Houseplants just got hipper
Cacti, succulents, DJs and cocktails are all part of the show as the RHS reaches out to young urbanites, says Alice Vincent
Just as seasons pass, most things in horticulture have been around before. The first book on city gardening was published in 1722, as new Londoners moved into squares and houses with neat little plots. In the early 19th century, urban housewives bought plants from “Botany Bens”, who would wheel their laden carts around the newly built streets. The Victorians were so obsessed with ferns they constructed glass palaces to contain them on top of their houses and suspended from their windowsills.
All of which shows that the current popularity of houseplants, container gardening and greening cities’ grey expanses is nothing new. But it has been neglected by the horticultural powers that be. While east London opened its arms to new, design-focused plant shops, terrarium workshops and community gardens, on the other side of the city, in Pimlico, the RHS catered to its traditional home counties card-carrying (and foam kneeler-fond) members.
Until last weekend, that is, when the society opened up its Lindley Hall and let in the bright young things – along with DJs, artisanal cocktails, neon lighting and a queue around the block until 10pm.
This was the society’s first (in this century, at least) Urban Garden Show, a collaboration between the RHS and Cityscapes, a garden design company that has put plants in the pods of the London Eye and grown fungal gardens in the damp gloom of the tunnels underneath Waterloo Station.
I met Darryl Moore, Cityscapes’ co-founder, in a shed in Haggerston, east London. I’m a balcony gardener and it’s the first shed I’ve been in for a while. But there was no soil, just iPads, as this is where Moore organised a weekend’s worth of seminars, workshops and stalls to cater for the capital’s rookie gardeners – and, in the process, show them that the RHS is about more than Chelsea.
“The RHS is definitely aware of the need to reflect interest in urban gardening,” says Moore, who is originally from New Zealand and trained as a mechanical engineer before getting into horticulture. “It realises it needs to be addressing a whole new demographic, both younger and urban.” Cityscapes was brought in to reach these gardeners. Fliers for the show, featuring a prismshaped terrarium filled with succulents (both an entry-level and envyinducing plant for today’s urban gardener), had been delivered to London’s trendier streets. The event was posted on Facebook, where it reached thousands of people, helped by the Instagram accounts of the show’s participants, who have built their own following among young, digitalsavvy gardeners.
But Moore and his team had to do more than just bring new people to the RHS – they also had to prove that people would return.
The entrance to Lindley Hall was transformed, with guests pushing through a towering display of tropical foliage. In the opposite corner, neon strip lights and industrial cages housed thousands of cacti. Both exhibitions were set up to educate visitors about the maintenance of their indoor plants, because, as Moore explains, “people buy house plants and they die because they don’t look after them properly. That’s their only encounter with horticulture; they give up after that. It’s really important to get people to learn these basic things so they can carry on.”
Depth of knowledge gives the RHS the edge over other urban gardening shows, such as Grow, the contemporary event on Hampstead Heath every June. RHS experts were on hand throughout the weekend to offer advice on caring for houseplants.
There were also informative glimpses of the cutting edge of urban gardening, courtesy of people such as Richard Ballard, whose company Growing Underground has turned cellars near Clapham North Tube station into a hydroponics farm, and Michael Perry, known to his social media followers as Mr Plant Geek, who gave RHS members a whistle-stop tour using gardening social media. On the main floor, vegan food stalls and plant-based gin trucks jostled with the horticultural designers and retailers of the moment. Between Prick, a cactus “boutique” in Dalston, This Way to the Circus, which plants succulents and cacti in brightly coloured pots, and Blue Leaf Plants, which does the same with teapots, there was no shortage of inspiration. House of Plants, a duo who followed the new rise of gardening by selling plants on Hackney’s Broadway Market, introduced show visitors to air plants, while Seed Pantry, a company that aims to get city dwellers making their own food, was showing off hydroponic Grow Pod units with seeds and equipment for winter crops.
Innovative design came in the form of sleek wooden planters from Tanti that have been treated with bio-resin to ensure houseplants get sufficient water and drainage in beautiful style. Plant nurseries that had shown at Chelsea took a new approach for the show, with Beelands selling herb pots for cooking, making tea and having a bath. Pennard Plants offered wasabi plants for urban gardeners keen on Asian cuisine.
The workshops showed that people are still eager to master indoor gardening techniques such as kokedama, terrariums and bromeliad arranging – even if these things have been around for centuries.
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of learning going on. I overheard one older participant admit that she hadn’t got to grips with indoor gardening. Which suggests it’s not just the young, hip and urban who are having a moment with houseplants.
Green fingers: designer James Kirby works on the Tanti stand