Houseplant Culture That Contradicts Gardening

Some ferns are popular as houseplants.

Houseplant culture is a unique type of horticulture. It involves almost no gardening. Most houseplants live exclusively indoors. Many inhabit homes and offices that lack gardens. Only a few fortunate sorts get to occasionally enjoy mild weather in home gardens. Such indulgences are generally brief and sheltered. Most houseplants are innately vulnerable. 

Of course, no houseplant is native to domestic situations. Every houseplant lives outside somewhere. Most are from lush tropical rain forests, where they must compete with other foliage for sunlight. Many are understory plants that naturally live within the partial shade of bigger tropical vegetation. That is why they adapt so efficiently to partial shade inside.

That is also why most houseplants actually want to live inside here. They do not like the chill of winter, even if mild. Many or most succumb to minor frost if too exposed. They are simply unaccustomed to it. Since they adapt to shelter and partial shade inside, they are also sensitive to direct sunlight exposure. Foliage that becomes too exposed can scorch. 

Tolerance of weather is as regional for houseplants as it is for garden plants. That is one commonality of gardening and houseplant culture. The various species of Ficus that are common trees in landscapes of Los Angeles are strictly houseplants in San Jose. They tolerate the minor winter chill of Los Angeles, but not the slightly cooler frost of San Jose. 

Some ferns are popular houseplants because, like tropical plants, they generally tolerate partial shade. However, many are less tolerant of the minimal humidity of home interiors. Regular watering can compensate. Irregular watering might be distressful for some ferns. Fortunately, most ferns can recover from brief desiccation, even if their foliage dies back.

Succulents are completely different. The are intolerant of partial shade, and crave sunny and warm situations. They are nonetheless popular for houseplant culture because they generally tolerate minimal humidity. Cacti prefer aridity, and are very susceptible to rot in damp conditions. Succulents wilt to warn before they succumb to deficiency of moisture.

Something Blue

Is periwinkle blue, or slightly purplish?

Blue must be unpopular with the more common of pollinators. After all, colorful flowers are designed to attract some sort of vector to exchange pollen. It seems that most pollinators like yellow. Red and pink (which is actually a tint of red) seem to be more appealing to hummingbirds. Butterflies seem to really like pink and orange. Many flowers that seem to be white actually use infrared to attract bees, or ultraviolet to attract nocturnal moths. Other white flowers rely on wind, which is not discriminating about color.

Of the primary (red, yellow and blue) and secondary (orange, green and purple) colors, the only color that is more uncommon than true blue is green. That is probably only because green flowers do not contrast much against green foliage, so would be harder to find. Many blue flowers, like thyme, lavender, blue potato bush and jacaranda, are closer to purple. Some blue and purple color is probably only incidental, and in conjunction with invisible (to humans) ultraviolet coloration or patterns.

Except for purplish blue jacaranda, there are no substantial trees to bloom blue. Empress tree is flashy, but is even more purplish. However, most ceanothus, including a few that can grow as small trees, are famous for their clear blue bloom. Plumbago, blue hibiscus, echium and rosemary are blue blooming shrubbery. Creeping rosemary is a nice groundcover. Hydrangea has the potential to bloom blue, but often turns purplish or pink because of soil alkalinity. Lilac and wisteria vine can be lavender, pink or white, as well as ice blue.

There are several perennial and annual salvias and lupines that bloom blue. Russian sage, catmint, carpet bugle, campanula, perennial statice and lily-of-the-Nile are some of the other familiar perennials for blue flowers. Delphinium should probably be more familiar. Grape hyacinth and various iris bloom briefly but spectacularly with some of the richest shades of blue. Even though there are not many blue flowers to choose from, there is quite a bit of variety.

Annual statice, aster, zinnia, bachelor button, nierembergia, nigella, pincushion flower, forget-me-not and cineraria are uncommon annuals that are enjoyed by those who crave blue. Petunia happens to be one of the most popular of warm season annuals that also happens to produce some excellent blues. Later, brightly colored pansy and primrose can be just as flashy as popular cool season annuals.

Mulch Is Lowly But Practical

Mulch is less interesting than useful.

Gardening is unnatural. Most popular plant species are not naturally native. Cultivars are products of unnatural selection and breeding. Most plants like unnatural watering. Some enjoy unnatural fertilizers. Removal of their detritus is unnatural. So is the replacement of their detritus with mulch. Actually, most of what happens in the garden is quite unnatural. 

Ironically, gardening is how many of us incorporate more nature into our lifestyles. Much of our effort compensates for what plants naturally crave but unnaturally lack. Watering is necessary for plants that get rain through summer within their natural ecosystems. Mulch might be nice for plants that naturally benefit from the decomposition of their own debris.

In nature, most plants benefit from their own debris. They enjoy the nutritiously decaying organic matter and enhanced moisture retention. Their shallow roots enjoy the insulating effect on the surface of the soil. Debris of some plants excludes other competitive plants. Mulch is not a perfect substitute for such detritus, but partly compensates for its removal.

Although it would likely be an asset to the plants that produce it, the detritus produced by most plants can not stay in the garden. Much of it is too abundant. Some is too shabby or too coarsely textured. Some might become combustible as it accumulates. Diseases can overwinter in some types of debris. Mulch is more sanitary, neater and less combustible.

Most mulches are organic matter of one sort or another. Compost does not last long as a mulch, but is appreciated by most plants. Uncomposted chips from a tree service occupy nitrogen as they decompose, but are more effective for inhibiting weed growth. Products that are available as mulch at garden centers are more refined, but also more expensive. 

Some dense ground cover plants perform something like mulches. Many consume more moisture than they retain though. Also, they can retain bits of potentially infectious debris that falls from diseased plants above. Nonetheless, they insulate the surface of their soil, and inhibit or exclude weeds. Gravel over ground cloth is inert, but requires no watering.

Much Ado About Mulch

Not many weeds get through mulch.

Mulch was not invented by humans. Most plants make some sort of mulch naturally. Even desert plants that live on bare ground shed foliage that decomposes to be recycled back into the soil, and provide nutrients for the roots below. Redwood, most pines and most eucalyptus are extreme mulchers that generate thick layers of foliar debris that benefit their own roots, but inhibit the growth of competing trees. Knotweed, Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant), ivy (both Algerian and English) and other dense groundcovers are their own mulch, and also work well for substantial plants that grow amongst them.

There are a few advantages to mulch. Although ground cover mulches consume some degree of moisture, mulches benefit plants by retaining moisture at the surface of the soil. Mulches also insulate the soil, so that it is more comfortable for roots that want to be near the surface. Most weed seeds that get covered by thick mulch can not germinate and emerge through it. Those that try to germinate on top probably can not get their roots through to the soil below. Besides, mulch simply looks better than bare soil.

Mulch is generally spread in early spring, before weed seeds are completely germinated, and while the soil is still damp. However, moisture retention is still a concern through the warm and dry weather of summer. A thin layer of finely textured mulch added over thinning groundcovers (without completely burying the foliage) can rejuvenate tired old stems by giving them something more to root into. This works well for knotweed, English ivy and even trailing gazanias.

Mulches should generally be well composted so that they do not take too many nutrients out of the soil for their own decomposition. However, uncomposted coarse wood chips, like those often recycled from tree services, are even more effective at controlling weeds while fresh, and they tend to decompose before they become a bother to larger plants.

Small volumes of mulch can be purchased in bales at nurseries and garden centers. Composted redwood soil conditioner is a popular soil amendment that can alternatively be a nice finely textured mulch to spread thinly over small areas or in planters. Larger volumes of more coarsely textured and less expensive mulching materials can be obtained by the yard from garden supply stores.

Ground Cover Works Like Mulch

Ground covers, simply speaking, cover ground.

Weeding otherwise bare and unused ground is no fun. Nor is weed whacking. Mulching inhibits future weed growth, but requires occasional replenishment. For many situations, ground cover plants are more practical. Once established, many sorts effectively exclude most weeds. Even more contain dust, and inhibit erosion of the surface of the soil below.

As the terminology implies, ground cover plants are simply plants that disperse laterally, over the surface of the ground. Many migrate by subterranean stems known as rhizomes, or by stems on the surface of the soil, known as stolons. Some are vines that behave like stolons. Also, many are merely prostrate shrubbery that does not stand upright very high. 

Ground cover plants generally require more maintenance than mulch, and most want for some degree of irrigation. Conversely they require less effort than weeding. Furthermore, ground cover plants can live on slopes that are too steep for mulch to adhere to, and are more appealing than mulch. They might be as colorful or fragrant as other sorts of plants. 

Prostrate shrubbery, such as creeping cultivars of juniper, manzanita and ceanothus, are best in areas that are big enough to accommodate their width at maturity. Within confined spaces, they need pruning around the edges, which exposes unappealingly bare interior stems. Prostrate shrubbery generally gets higher than other types of ground cover plants. 

The many vines that work as ground cover probably stay lower than prostrate shrubbery, unless of course they climb into bigger shrubbery and trees. Algerian ivy and English ivy are famously aggressive if they overwhelm other vegetation. Also, they can cling to walls and ruin paint and siding. Star jasmine climbs too, but does not cling, and is more docile. 

Perennial ground cover plants, such as various iceplant, trailing gazania, trailing African daisy and pigface (freeway iceplant), tend to stay lower than other types. Most require no grooming over their upper surface, so only need trimming around the edges. Scraps from trimming during winter can become cuttings for bare patches or elsewhere in the garden. Several types root efficiently.

Summer Annuals Are Grateful For Deadheading

Blooming through summer is serious work.

So many of the pretty warm season annuals planted last spring are now at their best. Sweet alyssum, lobelia, verbena, moss rose and busy Lizzy never stop blooming, and only get more colorful as they grow through the season until they get replaced by cool season annuals in autumn. (It is unfortunate that busy Lizzy, which had been a standard warm season annual for so many years has become less available due to disease.) However, French marigold, petunia, floss flower, cosmos, statice, pincushion flower (scabbiosa) and zinnia need a bit of attention to perform as well that long.

These few warm season annuals can get tired of blooming if not ‘deadheaded’ (groomed of deteriorating flowers). Deadheading not only keeps plants looking a bit neater, but also prevents the diversion of resources needed for continued bloom into the generation of seed. As far as these blooming plants are concerned, seeding for the next generation is their priority anyway. As long as they are not allowed to set seed, they will continue to try, by producing more flowers to replace those that fade and get removed without setting seed.

Cosmos, statice and pincushion flower can continue to perform adequately without deadheading. The main advantage of deadheading these annuals is the removal of fading flowers. (There probably will not be much left for cosmos.) Many people actually prefer to leave fading cosmos flowers to disperse their seed for the following year.

Petunia is perhaps one of the more demanding of warm season annuals. It often needs to be clipped back in the middle of the season, right when it is expected to bloom the most. The best way to avoid serious pruning at one time it to keep plants snipped back lightly but continually as they grow, so that they can not develop the awkwardly long and weirdly jointed stems that eventually stop blooming. Short stems that stay close to the roots are the healthiest and most productive.

The various types of cockscomb are odd warm season annuals that become available halfway through summer, just in time to add color if some of the annuals planted earlier in spring are not performing adequately, or are finishing early. Of course, all of the other warm season annuals will still be available in nurseries until it is time for cool season annuals next autumn.

Deadhead To Promote Continued Bloom

Alyssum is too profuse for deadheading.

Deadheading is simply the removal of deteriorating bloom prior to the maturation of seed or fruiting structures. Besides diverting resources, it removes unappealingly deteriorated bloom, as well as unwanted or potentially invasive seed. Deadheading can be delayed if seed from particular flowers is desirable, (although some types are genetically variable).

It was time to deadhead spring bulbs as they finished bloom earlier last spring. Now it is time to deadhead some of the summer bulbs. It eliminates unsightly faded floral stalks of gladiolus, and diverts resources into developing bulbs. It eradicates invasive montbretia seed. For canna, it conserves resources to enhance subsequent bloom through summer. 

It is helpful to deadhead some types of annual bedding plants too. Marigold, zinnia, floss flower, pincushion flower and petunia should bloom better with systematic deadheading. Of course, all will continue to bloom without deadheading, but might be slightly subdued, with fading flowers. Modern sterile varieties that produce no viable seed are less reliant.

Fortunately, there is no need to deadhead alyssum, lobelia, nasturtium, moss rose, busy Lizzie or verbena. Their bloom is so abundant that it constantly overwhelms older bloom. Grooming tiny alyssum and lobelia flowers would otherwise be incredibly tedious. Moss rose, alyssum and nasturtium are pleased to self sow, but revert to simpler feral varieties. 

Some branched types of sunflowers produce several blooms on several separate stems. Others bloom with only a single flower on top of a tall single stem. If deadheaded prior to the maturation of their seed, the stalks of some single sunflowers generate a few smaller axillary flowers by autumn. This technique inhibits seed production, but prolongs bloom.

Houseplants Bring The Outdoors In

Many houseplants will not live outside.

There is someplace in the world for the brethren of each and every houseplant to grow wild. All houseplants do not originate from the same regions, and many were bred in cultivation, but all originate from somewhere. They are houseplants only because they are plants that can live in a house.

Most houseplants are from tropical regions, and many are understory plants that grow in the partial shade of taller trees. They are naturally tolerant of the mild temperatures and partial shade within the home. Not many deciduous plants will be happy without a winter chill.

Confinement is also a concern, since houseplants need to be potted, and stay below ceilings. Plants that need to disperse their roots will not work. Neither will plants that can not be pruned down as they grow. Some palms that work well in malls have leaves that get longer than the distance between the floor and ceiling in the home!

Most houseplants are grown for foliage instead of flowers, not only because a lack of seasons inhibits bloom, but also because their foliage is naturally so appealing. African violets are one of the more notable exceptions. Amaryllis is all flower with almost no foliage, but typically gets discarded when done blooming.

Coleus and caladiums have such colorful foliage that there is no need for flowers. Bloom actually compromises their foliar quality anyway, which is why flower spikes get snipped from coleus. Mauna loa lily is grown for excellent rich green foliage, but sometimes adds clear white blooms as a bonus.

All sorts of ferns are very good houseplants. However, a few, including the popular Australian tree fern, produce coarse fuzz that can be irritating to the skin. A few others, like sword fern, produce messy spores that can permanently stain fabric and carpet. Just because they can live in the home does not mean that they should.

The various ficus are excellent houseplants because they can grow quite large, but can also be pruned to fit into their particular situations. The popular weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) has an abundance of small glossy leaves. Rubber tree and fiddle leaf fig have big thick leaves. Creeping fig is even more distinct from the others, as a wiry vine that is popularly grown in hanging pots.

Plants To Cover New Ground

Ground cover plants are quite variable.

Lawn is both the most common and the most horticulturally incorrect of landscape features. Not many landscapes lack lawn. After all, it is the most useful part. Yet, with few exceptions, it requires more water and maintenance than anything else, and in most situations, than everything else combined!

Other groundcover plants are not nearly so greedy. Some need only occasional attentions. Most want less water, and some need very little water or none at all once established. No other groundcover functions like lawn. However, they each have particular advantages.

Ideally, groundcover plants do more than just look good. Most cover otherwise exposed soil so that weeds or other unwanted plants do not dominate. Some groundcovers help to stabilize soil. A few even work as living mulch so that soil does not stay too harshly exposed for other plants to be comfortable in it.

Low growing shrubbery, like creeping ceanothus and some types of juniper, can get too deep and unmanageable for confined areas. They tend to work better where they have room to spread outward uninterrupted. Otherwise, the edges can get quite shabby if they need to be pruned back for confinement. Some sprawling cotoneasters tolerate pruning better, both on top and the edges.

Coarse vines, like honeysuckle, naturally stay low where they have nothing to climb, although they need occasional pruning to stay tidy and confined. High branched trees, like most types of eucalyptus, are beyond the reach of busy tendrils or twining vines. However, Algerian and English ivies, although considerably tidier and uniform, can cling directly to the trunk of any tree to become a wicked mess out of reach!

Old fashioned Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) can be aggressive where it needs to be pruned around the edges, but is actually quite complaisant otherwise. It does not pile up too deeply because older stems decay as readily as they get overwhelmed by new growth above. Vigorous growth is an advantage for filling in quickly, and subduing weeds. ‘Real’ iceplants are smaller, more docile around the edges, and much more colorful when they bloom.

Toxic Plants Are Diversely Enigmatic

Smoketree is related to poison oak.

There is no single reason for toxic plants to be as potentially dangerous as some of them are. They are toxic by various means, and to various degrees. Some actually seem to be incidentally toxic. Many are intentionally and justifiably toxic. A few live in home gardens and landscapes. Of these, a few surprisingly produce safely edible fruits and vegetables! 

Immobility is a major disadvantage for plants. Those that begin to grow where resources are inadequate are unable to relocate to more accommodating situations. Those that live within ecosystems that periodically burn must either regenerate efficiently after fire, or be resilient to fire. Flowers of all plants must rely on other organisms or wind for pollination.

Since plants are immobile, they can not evade other organisms that eat them. Therefore, some do what they can to be unappetizing for the organisms that are most threatening to them. Some use thorns or similar protective devices. Unpalatable tomentum (fuzz) works for others. Many use unappealing flavor. Some are unappetizing because they are toxic.

Toxic plants are generally not toxic to a broad range or organisms. Insects eat plants that are very toxic to mammals. Onions, although commonly consumed by humans, are toxic to canines. Fortunately, most organisms instinctively know what plants are toxic to them, and avoid eating them. Unfortunately, humans and canines are occasionally exceptions.

Because young children put random items into their mouths, and puppies chew anything that they can get their teeth around, they should not have access to toxic plants. Morning glory, foxglove, yew, oleander and castor bean are some of the more poisonous of plants that are common in home gardens. Dieffenbachia is a potentially dangerous houseplant. 

African sumac and smoketree are related to poison oak. Although not so poisonous, they are incidentally toxic allergens to those who are sensitive to them. (Incidental toxins may not be intentionally deterrent to consumptive organisms.) Hellebores are both poisonous and very allergenic. Poinsettias and their relatives are toxic because of their caustic sap.