Living Design: How to Decorate with Plants

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Great houseplants for all homes. From left to right: Baby's Tears, Desert Rose, Bird's Nest Fern, Prickly Pear Cactus, Rex Bagonia, ZZ Plant, Rubber Plant, Areca Palm.

If you’re looking for home décor that is beautiful, affordable, suited to any taste and actually improves the health and wellness of your home, look no further than your neighborhood garden center. With their wide array of colors, shapes and textures, houseplants are a perfect way to enliven your home’s interior landscape. They’re a fun outlet for gardening in winter and a perfect way to connect with nature in urban homes without much outdoor space. Living with plants is also good for us, beefing up the oxygen content of the air and cleansing it of toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene–common chemicals that can cause adverse health effects. Studies also have shown that the presence of houseplants lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and helps us ward off the common cold.

Growers today offer myriad options of houseplants, which can enhance your home’s décor just as much as furniture or fabrics. And houseplants are quite cost-effective: A few inexpensive plants from a local garden center can look lush and beautiful for years if you treat them right. Thankfully, this is an easy task as the majority of houseplants have simple needs. By analyzing your interior spaces and choosing wisely, you can use houseplants as vital design elements in your natural home.

Live-In Design

Begin your houseplant design by analyzing the style of your rooms, advises Diana Yakeley in her book Indoor Gardening: A New Approach to Displaying Plants in the Home. “Carefully study the room in question and decide whether it is formal or informal, classic or contemporary, rustic or urban chic, then gauge whether the plant and container are in keeping with the style. If they are not, then the arrangement will never look right,” she says. For example, in a modern design, you might want nothing more than a single elegant bloom to emphasize the purity of the space, whereas “a country kitchen is the perfect place for a profusion of herbs in old terracotta pots,” she says.

Rather than thinking of plants as an afterthought, regard them as an integral part of each room’s décor. Large spaces with high ceilings need big plants with bold color or foliage to feel balanced. “The reason most indoor plants seem insignificant is because they are too small, overwhelmed by large furniture and high ceilings,” Yakeley says. If you have the space, allow statement plants to dominate their area of the room so their sculptural qualities can be appreciated. In smaller pockets, choose more delicate arrangements using plants with dainty foliage and soft color. “Small, charming arrangements work well in more intimate spaces,” Yakeley says. “They also look wonderful if displayed in multiples to form a miniature indoor landscape. Rows of bamboo stems…in individual glass containers are much more interesting than just one.”

As you plan, consider the physical structure of the rooms you are designing. Your placement of plants can help you define or enlarge spaces–for example, if you want to subtly break up a large room, use a weeping fig or lady palm as you might a partial wall or room divider. If you want to make a small room feel more expansive, place a colorful, attention-grabbing plant at the farthest point from the entry to draw the eye across the room. You can also use plants to highlight favorite areas or structural details. Trailing plants are dramatic on shelves or ledges where their leaves can spill down the wall. Small, mounded herbs in low-slung pots look welcoming perched on each stair in an entryway. Plants can also act as barriers, disguising unattractive areas or providing privacy in front of windows while still admitting light.

You can use houseplants to connect your home’s interior and exterior by repeating colors and forms inside and out. For example, you could grow a rubber plant indoors and similar-looking Southern magnolias outdoors. Or, as many houseplants make ideal seasonal plants outdoors, simply grow the same plants in your summer garden as you keep indoors year-round. This can also save money: Divide your outdoor plants and propagate them inside, then re-plant half of your indoor stock outside when spring arrives.

To learn more about plant propagation, read “How to Care for Houseplants.” 

Plant Friends

Grouping plants with similar light needs allows you to make a more dramatic statement. Consider a row of the same plant in identical pots to create repetition and movement. Or group plants, either in several similar pots or in one large container. When grouping, create visual interest by combining different shapes (such as upright, mounding or trailing), and include a variety of foliage textures and sizes. For example, you might pair tall, pointy cabbage palm with the rounder leaves of lower-growing schefflera and delicate, trailing asparagus fern. You could also create themes for your plant groupings, choosing plants in the same color or several varieties of one species.

Container Considerations

Finally, take advantage of the range of container styles by harmonizing your pots with your décor. Choosing pots is nearly as important as choosing plants; consider style and size when making your selections. Yakeley recommends building up a collection of simple shapes in a variety of materials. “Different materials create different moods,” she says. “Concrete and metal look urban and edgy, terracotta and ceramic more gentle and rustic.” When thinking about the size of the pot, use this rule: With large plants, the plant should occupy two-thirds of the total height, while the pot occupies one-third. For small plants, reverse it: The pot should be two-thirds and the plant one-third.

If you have a certain look in mind but can’t find the right pot, you can use almost anything–a weathered bucket from the garden shed, an antique sugar canister, a boldly colored ceramic bowl–as a container if you double-pot. Simply use any regular pot with holes for your plant and then put it in a slightly larger decorative container. If the larger container doesn’t have drainage holes, prop up your potted plant so it doesn’t sit in the water that collects in the bottom.

Haute Houseplants

The huge variety of houseplants means you can find striking options for any area of your home. This small selection of some of our favorite houseplants offers interesting foliage, shapes and textures. Choose hard-to-kill varieties if you want greenery that doesn’t require much of a time investment.

Baby’s Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii): Often used outdoors as ground cover, this spreading plant forms bright green mounds of foliage when grown in a pot indoors. It likes damp conditions and indirect light.

Desert Rose (Adenium obesum): A succulent shrub with clusters of pink blooms in summer, desert rose does well in a sunny window with well-drained potting mix. Don’t overwater or get the plant’s base wet, which could lead to rot.

Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus): This beautiful rainforest native grows in the crooks of jungle trees. Indoors, it prefers filtered light to light shade, moist soil and high humidity (it does great near the shower).

Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.): Like most succulents, prickly pears need lots of light and little water. Rapid growers, they will grow to sizable specimens within a year if given space to grow.

Rex Bagonia (Begonia Rex Cultorum hybrids): Colorful rex begonia requires humid conditions, so set it on a tray filled with gravel and water, but don’t let the plant get wet. It needs good drainage and indirect light.

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia): This nearly impossible-to-kill plant tolerates most conditions, but it prefers indirect sunlight and watering every two weeks. This plant is poisonous; keep it away from children and pets.

Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica): Easy-to-grow rubber plants prefer medium light and water levels, but they will survive almost any conditions. They can grow thick and bushy or tall and elegant, depending on how you prune them.

Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens): Feather-fronded areca palms are excellent for purifying indoor air. They like indirect light and heavy watering, though they cannot sit in water. They’re sensitive to salt, so use unsoftened water.

Air Aware

Many studies–most notably one conducted by NASA–have found that plants help purify indoor air. But in a 2009 study conducted by the Georgia Department of Horticulture, scientists found that houseplants actually emitted VOCs. When the surprised scientists examined further, they discovered that the VOCs came from pesticides applied to the plants in greenhouses and from their plastic pots, not from the plants themselves. This highlights the importance of choosing houseplants that haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. Ask local garden centers if they spray plants with pesticides; if possible, choose a grower that does not. Otherwise, find a local organic gardener (try who will let you take cuttings for indoor plants, or repot sprayed plants with organic potting mix before bringing them inside. Also be sure to choose pots made of inert, natural materials such as clay and ceramic rather than plastic.


Potting Soil 

FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Company
Handcrafted organic, peat-free potting mix and fertilizer

Organic Mechanics
Organic, peat-free potting mix delivered by biodiesel trucks


“The Indoor Gardener: Creative Designs for Plants in the Home with 125 Inspirational Pictures” by Diana Yakeley

“Indoor Garden: A New Approach to Displaying Plants in the Home” by Diana Yakeley

“Indoor Gardening the Organic Way: How to Create a Natural and Sustaining Environment for Your Houseplants” by Julie Bawden-Davis