Use This, Not That


I get a lot of questions about watering house plants when I lecture and I have heard some heart breaking stories of wonderful pieces of furniture–& even a grand piano top–ruined by water from house plants. Yikes!

At my last lecture, someone told me that she has banned plants from the house just to avoid this sort of incident. That’s one approach,  of course,  but I do like to think that plants bring far more to the home than the watering accidents they cause.

So, what to do? Well, to the extent possible,  try to keep plants on glass.  You will save a lot of heartbreak and expensive refinishing that way. I have even had glass pieces made to cover some wood furniture so that I can use them as plant tables. It’s not perfect, but it helps a lot.

You see the saucer, above, that, I prefer.  It’s heavy plastic, with little “feet.” Why is that better? First,  the heavy plastic is less likely crack or leak.

Next, if you do water as you are supposed to,  so that water comes out the bottom of the pot, there are those indentations (the feet) that catch the water and drain it away so the plant’s roots aren’t sitting in water. That’s nice.

And because it’s less likely to crack like the older version, shown below, no water is going to spill out onto your table, windowsill or where ever.


I do still have some of these flimsy plastic ones. I use them under ceramic cache pots on rare occasion, but only on glass tables.

I use them on my sun porch on wire plant shelves. But I wouldn’t dream of using them on anything wood.

With any luck,  some of these ideas will help those of you who are worried about water damage in the house.  Because truly,  house plants,  with their air cleaning abilities,  do give back so much more than they might damage.


A Tale of Two Lavenders

Herbs are notoriously finicky in the house in the winter. It’s not their fault. There’s not enough light for them, and it’s either too dry (for some) or too wet (since many of us tend to over-water and therefore love our plants to death!)

Lavenders can take the dryness, being bred for exactly that sort of condition. Both their silvery leaves and the places they might normally grow “in the wild:” the Mediterranean with its sandy soils and salty air show that it is a tough plant that can take a lot of abuse.

So why then, does it struggle in conditions that gardeners usually give it? Good soil and abundant water? Well, that’s perhaps why–we are loving it to death–we are spoiling it too much, drowning it and probably over-feeding it too. Not good.

So what is that gardener to do? Well, short of neglecting the plant completely, because that isn’t necessarily a recipe for success either, the trick to succeeding with any plant is always the old saying “right plant, right place.” Most of us don’t live in climates anything like what lavender is used to–but we can help it along quite a bit with some easy tricks.


First of all, to get it through winter as a house plant, choose the right variety. I don’t know the names of either of these for sure, but I am guessing the one on the right is french  lavender (lavendula dentata). It’s not a hardy one for me.  I am guessing this based on the “leaf” shape.

It tends to say nice and compact in the pot indoors because it is a tropical lavender in my zone. But don’t attempt to plant it outdoors unless you are in a zone 8 climate.

The one on the left? No guesses. It was originally bought as a nice little “Christmas tree” shaped plant in December. You can see it’s very happy because it’s no longer shaped like anything but a mop. The instructions say to prune it hard to keep its shape but I do no pruning on plants in the winter. Once it gets a little more temperate–maybe mid-March–I may take the shears to it. Right now I call it “Cousin It.”

But what’s keeping both these lavenders healthy and mildew free in my house in the winter is just the bare minimum of watering and a south window. They’ll go outside for their “summer vacation,” of course, perhaps as early as April depending on what temperatures do here. After that, we’ll see how they fare–particularly “Cousin It.”

Succulent Crazy!


This is the main window where I have my cactus and succulent collection.  It faces south and is unobstructed,  winter and summer.

You can see, that like most of my windows, I try to get a lot of use out of the space. I haven’t,  as in some of the more creative posts I have seen online, put shelves on the walls of this little alcove yet. That may come next.


Another way to get creative with space is to put smaller pots in between large ones. The longer I have house plants,  the bigger they get ( naturally). But that leaves opportunities to place smaller pots in between the tallest ones. Where there’s a will….


Finally,  this is another little cactus and succulent spot, again in a south bay window this time. These plants are larger, or in mixed containers and are too big for my little alcove but still need the sunny south window. They share it with my large tropicals, with some smaller succulent plants tucked in between.


House Plant Collector?

Over the last weeks, we’ve looked at some plants with some unusual leaves.

But on Wednesdays, we’ve also looked at my large–and ever growing–collection of “holiday” cacti, let’s call them: the plants that bloom anywhere from Columbus day up until Valentine’s day, otherwise known sometimes as zygo cactus or schlumbergera.

I am beginning to see these blogs (Instagram feeds/YouTube channels–you get the idea) pop up where folks have house plant collections that put mine to shame. They have 700 plants in a tiny studio apartment.

Or they have plants literally covering every available surface–floors, walls, ceilings–it’s just mind boggling. I know how much work my collection is. I can’t believe those folks do anything but take care of their plants. More power to them!

So then, what makes a house plant collector–or any plant collector–and does it matter?

Probably not. If you have 3 plants and they are 3 unrelated plants and you love them, that’s all that matters.

But where I am going with this post is that I tend to go through little plant fetishes (maybe that’s what I should have called it) where I get fixated on a certain group of plants and I accumulate lots of those–like the zygo cactus.

After awhile I may change my mind about what I like and start accumulating something different. It may have something to do with how well my “fetish du jour” survives or maybe a plague of insects wipes out something I have become fond of so I move on to something else.

Colorful House Plants

On Monday I talked about variegated house plants. What about some plants with just plain colorful leaves?

In the garden, these would be the equivalent of coleus for annuals, or perhaps coral bells (heuchera) for perennials. It’s not that they share the same shape; it’s that they have the same sort of colorful foliage that is so striking that you don’t even care if they flower.

The plant I am thinking of for this particular post that has come a long way is the Chinese Evergreen (aglaonema). For years, these plants were the showier cousins of the snake plant–basic green and white varieties that you saw in every public planting.

They are easy care, low light plants that are tough and stand up to almost all kinds of abuse. Think of any interior courtyard planting. What are you going to see? Maybe some sort of ficus. Dracenas. Chinese evergreens of a couple of different varieties. Perhaps a row of snake plants for screening. Peace lilies. You get the idea.

So these are great, adaptable work horses of the indoor garden (and they clean the air). But everyone usually walked right by without noticing.


Now look at this. This too is a Chinese Evergreen, usually sold as a red stemmed (although I have seen it sold as a “red-leafed” as well). I have posted about this plant before. I have even called it the “anti-poinsettia.” Because, let’s face it, in a month from now, what would you rather be looking at, this, or a fading poinsettia?


Then there’s this, the “pink-leafed” variety. I used this in a container planting this summer with begonias, inpatiens and ivy.  Next summer, who knows? In the meantime, I get to enjoy this as a house plant!


Variegated House Plants

If you could look at a plain green plant or you could look at something with interesting leaves, which would you choose? This is not a trick question!

So many people just choose plants based on flower color–period. They don’t realize there is much more out there. For years this was how we gardened, both indoors and out: we bought plants based on their flowers, and when they stopped flowering, we bought more plants that flowered at different times.

It was the shade gardeners that taught us it was all about the foliage. And from that emphasis on foliage, we started to decide that maybe we could have everything–interesting leaves and gorgeous flowers.

Now the edible plant world is getting into the act. They are giving us interesting leaves and interesting fruit to go with it.


This is a variegated kumquat. But you don’t have to get something this exotic. There are variegated lemons, all sorts of variegated peppers–you get the idea.

Even better, with variegated citrus plants, when they bloom, which is sometime in the winter, the fragrance is just delicious! I can often tell when one of mine is blooming from across the room! They often begin to bloom right about this time.

The fruiting cycle is about a year from bloom time to ripe fruit–I just picked a lemon on Christmas eve and a have a few more unripe lemons yet on my plant so I’ll have some yet to come.


Here’s another great variegated plant that I’ll bet many of my southern readers grow as shrubs. This is a pittosporum (I have no idea if it has a common name–not to my knowledge anyway!)

I fell in love with this plant in Italy of all places, bought a little 4″ plant from a mail order grower and 18 years later this is what I have. I need to keep it window sill sized because it’s not hardy in my zone. I have seen huge shrubs of these as I have traveled in the south.

A bonus is that this foliage makes nice cut flower fillers (if you have enough of it.)

A second bonus is that when it blooms–quite late for me–in May or early June–it’s quite fragrant. My pollinators love it since it’s outside by then!





More House Plants for Winter

A few weeks ago I post about my “fragrant olive” plant (osmanthus frangrans) and how it was a wonderful plant for winter because it was completely undemanding and it bloomed all winter.

Unfortunately, these plants are not always that easy to find and they are slow growing. So today and over the next few weeks, I will post about some other choices for great winter plants (and for some of you and more temperate regions, some of these may be plants that are growing in your yard. The Spoiler always says I live in the wrong climate. This winter I heartily agree with him!)

The first category of plants is “plants with interesting leaves.” Why is it that we spend so much time thinking about texture and foliage in the garden and not in house plants? We look at house plants 365 days a year. Almost no one looks at perennials that long!

So make those house plants work for you! Get colorful leaves, or variegated leaves or plants with interesting leaves at least. Even plants with green leaves can be interesting if they are, in the words of the plant geeks, “structural.” Let me give you some examples.


There’s green and then there’s green. Plants have green leaves to make energy (you know, photosynthesize it) from the sun. So that’s fine.

But what if you could have something more unusual? Something that was green and interesting to look at?


This is the ZZ plant (zamioculcas zamiifolia). It too, like the osmanthus a few posts ago, is tough and hardy and very undemanding.

Unlike the osmanthus, however, this plant is very easy to find.  I’ve seen it in box stores and supermarkets. And it thrives in low light situations and low water situations.


It even looks good with holiday plants. I saw this at an airport a few years ago.

So there’s nothing wrong with “green” plants–just choose interesting ones! Next week we’ll look at some unusual colored ones.