Now is the time to devote some of your growing instincts to good-looking houseplants, the handsome pots you can have on deep windowsills or a sunny kitchen table, that will look good right through the winter.
I’m not talking the sort of Seventies, super-low maintenance, plastic or rubber-looking tradescantia, arrowhead, peace lily or spider plant, but things with more architectural presence or prettiness, which won’t merge into the wallpaper, or remind you of office windows and empty margarine pots. As well as having a bit of style, to work well in my life, houseplants need to be easy to look after, with minimal watering and little if any care.
First on my list for this time of year is Echeveria elegans, not really a houseplant, but a stonecrop – half way between a houseleek and cactus. These definitely look best not as singles but multiples – each plant in its own individual pot, in a line on a windowsill or down the middle of a table.
In the late spring and summer, when they produce a succession of very long-lasting, airy, coral-coloured flowers, you can take echeverias outside, but they are not hardy so must come indoors before the frosts begin.
I have quite a collection, almost all stemming from one plant I bought three years ago, plus a single, E. shaviana, with an elegant crinkly edge to its leaf. I jumble them up together on a large table at this time of year, mixed with potted sedums and cacti. They look smoky, stately and elegant from the moment they come in, right through the winter, and from the end of October need no watering at all.
Like all succulents, echeverias are adapted to survive with very little water. This makes them a perfect plant for the busy or idle. As they hail from the mountains, rocky hillsides and cliff faces of the high, cold Mexican plateaux, they are also quite resistant to cold.
I also love my large potted cacti, Mammillaria bombycina and Notocactus magnificus. Kept on a similar regime of near-total neglect through the dark, cold months, they are more like chunks of a coral reef than plants as we know them. Five years ago, I bought quite a selection of cacti, but one by one, most have succumbed to fungus, tiny midgy flies or cold. Not these two. Statuesque but hardy old things — they’ve gone from strength to strength and I’ve had to repot them every year, wrapping them in newspaper to upturn them and so avoid a thousand miniature spines.
For muted colour at this time of year there are several other reliable houseplants. For example, I also tend to buy the odd heather. I like the antique, washed-out magenta form, more than the pale pink or white, but they all look good arranged in a line, like the echeverias, down the middle of a table, or as a single plant on a desk. I’d always hated heathers, thinking them rather desiccated and dreary, but I changed my mind after seeing them in Paris last winter in lots of steamy cafés.
There they were, sitting in nice old terracotta pots, in situations few other plants would put up with, giving a bit of quiet winter colour on almost no TLC. The great thing about heathers is that their flowers dry on the stem without browning for months, so you can neglect to water a plant without any obvious effect. Don’t move them around too much, as they will drop their flowers and leaves if totally dried out, but left alone, they’ll look fine until spring.
I also have one large, three or four year-old plant of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, which I bring in to the house. This is happy in quite a dark corner, and if kept moist, it should produce a whole new generation of leaves in the next few weeks. These will be followed by clear, white saucer flowers, held upright on the stem.
I find each of these lasts more than a month indoors. The flowers gradually turn into seed pods, but continue to look good until at least Easter. As well as finding these in florists, you’ll often see them on garden centre shelves in the build-up to Christmas, sold specifically as houseplants.
Scented-leaved pelargoniums — such as 'Lady Plymouth’ and P. tomentosum — will continue to go strong for several more weeks if brought inside now, and these are lovely to have on a kitchen windowsill. They won’t flower much, if at all, in our cooler climate, but their leaves still make an invaluable addition to blackberry and apple pie, jam or crumble. Harvest one or two leaves and add them to the fruit as you cook it for a delicious extra tang.
There’s one pelargonium which always flowers right up until Christmas in a sunny place and that’s the beautiful, deep velvet crimson, 'April Hamilton’.
You can move this into pride of place whenever you want a party in the next few months, surrounding it with shiny Christmas baubles or silver-sprayed alliums in the build-up to Christmas. In some years, I’ve had this looking good in flower until March.
It then tends to get too leggy and stop flowering, so at this point I just cut it back and wait for it to perform again the following year.
With all of these plants in your house, this winter is going to be a cheerful season inside, whatever the weather outside.