Book Review: 'How to Grow Stuff' and 'The Little Book of Cacti and Other Succulents'

These are two gardening books I've been eyeing up for a while. 'How to Grow Stuff' by Alice Vincent and 'The Little Book of Cacti and Other Succulents' by Emma Sibley have been splashed across a tonne of gardening and urban planting instagrams for a couple of months. This week, I discovered Alice Vincent's instagram (@noughticulture) and twitter and, inspired by this HuffPost Sourced article, I was determined to grab a copy of 'How to Grow Stuff' before the week was out. Thank god for Waterstones, eh? 

How to Grow Stuff, Alice Vincent, Ebury Press (2016), £12.99

In the next few weeks, I'll be uprooting from Hampshire and moving to a flat in London. There's a small shared garden (concrete) and a possible window ledge for some pots. That's it. But I'm keen  to grow some flowers and veg alongside my succulents. Step in Vincent's 'How to Grow Stuff'. 

This book is for the novice gardener and is ideal for urban gardens. There's no fancy words or complex instructions. Vincent tells it like it is and recommends buying pots of herbs from supermarkets to cultivate, because why not? Also a big plus is the beautiful design of the book: it's both super gorgeous to look at and to read. 

The book takes you through easy-to-grow herbs, veg, flowers and houseplants with advice on growing them in containers or in the ground, how to harvest them and what they need to thrive. The advice is refreshingly humorous and relaxed in a horticulture section of the bookshop that's often full of pomposity. For once, having leggy tomato plants is acceptable, not frowned upon.

If you want an easy-to-follow guide to growing that doesn't strive for anything more than encouraging sheer pleasure in growing your own plants, this book is for you. 

The Little Book of Cacti and Other Succulents, Emma Sibley, Quadrille (2017), £8.99

Ugh, the design of this book is just yummy. Sibley's small encyclopaedia of succulent and cacti types has been on my wanted listed for a while, thanks to its easy to understand entries on common plants and how to look after them specifically. 

Each page of the book includes a large picture of a succulent, followed by advice on watering, sunlight, growth and care, pruning and other fields like flowers or 'Watch Out!' (for nasty spines). I've already read it through and through, chosen my next purchases and checked on what I'm doing wrong with my current plants. Turns out, quite a lot!

Propagation Stations | Growing your own succulents from leaf

If the act of growing plants had certified stages, stage two after buying some plants, potting them up and keeping them alive, would be growing your own from scratch. Growing plants is inspiring: nurturing your very own baby plants from first growth to year-old pup is awe-filling.

I've owned succulents and cacti to varying degrees of success for around two years now. Flicking around the internet, the blog posts and Instagram photos that always caught my eye were the propagation experiments. Growing plants! From leaves and stalks! It always seemed strangely mystical and old-world. There was no need for the consumerist horrors of gardening centres! You just needed some soil and couple of old leaves. I was determined to try.

My propagation attempts
I started with three leaves that had been knocked off my parent plants: two from a Sedum Adolphii  and one from some kind of Moonstone plant. General advice suggests you use shallow seed trays and lie the leaves across the soil. But I was at university, low on money and without many shopping options so I used little plastic pots that grown succulents can be bought in from garden centres, filled them to the top with sandy soil and that seems to be going OK (Fingers crossed). A little note, I also started these propagations in a horrible damp room, which had copious amounts of mould and a couple of occasional slugs so don't worry if conditions aren't 'perfect'. Succulents are good at making do.

Advice I would give? Don't over water them. It's so easy to shove them under a tap and soak the soil. They really don't need it. I ended up emptying a cleaning spray, washing it out and filling it with water, giving the pots a spritz when the soil was dry. Honestly, these plants are made to survive dry conditions so they sort themselves out nicely.

The original two leaves at around 3 months
More advice? Don't expect every leaf to sprout a plant. Only two of my three leaves have worked well. One Sedum Adophii propagation grew feeble roots and nothing else. Also, it takes a long time. The two leaves I have currently are still tiny but are over three months old.

Inspired by the small success of my two leaves, I was thrilled to be contacted on the Reddit /r/succulents thread by someone who'd seen a months old comment of mine asking for Burro's Tail propagations. I received a private message saying they'd be happy to send me some tiny leaves free of charge to see if I could get them going. Free of charge! The world still has wonderful people in it. If you're interested in growing succulents, I can't recommend the /r/succulent thread enough - full of friendly people who can give you advice quickly.

The little leaves arrived soon after - about 20 to 30 tiny little things packed carefully into a cardboard box. For the Burro's tail, I chucked all the leaves in another similar pot and treated them the same. Lo and behold, I've now got about 15 miniature Burro's Tails growing. It's my longed for plant that I've never owned or seen for sale so I am desperately hoping they survive and do well.

Burro's Tail Propagations
Final advice? There's a lot of contradictory suggestions out here on the internet. Find what works for you. The best way to work out if a propagation needs watering is to look at it. Is the leaf a bit wrinkled and the soil rock hard? It needs a water. You might be putting a little excess stress on the leaves but they are strong and can take it.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below!

Starting again: An Apology and a Promise

How hard is it to write a blog? Really. Bloody. Hard. Writer's block might be a thing but when you're juggling university finals, masters applications and holiday plans even remembering you have a blog is pretty tough.

That's also a white lie - I've been on my summer holidays now for over a month. I'm just being lazy. But I'm going to make myself a promise. From now on I'll be posting AT LEAST once a week. Damn, that's a commitment. Let's see how it goes.

You might have noticed on my About page there's been a change: I now own two blogs - this one and a more personal one that's catering for my career future as a hopeful journalist. This blog is strictly succulents and cacti, and maybe a bit of gardening. If you're interested, head over to my other blog here.

My only real bit of exciting news is that I bought two new plants before I came home for summer and planted them up with the chopped off heads of a Sedum that was horrifically elotiated.  On the left looking (in this photo) a little dehydrated is a Pachyphytum Compactum (Or 'little jewel'). On the top right is what /r/succulents on reddit has kindly informed me is a possible Himalaya Senecio.  This photo was taken a month or so ago - they've been watered and cared for a bit more since them and are looking much healthier.

Right, that's really the end... I don't have much to say. Tomorrow I'll be putting together a little post on propagation once I've photographed my new plants. I've also had an idea for a "Sunburnt Succulents" post, inspired by some horrifically burnt leaves this summer. Phase one of A Post A Week will (hopefully) commence!