Remember the game Needs and Wants? The other day, I met Surbhi Singh, an avid amateur gardener from Delhi, at a nursery. She was fretting over shifting to another city and the fate awaiting her plants there. Singh had given some away, but was still left with dozens of healthy foliage plants. Would the nursery buy back plants?
It was not the money; she just wanted the assurance that the plants would be under expert care and would eventually be picked up by another loving plant buff (and the nursery could pay her a token amount and charge the next client the price for an adult plant, which often goes for five times as much as a seedling).
That got me thinking. We keep adding to our gardens, but what if we had to subtract? What if life threw us the Needs and Wants challenge?
Minimal garden mates
This year’s winter annuals are soon to grace the compost heap, which immediately has me thinking of replacements. But what if we had to dig down to just five? Which plants would I place in the Needs column?
I thought about it, and realized all of mine are foliage favourites, being hardier and yet managing to delight with textures and even bright false flowers.
Bougainvillea (paper flower): This hardy plant can take the knocks of a fairly far shift. Although it is said to have originated in South America, it has adjusted well to most of India. It does just as well in dry, dusty Delhi’s public spaces as in the rainy, misty eastern Himalayas. The bougainvillea likes lots of sun, but doesn’t wither away in a sulk if it gets a little less. It just shows its displeasure with fewer flowers (really papery, coloured bracts that wrap the tiny white star of its true bloom).
Paper bud: Bougainvillea grows well in Delhi.
Monstera deliciosa (Swiss Cheese plant): The Monstera spells high drama, with its broad, dark green, leathery leaves grabbing attention to remind you of lush rainforests. Although a climbing vine, it can stay for years in a container and look none the worse. Being a native of the deep forest, it is used to dappled light, making it a worthy choice for apartment balconies. Once it takes root, it’s easy to care for. If the leaves look dusty, you can just wipe them down with a soft, damp cloth. And in the true spirit of the Needs and Wants game, the Monstera justifies my choice with edible fruit. However, I’d have to wait about a year for it to ripen (the raw fruit is full of toxic oxalic acid).
Dypsis lutescens (areca palm): The areca epitomizes elegance. Its fans often pick up several at a time to group together or line up in a row. It needs bright light, but the leaves scald in long hours of direct sunlight, so let the light be diffused or sporadic. If you get soil composition and sunlight right, the slim, straight plant rewards you with a cascade of dark green fronds. It enjoys a regular drink of water, but does not like its roots drowning. Another reason for choosing it: It is fading away, almost endangered, in its native Madagascar. We can’t let that happen to such a beauty.
Aloe vera: This succulent plant with grey-green fleshy leaves thrives in arid zones and although it is full of good-for-health gel, does not seem to require too much water to keep the factory in production. I’ve met keen gardeners who grow pots for medicinal purposes and start the day with a spoon of home-grown gel. A dab of it also heals wounds and small scalds.
Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns): Another succulent, this time chosen by good old nostalgic sentiment. It grew in my childhood home and I’d look at the bright, pretty pink “flowers” (bracts again), and wonder at their contrast with the grey, thorny stems. It can take a good deal of neglect, from bright sunlight to sporadic watering (in fact, less is best—it does not like its leaves wet nor can it take soggy soil). A good choice for a house-proud working woman.
If you’re wondering whether the nurseryman agreed to take in Surbhi’s plants, it was an emphatic “No”. But while we wish her babies all the best through the move, why not make your own list of indispensables? We’d love to hear the reasons for your choice too. Do write in.
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
Write to Benita at firstname.lastname@example.org