The appeal of interiors draped in greenery is no mystery: Houseplants are a natural salve for spaces filled with artificial materials and products, reminders of the far-flung gardens and landscapes that may be difficult to visit these days — and even stand-ins for the friends we used to entertain in our homes.
“You can actually be a minimalist, but if you have plants, all of a sudden the space feels warm and inviting,” said Eliza Blank, the founder and chief executive of the houseplant retailer The Sill, who said her company’s sales have skyrocketed over the past year.
Maximalists have found their stride too, inspiring legions of followers on Instagram with rooms that resemble private jungles. The National Gardening Association estimates that household spending on houseplants has climbed almost 50 percent since 2016, with a year-over-year jump of more than 12 percent in 2020.
But adding plants to your home isn’t always as easy as it looks. They can shrivel and die. And even if they live, they may not look as good in your home as they do on Instagram.
So what’s the secret to integrating plants into your living space?
“When it comes to plant styling, it’s just like any design project,” said Justina Blakeney, the Los Angeles-based founder of the blog-cum-lifestyle-brand Jungalow, whose latest book, “Jungalow: Decorate Wild,” will be published next month. “You have to think about the greater context and the overall look and feel you’re going for.”
She added: “Of course, plants are living creatures, so you have to keep in mind what they want as well.”
Ms. Blakeney and other plant stylists and designers shared their strategies.
Understand Your Environment (and Yourself)
Many houseplants suffer simply because they’re put in environments that don’t suit them. Just because a big fiddle-leaf fig tree looks impressive in a living room you see in a shelter magazine doesn’t mean it will look good or flourish in your living room.
“My biggest tip is to assess the light in your home first, because light is the most important aspect of keeping plants happy,” said Danae Horst, the founder of Folia Collective, a plant store in Los Angeles, and the author of “Houseplants for All.” “It’s more important than watering; it’s more important than fertilizing. Light is to plants as food is to humans.”
Consider which direction your windows face; look for obstructions from neighboring buildings or trees outside; and study the quality of light. South-facing windows usually get the most direct sunlight, Ms. Horst said, while east- and west-facing windows get some light, and north-facing windows get very little, which makes them the most challenging.
Then, with help from a nursery or plant guide, choose the types of plants that are best suited to your home’s conditions. Desert plants like cactuses and other succulents thrive in rooms that get direct sun all day long, Ms. Horst said. Tropical plants tend to fare better in rooms that get a lot of indirect, filtered or dappled light, as they would under a canopy of trees. Snake plants and ZZ plants can tolerate darker conditions.
It’s also important to be realistic about your plant-parenting skills: Are you overzealous, or more of a hands-off plant parent? Some people insist on watering every day, and drown plants that would fare better with once-a-week watering; others bring plants home and forget to water them for months, or let the soil dry out when they travel.
Neither approach is necessarily a problem, so long as you choose the plants suited to your habits. “Understanding what is going to fit your lifestyle, and your personality, is helpful,” Ms. Horst said.
Start With a Statement
For instant gratification without amassing a large collection of plants, you could start with a single, eye-catching plant, said Hilton Carter, a Baltimore-based plant and interior stylist whose latest book, “Wild Creations,” will be published next month.
“I make decisions based on what I call the statement plant,” he said. “It’s the one plant that instantly grabs your attention and sets the tone.”
Mr. Carter’s home bursts with greenery, but there’s no missing the statement plant in his living room: a towering fiddle-leaf fig tree.
Any plant with impressively large leaves will do the trick, he said: “A larger foliage plant, or a bigger plant, in most situations — it’s all about what you want the statement to be.”
Ms. Blakeney sometimes looks for a plant with a vivid pattern. “I am a huge fan of decorating with plants the way that one might traditionally decorate with textiles or color,” she said. “Some of my very favorite plants are ones that are polka-dotted or have stripes or bring different vibrant colors into the space.”
But make sure to choose varieties that won’t interfere with the way you use the space.
Shape, or what Summer Rayne Oakes, an entrepreneur, YouTube personality and author of “How to Make a Plant Love You,” calls “structure,” is important. A tall plant in a big planter is nice in an empty corner of a loft, but may be impractical in a tighter circulation area.
Similarly, if you use a hanging planter, “you might want a plant that drapes down,” she said, rather than one that reaches up to the ceiling. And in a functional space like a kitchen, a plant on a shelf should stand up rather than spread out, because when you’re trying to wash dishes at the sink, she said, “you can’t have something that’s flailing its leaves too much.”
As you begin adding more plants to your collection, build clusters of plants rather than spreading out the individual pots.
“I always suggest people cluster plants for maximum impact,” Ms. Blank said. If you have just a few plants, she recommended making a cluster with an odd number of pots — three or five, for example.
The plants don’t need to match: Usually, the greater the variety, the better the composition will look. “Take advantage of the natural texture and color, and pair plants with different attributes,” Ms. Blank said. “One might be very structured and upright, like a snake plant. One might be more delicate and trailing, like a philodendron. And you might add a pop of color with an anthurium.”
It doesn’t always require that much planning. Ms. Horst often advises people to simply identify the window in their home that gets the best light, “and then make that your crazy plant window.”
At a sunny window in her own kitchen, she suspended various plants from a ceiling rod and added others on the floor, a stand and the tops of cabinets. “One good window is enough to make a big plant statement,” she said.
Adding plants at different heights along one wall can create the impression of a verdant garden. “I like to have plants at all levels,” Ms. Blakeney said. “I oftentimes will have plants on the floor. I’ll have plants on tables, consoles or cabinets at waist level. And then I love to draw the eye up with plants high on shelves and spiller plants kind of cascading down. It creates a lot of movement and a very whimsical feeling.”
Mr. Carter sometimes mounts plants directly on the wall. At home, he has a propagation area where wall-mounted wood cradles hold test tubes filled with cuttings. He also installs air plants in wall hangers and sometimes mounts staghorn ferns directly to boards as wall plaques.
“You can mount a staghorn fern to any reclaimed piece of wood,” he said, because it doesn’t need to be potted in soil. “You can utilize this particular plant almost as a work of art. If you have a gallery wall, you can put up your other art and have a piece of living art there, as well.”
Curate the Containers
Plants are the stars of the show, but their containers have a crucial supporting role. If you use a hodgepodge of flowerpots, it may look cluttered. That doesn’t mean the containers have to match, but it’s helpful to have a vision of what you want to achieve.
One option is to choose pots with similar colors. Ms. Horst likes vintage and handmade ceramic containers with a lot of texture, but she focuses on collecting terra-cotta and white-colored pots because “they’re easy to mix together,” she said. “And I never have to worry about what plants are next to each other if I want to change things up.”
Another option is to choose a common material or construction technique. Ms. Blakeney, for instance, has designed rooms where plants sit in a variety of woven baskets.
But none of this means that plants necessarily have to be repotted, Ms. Horst noted. She often leaves them in the plastic pots from the nursery — which have generous drainage holes and can be easily moved to the sink for watering — and places those pots in larger ceramic containers.
“Then when you do need to repot, it’s much easier because the roots haven’t attached themselves to the ceramic,” she said. And when you find decorative pots that don’t have drainage holes, there’s no need to break out a drill.