houseplants–wild, woolly and otherwise–with jane perrone

FROM 2008 to this summer, Jane Perrone was gardening editor for “The Guardian” newspaper in the U.K, where she lives with her husband, who is forced to compete for Jane’s attentions with a lot of insistent, needy houseplants.

Which was our subject ina  recent conversation—not the husband but the houseplants, that is. We talked specifically about Jane’s new-ish podcast called “On The Ledge” with its sometime motto, “Saving your houseplants from certain death since February 2017.” I’m having fun listening in to each episode and I’m glad Jane made time to speak with me, just as we officially kick off houseplant season. That’s Jane in her cactus-patterned shirt, below, and one of my oldest houseplants, the wacky Bowiea volubilis, above.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 9, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

houseplant q&a with jane perrone



Q. Welcome, Jane.

A. You’re absolutely right that my houseplants are competing with my attention for the dog, the husband, the children. So yes. I just actually rearranged my kitchen windowsill for the houseplants today and it was so satisfying, but I’ve now got a load of refugees that I turfed off there that I’m not quite sure where to put so…

Q. Oops.

A. Yeah.

Q. Before we get started, we should tell everyone, this segment’s actually sort of one-half of a podcasting duet because we are visiting each other’s shows this week to talk about houseplants. [Jane’s interview with Margaret is at this link.]

A. Yes.

Q. I visited you, and we’ll give the links to each other’s and so forth with the transcripts and all that kind of good stuff. A quick question also, unrelated to houseplants first before we really dig in. Did you go to Louisiana State University? Did I read that somewhere? [Laughter.]

A. Yes, I did. I know, how unexpected is that? [Laughter.] Yes, I did my Masters in Mass Communication there, because my undergraduate university in the U.K. had some kind of arrangement, some kind of deal, where they sent people over who wanted to go after doing their undergraduate degree. So I ended up there for two years, which was amazing; amazing place. Very eye opening for a young lady from England to be going to such a place. It was fantastic.

Now I look back and wish … I guess your 20’s is perhaps, it was back then anyway, the one time when you weren’t really into plants. I remember looking and seeing caladiums used as bedding plants and remembering back to my childhood what a tricky houseplant they were if you tried to grow them in your house in the U.K. and thinking, “Wow, they’re growing them as houseplants here. That’s crazy.” Even then I was still thinking about plants. That was an eye opener, and I still long for a beignet now and again.

Q. [Laughter.] Don’t we all? What made me laugh when I noted it, and I don’t even know where I saw it, a lot of our houseplants, as you say, could stay outside all winter there and save us a lot of hassles.

A. So true. I’m so jealous of people who live subtropical climates.

Q. Yes. Where you live now, tell us what the basic season’s like, frost-free season and “gardening” season and so forth just so we have perspective.

A. Sure. In the U.K. where I am, which is a few miles north of London, you’re really looking at a frost-free situation from mid to late May will be the last frost. That will be when I’d be putting tomato plants outside. Where are we now? Start of October, no frost yet here. I think probably on a good year, we might get away with that until into November, but it just depends.

It doesn’t get … it certainly hasn’t gotten tremendously cold here. We get some snow, some subzero temperatures, but it’s not kind of deep, deep snow and -10, -20 habitually. It’s a bit milder than that generally. It really varies. We’ve had some really cold years and some very mild years, so you never know.

Q.  I can’t resist because we’re two long time garden writers on opposite sides of the ocean—I can’t resist asking you what kinds of stories … What are the trends there? The things that are trendy right now. There’s a reason that I’m asking. Here it’s nine million shades of Callibrachoa, dumpy mound-shaped dwarf Hydrangea paniculatas, garden centers where you can buy handbags as well as everything else under the sun, not just plants. Those are some of the trends. Obviously native plants and pollinator-friendly plants, those are big trends of a more serious nature. What’s going on there? Again, just to set the scene of horticulture there.

A. As in all things, we get a lot of our trends imported from the U.S., so a lot of the things are very, very similar.

Q. Oh!

A. We would like to think that we lead the way in horticulture here, but oftentimes we’re following your trends. I think that there’s always a place for the horrible bedding plants [laughter]. Over here meerkat sculptures were really big for a while. You could put them in your garden and it was like a meerkat standing up, horrendous things like that were really popular.

Q. [Laughter.] I missed that.

A. Yeah, it’s bad. I would say, similarly, native plants and plants for pollinators are really getting evermore popular. Also, I must say, of course, that houseplants are incredibly popular and that particularly cacti and succulents are incredibly popular. Almost everybody has a couple of little succulents on their windowsill, sometimes looking sad, sometimes not. They’re becoming ubiquitous.

Q. Because that’s what I wondered. Was it a trend of some kind that led you to start an indoor plant podcast [“On the Ledge” show logo, above]? Was it a personal passion or something you thought that was kind of a happening thing as well?

A. I have been growing houseplants … In fact, if you look on my Facebook page, there’s a horrendous picture. I can’t remember how long that was, a teenager probably in double denim in my bedroom with a table full of houseplants, so I’ve been into houseplants for as long as I can remember. It’s really nice that suddenly everybody is not looking at you like you’re a madwoman, but actually going, “Oh yeah, houseplants,” and willing to have a conversation about them.

After how many years of growing them, suddenly it’s cool, which is a really nice, refreshing thing. I’ve always been into them, always loved them from a child growing things like, the mother of thousands, I used to love growing that plant, the one with the little tiny baby plants all along the edge, Kalanchoe daigremontiana, and cacti, and saving plants from the bin and bullies and all kinds of things I used to grow.

I had a big, massive fish tank in my bedroom, which contained plants because I really didn’t know what I was doing and probably couldn’t afford to buy compost, I used garden soil so it was also a bit of a wormery in there [laughter], lots of earthworms roaming around.

I’ve always been into houseplants. I did a podcast on gardening for The Guardian called “Sow, Grow, Repeat,” which I did with Alys Fowler and I just loved doing it. I really enjoy podcasting. When that ended, I just thought this can’t be the end, I have to do more podcasting. I immediately thought of doing it about houseplants because, A) it’s a passion of mine, and, B) nobody else was doing it. That was why I struck out and decided that was my topic.

Q. I want to talk about how serious your own personal houseplant (ahem) issue is because when we spoke while taping your show, I confessed that I have a lot of them and there’s not a lot of room in my house in the winter for me in certain rooms near the brightest windows. And  I have some sort of obsessions, like fancy leaf begonias—I have a lot of big fancy leaf old begonias and clivias, which I think you pointed out are sort of a granny kind of plant and, indeed, mine probably came from my grandmother. I’ve got a lot of big ones.

I love those things with caudex-es [technically the plural is caudices], the sort of things that have swollen above-the-soil-surface bases. I talked to you about my Bombax and my Bowiea [photo, top of page] and all kinds of oddities. How serious and what’s the nature of your problem over there? [Laughter.] [Rear left of above photo, Bombax in urn; detail of its caudex, below. Technically, the proper name for the Bombax is Pseudobombax.]

A. It’s getting more serious by the day. My kids are 10 and 7 now. When my kids were younger, I definitely dropped the houseplant ball quite a lot because I had my hands full, as you can imagine. I’ve been building up my collection since they got to the age where they were heading off to school and not quite so dependent. It’s been getting evermore serious since then and I just keep buying more. In fact, a box arrived yesterday…

Q. [Laughter.]

A. … with another, one, two, three, four, five houseplants in there. I used to have a lot of carnivorous plants, which I gave away after I went and had babies and didn’t really feel like I could cope with. I’ve just bought a sundew and a Pinguicula, so I’m getting back into that.

Yeah, it’s pretty serious. I find myself looking around houseplant sale sites quite frequently. People are very lovely. If I say, “Oh, I really want this,” people have quite frequently sent me something. When I did an episode recently on the very desirable Pilea peperomioides, the Chinese money plant [above], and was commenting on how difficult these were–hard to get a hold of–and the fact that I didn’t have one, a lovely listener sent me one. I’m being enabled by my listeners.

Q. O.K., so it’s not really your fault. You’re powerless…

A. It’s not my fault.

Q. You’re powerless over houseplants.

A. It’s all these plant-pushers.

Q. I love that segment about the Chinese money plant, Pilea peperomioides. Speaking again of trends, who knew there were “it” houseplants? But this turns out to be one. You told me, I heard it on your podcast, and saw it on your website. I saw the picture, I started searching around because you said it was expensive and really hard to get. I looked around in the U.S., and it turns out that there is a whole world about this plant online. Partly that’s because of Instagram and YouTube and so forth. Don’t you think? [Related: Jane’s list of houseplant accounts to follow on Instagram.]

A. Yes, most definitely. You look at the plant and you kind of think, “What is it about this plant that makes it so desirable?” I think it’s just partly that it has been quite rare and quite hard to get a hold of. It is quite a sweet plant. It’s got coin-shaped leaves and it’s a lovely color and it can be a nice shape, but there are many other wonderful plants that don’t fall into this category of desirability. You do wonder why. It just has got to a silly stage, and I think it will pass. People are paying 50 American dollars for this thing at the moment in some cases, but I think it will come down in price.

The thing about this plant is it’s incredibly easy to propagate. It’s a bit like a spider plant in that sense. Imagine if we were all going nuts over spider plants. It will get more easy to source and a lot of plant companies are now starting to sell it and realizing that it’s something that people want. Again, it’s just like any fashion, there’s no particular rhyme or reason to it other than people want it because they can’t get a hold of it.

Q. Right. It’s interesting because the genus Pilea, we have a native wildflower, I guess, you’d call it, a native plant here that is Pilea pumila and it’s an important host plant for certain moths or whatever, I don’t even remember. It’s an important native plant in semi-shady places in the Northeast; I don’t know how far into the country it goes. When I saw that genus, I was like, “What? A houseplant? What?” [Laughter.] Because some genera are just full of a real diversity of things with a wide range of hardiness and so forth.

I was interested in maybe the fact that you did your podcast about it and that it is, as I said, sort of this “it” plant and there’s things on YouTube and here and there about it. I saw that in the U.S. one of our longest-time mail-order suppliers of really exceptional houseplants, Logee’s Nursery, which is in Connecticut, the owner, Byron [Martin], just did a YouTube segment about it [below].  Apparently, they’ve been growing it forever and ever and ever. Suddenly there’s requests for it. I think you’ve contributed to the trend, Jane. [Laughter.]

A. Yeah. Sadly enough, it didn’t quite happen, but i did ask Byron for an interview about the plant because I knew that they’ve been growing it for years. Unfortunately, he was traveling, it didn’t work out.

I think it’s definitely something that people are catching onto, but also at the same time some people are saying, “What are you talking about? I’ve been growing this plant for years and my grandmother gave it to me.”

It’s old and new. I won’t tell the whole story here, but there’s a fantastic story about how it was discovered in the U.K. It was known by houseplant enthusiasts before it was known by the botanists at Kew Gardens basically. They kept getting samples of this plant brought to them and they were wondering, “What is it? We can’t identify exactly what kind of Pilea it is.” The route back to find the origins of this plant involved a celebrity hairdresser in London who got it off somebody else who got it off an au pair from Norway, so the torturous route went on. It’s got a nice backstory and I think that sort of sells it to people.

Q. [Laughter.] Speaking of things that are catching on or that we ought to catch, one of your recent episodes of “On The Ledge” was about fungus gnats. You very aptly call them—some of the stuff you say and write just slays me, I love it—you called them “the pipsqueaks of the pest world” and the “spaced-out hippies of the pest world” because of the way they zoom all over the place. I think on Twitter or somewhere, I saw you say that you “out the ‘fun’ in fungus gnats.” Anyway, why this topic? Was your husband furious about uninvited guests in the house or what?

A. He’s incredibly unobservant, so he probably wouldn’t spot them anyway. Of plant things, he just isn’t interested, so that’s great because he just gets on with it. I was getting annoyed by them and I’ve had lots of readers over the time I’ve been doing the podcast asking for answers about this particular pest, which is funny really because it’s not really that damaging. It’s just really annoying, but people want an answer.

It was great to be able to speak to a couple of experts who could actually give some really good solutions which do work. That’s what we tried to bring is the actual scientific solutions because the problem is, like lots of things over the internet…

Q. Ugh, I know.

A. …there’s so much homespun remedies. I didn’t quite get to the point of reading out “put vinegar on it,” but somebody is going to suggest apple cider vinegar along the way. Somebody is going to suggest dish soap. Somebody is going to suggest pouring fabric softener on your soil as somebody did. There’s some really strange ideas about houseplants and so it’s good to actually have some science backing it to say, “No, this is what actually works.”

Q. I have to confess, I really almost never have fungus gnats even though I have a ton of houseplants, but I’m an under-waterer. That is my thing, I under water my plants because I feel like they perform better when I don’t swamp them. Plus, I mostly use a mix that is a little bit more bark-based, like a shredded, aged bark; it’s not as heavy in the peat so it doesn’t stay sodden too long. Do you know what I mean?

A. Yes.

Q. I’m just thinking, again who knows the reason, but that’s what I’m thinking. What were a couple of the reasons that were not the homespun remedies? [Laughter.]

A. Overwatering is a massive contributing factor to a big fungus gnat infestation. If you over water, you’re more likely to have more of a problem because the flies lay their eggs in damp soil. If there’s not a lot of damp soil, then a few eggs will be laid but not as many as in damp soil.

The other thing to bear in mind with fungus gnats is that the best way of getting rid of them actually is microscopic nematode worms, which you can apply as a drench to the soil. The great thing about this particular solution is that it’s totally safe. You’re not going to be hurting your pets or yourself or anything in your house other than the fungus gnat larvae by applying this stuff, which is great.

You can apply this stuff, it’s a pretty gross tale, but what happens is the nematode worms get inside the larvae and eat them out from within using enzymes on a very small scale. Thank God we can’t see it. It really does work, I have tried that solution myself. It’s not the cheapest option, but it will get it under control. The other thing to bear in mind is that there are two major seasons of fungus gnats, in the spring and about now. Even if you are having a big problem, it will ease off as the weeks go by.

Q. Some of those biological controls are the things of horror-movie plots, aren’t they? Do you know what I mean? [Laughter.]

A. Totally. I’m glad that they’re doing a good job. The only other thing to say about those biological controls, it applies to all of them, is that you just need to be really careful to follow the directions closely. They’ll have a best before date on the package and you must use them because otherwise they won’t necessarily be viable if you leave it too long. If you do that, you should get on top of the problem.

Q. I smile to see that you did a segment of your podcast of “On The Ledge” on starting avocados from what I would call being American a pit and you would call…

A. A pit? A stone.

Q. It’s a pit, girl, it’s not a stone. [Laughter.]

A. [Laughter.] I’ve never heard that. That’s a real difference because nobody in this country would call it a pit. I just don’t think they would.

Q. I’m wearing a sweater and you’re wearing a…

A. A jumper.

Q. Exactly. We could go on and on and on. That cracked me up because I didn’t know that what I call the pit, in the United States, we call the pit of an avocado … We grow avocado pits as a classroom thing when we’re kids in grade school. I didn’t know you called it a stone. That was one I didn’t know, so it made me smile.

A. There you go. It’s kind of a fun thing to do. The resulting plant is not the most amazing looking thing. [Above, two of Jane’s works in progress.]

Q. [Laughter.]

A. It’s no less or more attractive than a Pilea peperomioides, but it’s just a fun thing to do. People seemed to have gotten a kick out of it. That was a fun one.

Q. I think it has a sentimental … like I said, we have a memory of probably having tried it at one point in our lives. In our last few minutes I want to ask you, what in the world is a Marimo moss ball?

A. Oh my gosh.

Q. And not moth ball, but moss, M-O-S-S ball.

A. The confusing thing about the Marimo moss ball is it’s not moss.

Q. O.K.

A. This came up in an early episode when I spoke to a guy called Christopher Satch from The Sill, which is a New York-based company that supplies houseplants and does everything houseplant. We were talking about office plants. I was asking for ideas for low-maintenance office plants. He said, “Of course, the lowest maintenance office plant is the Marimo moss ball, because you just literally stick it in some water and do nothing.”

I raised my eyebrows and then went away and Googled and discovered that it really is a low-maintenance houseplant, if you can call it a houseplant. It’s actually a ball of filamentous algae. These Marimo moss balls—I guess they’ve been given that name to make them sound a bit cuter. Their habitat is the bottom of lakes in various places in Japan and other parts of the world. They just kind of roll around the bottom of freshwater lakes. They’re green and fuzzy and about the size of anything from the size of a walnut up to a billiard ball or a little bit bigger. They just kind of sit in water and that’s about all you’re going to get from them, but you don’t have to do anything.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. In my kitchen, I’ve got a tall apothecary’s jar with some big, fairly attractive stones in it and three Marimo moss balls. They just sit there and every now and again, by which I mean maybe every three or four months, I change the water. Actually the most interesting bit, when you squeeze water out of them and then put them back in the water, they do this thing where they go up and down for about a week as the pressure sort of equals out and they get full of water.

Q. Oh my goodness. They’re bouncing balls. They’re bouncing Marimo moss balls.

A. Yeah.

Q. That’s funny.

A. If you’re the person who kills every single houseplant you’ve ever grown, this is the thing to try. You can also have them in fish tanks, not with goldfish because goldfish will destroy them, but you can have them in other kinds of fish tanks. In Japan, they’re a real kind of thing. You can Google around this and go nuts because you’ll find all kinds of strange things about Marimo moss balls and the Japanese. They really love them and they’re very proud of them. They’re getting increasingly popular to buy. I saw a garden center recently advertising them here. You can imagine if you were somebody who goes away a lot and you don’t have much time for a houseplant, you could start here with a Marimo moss ball.

Q. I know, but it’s technically not even a plant [laughter]. It has no roots, it has no stem, it doesn’t reproduce like a plant. You know what I mean; it’s algae.

A. I don’t know why they didn’t call it filamentous algae because that’s going to appeal to all of us, isn’t it? [Laughter.]

Q. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness.

A. It’s good marketing on the part of somebody somewhere who’s producing these plants, or not-plants.

Q. Jane Perrone, I’m so glad that we reconnected after a number of years of speaking only infrequently. Also, I’m just so glad that you’re doing the houseplant subject, your podcast “On The Ledge” about houseplants, because it really is something that I’ve always loved too. To me, it was the gateway to gardening. It was what got me going, yet it stayed with me and I just can’t imagine life without my houseplants. I salute you. [Laughter.] I love it.

A. Thank you very much. That’s great to hear.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 9, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos of fungus gnats, Chinese money plant, avocado babies and Marimo moss balls from Jane Perrone.)

  1. Barbara Christ says:

    I scored a pilea peperomioides at Wards in Great Barrington recently. It was in with the small begonias and cost less than $10. Glad to know more about it.

  2. Mary Jane Glass says:

    I have a 70+-year-old monstera and a 50-yr-old begonia, among many others. Both plants came from friends before they died. I have designated who these plants will go to, as they were surely survive me.

  3. Bob says:

    Logees is a ten minute (dangerous) side trip from my daily commute home, I might need to find room in the house for a couple more begonias and a pilea peperomioides.

  4. heidih says:

    Reading your blog really makes me appreciate the luxury of gardening in Southern California. My new favorite phrase I use with folks who think they can only kill plants is “water is not love” – I think I got it from one of your guests :)

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to “see” you, Matt. A pregnant Pilea, huh? Sounds serious. I just got a bargain one at the local nursery yesterday!

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