South Africa: What You Should Know About Growing Indoor Plants and Gardening

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“Caring for the plants and seeing them grow provides nurturing therapy”, says gardener Megan Mackenzie. We speak to her and apartment farmer Nick Cutsumpas about everything you need to know to create your own green oasis at home, no matter the size of your space.

“Have you ever wondered how to find your centre?… I want to explore how people find inspiration, then reinterpret that in a floral arrangement!”

In his new show, Centerpiece, which launched on the American short-form mobile video platform Quibi on 18 May 2020, California-based florist, créateur, artist and owner of Bloom & Plume Coffee in Los Angeles, Maurice Harris sits down with creatives and artists to discuss their life journey – him, sitting on a chair, notebook in hand and pen ready; they, lying on a reclining chair in natural leather, body titled ever so slightly, the set resembling that of a psychologist office, bar Freud’s and Piaget’s books for retro soft furniture and… Flowers. Not too much, not in exaggeration – just enough to add Spring to the stage.

Following the conversation, Harris creates the most phantasmagorical, at times delicate and fragile, often powerful, multi-coloured and poetic floral compositions as a reflection of the interviewee’s journey. Flowers, after all, can not only brighten and dress even the most austere spaces but they can also send a message, tell a story and even reflect a person’s character. And flowers are not alone – in the realm of therapeutic benefits, exposure to plants, and actively engaging in growing and nurturing plants as well as gardening, have been proven to have a positive impact on mental health.

The benefits of gardening and growing plants

In fact, a study published by the US National Health Institutes in 2018 shows that “there is increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space, and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health. Health professionals should therefore encourage their patients to make use of green space and to work in gardens, and should pressure local authorities to increase open spaces and the number of trees, thus also helping to counteract air pollution and climate change”.

The garden really lives only insofar as it is an expression of faith, the embodiment of hope and a song of praise

“For me, this is undeniably true,” says South African garden designer, Megan Mackenzie.

“I sense that working with things in nature is ‘soul work’. Aesthetically, there is a beauty in all things natural and living. When I plant something, I am filled with hope that it will flourish and grow. There is an enormous sense of reward when plants thrive under your care. The hard physical work required to achieve this gives satisfaction, as well as keeping you ‘working fit’. The oxygen generated by plants and trees is beneficial at a personal and an environmental level.

“The great [British gardener and landscape architect] Russell Page wrote, ‘the garden really lives only insofar as it is an expression of faith, the embodiment of hope and a song of praise’,” she adds.

Mackenzie has been gardening for about 30 years, and became a professional gardener at the end of the nineties.

“From very early on I found plants, trees, and vegetables so fascinating.  How did those tiny seeds know to become an Oak tree, or a lettuce, or a Gerbera?  I still find that miraculous. I love to see things grow and flourish from seedlings. Being outside heightens our senses of sight, smell and touch, and is a wonderful bonus of gardening”, she recalls.

Nick Cutsumpas is a New York-based self-proclaimed “plant coach and apartment farmer”, and one of the contestants on the competition series The Big Flower Fight that premiered on Netflix on 18 May as well.

Just like Mackenzie, he agrees with the idea that growing and surrounding yourself with plants can be beneficial to one’s mental health, something he likens to the concept of “biophilic design”, a principle used in architecture that looks at connecting a building’s occupants to nature.

“Biophilic Design principles [advocate] connecting with nature to improve health, and it states that “incorporating direct or indirect elements of nature into the built environment have been demonstrated through research to reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, whilst increasing productivity, creativity and self reported rates of well-being”, Mackenzie explains, adding that, “indoor plants are the most well-known way to bring some of the outdoors in. They are wonderful for mental headspace and creating a relaxed atmosphere in the home”.

“So many of us city-dwellers are so disconnected from the world we are trying to protect, and just owning a houseplant can rekindle that relationship and inspire other healthy habits”, Cutsumpas adds.

Gardening or taking care of your indoor oasis can also have some other physical benefits. The same 2018 study found that “Working in the garden restores dexterity and strength, and the aerobic exercise that is involved can easily use the same number of calories as might be expended in a gym.  Digging, raking and mowing are particularly calorie intense”.

Outdoor oasis

So where to start? Living in a city, or in small apartments with no access to a garden or a balcony can be limiting. But Mackenzie says that there are many other ways to connect to green spaces or create your own.

“You can ‘borrow a garden’, that is, explore and study the trees, flowers and plants in your suburb, your neighbour’s garden, or in your road”. For bigger projects, she looks at “the relationship between things – between buildings and trees, between rocks and plants, between groups of plants. Shape and size play a large part – are you working with slopes, curves, squares, flat land? And most importantly, it must work for the people who are going to live with it – low maintenance or intense planting, do they prefer sun or shade, do they like only greenery or must colour be added, do they like gentle plants, or the fleshier, spikier plants?  To quote the famous Russell Page again, ‘Garden making, like gardening itself, concerns the relationship of the human being to his natural surroundings’”.

People don’t kill plants most of the time; the wrong environments do.

If you have access to an outside garden, then “It is an excellent way to avoid the carbon footprint of food transport”, says Mackenzie. “Formal gardening has morphed in the past few years to allow a greater mixture of planting. There are so many food plants that work fabulously in mixed borders – artichokes, fennel, dill, rosemary, oreganum, lemon grass, rhubarb, sage and thyme to name a few. The Moringa tree with its many healing properties can work well in any garden. As do fig trees, deciduous fruit trees – supplying beautiful blossom in spring – and citrus trees. Granadilla climbers can provide shade on pergolas.  Bay Shrubs can be used as hedging. Olive Trees work well in pots,” she explains.

The global pandemic and subsequent lockdown signalled a shift in what people decided to grow – following the bread baking trend, growing vegetables became a welcome option as we found ourselves stuck at home. Cutsumpas adds that vegetable gardening is also a less expensive process. “Seeds are inexpensive and you can produce a significant amount of food once you get the hang of it. That being said, access to outdoor space can be hard to come by if you are living in a more urban environment, but I still grow leafy greens indoors under my grow lights or south-facing window”.

Growing plants indoor

“Plant up herbs in small pots for your kitchen area, create a lush green focal point in your home with a variety of plants, or suspend pot plants in your shower. Caring for the plants and seeing them grow provides nurturing therapy”, advises Mackenzie.

Cutsumpas recommends to start “small but wide” and avoid buying larger, often more expensive yet popular plants like the “famed Fiddle Leaf Fig”. Instead buy smaller plants so that “you can learn about each plant in your collection, and if you lose one along the way it isn’t the end of the world. Prove to yourself which species you can take care of and will thrive in your space”.

Similarly, Cutsumpas recommends properly assessing your space before buying any new plants. “People don’t kill plants most of the time; the wrong environments do, and it is imperative that you take into account factors like light, humidity, heat sources, aesthetic and your own lifestyle”, he says and adds that the Sansevieria, Pothos, Monstera, Aglaonema and Strelitzia are all resilient options.

Once you start, “don’t stop!” says Mackenzie.

“Get as many as you like to suit your aesthetic and living space.  They can be sparsely placed, evenly spaced or clumped tightly together to form a lush jungle look.  This is such a personal decision. All are equally successful. All bring joy.

“Fill your home as much as you can with indoor plants. Whether you propagate them yourselves, or buy the plants online or at the nursery, having plants in and around your living areas brings a calming element to the home environment. Even drawings or prints of plants could be used to bring a green element into your living space. Fill your window sills with growing herbs. For your bedroom, Aloes and a variety of other plants give off oxygen in the night, so this would be beneficial for when you’re sleeping”, she adds.

To her, flowering plants like Spathophyllum, African Violets, Bromeliads, Orchids, Begonias or greenery like Ficus plants, Ferns, Bamboo, the wondrous Spekboom, Aloes, succulents such like Kalanchoe or Echeveria, all can make for perfect plants to keep indoor.

As Cutsumpas’ indoor plants collection grew, he had to be inventive about where to place them, like getting ‘vertical’ which meant hanging plants from the ceilings, wooden beams, frames.

Once you have bought your first plants, Mackenzie warns: “Don’t kill them with love!” Water them sparsely, with a handful of ice cubes dropped around the base of the plant and avoid direct sun. “Move them around occasionally so they don’t grow in one direction towards the sunlight. Keep them away from a draft. Move them around to different spaces, sometimes it makes you enjoy them even more in a new position”, she says. “Re-pot,” adds Cutsumpas. “It can be intimidating, but repotting is so important to encourage new growth in your older plants. I re-pot once every 12-18 months in spring or summer, and they will appreciate the extra space to stretch their roots”.

And once your indoor – or outdoor – garden is all set and ready, tune in to these records. As Mackenzie notes: “Music can evoke a sense of nature in your space. For example, Mort Garson’s iconic 1976 album titled Mother Earth’s Plantasia, or Hiroshi Yoshimura’s 1986 Green’ Album are incredibly relaxing and therapeutic albums to listen to. Or Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, also known as the Pastoral Symphony. The titles all speak for themselves.” Finally, she quotes British horticulturist, writer and garden designer behind over 400 gardens in the UK, who once said: “The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

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