Go Big and Go Home

This week Allie at Kate Collins Interiors wrote about the myriad design and health benefits of using big plants indoors. [spotify id="spotify:track:5cbnlD2QPJoEZvx7iGan33" width="300" height="380" /]

(Tangentially, remember Kate & Allie? I loved that show. Am I totally dating myself here? Sigh – the K.C.I. Kate and Allie are a pair of fabulous cousins, and they are probably way too young to have watched their eponymous program.) Anyhow, Allie has been discussing the use of big plants in a living space, as opposed to little orchids or aloes on a kitchen counter, although the little guys do have a special place in my heart (and home) as well.

Ficus lyrata in Anna Burke's living room (detail)   Photo: Lonny Mag, March/April 2012

Today I’m joining the indoor greenery fray with a long overdue post on houseplants, due in part to some feedback from my friend Shona in Hong Kong who recently wrote that she enjoyed the blog (thank you, Shona) despite  – or perhaps because of – the scarcity of soil in her city of residence. Likewise my homies in Manhattan, and this got me to thinking that the blog has been very lots-of-space-centric of late. Discrimination I cannot abide, be it of land size, marital partner, or plant choice, so let us without further ado delve into the world of balconies, windows, and well-lit interiors. (Because I will always discriminate against the poorly lit, as will any discerning houseplant.)

Split-leaf philodendron  Photo: William Waldron, Elle Decor

Allie’s first foliage port of call was with big, leafy greens, which can be used to fill vertical space as room dividers, between armchairs, or to create depth and mystery while drawing someone through the planes of a room. The best place to start is with the Ficus family, which is a vast one, ranging from the 100’ rubber tree (Ficus elastica) to the 11” creeping fig ‘Minima’ (Ficus pumila).

Ficus lyrata   Photo: Peonies & Brass, May 2012

Ficus lyrata, the fiddle-leaf fig, is a dreamy plant, and I was first introduced to it by my friend Amanda, who has superb taste in plants and spotted it in Lonny, Apartment Therapy and Peonies & Brass. Ikea makes a fake version, which we will choose to ignore. (I discriminate against fake plants as well as bad lighting. And fecal cake, for that matter, so that’s three strikes against Ikea.) Real Ficus lyrata has bold, dark green leaves that resemble a violin in shape and make a striking and graphic contrast against white walls.

Fiddle leaf fig    Photo: Grey Crawford, Elle Decor

Another Ficus with gorgeous foliage is the edible fig (Ficus carica, but often just called ‘Fig’). ‘Petite Negra’ is a dwarf variety that stays compact, making it an easy choice for an apartment. If it gets enough bright sunlight and water, the edible fig will provide you with (wait for it…) edible figs. How luscious and pharaoh-esque to pluck fruit from the trees growing round your living space?

Photo: California figs

The fig and its leaf have long been used in art and cultivation, long before prudish popes and Victorians used them to cover nudity. Ficus carica is indigenous to Egypt and has been grown in the Nile Valley since at least 1500 BC.

'I [ask that I] may each day walk continuously on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees that I have planted, that I may refresh myself under the shade of my sycomore [fig].' -  Inscription on the tombs of wealthy Egyptians, ca. 2000 BC

Ficus is also sacred to Buddhists and Brahmins; a childlike Krishna is depicted lying on a fig leaf contemplating the destruction of the universe at the end of the kalpa, or cosmic age. You know, just in case you want to get deep while lying on your sofa contemplating your ficus.

Photo: Kailash Raj, Krishna on a Fig Leaf, Watercolor on paper, 8" x 12"

Growing Ficus

Light: Eastern or western exposure; bright but indirect light.

Water: Ficus carica is very thirsty in a container. Other varieties of ficus have low water needs.

Soil: Good organic potting soil with some compost mixed in at planting time.

Feed: Fertilize from early spring through late autumn.

Temperature: Ideal nighttime temperatures are from 50–60°F (10–15°C).

Orange fruit and blossom   Photo: Ellen Levy Finch

Along a similar cultural, historical and edible vein is citrus. If you have the budget and the space for it, a potted citrus in a brightly lit room nails the indoor plant triumvirate: evergreen foliage, edible fruit and mind-bendingly heady fragrance. For indoor success, give your citrus plant a south, west or east window to sit in front of, but keep in mind that if you live next door to a skyscraper that blocks your southern sunlight, just go to the Union Square Greenmarket instead.

Potted 'Ponderosa' lemon  Photo: thekitchn.com

As a houseplant, 'Ponderosa' lemon is probably your best citrus choice because of its size. At 3-4’ in a 12” terracotta pot, it certainly isn’t small, but if you want a stately “orangerie-esque” Versailles feel to your pad, this is the lemon for you. It isn’t the best culinarily, but remember that a plant’s optimal growth site is in the ground, and if you choose to forgo the soil and bio-organisms available there, some give and take has to be made. If quality edibles trump gorgeous container plant for you, try instead a kumquat or calamondin, which are sour oranges and naturally compact and thus won’t punish you for growing them in pots.

Calamondin  Photo: The Chelsea Gardener

Growing Citrus

Light: Sunny southern, eastern or western exposure

Water: Moderate. Avoid overwatering and root rot.

Soil: Rich organic potting soil with compost mixed in at planting time.

Feed: Fertilize in early spring, summer and late autumn with specialist citrus food. Watch for chlorosis (yellowing leaves) and treat with chelated iron, manganese or zinc. Take affected leaf to a good local nursery for help identifying which mineral to use.

Temperature: 55–65°F (12–18°C) at night

Photo: Standard cymbidium

And finally I can’t recommend highly enough a member of the orchid family, the Cymbidium. Forget any preconceptions of fussiness or prom corsages from 1987 (I’m not that old, FYI; it was 1994 and I believe a white rose, not an orchid. Not worth the pain of digging up the photo to check, because I seem to remember there were also black pantyhose under my red Jessica McClintock dress. God, do we blame the ‘90s or being 17? Or Jessica McClintock? What must her closet have looked like circa 1993?)

Photo: 'Frida' cymbidium

In coastal California, cymbidiums grow extremely well in containers outside, so I will say, “Put them on your balcony in Santa Monica!” with great jollity so as not to discriminate against the smaller-homed amongst us. They must have nighttime temperatures below 60°F (16°C) in the autumn in order to set flower buds, so if this isn’t likely outside where you live, keep them as a luscious indoor plant. Their foliage is long, straplike and evergreen. Its ideal color should be lightish yellow-green; if the foliage is forest green, the plant isn’t getting enough light. The stunning flowers tend to bloom from late winter through spring for months on end and range in color from pink to bronze, yellow to chartreuse, deep burgundy to white. Cut the flower spikes at the base after flowering and repot infrequently, only when the pot seems overcrowded by dead pseudobulbs (the oval base from which new growth originates). The general rule on when to repot is after flowering but before the 4th of July.

Cymbidium_iridioides_(as_Cymbidium_giganteum_Wall._ex_Lindl.)_-_Curtis'_81_(Ser._3_no._11)_pl._4844_(1855)

Growing Cymbidiums

Light: Bright and indirect. Black or dark brown spots on the leaves indicate sunburn and the need for a new site. Very dark green leaves indicate insufficient light.

Water: Underwatering is bad but it is preferable to overwatering. Once a week is good; do it more in very hot weather. Indoors these plants are susceptible to spider mites, so rinse or mist the leaves as well while watering.

Soil: Plant in fine fir bark blended with perlite or leaf mold. Because of their size and weight, it’s best to pot cymbidiums in plastic pots, placing those inside better-looking decorative containers.

Feed: These boys are generally hungry. While growing leaves and creating bulbs, cymbidiums will want 20-20-20 fertilizer at the suggested rate. Once the bulb has matured use 0-10-10 (the 0 means no nitrogen) to encourage flowering. After the blooms die back, return to the 20-20-20. Confused? I feed mine never, and they both flowered this year.

Read more:

Kate Collins Interiors, kcinteriors.wordpress.com

Tovah Martin, The Unexpected Houseplant, Portland, London, 2012.

Bruce Rogers, The Orchid Whisperer, San Francisco, 2012.