Episode 55: James Wong's houseplants - part one

Coffee table terrarium with satin pothos, Episcias and Pileas. Photograph: James Wong

Coffee table terrarium with satin pothos, Episcias and Pileas. Photograph: James Wong

British-Malaysian botanist James Wong is sparking a one-man houseplant revolution. With no outside space to garden, for the last 18 months James has been focusing all his horticultural energies into many fascinating plant experiments inside his small London flat. 

If you follow James on social media where he's @botanygeek, you can't fail to have seen some of the results of his efforts, from a nano pond made from a glass fruit bowl that garnered 125,000 likes to terrariums no bigger than a lightbulb. If you've ever wondered how he made a coffee table terrarium or a mini green wall in a display unit, or where he sources his tiny aquarium plants from, wonder no longer, because this week's episode has all the answers for you. 

If you haven't come across James before, he's got an impressive CV that includes presenting on BBC TV's Countryfile and being an expert panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, writing numerous books - the latest one is called How To Eat Better - and of course his column for the Observer magazine. His homepage is here if you want to find out more. 

I first interviewed James last year back in On The Ledge episode 13, but when I bumped into him at the Chelsea flower show this year, he invited me to take a look at his houseplants in person so I could share all his tips and tricks with all of you. Hurrah!

Do read through the notes below while listening as they're packed full of plant names, online shops and other great resources to help you recreate some of James's brilliant projects. And as James himself told me, he's keen for people to emulate him because as he told me, "I want more people to do this so I look less weird." I think he was only half-joking! 

Oh, and I got two for the price of one, because you'll hear another voice in the interview, and that's garden designer and fellow London-based plant genius Rob Stacewicz (he's on Twitter as @RS_MCIHort) . And YOU get two for the price of one, because next week's show will feature more of my chat with James, including the secrets of his nano pond and his top tips for keeping fussy houseplants happy. UPDATE: listen to part two of the interview here.

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This week that includes an interview with James in his bedroom about his Tillandsia display, mounted staghorns and his incredible new hi-tech Biopod microhabitat. Sign up now to access this right now along with much more exclusive content, including Summer Rayne Oakes on pest control and Dale Martens on breeding Streptocarpus. Never come across Patreon before? Check out my Patreon FAQ to find out more.

And now, on with the notes...

PROJECT 1 - the terrarium coffee table

Satin pothos and moss up close in the coffee table terrarium. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Satin pothos and moss up close in the coffee table terrarium. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

James took a bog-standard 1980s coffee table with a glass inset in the top and a glass shelf for magazines below and turned it into a terrarium. (Pictured in a wider shot at the top of the post). Here's how he did it:

  • He sourced a 2cm deep metal dog crate/cage tray online - these are widely available - and rested it on the lower glass shelf.

  • The plants were sourced from vivarium plant suppliers such as dartfrog.co.uk.

  • The species used are all plants that grow on rocky faces or as epiphytes (i.e. they grow in trees) in the wild, including watermelon begonia (Pellionia repens), Episcia, Pilea glauca (aka P. libanensis), satin pothos (Scindapsus pictus 'Argyraeus'), and moss sourced locally.

  • Pieces of driftwood add to the scene.

  • These plants are all resistant to drying out, so James's watering regime consists of watering weekly with two or three normal-sized cans of tap water.

  • The heavy clear glass top was too cumbersome to remove every time the plants needed watering so James replaced it with a piece of lightweight, clear acrylic sourced from the internet (there are many possible suppliers - just Google custom-cut acrylic - but James used SimplyPlastics.com).


PROJECT 2 - tiny terrariums from glass vases

Three of James's tiny terrariums, made out of glass jars from  Arket . Photograph: James Wong.

Three of James's tiny terrariums, made out of glass jars from Arket. Photograph: James Wong.

Most small terrariums don't work because the plants we choose aren't small enough. You may buy a young palm or fern, but once it's started maturing it will outgrow the space. Instead, James uses aquatic plants that stay really small. "The idea is it looks like a universe in a really small space," says James. Here's the lowdown... 

Bucephalandra and mosses inside a tiny glass vase. Photograph: James Wong.

Bucephalandra and mosses inside a tiny glass vase. Photograph: James Wong.

  • James found small glass vases from store called Arket in Regent Street, London - but it doesn't matter where you source yours, provided the glass is clear and the opening is narrow at the top so that humidity is trapped within.

  • He uses aquarium potting soil as the substrate.

  • Aquarium glue is safe for use in terrariums and allows you to glue mosses and plants onto pieces of wood.

  • Try using a pair of aquarium tweezers to plant up his terrariums.

  • James uses tiny, slow-growing aquatic plants raised via micropropagation such as Anubias pangolino and Bolbitis heteroclita 'Difformis' as well as regular moss (sourced form a garage roof!) and aquatic moss.

  • James sources his aquatic plants from two main UK suppliers, ProShrimp and Aquarium Gardens.


PROJECT 3 - Desktop nano aquarium with fish and shrimp

The nano-aquarium is lit by a single LED growlight. Photograph: James Wong.

The nano-aquarium is lit by a single LED growlight. Photograph: James Wong.

James shows how to make a nano aquarium with a single LED growlight as the only electricity-powered element. James says: "I want to have a garden I can potter in, but I can't afford one, so instead I potter in my tank".

  • The tank is lit by a desk lamp with an LED growlight bulb from IKEA in it, set on a timer to come on during the day.

  • There are no pumps, filters or heaters involved.

  • The plants clean the water, and the creatures inside the tank - freshwater shrimp and Endler's guppies (Poecilia wingei) - help to eat the algae. James let the tank run for three months to check conditions were right before introducing fish and shrimp.

  • James's flat is warm enough that the water temperature stays high enough for tropical fish without use of a heater, but in a colder environment white cloud mountain minnows would work just as well.

  • The only maintenance required is a change of water once a week to reduce nitrates, which involves removing a mugful or two of water and replacing with tap water, and some algae removal.

  • Any algae buildup is removed using an extra-hard smoker's toothbrush.

  • There are more than 100 small plants in the tank, which is about the size of two shoeboxes stacked one on top of the other. None of them are growing in the gravel at the bottom - they are all glued to the wood in the tank. "It's like an underwater tree branch with epiphytes," James says.

  • Floating on the surface is a dwarf form of water lettuce.

  • One of James's favourite aquatic plants is Bucephalandra, a member of the Araceae - it looks a bit like a tiny peace lily and comes from Borneo where it grows on seasonally flooded riverbanks so it can thrive both inside and outside water. It is one of the few underwater plants that can flower. Also in the tank is Pogostemnon, another slow-growing aquatic plant, and Anubias pangolino and Bolbitis heteroclita 'Difformis' as per the mini terrariums described above.

  • James sources his aquatic plants from two main UK suppliers, ProShrimp and Aquarium Gardens.

  • Sticking out of the tank are two pieces of driftwood onto which is glued a compact form of Nepenthes (tropical pitcher plant) and a Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) these are watered purely via the wick effect of the wood drawing up water from the tank below.

  • James reckons the whole tank cost around £50 to make, with plants, especially if you source a small tank from a charity shop/thrift store.


PROJECT 4 - tank with mini green wall above

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James's rented flat came with a laminate bookcase so he has removed a shelf or two to create a cubby hole for this tank and mini green wall combo. 

  • The mini living wall is only about 30cm high and is watered solely by the wick effect, where the plants draw water up from the tank below.

  • James uses floristry pins and aquarium glue (see above) to secure plants onto capillary matting that backs onto a board.

  • Plants used include mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii), moss and asplenium ferns.

  • The tank is unheated as per the tank above, and contains just one Siamese fighting fish as they are territorial.

  • There is an LED growlight from IKEA above to light the space.

  • The water is changed once a week - a mugful or two - to reduce nitrates.

  • Liana-like azalea roots (sometimes sold as spider roots) are stapled in place.

  • On either side of the cubbyhole, James has placed mirrored acrylic cut to size from SimplyPlastics.com (same supplier as the acrylic for the coffee table) to bounce the light around.


Coming up in On The Ledge episode 55... 

Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Next Friday in On The Ledge, find out how James keeps his houseplants healthy, where he buys al his begonias and one simple trick to keep Tillandsias happy. And of course, the story behind THAT nano pond... and remember, sign up to Patreon now and pledge $5 or more a month for an exclusive extra interview with James...

Question of the week

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Is this a great plant or what? Good choice @fancytits! I saw a choice specimen on the Ottershaw Cacti stand at Chelsea this year (pictured left). I suggest treating this plant like a 'regular' succulent, in other words full sun, and watering when it dries out.

The species, Albuca spiralis, is summer-dormant, but I read an interesting post by Laidback Gardener Larry Hodgson which indicated that the cultivar 'Frizzle Sizzle' has had some of that bred out of it, so it should be easier to keep happy. If you fancy trying to grow this one from seed, you can get hold of a packet from the wonderful Plant World Seeds. Can't wait to give that a try! 

Want to ask me a question? Tweet @janeperrone, leave a message on my Facebook page or email ontheledgepodcast@gmail.com

New to On The Ledge?

If this is the first episode you have listened to, please do check out the rest of the show - there are another 54 episodes to enjoy! Here are a few highlights:

Do also check out my houseplant buying guides - one for those in the UK and one for those in the US. And meet fellow houseplant fans by joining the On The Ledge Facebook community, Houseplant fans of On The Ledge - I'd love to see you there!

On The Ledge talks, live show and houseplant chats 

I am going to be at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show on the afternoon of July 4 (next week!) giving talks on houseplants in the roses theatre at 1pm and 4pm - do join me if you can. And on the evening of Friday October 26 I'll be bringing a live show of On The Ledge to the RHS London Urban Garden show, with special guests including Alys Fowler and all kinds of leafy fun! Put those dates in your diary NOW!

Credits

This week's show featured Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy DropsAn Instrument the Boy Called Happy Day Gokarna by Samuel Corwin, Plantation by Jason Shaw and Oh Mallory by Josh Woodward, all licensed under Creative Commons.