Land of the giants: Don't be afraid of giving monster house plants some fresh air
Sunday 17 April 2011
Everyone has a plant they absolutely cannot grow, no matter how hard they try. Even the very best gardeners will confess to a blind spot. My own inner hopelessness is unleashed most often by house plants, which wither and die with amazing regularity once confided to my care.
However, there are lots of house plants that seem to do pretty well outside, thank you, once the cold of winter has passed. And increasingly, keen gardeners are turning to monsters previously seen only inside the house to give their gardens a touch of tropical magic all summer long.
One of the most fun of these giants is the Swiss Cheese plant, which revels in the best Latin name ever: Monstera deliciosa. In the wilds of central America, these guys are climbers, easily getting to 40ft tall. This won't happen in an English garden, but you can definitely avoid a tall straggly plant that ails in a dark corner of the living-room by letting it spend the summer in the garden. It won't like direct sunlight – just a small window of sky will do it proud. Then it's as simple as providing regular feeding and watering. Indeed, it's getting hold of one that's the biggest challenge – often your best bet will be your local DIY store.
Another increasingly popular giant-leafed exotic is Colocasia esculenta, the taro plant (sometimes called Elephant Ear plant, as the leaves are so big). The most attractive varieties are the ones with dark, almost black stems, with deep-green leaves: huge and stunning. Again, it will like a fertile soil, a shadyish growing position, and nice regular watering. Crocus sells the variety "Fontanesii" for £14.99, which should grow to head height if really nurtured for a summer season.
And though it's practically an old favourite these days, a banana plant is one of the easiest and most gratifying additions to a tropical garden. They grow at the most tremendous pace come midsummer, often producing more than one new 3ft-long leaf a week. Heavy feeding and watering are necessary, but they'll repay your investment tenfold. And bananas really do want a place in the sun, so save your best spot. Musa basjoo (above) is the best bet, and you can spend £99 and start with a 3-metre one from the Palm Centre in London. And for those for whom bananas are old hat, have a go at Bird of Paradise: one plant is £39.95, also from palmcentre.co.uk.
The problem, though, is where to put them when winter comes. If you've looked after your collection well, you really are in trouble. Banana plants can mostly stay where they are and should be cloaked in bubble wrap as the temperature gets lower, surviving most winters in the south of England. And the aroids (Colocasia and Monstera) are tuberous, growing from an underground storage organ that can regenerate a new plant come next spring, so if space really is tight, you can let the leaves die down as it gets cold in early autumn, watching out for unexpected frost; then, simply lift and store the tubers, as you would for dahlias, in a frost-free place.
A taster of the tropics
For the tropical feel, without taking up quite so much space
Rather more compact than the giants mentioned, but beautiful, with dark-green veined leaves in dramatic pointed shapes. £10.99, suttons.co.uk
Forget all you know about begonias, and opt for these tiny orange lizard-tongues of colour. Five plants for £9.99, suttons.co.uk
The humble spider plant
On a dark window sill and covered in cobwebs, they're disgusting. Fed, watered and growing their best, they are striking plants that give great value with those delicious stripes. As cheap as chips, your local DIY shop
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