Nothing signifies a refresh quite like greenery. From sprouting seedlings to in-bloom flowers, plants are an ideal way of breathing new life into cold, wintery months. And with around £1.5 billion spent on all things horticultural each year, it seems like many of us agree. We sat down with journalist, gardener and soon-to-be-author Alice Vincent in her south London home to talk growing herbs, balconies and keeping plants alive in the winter.
It’s a mid-week January morning in Denmark Hill and while it’s icy-cold, the sky is blue and clear enough to see the London Eye and the Shard in the distance. We’ve decamped from our central London office to catch up with The Daily Telegraph’s culture and gardening journalist, Alice Vincent who is currently arranging plants on her balcony sporting a new season Finery dress. The arts and entertainment writer for the broadsheet, Alice has recently diversified to add gardening to her writing repertoire. It is through the latter (which includes articles about window boxes, gardening trends and desk plants) that we are here to speak to her today.
“I started trying to keep herbs alive when I had a scruffy little garden in a house in Hackney,” explains Alice of how she got into gardening. Despite them all dying, Alice’s enthusiasm wasn’t dampened and when she moved into her current flat in 2014, she got to work on the balcony. “I planted things that I thought might grow, or be helpful – herbs, flowers I liked – and swiftly got addicted.”
It is this ‘addiction’ that led to her setting up her own newsletter - Noughticulture - that gives practical, unpretentious advice to both gardeners and wannabe gardeners. “I started writing about it because I couldn’t find any information either online or in books that seemed to speak to gardeners like me: people who were keen, but lacking in experience and knowledge, space, time and money.” Not her first foray into dispensing horticultural tips, her newsletter began after she started contributing to the Daily Telegraph’s gardening section which resulted in her being approached by a publisher to write a gardening book. “It all happened rather quickly. There was about two months between starting the column and being approached by a publisher, and it all felt a bit surreal.” The book in question - ‘How to Grow Stuff’ - is deliberately aimed at people who, like Alice in the past, have the dedication but none of the know-how.
One obvious factor of Alice’s popularity as a gardener is that she does not have “a back garden the size of Berkshire.” In fact, her balcony is the complete opposite. Granted, it is more space than some city dwellers have but it is still cosy on her “concrete box.” As Alice says, the key to maximising the space you have is not to underestimate it. “You can grow a number of herbs, salad leaves and even dwarf tomatoes in window boxes.” She also advises not to ignore what’s inside. “If you’re limited to a windowsill or less, then houseplants will be your friends. There are plenty that will put up with low light - snake plants, yuccas, philodendrons and ferns are among them. You can also grow herbs and salad leaves on a windowsill pretty much all year round.”
If space is an issue for novice gardeners then trying to keep everything alive is even more problematic. “Most people are killing with kindness,” sympathises Alice. “I’d say it’s a standard beginner gardener move to kill something by overwatering it.” The colder months can also pose a problem, particularly for house plants. “Most advice suggests moving a plant to the centre of the room, i.e. away from radiators, when the central heating comes on.”
Fortunately, these mistakes can be learned from. “Firstly, find out what kind of natural environment that plant would live in. Is it, for instance, a basil plant? They grow in warm, dry places, so make sure it’s somewhere sunny and don’t water it too much. Is it a fern? They thrive in humid conditions, so make sure its soil is kept moist.” Alice also recommends trying to get to the bottom of why the plant perished in the first place. “This way, you’ll know how to keep it alive next time.”
But what advice has Alice found most helpful? “I take great comfort in hearing very experienced gardeners break the rules. Doing things by the book is best, but if you’ve missed the time when you’re meant to plant something, sometimes just giving it a go is better than not growing it at all. “