Virginia Winder: Room by room with Michael Mansvelt
When the winter wilderness isn't inviting, try some inside gardening. Virginia Winder learns about some lofty plantings and room-by-room instructions from a man with an eye for design.
Like a plant explorer in the wilds of some far-off jungle, Michael Mansvelt is in his own leafy element.
In the covered courtyard of the White Hart Hotel hub, the owner of Plantation Design House talks about the nine giant hanging plant holders flourishing there, zooms in on what to grow at home and highlights the interior stars.
It's a good day to focus on indoor plants. Outside, it's as grey as a black and white photograph, the horizon blurred by never-ending rain.
Inside, the water has dampened some of the tables and chairs, but in the middle of the New Plymouth atrium it's dry. With flat whites between us, Michael talks first about the shaggy hangers, which each weigh between 180kg and 200kg.
Like natural chandeliers, these wok-shaped pots are a big feature of the airy space. Filled with exotic beauties, these two-year-old planters are co-owned by six of the building's tenants.
Michael says the courtyard is the perfect environment for growing indoor plants. "We are in an outdoor environment but we don't get the wind or the cold."
Pointing out stems of yellow flowers, he says: "The glory boy at the moment is the orchids, which from a gardener's point of view, are revered because they flower for such a long time."
There are also different varieties of Boston fern. "You will see a lot in the United States on southern porches. We can't grow them outdoors here, but we can grow them in this environment."
A bridal veil climber, a close relation of the invasive weed wandering willy, will soon be covered in white flowers. "You can't get it to take outdoors here, so it's not a threat."
Climbing up the heavy chains that hold the hangers is scindapsus, also known as devil's ivy. Michael says the vine will add a jungle-like feel to the atrium. "We are hoping they will grow up the chains and attach themselves to the beams."
As well as cymbidium orchids, he's been experimenting with the moth and vanda varieties. Orchids were a big feature of his creation, Lost Paradise, which was last year's Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular landscape design project in Pukekura Park.
Also popped into the woks is Christmas cactus, which began as cuttings from the grandmother of Michael's partner. "It just seems to travel."
Goldfish plants, which have long dark-orange flowers that look like the aquatic creatures, add colour as does the grey leaves of senecio.
The hangers are stuffed full of plants and because of their weight, had to be engineered to have double protection "so if anything happened to the fixing, the cradle would support it".
While we're chatting, the rain still falling outside, a friend stops and the men have a conversation about a bird of paradise plant that's not doing well under cover. "You always put bird of paradise in the rain," he proffers advice.
Back to the hanging garden, he says the big beauties were a bit of an experiment because the steel woks have no drainage. "Some plants can sit with wet feet, but most don't like it at all. If we had drainage there would be rusty water all over people's heads or the café tables."
Instead, they had to be extremely careful to water just the right amount. "All plants like the rain. We like a shower every day and plants like to be washed every couple of days."
Keeping indoor plants clean is another must. "Having dust on leaves prohibits the plants from photosynthesis."
Michael says having a stressed plant opens it up to pests and diseases "just as when we are run down we can get sick".
The pots have an irrigation system and they also get tended to once a month with water, organic fertiliser and insecticide. To do this, Plantation staff put up scaffolding and while up high also take off dead leaves.
"This sort of thing doesn't happen easily. We had one woman wanting to do them in a night club in Wellington," he shakes his head. "No light."
Most of the plants growing in the pots are epiphytes. "We are recreating what would happen in the canopy of trees in a rainforest."
Down low, there are huge pots growing a variety of palms, flowers like the long-flowering cyclamen and glossy-leafed plants.
"It shows people what can be done and how nice it is to beautify a space with plants," he says.
He's also got great ideas for homes.
For a sunny dining room, he recommends dypsis palms. "They are a very elegant-looking palm with graceful arching stems and they will tolerate really bright light and full sun."
In the kitchen, he says people could have the moth orchid, Phalaenopsis. "They are brilliant because they just keep going and going."
He pops inside to grab a cerise specimen, the speckled flowers floating like winged insects.
"Get a beautiful antique fruit bowl, some sphagnum moss and it looks a million dollars."
In an office with low light, his first choice is the peace lily, which comes in different varieties. "I love them because when they need water they wilt and are impossible to kill, virtually."
Another great choice for low light is the rhapis palm. In the courtyard, the shaded back wall is lined with these, and all look healthy and dramatic.
"They will tolerate dark, so dark you could virtually grow them in a cupboard," Michael says.
Another surprising plant that thrives indoors with little light is clivia, which would also be ideal for a bathroom, along with peace lilies and maidenhair ferns.
Calathea, with patterned leaves, philodendrons and ficus plants, all come in many varieties and are ideal for indoor beautification.
Michael says that plant explorers used to head into the wilds and come back with plants that needed extra protection so conservatories were built to house them.
Indoor plants were big in the 1960s and 1970s, and now there's a revival, especially because people are learning the health-giving properties of sharing their air with greenery.
"I had lots of indoor plants as a boy," Michael says.
When he was young, he lived in Stratford, and had bush at hand to explore.
"Dad built me a shade house. I used to transplant all the ferns and mosses and grow them in in the shade house. Ninety per cent of them died because I didn't know what I was doing. But sometimes things struck and they would end up in my bedroom."
Both his parents were into gardening and at home they had a big veggie plot. "I remember going to a friend's and they didn't have a veggie garden and thinking 'what did they eat?'"
He's big on getting out into nature and says there's a new movement called "forest bathing", which involves people getting beneficial vibes from walking through bush and being surrounded by plants.
"For me, I have to be in the garden. I need to get my fix, even if it's for just that 20 minutes at night with a glass of wine watering the plants or pulling the leaves off," says Michael, who started Plantation in 2001 and starred on the TV show Mucking In during 2003.
With deep-rooted knowledge and a desire to keep learning, he loves sharing advice with others. "Be prepared to be experimental (with indoor plants)," he says. "You might not get it right the first time, but it's fairly easy. Take note of where things growing well. Have fun and have a play."
And for those without a lot of money, he recommends cutting off the tops of yuccas and planting, and he wants people to share their plants.
He's also got guidance for people who have pots with poor or no drainage; put charcoal in the bottom to purify water and then add general potting mix.
But he's adamant about his most important piece of advice: "Don't ever put pots on carpet. Believe me I have tried and tried and have over-watered and ended up having a big hole."
However, he does love dramatic growth in the lounge. "There should always be a corner left for a big plant."
There will always be space for plants in Michael's life.