ISSUE 97  |  Love Letter to the Houseplant

Houseplants for a Hater

November 14, 2013 4:00 PM

BY Meredith Swinehart

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I hate houseplants. I mean really hate them, and I know it’s my earliest experiences that shaped my disdain. In my childhood home, our living room felt like a jungle. There were plants everywhere–giant sansevieria, drooping ficus trees, dusty African violets, and fat-stalked orchids seemingly never in bloom.

To me, houseplants live in cheap plastic pots, usually sporting bar codes, nestled in formerly clear plastic trays. They wear crumpled aluminum foil to keep the pets out, even though the tips of most leaves have already been sampled. Houseplants are watered en masse from the kitchen sink; they overtake the countertop in seconds, brown water pouring over their catchment trays following overzealous refills. 

Even today, when I’m home and given the task of cleaning the house for a party, I’ve been known to chuck a few plants in the trash. (Actually, I don’t think anyone knows that I do that.) Unlike the great outdoors, where I’m an accidental plant killer, indoors I do it on purpose.

I know how awful I sound; my mother always worked more than full-time and something’s gotta give. But man I hated those plants. 

Somehow, however, these days houseplants have been piquing my interest. For one, a year’s worth of tending an outdoor window box has made me feel reconnected to green living things. And on Gardenista, I’ve seen hundreds of images of houseplants, all beautiful, none sitting in 19-cent plastic trays. I began to wonder: Could I bring plants into my house and actually want them to stay alive? 

Photographs by Meredith Swinehart. Photography shot with the Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera, with Dual Pixel AF technology and built-in Wi-Fi.

Above: I disliked how my mother’s houseplants looked like an afterthought, and I’m not one to be unintentional about my living space. For me, having houseplants meant creating vignettes I might actually want to live with. 

Above: I painted a large terra cotta pot in Farrow & Ball’s Cabbage White and planted white-tipped ivy on the perimeter and a “Ming” asparagus fern from Flora Grubb in the center. 

Above: I wanted to create a planter/plant contrast in green, but knew that the wrong pick could be unflattering to both. In the end, I love how this selaginella looks against a planter in Farrow & Ball’s Studio Green. I supplemented the live plants with dried tallow berries.

Above: A miniature olive needs no introduction and no other plants as friends. I love this little tree and dearly hope that I keep it alive. This is the only plant in my bedroom, and its beauty still surprises me every time I enter.

Above: I found the little tree at Shed in Healdsburg, near Napa; it was the only one with fruit on it.

Above: Xapno on Haight Street in San Francisco is a little dark (think carnivorous plants), and inspired me to create a moody arrangement. I initially resisted the begonia–as far as I’m concerned, anything with tropical, waxy leaves belongs in a corporate lobby circa 1982. But I made an exception for this particularly dainty version. In the smaller container is a corkscrew rush–which I bought because it looks weird.

Above: I planted pilea to dangle downward and a tiny tropical hypoestes (also known as a polka dot plant) to augment the begonia. 

Above: Second to the big olive, this tiny olive is my favorite. (I have a clear bias toward Mediterranean plants. Coincidentally, we didn’t have any Mediterranean plants in my childhood home.) I love how slight it looks, and I plan to keep it small with regular trimming. The pot is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath, a barely gray, slightly pink, perennially popular color. 

Above: The silver-inflected basket is from Flora Grubb, along with the copper drainage tin peeking out from the edge of the pot.

Above: In a compromise with my cat, I planted Rosy’s Organic Kitty Grass to keep her from eating the rest of my lot. (She doesn’t know we reached a compromise, but I’m spraying the rest of the plants with something she won’t want to eat, so I think she’ll learn about our agreement soon.) The pot is painted in Farrow & Ball Mole’s Breath, and the water dish is from Mason Cash. 

If you’re just beginning gardening, indoors or out, visit the rest of my Novice Gardener posts to find out how easy it is to get started.