Plant Chat: Thomas Denning

I have a thing for botanical names. I also have a thing for weird plants. When I discovered Thomas Denning’s gorgeous instagram feed featuring beautiful/weird plants, complete with botanical names and growing info, I fell in love (I’m a plant push over). Thomas is a Melbourne based horticulturalist with a fluorescent green thumb and a passion for indoor plants and acacias and every other plant species (his spirit plant, he tells me, is an Acacia glaucoptera). 

Image by Thomas Denning
Horticulturalist and indoor plant lover, Thomas Denning

Please tell us about you and your life with plants? Most of my childhood was spent down in Hobart before moving to Melbourne 11 or so years ago. Plants and gardening have always been a part of my life in some way but they have really taken over now I’m in my 30s. I have always found gardening and tending to plants very calming and cathartic.

There is something special about being able to nurture a plant or garden and watch it grow over time.”

You work as a horticulturalist. How did you get into this field and why do you love it? The green thumb gene runs deep on both my mother and father’s sides of the family. I spent a lot of my childhood helping my parents and grandparents out in their gardens or running to the neighbour’s houses to get cuttings and swapping produce.

I worked in clothing retail for most of my 20s which was fantastic but decided to pursue my passion for plants as a career for a bit of a lifestyle change. I love the industry because there is so much history and knowledge in the community which means you never stop learning and there is always someone that can offer you a different perspective or way of doing something.

Is there a typical day in the life of a working horticulturalist that you can describe to us? My day usually starts tending to my own plants at home, a bit of watering here and some cutting back if needed. Then I’ll either head out to do maintenance at a client’s garden or make my way into work at a local plant store. My days are quite varied – I like that no day is ever the same. Recently I adopted my dog Tina from a rescue shelter – she usually comes along with me as my sidekick.

You appear to have quite the indoor plant jungle in your home. Can you tell us about it? My indoor plant collection started to grow in size about five years ago and has moved with me from rental to rental. I’m particularly drawn to contrasting foliage – if anything has a weird growth habit or leaf I tend to snap it up. Everything is starting to fill out really nicely and a lot of the cuttings I have collected over the years are coming into their own.

I can’t imagine living in a house without plants – they provide such a softness and calming element to a home.”

It’s nice to feel connected to nature even though I live in an apartment in inner city Melbourne. There is a lot you can do with any size space to add greenery to it.

How many plants would you say you have? The amount of plants in my apartment never decreases. It’s a slow process of addition (and borderline hoarding). At last count, there were about 120 plants, give or take a few.

Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning

I know its like picking a favourite child, but what are your 3 favourites and why? It’s so hard picking even a top three, but I have always had a fascination with anything weird looking with an interesting structure.

Huperzia squarrosum and tassel ferns in general are favourites. They have such a wild growth habit once established and there are some great native species here in Australia.

I’m a huge sucker for Hoyas for similar reasons but I have very vivid memories of some of the huge specimens at my Gran’s house in Ocean Grove and have been intrigued by them ever since.

Aroids in general are fantastic due to the ease of care and dramatic foliage. I have quite a few philodendrons and monsteras at home and I never tire of seeing them develop over time.

What does the word abandon mean to you? To me personally it resonates as letting go of something. It’s so easy to get bogged down with all the minute details and habits in life, sometimes you just have to abandon things that don’t move you forward in a positive way.

We can see that you love to travel. What are three of the best destinations you can recommend for garden inspiration? Travel has always been a big part of my life particularly in my 20s. It’s such a fantastic way of experiencing different cultures and inspiring your own way of thinking.

There as so many amazing destinations for garden inspiration but my favourites would have to be Japan, England and our own backyard in Australia.”

Travelling through Japan was such a learning curve for me in regard to how people can utilise small spaces and incorporate plant life into them. The respect the Japanese have for their plants is also something I find very heart warming.

Getting to see Kew Gardens for the first time was something I will never forget the sheer size and history of the place was jaw dropping.

I have been lucky to travel quite a bit through Australia and I will never grow tired of the sheer size and scope of the landscapes we have here. Spending three weeks travelling the Northern Territory was one of my favourite trips. The NT can be so arid, dry and unforgiving, but so full of flora and fauna at the same time. The sunrises and sunsets around Kakadu are ridiculously beautiful.

Were curious though, how do your plants survive while youre away? It can be a bit of a gamble sometimes depending on how long we are away for, but I am quite lucky that a couple of friends usually drop in and water them for me. The plants are usually organised into categories with a extensive list with what to and what not to water.

Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning

Can you please tell us about some of the more rare and unusual plants youve grown in your home? I have never been afraid to have a crack at growing different plants in my apartment, but you  do have to be prepared for things not working 100% of the time. My apartment is north west facing so it goes from very hot during the warmer months to very cold in the cooler months which can be a bit of a problem for some tropical species.

Anthurium crystallinum was particularly challenging as I don’t use a greenhouse or humidifiers at all. It had a good few months in my house before I donated it to a friend with a greenhouse who could take much better care of it.

Being an indoor plant guy, we can imagine you have some pretty interesting plant holders and pots. What are some of your favourites? Melbourne has such an amazing artistic community and particularly talented ceramicists. You don’t have to travel far to find a beautiful planter for any kind of indoor specimen.

It’s so hard choosing favourites but I have a lot of pieces by Wingnut and Co, Sophie Moran, Leaf and Thread and Anchor Ceramics. They are all Melbourne based and make the most amazing homes for plants.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out as a horticulturalist? Just get out and about! It’s such a fantastic industry with many different areas to work in. Whether it’s through study, volunteering or just chatting to people at nurseries – there is always a way to be involved in the plant community.

Whats your dream green space like? The first image that pops into my head is the Featherston house by Robin Boyd in Ivanhoe. It’s such a beautiful blend of architecture and plant life – showing that both can exist and enhance each other beautifully. Creating something similar outside of Hobart is my dream.

Whats your tip for keeping indoor plants healthy and happy? The best way to keep indoor plants happy and healthy is to understand their requirements and the space you are working with.

Start out with a few plants and build your collection as you go, there is no harm in failure and you learn so much even from the plants that don’t work well.”

If you were a plant, what would you be? Tough choice. I have always been fascinated by wattles and particularly with Acacia glaucoptera from W.A. it has such an interesting growth habit and springs to life with abundant flowers. I would say it’s my spirit plant.

Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning
Image by Thomas Denning