Dentists often complain that they have no desire to peer into their friends’ mouths looking for cavities, likewise most doctors would rather not spend their free time examining the growths and protuberances of their social circle. As a professional gardener I have no such qualms, and actually quite look forward to the inevitable moment at any dinner party when the host asks me: “do you think you could have a look at my houseplant?”

As such I have travelled the world looking at similar collections of brown-leaved Dracaenas and non-flowering orchids, and I can report that the people of Bogotá seem no better or worse at keeping plants alive than those of Europe, North America or Asia, which is a shame because in many ways Bogotá is blessed with the perfect conditions for indoor cultivation. Every apartment could be a lush green forest.

The city has an exceptionally high quality of light. An equatorial latitude and its situation on a mountain plateau mean that Bogotá is drenched in high energy short-wave radiation, which is terrible for human skin but exceptional for houseplants. Here we have no winter, no need for air-conditioning or central heating, and just one window and few white walls will bounce enough light around a room to please all but the fussiest of houseplants.

There are a few unique problems presented by the altitude; mountainous air is arid meaning plants dry out more quickly here than they would at sea level, and the general reduction in barometric pressure means that it is easier for water to defuse from the leaf surface. But I have found that even damp loving jungle plants can be grown happily and without the need for humidifiers in my city apartment.
In order to take advantage of Bogotá’s unique climate and grow amazing houseplants there are just five things the indoor gardener needs to get right.

Substrate

The most common difference between a living plant and a dead one is the soil in the pot. Orchids require a specialist mix, which can be bought in Bogota’s many viveros and hardware stores. Most other plants just require a moist but free-draining compost.
In a year of searching, I have yet to find a decent pre-made compost for sale in Bogotá. The bags commercially available are either entirely soil, which turns into sticky mud when wet, or all rotted organic matter, which lacks some of the essential minerals given by common garden dirt. I generally buy one bag of each type and mix them together, I know the texture is right when after squeezing the compost it neither disintegrates nor forms a claggy ball.

Watering

If you have an unhappy orchid it is most likely getting too much water. The most commonly grown orchid in Bogotá is the Phalaenopsis, that beautiful plant with the butterfly-petals than can be found for sale in every Carulla or Exito. It’s an epiphyte, meaning in the wild it grows on the side of trees with only the water it can pull from the surrounding air and moss. If it is allowed to sit in damp compost for any length of time the roots will rot and no new leaves or flowers will be produced.
Far more plants are killed by over watering than by dehydration. As a rule give all plants a good soaking once a week and then play it by ear, if the soil is bone-dry before the week is out then water more frequently, if it is still wet then water less.

Light

Most traditional houseplants are natives of the shady forest floor, so if they are directly exposed to Bogotá’s harsh midday sun their leaves will scorch. I grow my orchids near east facing windows and shuffle them around depending on how they adapt to the conditions. As a general rule a plant that is getting too much light will produce yellowish leaves while a plant in too deep shade will grow oversized dark-green leaves.

Drainage

For some reason most of the plant pots sold in Colombia have no drainage. Unless watered exceptionally sparingly this tends to mean soggy anaerobic soils that starve plant roots of oxygen. I make drainage holes in my containers with a household drill, but another solution is to place a layer of stones at the bottom of a large pot and place the plant in its smaller pot on top.

Repotting

Every couple of years most houseplants will need to be moved to a bigger container with fresh soil. The joy of cultivating in Bogotá is that this can be done at any time of year, but expect growth to stop for a while as the plant adjusts to its new home. For orchids wait until the plant has finished flowering; the shock of repotting can cause buds to drop and delay the formation of flower spikes.

  • anne burton

    Thanks for the article but I have two terraces and grow most of my plants outside, I have many different varieties of orchids too. I wish Mr. Ben Dark would come over and give me some tips for gardening in pots which is quite hard. His comments on light and water are spot on.

  • This is so useful, thank you. Now, I’d love to see an article about high altitude baking. All my Christmas baking this year was a flop 🙁

    • anne burton

      I have spent thirty years doing all you are supposed to do for high altitude baking. None of it works. I finally gave up, got out my English Mary Berry cake book and followed the instructions to the letter. Lo and behold I can now produce Patisserie standard cakes. Bit of a myth this high altitude baking lark, as I have proved. I think one’s oven is far more likely to be the culprit.

      • Not sure, I lived in the Coast of Colombia before Bogota. Same oven. Same everything. All failed. Maybe it’s the recipes?