Houseplant Harmony

By Anne Kendall 
Indoor foliage takes root in southside homes

Lush, expansive leaves in the deepest shade of jade. Winding vines, curly tendrils dripping behind them. A trendy fiddle-leaf fig tree popping up from a woven basket in the corner.

Houseplants like these can warm up your abode all winter long, even if you think you possess the blackest of thumbs.

“It’s a proven fact,” says Garry Ward, who owns McCammon’s Irish Market in Greenwood with his wife, Mary Jane. “By having plants inside your home, it helps clear your mind, it keeps your stress down, it lets you relax.” Hardy favorites like the snake plant (which resembles stalks of asparagus standing upright) and spider plant (which has looser, more dangling leaves) create a little paradise of your own for curling up in at the end of the day, he says. And plants even provide health benefits by way of absorbing toxins and producing oxygen, filtering and cleaning the air. But beyond all that, you develop a hobby. “Caring for them keeps you moving,” says Ward. “You fall in love with it; that’s what I hear most from our customers. Once you learn what you’re doing, there’s such a good feeling about it. When you talk to your plants, your plants talk back to you.”

And surprise: Developing an indoor jungle isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. Most tropical and desert plants really do quite well indoors, as long as you try to mimic their natural environment as much as possible, says Amanda Griffith, owner of Grounded Plant & Floral Co. in Indianapolis. That means keeping an eye on the lighting and temperature they’re surrounded by and the amount of water they receive.

Green peace

The key is to learn two things for every plant that comes into your house: how much light and water it needs. “Some can handle lower light, while some need six hours of direct sunlight,” says Griffith. “Some like to be watered every two weeks, and some like to be kept moist at all times.”

Learning what your own plants need is what it’s all about, says Ward. “The No. 1 reason people have a difficult time is they won’t take a few minutes to learn about the water and light requirements a plant has,” he says. So if you have a room without many windows, he says, you’ll want to stick with the Dracaena family. They’re slow drinkers, don’t require a lot of light and are sturdy enough to withstand a certain amount of neglect. Dracaena is a genus of about 120 species of trees and succulents, which tend to have glossy, bushy leaves and can grow up to around 3 feet high. Spiky dragon plants are a popular member of the Dracaena genus; so is the “Song of India,” easily picked out by the striking yellow stripes on its narrow, pointed leaves.

Other foolproof foliage recommended by Ward: the Rhapis palm, small plants native to southeast Asia and also commonly known as lady palms or fan palms. “They’re very elegant, they’re showy, they’re classy, and they don’t require much light,” he says. Another of his favorites is the Kentia palm, or thatch palm, though he acknowledges it’s on the pricey side, around $200. “But they are very showy, very nice, very elegant,” he says, in addition to being low maintenance. On the other hand, a palm to stay away from would be the Areca. Its feathery fronds may be lovely, but they also require more light and humidity than most palms, and are more apt to wither and die without just the right conditions.

Some all-time classics for the indoor gardener are the aforementioned snake plant and spider plant, says Elizabeth Schleicher, assistant manager of Garfield Park Conservatory and Gardens on the south side of Indianapolis. Especially for beginners, she also recommends pothos plants, one of the easiest in the world to grow. Its versatility makes it the tofu of houseplants: You can tuck it into hanging baskets and let it trail downward to the floor, let it climb a trellis, or just set it on a tabletop or mantel and watch it do its thing horizontally.

“These all do well in low-light, low-humidity conditions, that is, the conditions of most houses,” says Schleicher.

Those are some of the easiest plants to keep alive. But really, you can get creative with just a bit of planning. “A south-facing window is often the best option in a house,” says Schleicher, so it might be the best site for your needier greenery.

Even a bathroom could be just the right spot for a humidity-loving orchid or gardenia. “Plants that like high humidity — so, most tropical plants — love bathrooms because of the steam a hot shower provides,” says Griffith. In that case, though, you may need a grow light to make sure your greenery gets enough UV. It’s all about learning the care needs of whatever caught your fancy at the garden center.

Better shop around

When plant shopping, don’t be afraid to mix and match with abandon, says Griffith. “I love it when people cluster a few different but complementary plants together.” Do ask plenty of questions at the nursery, especially if you’re a new plant parent.

“Know how much space you have, how big the plants are going to grow, how many windows are by it,” says Ward. “I’m talking about a garden center, not a big-box store, because they probably won’t know. We can show you how to put saucers under your plants or whatever else you’ll need to know.”

Keep an eye out for plants that may be toxic to pets or young children. These are relatively rare — some nurseries don’t sell them at all — but you’ll spot the occasional warning on a plant. If you’re not sure, ask.

Once you’ve created your plant oasis, keep it alive with a few basic steps. “In wintertime, it’s really good to take a mister bottle of water to your plants. They struggle if the house gets too dry,” says Ward. “Another key thing is, keep your leaves clean. We have a cleanser you just spray on. It cleans, kills bugs and is non-toxic, like a soap solution.”

Those little steps can make all the difference and are so worth it, agree the pros.

“Plants add so much life to a room and bring the outdoors in,” says Griffith. “It’s so fun to watch a plant grow and fill out the space that you choose to put it in. Especially in an urban living environment, plants ground people and bring them closer to nature.”