What not to do for Insta indoor plant success

James Wong

Sharing my tiny, central London flat with 500 houseplants, some pouring from living walls, others nestled among mosses on indoor fountains and as part of living furniture, I think it is fair to say that I am obsessed with the great indoors. It’s super exciting that, at long last, a whole new generation is waking up to the wonders of indoor gardening, fuelled in part by the communicative power of Instagram.

Many of the ideas you will see online will almost certainly set you up for failure

However, amid all the gloss and polish of the #instaperfect feeds, horticultural novices may not recognise that many of the ideas out there will (sadly) almost certainly set you up for failure. So, from someone who has tried and failed hundreds of times, here are my top tips for the Instagram houseplant ideas not to follow.

First – and I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this – if you want to kill a cactus or succulent really quickly there is one simple thing to do to it: put it in a terrarium. These glazed cases are designed to create a low light, high humidity environment for species from dark, damp forest floors. Put desert dwellers that love light and airflow in them – especially sealed-tight fishbowls or glass cloches – and it’s almost always a kiss of death, from very shortly after the photo is posted. Put ferns, mosses and orchids in terrariums and cacti in open pots on south-facing windowsills.

Be nice to your cactus: give it some light and air.

Be nice to your cactus: give it some light and air. Photograph: Marianne Hope/Getty Images

There’s a sad end in store for any cacti, succulents or air plants that have been “flocked” or sprayed with glitter, paint or dye. Where this trend came from, who knows? Leaving personal taste aside, these treatments cover the plants in a light-blocking screen to give them (allegedly) more appeal to consumers. As plants are essentially biological solar panels, coating them in an opaque layer will almost certainly spell death within a month or two, tops.

The same goes for those little “heart leaf” plants in a pot doing the Insta rounds. This is a nifty way of showing off the cool heart-shaped foliage of Hoya kerrii, by cutting off a single leaf and shoving it in a pot. But these plants are not capable of generating new growth from leaf cuttings and will take months – or up to two years – to die a long slow death. Heart breaking, literally.

Finally, dwarf chrysanthemums in pots are a cheap and cheerful alternative to cut flowers and will last far longer. However, if you expect them to grow and thrive after flowering, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. These are just small cuttings of mature plants that have been stimulated into growing roots and flowers by the application of a concoction of plant hormones. Being far too small to support the metabolic burden of flowering, plants will often be exhausted by the energy outlay, and collapse within a few weeks of being out of the intensive care of industrial nursery settings.

I guess the retailers’ rationale is that it will make you more likely to simply return to buy another. It’s not great logic to disappoint nervous newbies on the first foray, though. But here’s the good news: if you pick any plant other than those mentioned above, your chances of success are instantly likely to be several times higher. Good luck!

Email James at james.wong@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek