Leaf problems: struggling with hot flats and cold water

This week has been a bad week for my houseplants. Over the weekend, I left my radiator on '4' in an already balmy, well-insulated London flat while I was off enjoying the sights of Liverpool. Cue, a lot of floppy succulents and a crispy peacock plant.

This winter, working out when to water my plants (and when not to) has been pretty traumatic. This is the first time I've lived in a flat that has working central heating and while that's great for keeping me warm at night, ensuring my houseplants happy has been more difficult. I'm not used to watering my succulents at all in the colder weather, but this year it's been a guessing game trying to work out if leaving them any longer without moisture might cause permanent damage. I've seen wrinkled leaves on my jade plant, my sedum adophii and even my normally resilient moonstones plant. My elephant's bush, already a tricky customer, has lost all but about four leaves in its quest to keep hydrated. Ignoring all advice from books, google and instagram, I've been water once every two weeks in an attempt to stop carnage on my window sill. The dry season doesn't exist in Peckham.


Even the moonstones have struggled to keep hydrated this winter. 

And central heating droughts are not the only water problem I've faced. This weekend, I identified a reason for the browning, crispy leaves of my peacock plant. Convinced for a few months that the plant just needed more misting and more watering, my daily aqua extravaganza was leading nowhere. The leaves were still browning in spots while the rest of the plant seemed largely healthy.

Cue a lot of googling and I think I've finally found the answer: my tap water is too cold. All my misting would only be making the brown spots worse because I've been using filtered water straight out the fridge. According to multiple google scholars, that cold water is burning the leaves and causing the brown spots. So now, I'm leaving water out to warm up to room temperature (even if that's a million degrees in this overly-hot flat) before I mist. Fingers crossed my peacock plant will start to look more healthy in the weeks to come.

This Ficus has also been drying out every few days. It's a struggle to remember to keep watering it. 
It's occurred to me that leaves are probably the best indication of when things are going wrong with your plants. I've had a few friends ask me what they can do to help their plants because the leaves are X, Y and Z. This list on the RHS website gives just a small flavour of everything leaves might be telling you should be changed about a plant's care.

Home for Christmas: Winter in the Childhood Garden


My childhood family garden has always belonged to Mum. Mum's garden. Mum's shed. Mum's chickens. Dad might strim a hedge or two, and fell an unwanted holly bush annually, but his interest wanes at edging beds or planting lavender plants five in a row. Even the more manual chore of mowing the lawn is now resolutely Mum's job. It's her garden: we merely visit it, admire it and labour in it for her.

The over-grown vegetable patch waiting to be restructured in spring.

Which is, increasingly, how coming home for Christmas feels as I creep into my twenties. However resolutely the Kehoe siblings are told that this will always be our home, each festive visit  reiterates the nagging sense of displacement as the childhood confidence in owing this space melts away into the realisation that one day in the not-too-distant-future we will only visit this house, and that it will not be our home. There seems no concrete line when the change happens, but one day I will visit my parents for Christmas, before returning to a new home that isn't Chauffeur's Cottage. That day is closer now than it has ever been.

For now, we are quasi-guests, comfortable but temporary. Each day of the Christmas periods reminds us of our displacement when drinking glasses are found to reside in unknown places and our clothes are hung in wardrobes that have new inhabitants (that don't belong to us). The ownership of the garden encroaches inwards, winding tendrils into the windows of the house, marking out the territory as familiar but owned by Mum, not us.

Mum incinerating the wrapping paper from Christmas Day

Now, when I return home, I am given the regular tour of Mum's garden. How the old are doing, what is new, what needs changing and what needs to be thought about changing. Chicken eggs are collected in pockets, the compost bin is given a berating for not being turned over in a decade. Winter is a moment of opportunity for Mum: to plan, to imagine, a glimmer of a future garden seeded in the wet mud. Unlike me, she knows the placement of the bulbs that are pushing against the soil deep down. She remembers the roots of hidden plants resting under the mud, waiting for the warmth of spring.

For me, the winter garden is more peaceful.  The woody stems of bare clematis creating architectural cages over fences, mossy pots standing to attention ready to be scrubbed. Every plant is waiting, pausing. Even the blooms of the winter-flowing clematis are unobtrusive, noticeable only if you look (and hard).  The silence of the damp earth patiently waits out the dim, cold winter months, expectations brimming just below the surface of the ground where roots continue to grow. But my image of the garden is only half formed. It is, after all, not my garden.

The winter blooming clematis

This is Mum's garden. Its future shape is held by her and I can only visit it when she grants me a comment or two. The four new veg patch beds will sit here, these dogwoods will be planted in that  space.  The beds are going to be extended round the corner in spring. She maps out the spring movements, the garden centre trips and the weeding days one-by-one.

Gardens are always owned by just one person. There is no such thing as a communal garden; they are either somebody's or they are a park (which isn't a garden). My childhood garden will always be Mum's. Resolute in the winter weather,  always present, always encompassing. It's her garden, but I'm allowed to walk in it.

A Viburnam, bright against the dimness of Winter

A new home and new plants - Monstera Delicious, Pilea Peperomiodides, Fittonia

Three weeks into London life and I'm only now sitting down to write a post. Since then, three new plants have joined my plant collection. They're nestled onto an east-facing window sill looking out over the 'balcony' where some winter pansies have been slap-dash planted on top of tulip and daffodil bulbs.

What I'd never imagined about urban gardening is how little time you have to do it. A moment there, a morning here - when you're out nine 'till five and the weekends are filled with rain, time to dead-head slips away. Feeling a leaf to check the water situation is pushed into milliseconds, instead of minutes. Time is precious, we're told. They never remind you that its also rare.


But the houseplants are doing OK with the minimal attention I'm giving them. The east-facing window is a god-send and some of them are growing fast in the dimming autumn light. My Wandering Jew keeps branching out bushier and bushier, refusing to trail artistically down the pot. The Sedum Adolphi's yellowed leaves keep twisting towards the sun, seeking out those last rays.

Up on the window this morning is the Monstera Delicious, a newbie. Bought from The Nunhead Gardener, it usually resides beside my bed but today it gets to feel the sun on its leaves. I have no idea how to care for it, bar sunlight, water et al. I think it will be a case of look and learn.


In its shadow two other new plants sit in small antique terracotta pots - an extravagance only the first days of a student loan will allow. A Fittonia, pinked up with green veins, overfills one pot,
 not quite yet settled into the compost. Next door, a Pile Peperomiodides, horribly overpriced, nods gently in the window breeze. A Chinese money plant has been top of my most-wanted list for a while, its circular leaves so crisp against the white wood sill.



Winter is coming. And no, you're not meant to think of Jon Snow when I say that. The watering is easing up and the growth of the plants is slowing down. In the last stray days of summer that filter through the autumnal chill, an occasional sunny day is a small blessing.