Stylish botanicals are important elements in today’s interior spaces. Predominately green in colour, the sculptural form of a potted houseplant provides both a focal point and year-round beauty. With numerous types to choose from, clear favourites are emerging.
The fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), with its upright branches and large oval-shaped, slightly lobed leaves, has become the ficus of choice. It strikes such a personable pose that somehow it manages to appear like a favourite uncle in countless interior photos on Instagram or in decorating magazines. The huge demand for this handsome fig variety has increased its affordability.
If you associate philodendron with the childhood memory of heart-shaped leaves growing from a vine in a ridiculously small pot in your grandmother’s kitchen, yet able to trail around the circumference of the room — it’s time to revisit this species. Philodendron is in the upper echelon of houseplants with richly coloured varieties such as Rojo Congo, which has bright red leaf petioles and majestic foliage that opens red before maturing to a glossy dark green with tints of purple-red.
Xanadu has leathery, dark green leaves with as many as 15 to 20 distinct lobes. Selloum, another philodendron variety, sports deeply lobed leaves, almost frilly in appearance, and grows taller indoors (about 90 centimetres). While the foliage of a split-leaf philodendron casts interesting shadows in a sun-filled room, the new leaves of Prince of Orange philodendron are an unexpected coppery-orange and those of Moonlight emerge bright chartreuse.
The strongly vertical shape of Sansevieria trifasciata (snakeplant, Mother-in-Law’s tongue) with her sharp, sword-like blades and adaptability to low-light locations is another popular choice. Succulents, synonymous with low maintenance, are popping up everywhere as the go-to plant for sunny shelves, windowsills and tabletops. With their bizarre shapes and textures, three or five or more add up to a multi-sensory experience.
Creating natural arrangements that will bring your interior to life involves some of the basic principles of good design such as combining colours that work well together and pairing contrasting textures. An emphasis on maintaining the good health of your living plants ensures its beauty.
Jayne Geisel, a horticulturist and landscape architect, teaches plant science in the Greenspace Management program at Red River College. Recently I walked with her through the state-of-the-art on-campus greenhouse at RRC where students hone their horticultural skills by maintaining diverse collections of plants from tender tropicals to hardy trees and shrubs.
"Whether a plant is grown indoors or outdoors," Geisel says, "it needs to be watered, monitored for pests and situated in the correct exposure. Attention to proper drainage, aeration, fertility — all of these are important."
In our winter climate, the indoor habitat is characterized by low light and low humidity conditions. How can we grow a living plant so that it is as healthy as possible? Does it depend on our ability to control insects or disease? Geisel eschews this conventional notion and places the focus instead on the ability to grow plants favourably in relationship to one another and their indoor environment. Prevention, identification, and understanding the root causes of a problem are essential steps.
"After that," says Geisel, "it’s a management tool."
There is the potential in any indoor environment for some level of insect infestation or disease when a plant that otherwise originates in a tropical or subtropical environment is grown in the confines of a container. Start out by understanding what a healthy plant looks like, recommends Geisel. Know, for example, how the plant moves through its life cycle and what time of year it should be flowering. Be aware of your plant’s natural colour range so that it becomes easier to identify a potential problem.
Geisel says that her philosophy for managing plants is that less is more. "People tend to mismanage water," she says, "and your plant is not going to be happy if it’s not being watered properly." Better to starve them a little bit, she recommends, than to over-water or over-feed. Geisel says it’s important to balance indoor environmental conditions with the particular stage of a plant’s growth cycle.
Typically at this time of the year as we move into the start of winter, there is plenty of bright sunlight but lower relative humidity, which often means that soil dries out more quickly. In the example of a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) which is also flowering, the demand for moisture becomes even higher. "I water more diligently during this period of growth," says Geisel, "and then ease off as the flowering period comes to an end."
Do you like to water your plants every Saturday morning whether they need it or not? Few plants operate on a seven-day cycle. In an integrated pest-management approach, the goal is to consider your plant’s growth cycle and respond to its specific needs rather than sticking to a schedule.
"Plants have a minimal ability to display stress," says Geisel. "Symptoms of stress generally include a disruption in growth, yellowing leaves, and leaf drop. These are three classic signs that a problem exists yet each could be a result of any number of things."
In the outside world a plant can grow as wide and tall as it is able and spreads its roots often an enormous distance. Indoors, says Geisel, the issue of fertility comes into play because a plant quickly uses up whatever nutrients are available in its containerized environment. Geisel recommends a regular application of a complete fertilizer that has the three main components of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
The operative word is spoon-feeding. All that is needed is a low level, dilute solution of fertilizer. Geisel likes to give her plants low levels of fertilizer each times she waters. "If you fertilize heavily once a month," says Geisel, "you actually end up losing fertilizer every time you water whereas providing your plant with a bit of fertilizer a couple of times a month is used more efficiently by the plant. It’s not ideal from an economic perspective to lose fertilizer but also there are environmental ramifications when fertilizer is being washed down the drain.
Another reason to spoon-feed your plants is that there is less likelihood of salts building up on the soil surface. These may be white, brown, tan-coloured, or crusty and often related to chlorine or fluoride from our municipal water source. Over time, salt build-up increases soil pH and can interfere with a plant’s ability to take in moisture. If you can, recommends Geisel, pour water into a standing container and allow it to off-gas for about 24 hours before using it to water plants. Washing or brushing plants also removes a build-up of dust which blocks light rays necessary for healthy growth.
In low humidity and heated environments, mealy bugs, spider mites, aphids, or scale can be a problem. Geisel suggests placing the plant on its side and spraying it vigorously with water, ensuring that the water reaches the underside of the leaves. If using a 10 percent solution of rubbing alcohol and water, experiment first on a small area and target specific areas where pests gather such as leaf axils. Physically removing and squishing bugs works best.
Read your plant tag and keep toxic plants out of reach from your pets.