One of my favourite books from The Graceful Custom library is also one of the oldest: TW Sanders’ Window and Indoor Gardening from 1910.
Perhaps because it shows clearly, and now sometimes humorously, how the way we live influences the plants we have indoors and how we care for them. And then, it shows that things really haven’t changed that much at all over the past century.
Choosing your plant
Knowing the room conditions was as important as it is today. The main concern in those days was whether your room was gas-lighted or not, since some plants fare better than others in a gas-filled environment.
For gas-lighted rooms, aspidistras were ‘the best of all’, also fig-leaf palm, rubber plant and kentia palm. For non-gas-lighted rooms there was a much wider choice, including Cocos weddelliana, Araucaria excelsa, umbrella plant, Asparagus sprengeri and Begonia rex.
There was also a warning about where to buy your plants from. ‘In purchasing plants for the first time…never buy those that have been exposed on hawkers’ barrows. They are bound to become unhealthy before long owing to exposure to the air.’
Porous clay pots were favoured, which also made it easy to ‘rap’ the side with a stick or your knuckles to know if the plant needed water.
It was considered a ‘grave mistake to add water in driblets by means of a jug’ and a mistake too to use cold water: it ‘gives the delicate roots a serious chill.’ Rain water was better than tap water, being ‘softer and more nourishing.’ Advice many of us would still agree with.
This tidbit was new to me however: ‘It is a good plan to stand indoor plants out of door during a shower for a short time. Rain cleanses and greatly refreshes foliage.’
Leaves needed to be kept perfectly clean to prevent them being choked by dust – a major problem in industrial London. The guidance was to cover plants at night with cloth or paper and remove ‘after the morning dusting and cleaning has been done’, rather optimistically assuming cleaning was done at least once daily…not in my house!
‘Large-leaved plants, like aspidistras, palms, etc, should have their leaves carefully sponged with soapy water, or milk and water, at least once a week.’ We were warned to be careful that the cloth didn’t have any grit on it, which would scratch and damage the leaves.
‘Liquid soot water’ was great for foliage plants and ferns apparently. And poultry or pigeon droppings could be used in place of horse dung, if preferred.
And, just to bring home how different things were, Mr Sanders has advice for if you find your plant has frozen indoors: put it in a dark cellar and spray it with cold water to revive it. Hopefully that is advice that none of us ever has to follow.