Alice Vincent isn’t a professional gardener, but she plays one on paper. What we mean is she’s a writer first, plant parent second, and she’s combined both passions in her first book, How To Grow Stuff.
Vincent first learned "how to grow stuff" while growing up in the English countryside as a child. There, her parents had a garden that she would help tend to from time to time, but her love for all things green really sprouted when she moved to London. “I got this flat, and it had a little balcony, and it seemed like a ripe opportunity,” she tells us. “It had window boxes that needed filling, and it had some space for plants. I started by just growing herbs because I thought I knew how to keep them alive and I like fresh herbs in my cooking, and then it rapidly became really addictive.”
It’s a story many millennials are telling today. The generation is part of a growing culture-wide infatuation with gardening, specifically houseplants. We’ve written about it, there’s data to back it up, it’s a phenomenon—a healthy, aesthetically pleasing, and environmentally beneficial one. But one thing you’ll notice, when you ask around, is that many people don’t, exactly, know what they’re doing. Or, we should say, don’t know where to start. There’s the internet, sure, but, in some cases, it can end up being more overwhelming than helpful. The plant advice black hole is a long, dark, and dangerous one.
Vincent’s book is meant to counter the complicated bits by focusing on the basics. She states very clearly in the introduction, “This isn’t a book to help you build a water feature or choose the right plants for a rockery. You won’t learn about acidic soil or hedge clipping here… This book is about growing things: herbs, vegetables, houseplants, flowers, and bulbs—and with these, hopefully, your confidence.”
We chatted with the across-the-pond author about her book and got tips on growing stuff ourselves, along with how to keep said stuff alive. Read her wisdom ahead.
What prompted you to write How to Grow Stuff seeing as, professionally, your background isn’t in gardening?
I write for a newspaper in London called The Telegraph, and I write about pop culture, film, music, etc. I've been gardening for about three years properly and kind of quite swiftly realized that there wasn't anybody writing about gardening in a way that I found easy to understand. Everything I was reading was kind of assumed that you had loads of money, loads of time, and that you already knew loads about plants, and I didn't know anything. I would be Googling something, and it was completely overwhelming, so I went to my editor at the newspaper and was like, "Do you want someone who doesn't know anything about plants to write about gardening?" And, amazingly they were like, "Yeah, go on." So I started writing about urban gardening and millennial gardening and houseplants and trends, and after a few months my publisher got in touch and was like, "We want to do a really approachable, different kind of gardening book, would you like to write it?" And I said, "Yes, please." I kind of had a pipe dream about writing a book, like writers always do, but I never thought that people would want one like that. But they had a brilliant concept, and it was really on par with what I believed in, which is that gardening should be fun and easy and shouldn't have to follow the rules and you should be able to do it with only a little time and only a little money.
When you were writing the book, did you consult gardeners, or did you mostly go off of your own experience with plants?
I did a bit of both. The funny thing is that you always think that you don't know enough. Everyone always wants to learn something new, so I've spoken to really experienced gardeners, and they are just as curious to find out new tips even though they might have been doing it for 40 years. So, that's really nice. I guess my gardening knowledge really is a mix of the internet and my own experience killing plants. Now, I go to a community garden where I learn a lot from the proper gardeners there, and I try and ask loads of questions and pick their brains, but the book is kind of an amalgamation of little bits of information I picked up along the way and my own experience. Some of it's more intuitive than scientific.
A lot of people, millennials in particular, are obsessed with houseplants, but not many know how to take care of them. Before you even set foot in a plant store, what are some things that you should consider?
I am very guilty of spontaneous plant buying. It's like spontaneous shoe buying, or drink buying—it seems like a nice idea. But, it's the same as if you were looking in your wardrobe and you think, Well, do I have an outfit that really needs yellow shoes? Am I going to wear yellow shoes? Look at your space. Do you have an apartment that is full of light? Do you have a windowsill or do you have a very dark apartment? Do you want a plant for your bathroom or do you want one for your kitchen? Start there. Do you want a plant that you can eat, like an herb? Or, do you just want one that is incredibly stylish and has an interior design sense to it? Ask yourself these really basic questions because that will quite quickly tell you what kind of plant you want.
What are some houseplants that you would recommend for beginner plant owners?
In my book, I've included oxalis, which is also known as purple shamrock. And I include that because it's incredibly stylish. In my mind, it's the most Instagram-able plant around. It's also very tolerant; it'll put up with light or dark; it'll mostly put up with being overwatered; they're quite cheap, and if you put one in a pot it will kind of fill the space of the pot. You get quite a lot of plant for your money. I also recommend an aloe vera plant because you can put them pretty much anywhere and they will look great, and they also grow very quickly, so if you want a slightly excitable plant that's a good choice. Also, if you get a sunburn you can just break off a stem, and it's the best cure in the world.
There's another one I have in my bedroom in a dark corner, it's called the devil's ivy. They look really cute if you stick them in macrame hangers or on top of a bookshelf. They function really well in artificial light as well, so if you don't have that much natural daylight, they look really cute. I've left mine without water for like three weeks before and it's been totally fine. They're indestructible. There's one called sansevieria, which in the U.K. is also known as a snake plant or a mother in law's tongue. When I go shopping at the flower market in London, Columbia Road, it's all full of these Cockney cellar guys and they're like, "Buy a mother in law's tongue, it's called that 'cause you can't make it shut up." It's like a running joke that you literally can't kill it. Again, they do very well in low-light areas, they do very well when you don't water them that much, they're quite stylish.
There's a plant called tradescantia; it's another tumbling beautiful plant. You get them in colors like purple and green, and they're like a vine, again very Instagram-able, very tolerant, and also they propagate very easily which means you can make new ones from their cuttings. So they’re great if you want to give presents to your friends without spending any money. And for succulents, I'd recommend a burro's tail. They're kind of satisfying and squishy looking, and they've got quite an element of design about them. Succulents are quite fussy, but I'd say that burro's tails are not. And then, finally, a fern. Maidenhair ferns are in my book because I adore them to the extent that I've got a maidenhair fern tattoo. I just think they're brilliant. They are quite fussy, so that's a good option for someone who wants a bit of a project because you need to kind of mist it every day, but I promise you it's worth the hard work. They're gorgeous.
What are some common mistakes first-time plant parents make?
Number one mistake every time is overwatering. It’s totally understandable—give someone something to look after, and they just want to pour it with love. They're like babies and cats, right? Also, plants are sneaky because when they are overwatered, they wilt, so they look like they are thirsty when actually they're dying. Some people will say, when that happens, to lift up the pot to tell if it's heavy with water or not. If you're a complete beginner that's a bit misleading, so just stick your finger in the pot in the soil; if it comes away wet, and there's little grains of soil, and it feels moist to touch, you probably don't need to water it. And if you touch it and it's completely dry, then give it a good solid watering, leave it for a couple of days, and then water it again. Just keep going.
I also think people just put plants in the wrong places. I've been really guilty of this because you're like, "Oh, that plant would look really nice in that dark depressing corner, it'll cheer things up." But that plant doesn't like that dark depressing corner any more than you do, mate. It is upsetting to kill plants, and there is definitely a school of thought that says we should teach people how to do it before they get plants, so then they don't kill them and get discouraged, but I think I've pretty much killed every type of plant that's in my book, and that's one of the ways I've learned how to keep them alive. I think that’s very important, to learn from your mistakes.
Is there a way to bring overwatered plants back to life?
It really depends on the plant and really depends on how you’ve watered it. However, they're probably more tolerant than you think. If it's a succulent and it's gone mushy, what you want to do is get rid of all the moldy leaves. That may be most of the leaves, but that will allow the plant to produce new, healthy ones. The ultimate way to tell if your plant is dead or not is to tip it upside down, take the pot off, and see what the roots are doing. If the roots are kind of black, brown, very small, your plant is probably dead and gone. If there's still some healthy white root growth, then it's salvageable. If in doubt, I say even before you throw it away, put it somewhere warm and sunny and let it dry out. Maybe put kitchen roll or paper towel underneath the pot and just keep on draining off that water.
What’s the deal with fertilizer? Is it necessary for houseplants?
Again, this is one of those things you start reading about as a gardener, and you just give up because it's just exhausting. It's really confusing, and I don't feed any of my houseplants. There will be some people who would be like, "Oh my god, I can't believe she doesn't do that!" But, you know what, they're happy enough, and I would strongly recommend to beginners, don't worry about feeding them because, actually, sometimes you can go overboard on feeding houseplants. If you're not growing fruits and vegetables, they'll be fine without that. If you want to find out about fertilizer, then there are a lot of houseplant specific blogs, which will go into infinite detail for you. But I'd say you'll be totally fine. And if you do want to use some, go to your local garden store and ask what the best fertilizer is to use for what plant and they will probably show you one.
What’s the best piece of advice you've received about taking care of plants?
Give it a go. Don't be scared. There are loads of rules with plants, what you should do, where you should put them, it can be really overwhelming. The whole ethos behind the book, and the ethos behind my gut, is to give it a go, it might work. Like, stranger things have happened. Nature surprises all the time. I just think that it's best to take a plunge then not at all.