Insider knowledge: Rethink your attitude to house plants

Keeping house plants is a skill that you either possess or don't. I've come to that conclusion after long contemplation. Mostly, contemplating why my house looks from the outside as though some keen members of the Territorial Army have been practising camouflage from aerial attack, yet inside as if it was more the work of the Foreign Legion.

Yep, most of my home is an austere plant desert, with but one exception: on a 1920s French drinks table in the sitting-room, a large colony of amaryllis bulbs is being nursed into re-flowering. They have wound themselves around much of the domestic cabling – an inconvenient assemblage when you're running for the phone. And maybe that's my biggest problem with house plants: I love gardening, but I don't want actual soil in the house.

It's almost a miraculous conversion, then, that I've experienced reading through Tovah Martin's new book, The Unexpected Houseplant (Timber, £14.99). Martin has that knack of getting you to rethink everything you previously believed on a subject. For a start, she is funny. When she bought her 18th-century cottage, she says, she decided her role in the town was to give passers-by a "grandmother's house experience – but I drew the line at fuchsia baskets".

Second, she has a really nice house. One you'd actually want to live in. There is something about the clean white walls, subdued ornaments and bare wood which bring out the best in her (massive) collection of house plants. Here are the tumbling ivy-ish leaves of a Cissus vine, grown on a white bathroom cabinet and winding its way towards an antique bath. There, a plain jasmine curls tendrils around a collection of well-used garden-ornament rabbits. I start to suspect this book is a Christmas gift of rare genius, one you might actually want to buy for horticulturally minded friends. It's just too good.

From the asparagus fern that started touching her in the toilet, to her detailed instructions on how to cram your fridge with forced spring bulbs, the advice is lively, reflecting a lifetime's experience of growing. And her autumn advice for gardeners is simple: shift indoors. You may want a single lovely plant for a cheery winter windowsill, or you may want to fill your fridge, Martin-style, with forced bulbs such as species tulips, for the brightest of Decembers. Either way, she has the solution.

One of her best tricks, though, isn't about plants at all: it's the quality of her containers. Here is a Coleus, one of those plants you see on sale in DIY shops, a genus so hideous it can make you actually grimace to gaze upon it. But Martin pots one good example in a terracotta bowl, sets it in the white light of a Massachusetts window, and all of a sudden it just looks, well, different. Better. Classier. Like something you'd actually want in your house. It may even be worth a bit of soil on the floor.

Them indoors

'CYCLAMEN PERSICUM': Martin calls this "the inevitable gift" that "tends to be misunderstood. And killed." Water lightly, avoid direct sunshine and grow in a clay pot. £20, marksandspencer.com

'Cyperus alternifolius': From the papyrus family, this brings a touch of Egyptian heat home. Martin's tips? "Ultra-low maintenance. The only caveat is their drinking habit." £6.40, athelasplants.co.uk

'Calamondin Orange': "Growing citrus feels like a privilege, but just about anyone can have that perfume," says Martin. "The more light you give a citrus, the better it will perform." Flowering now, plants are £14.99, crocus.co.uk

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