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The Unexpected Houseplant

What I loved most about The Unexpected Houseplant, Tovah Martin’s smart, stylish book on indoor gardening, is the focus on “real plants.” And therein lays the crux of the “Unexpected” in the title. This is not about nursing a spindly, static, spider plant like the one you had in college. This is actual gardening that shifts with the seasons.

Martin preaches the power of plants indoors. A “confessed missionary” touting the emotional and healthful benefits of “intimacy with nature” in our homes, she’s out to convert the indoor gardening skeptic. That would be me.

I am not a fan of houseplants. Where others connect with nature in the off-season by tending parlor ferns and wandering vines, my indoor surfaces display seedpods, cones, the occasional rack of antlers, and a particularly significant hummingbird nest.

Previously, my indoor gardening efforts have focused on triage: clumsy attempts to shelter plants through a season far outside their native comfort zone. At best, my results have been stoic survival—but more often than not, a string of botanical dead bodies is all I have to show for my stab at “overwintering.” But after reading The Unexpected Houseplant, I’m willing to take a fresh look at inviting the garden indoors.

This beautifully photographed and artfully designed book is organized by season; already, I’m on familiar ground. Beginning with autumn, a season characterized as “the start of the houseplant year,” Martin offers alluring and affectionate portraits of fragrant, colorful, lush, resilient, and satisfying candidates for indoor cultivation. The list includes a surprisingly familiar bunch of common garden plants including spring bulbs, groundcovers, hardy perennials and woody shrubs, alongside South African bulbs, ornamental grasses, and never-say-die succulents. The roster is by no means exhaustive; Martin only features plants she has successfully grown with natural light in her cool, barn-like New England home.

Hardworking sidebars accompanying each plant portrait call out growth habit, optimal growing conditions and positive attributes as well as potential problems. A “Basics” chapter at the end of the book presents a wealth of practical knowledge and more detailed cultivation tips.

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