watering; again overwatering will cause it to rot. It will thrive in light shade out of direct sun again similar to its natural habitat. This plant needs half strength feed once a month during spring, summer and autumn.
Aspidistra elatior (Cast iron plant)
Not called the Cast Iron plant for nothing, this plant is almost fool proof, it will go where others fail to thrive. Water is only given when the top of the compost is dry but shouldn’t be allowed to become soggy or waterlogged. The Aspidistra doesn’t demand high light levels certainly not direct sun. Whilst some might find the plain green exciting there are some more interesting varieties with cream splashes, stripes or spots. Feeding involves a once a month application of half strength liquid fertiliser. Not often seen are the flowers. They are brown-grey, rosette-shaped flowers produced near the ground and lying almost flat on it.
Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana)
A relatively easy plant to grow this palm is perfect for a shady room. It has tall stems of dark green glossy leaves. Like a lot of house plants it doesn’t like draughts. Apply a liquid feed every two weeks from spring to early autumn and repot only when the plant is tightly root bound. The Kentia Palm enjoys a humid local atmosphere so standing the plant on a tray of damp pebbles and keeping them wet will help create a humid micro-climate. The application of a liquid feed every two weeks during spring through to autumn will ensure a healthy plant.
Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)
Otherwise known as the Money plant it is another indestructible plant and is able to stand periods of neglect. Although with care and attention a beautiful mature tree like appearance can be quickly achieved with thick branching stems and oval fleshy leaves. It enjoys a sunny position and can be grown outside during the summer months. Care should be taken when repotting and gloves should be worn as the sap is toxic.
Whether or not the case is proven that these plants are medically beneficial I would say its good for your well-being and good mental health. Imagine a space in your home or workplace with a house plant and then without that plant. Does it make you feel better with the plant there than without? My guess it will, try it and see.
Can ornamental plants remove volatile organic compounds from indoor air? Review article –Majbrit Dela Cruz 2014
RHS Practical Houseplant Book – Fran Bailey & Zia Allaway 2018
200 House Plants in Colour – G Kromdijk 1968