By Russell McCulley, Photographed by Cheryl GerberI have a friend—let’s call her Laura—who used to travel a lot for work and would ask me to look after her place while she was gone. The task entailed feeding and watering her two cats and minding the houseplants. Laura was an exemplary pet owner. But she had the opposite of a green thumb, and those poor plants—one forlorn ivy and an aloe vera in a coffee can—pretty much had to fend for themselves. They never seemed to grow much, but the amazing thing was, they never died, either, in the six years that she had the apartment.
Some people love to fuss over plants. Others, like my friend, should probably stick to plants that are, if not exactly immortal, fall under the hard-to-kill category.
Even those who are not cursed with a black thumb often prefer gardening, both indoors and out, that involves low-maintenance, hardy plants. In South Louisiana, there are plenty to choose from, says Ted Anthony of Anthony’s Landscaping.
“We have a really broad palette of plant material we get to use here,” he says. “And you don’t necessarily have to stick to indigenous plants. A lot of nonnative species also do well here.”
Outdoor Potted Plants
Anthony recommends potted citrus trees as low-maintenance patio accents—lime, lemon and kumquat are particularly suited to our climate. Outdoor potted plants tend to dry out quickly, however; keep them happy by maintaining proper water levels.
For hard-to-kill ground cover, Anthony says, stick to the “tried, true and tested”: Asiatic jasmine, liriope, ardesia and certain types of indigofera “are all pretty hardy.”
Hardy vines such as mandevilla, Confederate and Carolina jasmine, clematis and honeysuckle have both aesthetic and practical functions. They appeal to the senses, attract wildlife and, if you need to create a barrier, grow well on a fence or lattice. Vines thrive here—sometimes too well, as anyone who has tangled with an out-of-control Chinese wisteria can attest. Anthony recommends evergreen wisteria, which is less aggressive than its invasive cousin but packs an equally stunning visual punch.
Trees and Shrubs
Ligustrum may be an old standby, but it works well without requiring a lot of care and attention. Hollies, which can be considered either trees or shrubs are natural survivors, and being evergreens, provide year-round screening. If you like magnolias, but don’t have much space, Anthony suggests one of the smaller varieties such as D.D. Blanchard or Little Jim.
If it’s long life and low maintenance you’re after, avoid some of the sculpted shrubs like “poodle” bushes and those corkscrew-shaped cedars. “God didn’t make it like that,” Anthony says. More importantly, topiary-style shrubs are often conifers, such as juniper, cedar and Italian cypress, which fare better in dryer climates. Their tight foliage reduces airflow, making them prone to fungus in high humidity climes.
Several types of palm can withstand black thumb syndrome, including the hardy Rhapis palm. Bromeliads, likewise, are “definitely hard to kill,” Anthony says. Spathiphyllum, better known as the peace lily, holds its own indoors. Many plants from the Dracaena genus, including the good-old corn plant cope well with muted light and a little neglect.
But even the toughest indoor plants need a little attention: wipe the foliage down with a soft, damp cloth every now and then, turn them occasionally to promote even growth, and take care not to over water them. Root rot can be deadly.
Chilly, stale air, windows that don’t open, scarce natural light and interference from well-meaning colleagues and cleaning crews make the modern office one of the most inhospitable places for plants. Even experienced gardeners sometimes find it difficult to keep houseplants alive at the office; best bets for hard-to-kill office plants are the humble pothos ivy, sanseveiria (such as the “mother-in-law’s tongue”) and the reliable dracaena. Or, as my housesitting experience demonstrated, perhaps a coffee can with an aloe vera. You can always break a piece off and use the sap to treat paper cuts. •