Almost exactly 12 years ago, when I was heaving my inadvisably clad, shots-soaked body through Newcastle City Centre for Freshers’ Week, plants did not feature on the list of organised activities. Foam parties and tangentially themed club nights, yes, and the occasional gentle tutorial group, but no horticulture. It took me about 18 months to discover the botanical wonders of the city's Jesmond Dene.
How times have changed – and so much for the better. Earlier this week I heard that Laura Jenkins, known for her blog House Plant House, was expecting reams of students this weekend at the Freshers’ Week events she was hosting at her pop-up in South Wales.
It's not the only one: other university unions offer houseplant-potting workshops during Freshers Week and others even boast houseplant sales. I also caught up with Elsa Kirsch, who has been balancing her geography studies at UCL with amassing a fine collection of houseplants and confirms that university plant sales are indeed a thing.
Students get a bad rap for not knowing how to clean up after themselves, but looking after plants is another matter entirely. If anything, it makes a lot of sense to head off to university with a houseplant: some believe they can aid concentration (good for studying) and improve air quality (good for dealing with flatmate-related vapours) and they undeniably cheer up grotty student digs.
Where to buy them
Where to start? I’d recommend the plants bit of the supermarket first – usually near the cut flowers and worth picking up along with those 10 kilo bags of penne. If this is your first foray into house plants, it’s a good idea to start with something that won’t eat into the student loan too heavily. The prices will be competitive and you can often find non-hideous ceramic plant pots for less than a fiver, too. If you’re near a B&Q or Homebase, houseplants can be snaffled cheaply there, too.
Be wary of the overly elaborate flowering types, such as orchids – they are often grown to show on the shelves. Careful nurturing and the right levels of light may see another spray of blooms emerge by the time you graduate, but otherwise you could well end up with a much-loved stick sitting in your room for months on end.
The best hard-to-kill plants
Better, then, to go for something tough and leafy. Aspidistras, sansevieria and spider plants will tolerate low light levels and even less watering. Golden pothos, or Devil’s Ivy, and the similar-looking heart-shaped philodendron will put up with similar neglect and tumble happily over bookshelves or unimaginative institutional furniture. For structural interest and seriously low levels of maintenance, I can’t recommend forest cacti enough – look for a rhipsalis and water it three times a term.
Don’t be afraid to try a little seasonality, suggests Kirsch, who raided the supermarkets for hyacinth bulbs in her first term. “Wait for it to bloom, place it in a sunny spot, water only when visibly dry and prepare yourself for a room filled with the most spectacular scent,” she advises.
Where to put them
I usually recommend that houseplant newcomers look at the space they have and plant-shop backwards – matching a dingy room to low-light tolerant plants and vice versa. However, I suspect a Freshers’ Week purchase will ensue before you’ve sussed out how the (natural) light comes into your new room.
Once it’s in there, though, It’s worth noting that south or east-facing windows can provide enough blazing sunshine (yes, even in the North) to scorch leaves, leaving them brown and frazzled. If your windows face north, you’ll struggle to keep light-lovers happy too far away from the windows, but won’t suffer the same crispiness. If you’re willing to invest and are really beset by a gloomy room, Kirsch recommends Ikea’s energy efficient LED grow lights, which she says are well-priced - but warns to “avoid using purple LED grow lights unless you want your peers and dorm onlookers to suspect you of growing something funky.”
How to water them
You will inevitably kill at least one plant by watering it too heavily and often – if white mould, foul smells or fungus gnats (irritating, if harmless, little black flying things) appear, you’ve gone too far. Attempt a rescue by lifting the poor drenched thing out of the residual water in the pot and drying on a tea towel somewhere bright and airy.
Better yet, make sure you water your plants correctly in the first place: make sure it has holes in its plastic pot for drainage. Stick your finger in up to the knuckle, and if it feels dry, stick the plant’s soil under the tap. Run the water until it drains through the pot holes and then leave it in the sink for a few minutes – repeat when the top inch or so of soil has dried out, usually a week or so later.
How to avoid crispy leaves
Institutional central heating can annihilate house plants. Keep them away from radiators and mist with a spray bottle – just a rinsed-out cleaning bottle will do, nothing fancy – when it gets stuffy. Kirsch countered it by grouping her houseplants together in her first year: “ It can help to create a steamy microclimate without any other kind of intervention. If it’s not enough, you can also use a pebble tray filled with water and place your plants on top to up your humidity levels.”
What to do when term ends
Leaving your plant alone for the odd weekend home won’t be a problem, as long as you water it well before you go and leave it somewhere bright. But you’ll have enough stuff to drag back during the holidays that taking a tradescantia on a train will prove tricky.
If you’ve got friends who are staying around over the holidays, perhaps coach them to look after your plants while you’re away. A couple of weeks at Christmas should be alright – in winter, the low light levels mean plants naturally go into dormancy so they won’t need much from you – but abandoning them during Easter break, when things are getting growing again, may be more troublesome. Still, if you’ve managed to keep something alive until April, then that’s a considerable achievement.
Most importantly, remember that you’re at university to learn, and that applies to house plants too. If one of them dies, don’t beat yourself up – try and work out why: wrong light levels? Wrong amount of water? You’ll be one step closer to keeping your next plant alive.