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The Wandering Eye’s Guide to Indoor Plants

Our blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are principals in the M (Group).

I love house plants.  I am no gardener.. Perhaps because my mother is a brilliant gardener and a landscape architect, I wanted nada to do with digging in the ground, and still don’t.  I do enjoy digging in pots though – containers are perfect for me.

A room with one little plant or a single flower truly is transformed from lifeless to full of life.  A tiny pot of ivy in an old clay pot set in a blue and white Chinese dish – you’re done.  Granted, a huge bouquet of peonies works wonders too.

These succulents last forever… Sort of.
In past years, I’d bring that summer’s crop in from the screen porches and try to find a nice south window for it. Stuff generally declines in December and January, becomes a real eye sore in February, and gets pitched out in March.. Then in May/June I start over.

The Inspiration.  Rousseau used the Jardin d’Hiver to inspire his work – since he never saw a real jungle…
Now that winter 2010 approaches, I’m rethinking my approach.  My new post reno bedroom has a 10’ x 10’ sun porch with lots of glass facing south, a slate floor, and a big mirrored wall to bounce more light around.  I never go out there—it’s like a NYC terrace, more important as a view than as a functioning [habitable] space.  So I ditched the Home Office idea [that inspired me to build it] and turned it into my Jardin d’Hiver.  Dragged a glass top table and glass and chrome shelf unit up from the basement along with lots of stands of various height to hike plants up to optimal light.  Baskets and jardineres and clay pots dress up the occupants. 

My bedroom porch at rear – before the transformation… Transformation photos to come if and when there is one.
I’ve stuck a space heater and a humidifier out there, upped the wattage on the track lights, and put them on a timer for 12 hours of supplemental daylight.

So far (it’s only November…), it works!

When we decamp to the country, two or three special things get lugged out of the Jardin on Friday evening, scattered around the house, and returned Sunday afternoon. 

Re: Care and Nurturing—there’s loads of info. We have a shelf of books from The New York Times Book of Houseplants to Sunset Books on houseplants to funky little tomes.  Great for advice and identifying.  Of course, there is always the Web…

A few sort of random suggestions…

Focus on finding truly water proof dishes.  Function over form!  Plastic (there’s good and bad..) or glazed pottery dishes, deep enough to actually hold the water overflow, and set on a cork pad to avoid the condensation.  I still have plenty of rings and ruined surfaces – and I am careful. 

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Cacti are perfect.  Ignore them and they thrive – for eons.  Water them or treat them well – you are doomed.
Plants are the equivalent of Cut Flowers in cost but we hope for a longer life span than flowers.  That said, should the plant ‘fail’ – become unsightly - get rid of it.  House plants should be happy – your Weeping Fig (ficus benjamina) should be weeping for joy, not mourning its imminent demise.  Cut your losses – be brutal.  You are using these things to decorate. When they are no longer decorative – euthanize.  (BTW – Speaking of euthanasia – all you cranky oldsters might beware 2010.  Zero inheritance taxes for 12 months could lead to a rash ‘mercy’ killings.. You heard it here!)

When you can, take the plant to the water (tub, sink) and spray ‘em and soak ‘em.  Let them drain there before returning to the mahogany table.  Much safer than bringing the water to the plant.  But slower.  I drove my college roommates crazy – they’d throw open the shower curtain only to find massive wet vegetation. (Do you think the houseplants and the Bette Midler album sort of ‘outed’ me in the jock dorm I was relegated to?).

More often than not, I buy hanging baskets.  Not to hang – to set in another pot.  They have nicer shapes and more body at the bottom.  One year we did a dining room for the Kips Bay Designer Showhouse.  My florist was a bomb so I took matters into my own hands.  Bought a big healthy hanging basket of ivy. Plopped it in the middle of the table, trailing vines radiating out and added votive candles – and the table was perfect. Not overdone, not expensive – tailored and lovely and easy to copy… Very Kips Bay.

A stellar begonia hanging basket with some roadside grasses behind it.
This summer I bought a huge fully flowering begonia at Tivoli Farm Market.  Plopped it on the front hall table and it was pretty fantastic. Bloomed for weeks.  Last month I cut it back and we’ll see what happens next year.

Whatever kind of ‘fig’ the left side plant is, it is doing pretty darned well!  At 9’ tall, it was an investment….
For the big stuff, we buy in town at Foliage Gardens on 28th Street in NYC and have our movers bring it up.  For smaller things, I hit the local Lowe’s.  They now sell combination ferns—two varieties mixed in the pot. Love that.  $12.  The little $6 and $8 pots are great too…

Lowe’s also has some decent simple jardinières.  I like the three sizes of verdigris copper that pretty much disappear when the hanging basket is dropped in.  Cheap—and water proof.  They have great rolling bases – cast iron and strong – to facilitate moving those big pots from their corner, where they look best, out into the light – where they have a chance to live…

Then I run across to Michael’s and buy bags of moss.  Dampen it, cover the dirt and the edge of the plastic pot and you’re done.

Like anything else, plants get dusty.  Wipe the leaves (or spray them) with 80% water, 20% milk solution for a nice shine.  And ‘green’!

Winter brings the pests out.  The grossest pest response I have read is “Kill a few aphids and leave them at the base of the plant. The smell drives the others away.”.  How horrible is that??  Even I could quickly see the flaw in this advice – where are they running off to but another plant!?  So for most of my pest problems I resort to Safe Soap stuff…

One website I found is devoted to the power of plants to remove toxins from the air.  Cool, right?  Super green!  Well, if I have detectable formaldehyde I won’t be waiting for my philodendron to fix it. (FYI, that toxic Chinese wallboard wasn’t sold on the East coast.  They say…)

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Of course, you can always really go nuts and go hydroponic!
My favorite TV show is Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian series shown on Direct TV.  The plots follow a simple yet winning formula. Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles are constantly trying to figure out new ways to get rich, get high, and stay out of jail.  Suffice to say, I bought the complete seven season DVD set. Only ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ ever got that commitment from me.  I love it. The boys are accomplished horticulturalists—their hydroponic double wide is a thing of beauty, all surfaces covered in aluminum foil they borrow from neighbors.  Be careful—the Feds track your power usage. (I’ve heard).  They use heat-seeking cameras——too much ‘lectricity and you show up on the map. (Again—I’ve heard)

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In our neck of the woods, check out the monster in the window at Byron Parker Plumbing (436 Warren Street, Hudson).  I’ve ‘admired’ it for years.  When I stopped last weekend to snap a portrait, I see there is even a descriptive sign!  65 years old.  Damn.  And ugly to boot.  And healthy.  “Feed me, Seymour!!”

Farther down Warren Street, check out the plants for sale at Hudson Supermarket (310 Warren Street).  Botanicals by Olenka has very cool things—papyrus and orchids and ‘exotic’ things I gravitate to.
Welcome the New Year with a nice new healthy house plant (since you will, of course, be removing all vestiges of Christmas by December 31, right??).  Paper White Narcissus bulbs or a Home Depot orchid or a Chia Pet – any will make the room look better, make you feel better, and maybe even get rid of some of the benzene (what is benzene???) in the air.

Chi Chi Chia….

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 12/02/09 at 02:24 PM • Permalink