A plethora of plants adds warmth to our home’s décor and helps us cope with an Atlantic Canadian winter.
THE LAST TOMATO has been harvested, and the basil long since made into pesto. The perennials have given over their blooms to seedheads, and the last of the leaves have dropped from trees and are swirling or sodden around the yard. You’ve tucked all your new spring-flowering bulbs into the ground, covered your most tender plants with protective mulch, and cleaned up your tools and pots and put them away. Gardening season is over for another year…
Or is it?
Nothing could be further from the truth. We green thumbs shift our focus when cold temperatures curtail our outdoor gardening efforts. We catch up on our reading, update our garden journals and albums, start sighing over new catalogues for next year’s plantings, and turn our focus to tending our indoor houseplants. Tending a plethora of colourful blooms and foliage throughout the fall and winter and early spring months not only satisfies our need to garden, it brightens our homes and warms our hearts. Plus, there are no deer, slugs, blackflies or earwigs to deal with.
Beyond philodendrons and spider plants
I can barely remember when my obsession with indoor plants began, but it was even before I went to agricultural college in Truro. My dorm room in Chapman House was always populated with dozens of plants—over 100, at one point—and, may I hasten to add, they were all of the legal variety! Today, I don’t have quite so many, but the house is fairly lush with a diverse collection of plants, from fascinating living stones, (Lithops and related species) other succulents and cacti, to flamboyant flowering tropical species such as hibiscus and elegant orchids. I also have a small collection of African violets, as I have always loved them. Several ferns and other foliage plants enjoy the indirect light on top of my china cabinet, begonias and geraniums nestle beside more exotic flowering tropicals. Even in midwinter, there is always something blooming.
Houseplants went through a period of years where they were the poor cousins to glamourous perennials and flamboyant annuals in our gardens. Maybe, as more than one contemporary gardening writer has suggested, it was because they first experienced a flush of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and became almost cliché, along with shag carpeting and avocado-coloured kitchen appliances. Who didn’t have a philodendron, a spider plant, a snake plant and perhaps an English ivy gracing their home décor? (Bonus points if you had one or more in a macramé planter. I’m waving my hand, here, and I may still have one or two in such hangers. I will never tell.)
Happily for all of us who have always been addicted to indoor gardening, there has been a real upswing in houseplant popularity again. Whether or not it’s a wave of nostalgia for a kinder, gentler time (I’m unconvinced), or because so many people are catching the nature bug as a counteraction for all the technology we’re immersed in, I can’t say. I get questions from my own 20-something son about how to care for his indoor plants, and he’s a computer-programming whiz-kid.
Facing the practical realities of your home
There are a few hard realities to discuss about having plants indoors. The most important is to have the right conditions for whatever plant you’re being tempted by at the garden centre. It’s no good to want to grow cacti and succulents if you have a cold, dark basement apartment. Nor is a cool, draughty farmhouse the ideal place for heat- and humidity-loving tropicals. Be realistic about your growing conditions and match your indoor plants to those conditions.
You can, of course, opt to modify a room with supplemental lighting and heat, or have a special growth table where you grow particular plants. Really lucky individuals may have a solarium or a heated greenhouse, whether a standalone or an attached model. But for most of us, we either move plants around to make sure they’re getting enough light, or choose tough-as-nails varieties, of which there are numerous types.
As with outdoor container gardening, having the right potting mixture is vitally important for happy houseplants. Don’t use garden soil, which contains weed seeds, possible pathogens, and is heavier than the peat- or coir-based potting media designed for containers. You can plant in just about any container, as long as you include one vital ingredient: drainage holes. Putting gravel or stones in the bottom of the pot will not help. Either drill holes in the container or leave the plant in its original, green plastic pot, and set that pot inside your more decorative vessel.
While there are many tough-as-nails choices for any home, bad things can still happen to good plants. Overwatering is as bad as under watering, especially if soil is not able to drain from a container or saucer. Drafts can play havoc on some species, while dry, heated air in winter can present problems, too. Newly purchased plants may be carrying pests—whitefly, fungus gnat, spider mites, scale or mealybug—while houseplants that have been taking summer outdoors may bring in pests such as aphids when they come back inside. I am a totally laissez-faire gardener outdoors, and don’t use any pesticides in my outdoor garden. Indoors, however, I use insecticidal soap or rubbing alcohol to combat pest outbreaks, and check my plants regularly. Occasionally I have a battle with mealybugs or scale, but mostly because I’m careful about introducing new plants, the indoor garden is pest-free.
I feed my houseplants organic seaweed fertilizer year-round, incorporated into their water at a quarter to a half of the recommended ratio all year round, and increasing it to the regular strength during their flowering period.
If you’re not getting blooms on flowering plants, make sure you’re giving the plant enough heat and light, and if those match its requirements, try fish-emulsion fertilizer or even one of the general-purpose houseplant formulations sold at most stores that sell plants.
A cautionary word
If you have pets or small children that might be tempted to nibble on or play with plants, you may need to be careful about what you grow in your home. Teaching your child to leave plants alone is a very good start, but teaching cats or dogs the same thing is not always that easy. My own cats seem to only want to eat certain types of non-toxic plants such as ferns or spider plant, so I keep these where even they cannot reach them, and provide the felines with cat grass and catnip to satisfy their desire for greens.
Avoid anything with colourful ‘fruit’ such as Jerusalem cherry or ornamental hot pepper plants that children might mistake for candy. As much as I love true lilies (Lilium, various species), I will not bring any into the house, even as cut flowers, because all parts are deadly poisonous to cats—even the pollen from the flowers. I would never consider flowering oleander (Nerium oleander) for exactly the same reason. Other houseplants with varying degrees and types of toxicity include pothos, dieffenbachia, philodendron, cycad or sago palm and peace lily. Find more information on plant toxicity online or through reputable websites including Poison Control and the SPCA.
Sourcing your indoor stash
When my houseplant fascination exploded as a student, I was lucky—I could get many interesting species by propagating plants from our college greenhouses, or through classes in plant propagation. Many stores also carried a selection of indoor plants, from tropical foliage to cacti, but most places carried all the same things.
Today, we have a mixed bag of blessings when it comes to adding new leafy accents to our homes. Many big stores—grocery stores, hardware chains, department stores—have a modest indoor plant selection, which varies according to the time of year: primula and forced bulbs in late winter into spring, Christmas or Easter plants during their respective holiday season, cacti and succulents most of the year, a selection of flowering or foliage tropicals year-round. But you may often find that the same plants are available at various stores—this is because they order from the same or similar large growers or wholesalers so they have to take what they get. And while nurseries and garden centres may carry plants during the outdoor gardening months, many of those are seasonal businesses and are open in the winter.
To get really rare, choice or otherwise unusual plants, you have several options. One is to order seed and grow the plants yourself, but do remember it can take several years or longer for a seed to germinate and grow to significant size. You can sometimes order from specialty nurseries, but often they require a minimum purchase, or it’s complicated to order, especially if they are outside of Canada. Shipping live plant material is also fraught with challenges, especially in colder months.
Check with local garden clubs and find out if there are specialized clubs—African violet, orchid, cacti and succulents, among others—in your area. Most of these have regular plant sales and plant swaps, although often those are for members only. But such events are a great way to add beautiful plants to your indoor garden.
If you’re looking for some ideas for tough houseplants to try, I highly recommend a recently released book from Timber Press, Tovah Martin’s The Indestructible Houseplant. This book features 200 different plant choices, and can help you turn your thumb from black to green.