Bring the outdoors in during the hot summer.
By RUSSELL MCCULLEY
The next couple of months are trying ones for New Orleans area gardeners. Our typical summer weather pattern—brutal heat and humidity, interrupted by torrential rain—isn’t exactly the most conducive to outdoor activities. Time instead to cut garden care to a minimum and look forward to fall planting.
It’s also an opportunity to bring the outdoors in. An arrangement of potted plants, along with decorative touches like an indoor fountain or sculpture, can create a relaxing and attractive alternate reality to the summer garden doldrums outside.
“It’s nice to come home to something that isn’t so sterile,” says landscape architect Steve Coenen. “Houses nowadays are hermetically sealed. You don’t even know there’s a world out there. You don’t hear the birds, you don’t hear your fountain, you don’t smell the fragrances because you’re trapped indoors.” An indoor garden, he says, “gives you some life inside your home.”
Most tropicals like bright light and need to be placed near a sunny window. Shade trees and other obstructions determine which windows are best, but those facing north typically receive less light in summer. If muted light is all that’s available, Coenen suggests shopping for plants that have been grown in dark greenhouses to make them more adaptable to low light interiors.
“A lot of ficus is grown in dark greenhouses in Florida, so when you bring it into a house that’s not especially bright, it won’t be shocked,” he says.
Indoor gardens are less susceptible to infestation, but keep an eye out for insect damage to the leaves. It’s a good idea to hoist potted plants outside every few weeks, hose them down and let them air out a bit, Coenen says. Let the top layer of soil dry somewhat between waterings, and try not to let water collect in drain pans. “Too much water can cause problems with bugs, fungus, and even mosquitos,” Coenen says.
Air circulation is essential for grouped plants. But tropicals don’t like to be near air conditioning vents, which both chill and dry them.
As for the hazard to pets, Coenen says it’s usually the plants that suffer.
“Cats tend to want to use a potted plant as a litter box,” he says. “That’s pretty common, and it creates a real problem, smell-wise.” Most animals, he says, won’t try to eat plants that are bad for them. “Animals generally know what’s poisonous,” he says. “They’re a lot smarter than humans. They don’t just eat whatever you put in front of them.”
Innate intelligence doesn’t prevent a lot of dogs and cats from getting sick from house plants, however. The ASPCA posts an exhaustive list of plants and their toxicity levels on its Web site, www.aspca.org. Two locally popular plants, incidentally—lilies and sago palms—rank among the top five harmful plants, based on the number of frantic calls to the organization’s Poison Control Center.
Many of the most popular houseplants are tropicals that have adapted to the muted light of the world’s dense rain forests, making them ideal for indoor use. Dracaenas, including the cornstalk, lucky bamboo and other varieties, are easy to grow, and lend visual interest and height to an arrangement of potted plants. Philodendrons, diffenbachias, Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) and aglaomena, or Chinese evergreen, can thrive in indirect light. Keeping the leaves clear of dust helps these plants make best use of the light they get.
If you have an area that gets plenty of sunlight, consider bromeliads, which come in hundreds of varieties and lend color and texture to an indoor arrangement. Buy them when in bloom and the flower can last for months, Coenen says. “It’s not truly a flower, but we call it that,” he notes.
People who miss the puttering and pruning aspect of gardening might opt for plants that require a little more attention.
“If you have a bright window and you really want to get something fun going—and this is an old fashioned thing to do—you can put in African violets,” he says. The plants are easy to grow and fun to propagate, but a little persnickety; they must be fed and watered from beneath, using a wick, and can’t stand to have their thick leaves wetted.
Ferns, on the other hand, need to be sprayed with mist often to keep their frond healthy and green. And a hanging basket of ferns or indoor ivy makes a nice counterpoint to the upward movement of most indoor gardens.
Schefflera, both full-size and the dwarf variety, and arica palms all like bright light, Coenen says. They make good space fillers, and give the indoors a tropical feel, minus the sweltering heat.
That’s the point, says Coenen. “When it gets unbearably hot in the summer, you can bring things in to brighten your interior spaces,” he says. “Because you’re kind of trapped in the air conditioning, and you need something to do besides sit on the couch and watch TV.” •
This article appears in the June 2005 issue of New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles