On Houseplants, and the Simple Pleasure of Tending to Green Leaves

Overhead view of the striped leaves of a Calathea sitting on a white painted windowsill

Often, when the words will not leave my mind and line up neatly on the page, no matter how nicely I talk to them, I just need to submerge my hands in compost. 

Potting and propagating houseplants is one of my favourite non-writing activities. I find great satisfaction in a row of cuttings in water gently putting out roots, or a new sprout freshly buried in dark, damp compost that clings to my fingertips as I work. While my hands peacefully scoop and clip and pour, my mind is free to trundle at its own pace and figure things out on its own.

Gardening and greenery appears to be in my genes (although in me at least I think these traits lie dormant until after the age of thirty). My paternal grandparents were both botanists. Family legend has it that Granny was working on a PhD project to germinate seeds found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, until the outbreak of WWII put the enterprise on permanent hiatus. Sadly her papers were never found to confirm this story, but I like to believe it’s true. My last and best memories of my Granny are of trundling about the garden with her as she steered her electric wheelchair along the narrow paths, pointing out interesting specimens with her grabber. This item was always ready to hand in a homemade holster on the back of the chair.

Three shelves filled with books, plants, pictures, and pots

On the other hand, my Dad is the self-proclaimed enemy of houseplants. And wisteria. And anything that carries the vague whiff of being “impractical”. He is happiest armed with a fork, turning over the soil in readiness for the next planting of leeks or broad beans. Maybe that’s where my love of compost comes from. A shared appreciation for soft, inviting earth full of life and potential.

Whether it was the effect of finally leaving London, or fully embracing the slowness of life with a toddler, I’m not sure. But over the past few years I’ve fallen under the spell of green things, and now our home is filled with a host of green leaves. Tumbles of dark, silvery Pothos hearts cascading off the edge of a bookcase. Fleshy green succulent pearls backlit against the bright kitchen window. Broad, veined fig leaves on the hearth. Sculptural and tactile and completely beautiful.

Taking care of the growing home jungle has become one of mine and Ben’s gentle weekly rituals. Many plants are quite obliging, needing only a regular splash of water and to be left to their own devices, which is ideal work for a toddler. So on Monday morning, after breakfast, Ben and I arm ourselves with jugs and watering cans (and a cloth for spills) and trundle gently around the house adding a splash to every pot. We check for new leaves on the Monstera deliciosa and new pups on the grand dame Pilea peperomioides, now a grandmother three times over. When the weather is fine we sit on the back step surrounded by compost and pots, planting out the latest batch of cuttings. Well, I plant; Ben toddles off into the garden, returning with stones, leaves, old acorn cups, and daisies to show me.

A spider plant with wide spreading leaves stands on a wooden console table with silver metal legs

(These treasures are later placed into his red bucket with great ceremony, or taken away and hidden in a secret place known only to him.)

These little moments together, the rituals and the work that shape our week together, are incredibly precious to me. I cherish their peacefulness and their immediacy, fingers coated in soil gently prising roots and stems apart. Seeing the world of green things through the eyes of an almost two-year-old, and entering into his world where everything of importance is happening in the present.

On reflection, the mindfulness of tending to growing things is part of their appeal. Anchoring me in place to appreciate what is happening now, in my home, with my son, with my life. And sometimes, just sometimes, taking time to plant my feet in the present helps those stubborn words to flow with ease again.

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