Never trust an architect's sketch that comes complete with full grown trees outside it, greenery spilling down the walls and flowers filling every tiny patio. Because something miraculous happens when you add green and growing things. They can make even the most boring concrete box look desirable.
Sometimes only a touch of green is needed for a lift of the spirits. Last year it was an old-fashioned china tea cup and saucer on a coffee table, planted with chives, surrounded by a decorative rock mulch - silly, and charming, and green.
Decades ago, in my short stint in a very grey office, we had an outbreak of African violets. They spread everywhere, at least two on every desk- some desks were lined with them - on top of filing cabinets, or sometimes in the filing cabinet if someone wanted to put a bundle of files on top, as well as along the bookcases so you had to move the pots to read the titles. The blasted things were contagious.
African violets grow from one leaf cutting, and so are all too easy to propagate in their hundreds. I think there were originally about four African violet plants in the building. Two years later you'd have needed a census to count them all, though it was fun to see which of the original four your own offspring had come from when they finally bloomed six to nine months later.
Take a leaf with all its stem from the base of the plant. Place the stem in potting mix, water well, and leave the pot in a well-lit place, but not in direct sunlight. Keep moist. In three to four weeks plantlets will have grown around the leaf. These can be separated and repotted, though I just let them all crowd in a single pot, just as I've never trimmed the stem, used hormone rooting powder, or kept the cutting in an inflated plastic bag to increase humidity. These are all methods that will increase your chances of getting a successful plant, but given my 100 per cent success rate so far, there doesn't seem to be much need to fuss. Though I don't think I will ever propagate African violets again. I've been inoculated. There are only so many African violets one needs in a lifetime.
Some plants are unstoppable. The classic Victorian aspidistra survived low light and pollution from gas fires, gas lights and London smog. Our great survivors at the moment are an indoor begonia, an indoor pot-bellied fig, and the two large Kentia palms in far too small pots outside the front door.
This summer the poor begonia - a gift from a school - gets watered about once a fortnight. By day 14 it is wilted brown leaves. Three days later the new leaves are green and the blooms are budding.
The pot-bellied fig tree, on the other hand, doesn't even wilt when totally ignored. It just stops growing. I don't think it's grown in years. It was another gift, a tiny plant as tall as my finger. I placed it in a small pot and forgot about it. That was perhaps 20 years ago. The tree grew to about 60cm then stopped. I had accidentally bonsaied my pot bellied fig.
It's not exactly lush, but it does have a decoratively swollen base, some miniature branches, and leaves which slightly yellow in summer, as the plant gets too much light by the hot window. The leaves are also slightly yellow in winter, when it's position is too cold. The poor plant is only really happy in autumn and spring. It too survives with the most lackadaisical watering. On the other hand, it doesn't have to do much but support its leaves and grow possibly two new ones every couple of years. It is possibly the perfect indoor plant, as are Kentia palms, the 20th century's answer to aspidistras.
Kentia palms are gloriously stubborn survivors. Once again mine were fingerlings when I planted them about a quarter century ago, into what were quite stylish pots then, but are now out of fashion. The Kentias grew fast, but by the time I'd realised they needed repotting, the palms were so big that the pots would have needed to be smashed to extract the roots. I decided to delay doing that till the palms showed signs of needing more space. So far they seem quite happy.
The Kentias don't grow much - or at all - in the weeks I forget to water them. They especially don't grow in the weeks that have days over 40 degrees. Their sternest rebuke after an especially long period of neglect was to turn brown at the edge of their leaf tips, but one watering provoked new fronds to emerge.
Kentias survive outside, inside, up mountains, down valleys, heat, drought and cold. If you have a brown-thumbed friend who needs a spot of green, give them a Kentia palm, or better still, two of them. Just now, as every day we see another much loved tree or shrub wither, those two pots of greenery each side of our front door are a reminder that life is stubborn. A herbaceous border needs cossetting. Some plants just never say die.
This week I am:
- Trying not to believe it will rain till it actually does, the kind of rain that wets washing on the line. Not that we have washing on the line - I spent a short time outside in my white nightdress last Friday. It is now a grey nightdress, just like my once white car is grey and we see the world through smoke dusted windows.
- Actually watering the pot-bellied fig, the begonia and the kentia palms, and feeling virtuous.
- Assuring everyone - and myself - that 'it will grow back when it rains' . But how much of it, and when?
- Being astounded at the survival ability of asparagus. We didn't pick any this year, as I knew it would need its full strength to get through summer. But so far it is the greenest plant in the vegetable garden, except for the tomatoes, which may possibly fruit if they get some water - they've had none from me or the sky since early November.
- Dreaming of roses, ginger lilies, early apples, berries that taste of sunlight, not smoke, and all the usual staples of our January garden.
- Thanking the chooks for a constant supply of small eggs, despite the heat.