Designing With Houseplants
Want to breathe new life into your interiors? Follow these tips for bringing nature indoors.
I aspire to inhabit a home that’s lush with greenery—everything from restrained topiaries and towering ficus to delicate vines spilling over bookshelves. But in my 80-year-old Dutch Colonial house, I’m constantly challenged to find the right indoor plants for my spaces. I’ve unwittingly fried delicate maidenhair ferns from barely 24 hours of neglect, and no matter how earnestly I’ve tried to woo those glorious fiddle-leaf figs with just the right amount of sunlight, I’m afraid they’re just not that into me.
So I turned to Holly Manon and Julie Liu, owners of the Falls Church gift and garden-supply shop Botanologica, for advice on how to choose and nurture indoor plants that will thrive in all corners of my home. Here are their tips for helping clumsy green thumbs like me up our indoor gardening game.
Start by assessing sunlight conditions.
“The No. 1 rule is that you have to choose the right indoor plant for the right light conditions,” says Manon. “South- and east-facing windows have the best light exposure, while western exposure offers hotter, afternoon sun. North-facing exposure is good for low-light plants.” Before you buy, observe the spaces where you intend to put plants to track how much sunlight those areas get. Six hours is considered full sun; four to six is partial; and anything less than four is low light. Also, the farther away you place your plant from the window, the lower the light intensity. Raised planters—or potted plants placed on top of an artful stack of books or a side table—can help leaves reach the direct sunlight from higher windows.
Choose indoor plants that can tolerate you.
Fiddle-leaf figs and monstera deliciosa—the “Swiss cheese” plant, known for its split, heart-shaped leaves—are hot designer plants, but they can be high maintenance. Even cacti aren’t as easy as they seem. “Succulents are so beautiful and popular, but they need a lot of bright light,” says Liu. “Otherwise they can stretch for the light and lose that cute little rosette form that everyone loves.” Manon recommends haworthia, a succulent that keeps its shape even in spaces that don’t offer lots of light, or ferns with thick, waxy leaves—like Austral Gem. Other good bets: philodendrons, which tend to thrive in all kinds of lighting conditions; grape leaf ivy, a “quiet and sophisticated trailing plant that isn’t too demanding”; and the ZZ plant and snake plant, which are “fairly indestructible.”
Remember the “thriller/filler/spiller” rule.
When creating a container garden, choose a taller, standout indoor plant as the centerpiece; balance out the height with a trailing creeper; and then use a midsize plant to fill the spaces between. Manon and Liu like the combination of a ruffled-frond bird’s nest fern, paired with the variegated leaves of creeping fig and the parsley-like rabbit’s foot fern. “It’s important to ensure that different plants share the same environmental needs—light, water and soil type—and that you choose the right combination for the shape of your planter. For example, a tapestry of low-growing sedums is a perfect scheme for a low bowl or long trough, especially if it’s resting on a sunny tabletop.”
Be mindful of heat sources.
Radiators and air vents can wreak havoc on indoor plants, although it is possible to strategically camouflage those eyesores with the right potted greenery. “If you’re trying to disguise a radiator unit in front of a window, succulents in a long concrete trough or insulating container can thrive in the sunlight and withstand that heat,” Manon says. She suggests adding a layer of sand or stones in the bottom of your planter to help dissipate the heat. Using a plant stand or a “spacer”—such as a painted block of wood—will also help protect plants from the extremes in temperature.
Give plants room to grow.
When the roots of your indoor plants are creeping out the bottom, it’s time to size up—but only about an inch bigger at a time. If you notice a gray film on the soil or the container, that’s a sign of mineral buildup that can be potentially poisonous to the plant—an indicator that it’s time to refresh the soil or repot.
Expect an adjustment period.
“It’s not unusual for a plant to experience a short period of decline once you bring it home, especially if you purchased it from a humid, greenhouse-type environment,” says Manon. If you find yourself wanting to change things up after a month or two, you can always move some of your houseplants out onto the deck or patio once the weather is warm. “All of the tropical plants are also happy outdoors—you can move them outside after the frost date has passed, typically around Mother’s Day,” says Liu. “You can start to acclimate them to the outdoors for a few hours at a time, taking about five to seven days to make the full transition.”
Think outside the pot.
Looking for a stunning and low-maintenance way to bring greenery into a room? Try mounting epiphytic plants (aka “air plants”) such as orchids and staghorn ferns on wooden frames. “These plants naturally grow in the understory of trees,” says Manon, “and their forms are graceful when arching off the wall and viewed from below.” Kokedama, a Japanese form of bonsai in which plants are taken out of their pots and wrapped in a moss ball, are also fun—“like little plant-pets that demand hands-on attention.” Not sure how to bring nature into low-light spaces or windowless rooms? Living plants won’t thrive in those settings, so consider using natural elements that no longer require light or water—such as preserved moss balls, dried seedpods or pinecones.
Elevate your indoor plants with sophisticated containers.
Here’s where your design style comes in. Try a variety of modern, polished, textural and organic containers in a unifying color palette. Or add baskets to play up multiple colors and patterns. Whatever the aesthetic, just be sure to choose right-size containers that offer sufficient drainage. “Cachepots [ornamental flower pots] are lovely, but they tend to trap water,” Liu cautions. “It’s best not to pot your plant directly into them.” Instead, use an insert—a plastic grower’s container with drainage holes in the bottom, or a porous terra-cotta pot—that keeps roots from getting waterlogged.
Don’t rely on the calendar to tell you when to water.
Instead, go by feel, or stick a wooden skewer an inch (or three, for larger pots) into the soil if you’re shy about getting your hands dirty, to test an indoor plant’s moisture level. “Using rainwater is best,” Liu says, “but if you’re not lucky enough to have a rain barrel, you can use tap water left out in an open container overnight so that the chlorine and harmful chemicals evaporate.” Before watering, aerate your plants by poking a pencil into the soil in several places to help water get directly to the roots. You can also put them in the shower—“like a little spa for your plant-baby”—to help wash the dust off the leaves, which can impact a plant’s health.
Pets and Indoor Plants
Do your furry family members have a tendency to munch on leaves and petals? Botanologica recommends these houseplants as safe for cats and dogs:
- Aeschynanthus (lipstick plant)
- African violets
- Calathea lancifolia (rattlesnake plant)
- Christmas cactus
- Cissus (grape ivy)
- Flame violets
- Maranta (prayer plant)
- Norfolk pine
- Ponytail palm
- Selaginella (club moss)
For a list of plants that are toxic to pets, visit aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants.
After years of failed relationships with tropical plants, Adrienne Wichard-Edds has finally settled down with a lovely Marble Queen pothos.