Foliage needn’t be an afterthought. Follow these tips to make plants the stars of the room
December 21, 2015
| Updated October 26, 2020
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Set up a welcoming committee
From left: Leland vase (holding tall schefflera), from $115; and Colt pot (holding lipstick plant), $69; floragrubb.com. Tulameen plant stand (holding smaller elephant’s ear), $52; bluecaribou.ca. Bulb vase in indigo, $88, and Single stem vase (holding ‘Neon’ pothos) in indigo, $108; heathceramics.com. Black planter (holding Swiss cheese vine); floragrubb.com. Splash planter (holding variegated hoya); bkbceramics.com. Midcentury turned-leg standing planter (holding elephant’s ear), from $169; westelm.com. Low Diamond planter (holding split-leaf philodendron) in matte black, from $59; floragrubb.com. Table: Legs, from $8; hairpinlegs.com (screwed into a slab of walnut).
Clustered in an entryway, a grouping of big-leafed houseplants makes for a lush focal point. From left: Schefflera ‘Amate’; lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus radicans); smaller elephant’s ear (Alocasia ‘Polly’); ‘Neon’ pothos (Epipremnum aureum); Swiss cheese vine (Monstera obliqua); variegated wax plant (Hoya carnosa ‘Variegata’); elephant’s ear (Alocasia ‘Regal Shields’); and split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa). Many houseplants, including ‘Neon’ pothos, can live in vases for years—their stems will root in the liquid. Alocasia are such water lovers, they can be planted in a pot without drainage and left with a touch of moisture at the bottom.
Just when you think you’re out of planting space, look up. Yes, like many things ’70s, the hanging plant is back, macramé and all. And the perfect candidate for hanging? The old spider plant—but the less common all-green variety. The plant has a more modern, structured look, plus plantlets that create a cascading effect. Spider plants are bulletproof: They’ll take bright- to low-light conditions. Water them weekly in the sink (drill holes in the container if necessary), letting soil drain fully before popping pots back into place.
When its growth is constrained in a pot, Pseudobombax—a tree from Mexico—gets more interesting: Its base (caudex) swells to create an almost cartoonish form. Plant the tree in a standout pot (shallow is fine for this bonsai effect) and create a showstopper in an otherwise humdrum part of the house like a hallway. Pseudobombax needs a touch more water than you’d expect—don’t let it dry out completely. Keep size in check by pruning branches after they flower (just don’t cut into the woody base).
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Add a kitchen companion
Ruth pot, from $9.95; fluted pot, from $15; handmade ribbed pot, from $17; Barbara ceramic cup, $15; Renew vase, from $13; Tulip cup, from $15; Diamond textured pot, from $15; Lund pot, from $17; floragrubb.com. BKB Ceramics handmade pot; bkbceramics.com.
Despite their reputation for hardiness, most succulents don’t thrive indoors—no matter how bright the location, it’s the airflow they’re after. The exception is this crew: aloe, dyckia, euphorbia, and sedum burrito. All have narrow footprints, making them perfect for a countertop. Water succulents incredibly sparingly; less is always more.
Call it ficus fatigue: The time has come for a new It tree. We nominate the natal mahogany (Trichilia dregeana), which has a gorgeous feathery form and adds height and stature to a room without overwhelming it. Finish the look with a topping of buff-colored reindeer moss. Natal mahogany likes bright, indirect light and routine; miss a weekly watering and you’re likely to get some leaf drop. To allow the tree to drain when it’s watered—without making a mess on the floor—keep it in its original nursery container with a plastic saucer inside the decorative pot. (As long as you provide the right care, most houseplants thrive for years in their plastic pots.)
Pair an unusual plant, such as this accordion-like Euphorbia kibwezensis, with a one-of-a-kind vessel; the result is akin to sculpture. When placing a narrow-stemmed plant in a wide pot, consider adding a rock to fill out the topography. Euphorbias need bright, indirect light and infrequent water. In a container with no drainage, cactus mix is essential.
(c) 2015 by Ramsay de Give and Maria Lawson
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(c) 2015 by Ramsay de Give and Maria Lawson
Give them a lift
Give a houseplant prominence and pride of place with a taller-than-expected pot that’s elegant without calling too much attention to itself. Here, a rex begonia with sprightly pink blooms (center) and a large-leafed Medinilla magnifica (right) get a boost in 24-inch-high lightweight, fiber-cement modernist containers. Planters in muted shades of gray or brown offer a neutral base from which to design. Here, the soft leaf textures contrast with the spare aesthetic of the planters—it’s an unexpectedly pleasing combination that works in a variety of spaces. These elevated houseplants are one of hundreds of ideas in the book Rooted in Design (Ten Speed Press, 2015; $25). AllModern (allmodern.com) has a great selection of sleek, subtle pots.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
Create your own conservatory
A stuffed bird, a nature-themed curtain, and a giant fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) add an outdoorsy-feel to this 1940s American colonial revival in Santa Monica, CA. The plant choice is great—a fiddleleaf fig is one of the largest plants you can get to grow in only a modest sized pot, making it a perfect fit for a tight spot. Design: Frances Merrill, Reath Design, Los Angeles; reathdesign.com.
Floppy, broad-leafed houseplants in each corner add to the casual appeal of this room filled with mismatched fabrics and ad hoc artwork. Learn how to get this more-is-more look in the book The New Bohemians (Abrams, 2015; $35), by Los Angeles blogger and stylist Justina Blakeney.
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Curate a cactus collection
Find new use for an old fish aquarium by using it to hold your own houseplant collection. The rusted legs and frame’s patina go perfectly with rustic terra cotta planters. Note that cactus appreciate airflow, so keep the lid off and leave space between pots. Find this idea and more in The New Bohemians (Abrams, 2015; $35), by Los Angeles blogger and stylist Justina Blakeney.
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Take it up a notch
This kitchen might be compact, but the tall ceilings make for a great opportunity to take advantage of vertical space. Hung from a brass hook, this trailing lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus 'Rasta') softens the minimalist kitchen, adding a touch of green without taking up an ounce or precious standing room. Design: Caitlin Atkinson.
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Make the stairs way more fun
Adding life to an otherwise empty stairwell, San Francisco-based garden designer Zenaido Sengo transforms a space intended for just passing through to a perfect perch for a cup of tea. To get planters on the walls, she drilled holes into the sne of ceramic cube pots that were originally created to be table standing and screwed them straight into the wall. Design: Zenaida Sengo, zsengo.com.
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Add some desert to your style
Columnar cactuses in sleek white pots add a touch of the southwest to a San Francisco living room with otherwise classic furnishings. Keeping all plantings in white pottery plays up the homeowner and designer’s minimalist intentions, despite being a bona fide plant collector. Design: Zenaida Sengo, zsengo.com.
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Plant in a pocket
Create a garden on a bare wall with a felt planting pocket. Here, a Wally One from Woolly Pocket explodes with houseplant foliage, including a striped bromeliad, dark green ‘Xanadu’ philodendron, and trailing heartleaf philodendron. The pocket is made from 100% recycled plastic water bottles and is breathable for plant roots. Design: Daniel Nolan of Flora Grubb Gardens, floragrubb.com.
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Make them the star
One giant Euphorbia ingens variegata—also known as a candelabra tree—stands tall in this San Francisco living room. In the wild, this tropical succulent can reach up to 30 feet tall. Keep it happy indoors by placing it in full, direct sunlight, maintaining temperatures above 70 degrees, and letting soil dry thoroughly between waterings. Feed your candelabra tree once a year with a balanced fertilizer diluted to half strength. Design: Daniel Nolan of Flora Grubb Gardens, floragrubb.com.
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Mount them on a wall
We love the moose-antler look of staghorn ferns on a wall—floppy yet graphic—and making your own is the quickest fix for your winter-idle green thumb. Buy a staghorn fern at a nursery, knock it out of its container and hold it, shield facing up, against a piece of wood. Pack a tight pocket of sphagnum moss (soaked and wrung out) around the shield, then secure the pocket to the wood with fishing line. (As new shields unfurl, they'll hide the line.) Display the fern on an indoor wall that gets indirect light. Once a week, remove it to water gently at the sink; use fish emulsion as a fertilizer once a month. Design: Daniel Nolan of Flora Grubb Gardens, floragrubb.com.
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Paint with plants
Track lighting, usually used to illuminate art, lights up a living masterpiece in this Woodside, CA home. The plants, including heartleaf philodendron, parlor palm (Cholorphytm comosum), Epipremnym aureum, Marantha, pink Cordyline, peace lily, bromeliads, Calathea, and Fittonia, are grown in two layers of Growtex felt, which is derived from recycled plastic water bottles. Water is pumped to the top from a reservoir at the base of the wall and drips down to saturate the felt and the plant's roots. Design: David Brenner, Installation: Habitat Horticulture, www.habitathorticulture.com.
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Create some shelf space
White cube-shaped planters filled with pint-sized cactuses are the perfect modern display for an extra shelf. The uniformity of the containers keeps the design cohesive, while cactuses—in need of not much more than the weekly sip of water—are almost as maintenance-free as the books or other knickknacks that might have been in their place. White spines pop beautifully against a dramatic navy blue background. Design: Flora Grubb Gardens, floragrubb.com.