How to Grow an Indoor Jungle, According to Someone Who's Done It

It's a dream worth striving towards: a beautiful home abundant in natural light, unique furniture, and indoor plants. You access to natural light is somewhat up to the real estate gods, and an inspired antique collection is largely based on diligence. But the plants? That you can definitely do.

New Zealand-born Melbourne-based creative Kelly Thompson is something of an autodidact when it comes to caring for house plants, and has cultivated her very own indoor jungle at home. We reached out to find out how she, not a professional botanist, maintains such a lush garden at home.

Plants have always been a part of her home life. "I think it's because of my mum," she says. "Our house always had plants when I was a kid so I think it's just an assumed normal for me."

These days, she keeps 12 plants at home, with her favourites being Boston ferns and plants with large leaves like palms and monsteras.

"I like the drama of a big droopy fern," she says. "Other than ferns, I always choose plants with a large surface area on the leaves – mainly because I feel like they look tidier, more graphic and less scrappy."

If you're a plant rookie, it's best to keep it simple. "For me, palms and cacti are definitely the easiest plants to take care of," Kelly says.

When it comes to choosing her plants, Kelly is more spontaneous. "A new plant, for me, is often inspired by boredom, or an unplanned drive past a plant shop that just happens to have a car space out front – I consider that a sign."

"When I choose a plant I choose them based on their appearance with no thought about maintenance, you've got to love a plant to want to look after it. I always check for mould or bugs or anything weird looking, and always try and choose the ones with new growth – if they have new growth they must be feeling happy.

If a plant dies or suffers on your watch, Kelly says it's important to be patient and pay attention. "You can't forget a watering if a plant is already unhappy!"

"One of the ferns in my bathroom [above, left] is in recovery mode after a nasty bug sucked the life out of it, and then I over-sprayed it with treatment and the poor guy had a rough couple of weeks. He's only just coming back to good, but still looks a little unhealthy."

If you're wondering whether speaking to your plants is actually a thing, Kelly says 100 per cent yes – usually she's apologising to them or asking them if they're ok.

We wanted to know more about Kelly's intuitive approach to caring for indoor plants – keep the following in mind when you're turning your own home into a plant-filled oasis.

Kelly Thompson monstera plant

How do you know when a plant needs watering:

"I usually stick to a super basic schedule – once a week do a full soaking. Nice and simple. I think once you've had a plant for a while you can see if it looks unhappy. My monstera droops and the leaves seem to stretch out less when it gets thirsty. The ferns go pale and the leaves start to look thinner; the palms start to get little brown outlines on the leaves and halt all growth. If you watch them, they tell you. There are so many times that I've gone to a meeting and see plants fully drooping in a corner... I always ask, 'Can I water your plant please?'"

Kelly Thompson Boston fern in kitchen

What do you do when the leaves turn brown:

"If they're fully brown that means they're dead, so I cut them off. I do a regular 'haircut' of my ferns and clear out all of the dead undershrub to make way for new growth and tidy them up.  If it's a palm that's got a little sunburnt around the edges or, for example, has been attacked by a pet (like mine regularly are) and causing brown damage, sometimes I just trim away the brown part and leave the rest of the leaf as is."

"I feel like if you pay attention to a plant you can nearly always avoid dead parts. I notice that with my ferns, when they're getting thirsty or as soon as I notice that I know I've neglected them, the leaves go a little paler and there seem to be bigger gaps between the individual leaves – almost like they're retracting. Let it go too long and they will go past pale to brown and there's no coming back from that."

Kelly Thompson Nicolai palm

How do you know how much sunlight a plant needs:

"As Australia is so sunny and hot there aren't many indoor plants that want to be hanging out in direct afternoon sun behind glass. Same with watering, it really is about paying attention to them – if the leaves have burnt brown areas or it is shrivelling up on a hot day, get it out of there. If a plant doesn't seem to have grown in a year and you're doing everything else right, maybe it needs a bit more sun."

Kelly Thompson monstera

What are the benefits of indoor plants:

"For me, it started because I lived in an apartment and just craved some greenery – a bit of a connection to outdoor space. Now I live in a house with a backyard I feel like I need them less, but I still love having them around. I feel like they're my pets to some extent; I have a bit of a personal connection with them and I find that they're a rewarding, low maintenance hobby. When I go to a house without any plants I find it really weird! Not only do they look great, but I'm sure they have health benefits."

Where's the best place to go for advice:

"Google, usually, but there is an amazing man at the Bulleen Art Nursery who is a perma-farmer and he seems to know everything about everything. If I get stuck or need suggestions I always ask him, he's super enthusiastic and loves helping... I think he appreciates similarly enthusiastic garden people."

Where's the best place to start:

"Start with something small and maybe just one at a time. As soon as I get a new plant I always re-pot it and give it some fertiliser – something natural – put it in a light space, and water it once a week. I think it's pretty simple: just pay attention, don't try too hard, and plants will respond. Once you're confident with one, get another. Then another, then another..."

For more questions about caring for indoor plants, florist Sophia Kaplan has answers.

Or, for more advice on how to choose the best plant for you, here are the best indoor plants for your star sign.

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