This month’s column idea came from Southwest Journal editor, Sarah McKenzie, who’s been wondering for a while now how to create some kind of indoor garden in a sunny spot in her condo. Being a mostly outdoor gardener, myself, I called botanical artist and all-around passionate plant person, Shauna Moore for help, after seeing an ad announcing a talk she would soon be giving at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on this very subject.
The beauty of growing houseplants is they aren’t Minnesota specific, says Moore, who earned her horticulture degree from the University of Minnesota, where she currently works as a campus gardener. “Since you don’t have to worry about climate, you can use fabulous tropicals like jasmine, bougainvillea, gardenias and orchids,” she explains.
If you’re looking for quick relief from the long drab winter, a temporary display with a lot of blooms may be the way to go. Group several plants in the sunniest spot you have (a southern exposure would be best). Be prepared, though, to toss some of these bloomers out once the flowers fade, especially cyclamen, azaleas and mums, Moore says.
Of course, you have a lot more plant options if you’re not looking for bright blooms as much as interesting greenery. Just be sure to check your plant tags to ensure you have enough light for what you want to grow. As with outdoor gardens, any plant arrangement you put together will look better if you vary the color and texture of leaves, Moore says. To illustrate her point, she says she likes to pair silver-leaf philodendron with peace lilies, which have elegant, broad leaves.
Use snake plant (commonly known as mother-in-law’s tongue — nice) to add a vertical element to an indoor plant grouping. For a pop of color, you can’t beat crotons because their leaf colors range from yellow and green to orange and purple. You could also check out the varieties of schefflera and dieffenbachia that have variegated green-and-yellow leaves. Ferns are always great for adding an airy look. Jade plants are just plain beautiful. And if you want to try orchids, Moore recommends going with phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, because they’re easiest to grow. Try to buy plants with unopened buds so you can enjoy the flowers longer. (A word of caution: if you have kids or pets, do some research to see whether a plant is poisonous before putting it someplace where it can get munched on. Some plants, though considered toxic, cause only minor symptoms like skin irritation.)
To make an indoor garden look even more interesting, Moore suggests varying the height of plants. Of course, you can do this by creating the traditional class-picture look where tall plants stand in the back and the short ones in front. Or you can create your own levels by turning ordinary gardening pots upside down and putting plants on top of them. Some people are taking things a step further by bringing in more outdoor garden elements, Moore says. “I’m seeing a lot of people using birdbaths as planters,” she explains.
Because birdbaths are shallow, you’ll need to buy smaller plants, such as African violets and moss ferns. Another great option is miniature alpine plants. Now that Rice Creek Gardens in Blaine is gone (such a sad story), it’s harder to find alpine plants locally. Moore recommends buying them through mail-order catalogs. She particularly likes Logee’s (www.logees.com) for these, and for tropicals, as well. Having shopped around recently for a few houseplants, myself, I would highly recommend a trip to Linder’s in St. Paul if you’re looking for a wide selection at affordable prices. (It’s warm and smells really good in there, too.)
If having a birdbath in your house is just too weird an idea, Moore points out that terrariums are currently making a big comeback. One nice thing about terrariums, she says, is that they make indoor gardening more portable, so you can move your garden under glass to whichever room you like, providing you have the bright direct, or indirect, light the plants will need. Again, you’ll probably want to go with more shallowly rooted plants. In addition to the ones we’ve already talked about, Moore is a big fan of using cactus and succulents, such as sedum and some euphorbias, for terrariums. (Again, Linder’s had a wide selection of these when I was there in March.)
If you do decide to try a bit of indoor landscaping, Moore has a few tips for keeping plants healthy. By far the biggest mistake people make with their plants is over-watering. “The more light a plant gets, the more water it’s going to need,” she explains. Still, you don’t want soil to get soggy, and with our long, dark winters, it’s best to water plants just enough to keep soil barely damp. Ironically enough, if a plant’s leaves are wilting, that’s usually a sure sign that you’re over-watering. You may also see yellow leaves and fungus gnats (which are a lot like fruit flies) if you’re watering too much. If you do see swarms of fungus gnats, (they don’t harm plants but, well, yuck) the only way to get rid of them is to make ’em thirsty, so Moore recommends letting the soil dry out for 7 to 10 days.
Be sure to leave space between plants to provide them with a little air circulation and you the room to get in there and water. Leave some space between plants and walls, as well, especially if you have wallpaper; otherwise you may wind up with sticky sap and pollen problems. If your plants aren’t doing well where they are, move them. Beware of pots that don’t have drainage holes because it’s hard to keep plants from drowning in them. If you buy one, Moore recommends slipping the plant’s original container (which will undoubtedly have a hole) inside and then monitoring it to make sure water isn’t pooling up inside. And remember, everybody’s houseplants look some degree of crappy in the winter; they’ll bounce back in the spring, just like we do.
Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you have a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.