Plant Pep Talk

Gardener Mila Crewe-Brown shares tip to help you flex your green fingers

Despite the Joburg winter’s dryness, this freelance writer's home is surrounded by - and filled with - beautiful foliage. She tells us how she does it

02 August 2020 - 00:00 By Leana Schoeman
A handsome Rhipsalis Baccifera next to woven bottles bought in Mozambique.
A handsome Rhipsalis Baccifera next to woven bottles bought in Mozambique.
Image: Mila Crewe-Brown

Over the past few years gardening has moved from being an exclusive discipline belonging to the gardening types we're intimidated by to a more accessible pastime. Thanks to Instagram and the strong indoor plant trend that seems to be here to stay, we're becoming indoor pot plant fundis or "plant parents" as some now call themselves.

With this in mind, we decided to talk to real people who love getting their hands dirty; those who might just be starting out, and others who have been doing things on a smaller scale indoors and outdoors as a creative pastime to remedy the stresses of modern life.

This week we speak to freelance writer Mila Crewe-Brown, who seems to have it all when it comes to gardening. We find out how she makes it through the dry winter months, and get her tips on preparing for whatever the season throws at her, plus her go-to favourite plants.

My garden: We have a large back and front garden which is dormant now. It's mostly green foliage and any flowers we have tend to be white. I've developed a weakness for indoor plants too, so there are about 20 of them inside in pots, as well as another lot on our covered veranda. We also have potted herbs in a gravel courtyard outside our kitchen, which is really convenient.

My winter survival strategy: Don't look at your garden! No, I'm joking. But, seriously, if you're in Joburg it's just unsightly. Admittedly, I haven't done a whole lot up until this winter to prepare. We've had pretty bad frost here, so I rushed off to get frost covers (which I swore I'd never do, because #ugly). I've moved my staghorn fern from the veranda into our bathroom and I can't believe how much happier it is. It had to contend with a hailstorm a few months ago as well as the plummeting overnight temperatures ... bad mom.

My three favourite plants:

1. The Kangaroo Paw Fern (Microsorum Diversifolium). I have one in the kitchen in a terracotta pot, which dries out nicely between waterings. It is so resilient and fuss-free. It has glossy, lush green leaves which provide incredible volume for a single plant and simply droops a little when it's thirsty. Give it some water and it's perky again.

2. My mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis Baccifera) is also in the kitchen, on a shelf above the sink where it catches the steam. It has the most spectacular sculptural form with its spindly green stems and delicate white fruits that look like little eggs. It looks like coral and is trailing down over the shelf now.

3. My blue star ferns (Phlebodium Aureum) are in small terracotta pots in the bathroom, and there's a large one in the dining room. I love their volume as well as the beautiful powdery grey-green colour of the leaves.

The view from the bathroom window is like looking into a rainforest.
The view from the bathroom window is like looking into a rainforest.
Image: Mila Crewe-Brown
Rhipsalis Cereuscula and Phlebodium Aureum in the bathroom.
Rhipsalis Cereuscula and Phlebodium Aureum in the bathroom.
Image: Mila Crewe-Brown

One tool I couldn't go without: For my need to prune, it's a tie between my loppers — which have telescopic handles so you can extend them to reach higher branches — and my folding pruning saw which I got as a gift. But I also have my eye on a Silky Hayauchi extendable pole saw which reaches nearly 4m up into the trees.

Things I don't love/love about gardening: Winter's incredible dryness and my poor frost-bitten bushes. It's too awful. And then, conversely, the abundance of the summer season when we are found working in the garden most weekends, transplanting and pruning.

To feed or not to feed? I use Seagro organic plant food, but probably too irregularly. I also buy an organic liquid that our local nursery (Colourful Splendour, Craighall) makes up themselves. My family hate me for it though — you can smell it from quite a distance.

Two staghorn ferns and a Boston fern in the shower area.
Two staghorn ferns and a Boston fern in the shower area.
Image: Mila Crewe-Brown
Philodendron Scandens tumbles down the living room shelves.
Philodendron Scandens tumbles down the living room shelves.
Image: Mila Crewe-Brown

My special tips and tricks: Capture rainwater whenever possible. Plants, especially potted ones, thrive on it. I also like to give my leafy indoor plants (like rubber plants and fiddle leaf fig) a good clean with a cloth and mild dishwashing soap. If they get too dusty, they can't take in enough light. I spray them with a little Pokon Leafshine after, and they look like they've come straight out of a greenhouse.

My favourite ritual: No surprises here. In case it's not completely obvious — pruning. I
enjoy pruning everything, from smaller shrubs to large tree branches. Plants love a good haircut and I get a real kick out of it. I think a well-shaped tree looks so much more handsome than one that is left to simply grow wild.