Instagram star, The Plant Rescuer, on her new book and the quest to save our houseplants

Former Edinburgh College of Art student, Sarah Gerrard-Jones, offers sage advice on saving your greenery

Many of us are guilty of treating plants like ornaments.

You go along to the newest trendy plant shop to choose something bonnie, like a velvet leaf philodendron or a ponytail palm. Then take it home, stick it on your brightest windowsill and watch as it slowly starts to turn a sickly yellow colour and the leaves fall off.

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After a panicked period of watering, dousing with Baby Bio and moving it around your flat, you concede defeat and never really understand what’s gone wrong.

Sarah Gerrard-Jones Pic: Emily Stein

Thankfully, there’s an expert who wants to help prospective plant parents.

Sarah Gerrard-Jones, 46, who graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1999 before moving to London to pursue a career as a freelance picture editor, has her first book out, and it’s named after her Instagram account which now has an incredible 202k followers.

The Plant Rescuer hardback is subtitled, “the book your houseplants want you to read”.

It’s a bit of a wake-up call, to those who forget that plants are living and have varying requirements. Our leafy friends shouldn’t be so easily disposable.

The Plant Rescuer book jacket

“There are only two things I would regard as being ‘wrong’ when buying a houseplant: firstly, putting a plant’s aesthetic value above its basic needs; and secondly, not investing time in learning to care for it,” writes Gerrard-Jones. “When choosing a plant, you shouldn’t select one purely for its visual appeal - your choice should primarily be informed by the conditions you can offer that plant within your home. Buying a plant because it will ‘bring life’ to a bathroom with no light is wrong, as is buying a cactus to ‘make a statement’ in a dark alcove of your sitting room”.

As well as other technical stuff, this information-packed read covers the art of watering, light, and a section on individual varieties, including hip and wonderfully named favourites like the peanut cactus, polka dot begonia, Chinese money plant, rabbit’s foot fern, and their care, as well as rescue suggestions that include how to repot.

Much of the content is a way to answer the questions that she’s repeatedly asked about houseplant maintenance and rescue.

During lockdown, when enthusiasm for the subject matter reached a peak, at one point she was getting 500 to 1000 new followers daily, and was spending up to four hours per day answering direct messages.

“I began to think perhaps there was a better way of getting the information out there. Then out of the blue I was contacted by a publisher who asked if I'd ever thought of writing a book,” she says. “Over the years I've realised that many people love the idea of owning houseplants but lack the basic knowledge of how to care for them. I've addressed the basics in the book but also gone into much greater depth for those more experienced growers”.

As a self-taught expert Gerrard-Jones got the bug (or should it be leaf mite) back when she rescued an orchid that her local DIY store had dumped in a bin, as it was past its flowering stage. She nurtured it back to health, then did the same for a dumb cane and a Swiss cheese plant.

“I couldn’t wait to find my next patient”, she writes in the book.

Although her experience with botany was rudimentary until this point, you could say that the seed for her interest had been planted in childhood.

“My grandad, John Scott, worked at Tillypronie Estate in Aberdeenshire from 1960-82. It’s a 14,000 acre estate, which was owned by Lord Astor of Hever, between the River Dee and the River Don,” says Gerrard-Jones. “My grandad worked as head forester before being promoted to estate manager. It was a privilege to visit him at work on the estate. My love of nature and growing plants also came from spending time with him in his own garden in Rhynie, which was full of flowers, fruit and vegetables”.

Although most of her knowledge comes from hands-on experience, she’s also been inspired by wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnston of The Wild Gardener television series, and another star. “Monty Don is a legend, he's the David Attenborough of gardening,” says Gerrard-Jones, who has teamed up with plant delivery company Happy Houseplants to set up a Plant Clinic at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show from May 24-28.

From her home in St Albans, Gerrard-Jones continues to save neglected, dejected and rejected plants. However, these days, she coaxes them back to health before giving them away to friends or charities. There’s little room for any more greenery in her house and she’s just installed a new cacti hothouse so she can move some of her wards out to the garden.

There are many plants that she’d like to own, but she practices what she preaches.

“The only ones that should be avoided are those which you can't provide the right environment for in your home. I'd love to own a large bird of paradise (strelitzia) but they require very bright light which I just don't get enough of in my house - therefore I won't buy one because I know it won't be happy”, she says. “You should do some research into the plant you like before buying it and if you can't fulfill it's needs within your home, consider buying something more suitable instead - that way you'll avoid disappointment and wasting your money”.

The Plant Rescuer by Sarah Gerrard-Jones is out on 28 April 2022 (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

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