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.

Drought Tolerance Versus Container Gardening

Drought tolerant plants loathe root confinement.

There are probably just as many reasons to not grow plants in containers as there are reasons to justify container gardening. Some potted plants consume less water than they would in the ground, but only because their demand is proportionate to their limited size. They only want more water in the ground because they can grow larger.

The most drought tolerant of plants are actually the least practical for pots or even large containers. They tolerate drought because they efficiently disperse their roots so extensively. Since they can not adequately disperse their roots in pots, they rely on what they can get from a relatively limited volume of soil. However, even if watered generously, many drought tolerant plants simply can not produce enough finely textured roots to absorb enough moisture.

For example, eucalyptus trees want to begin dispersing their roots while very young. If confined, their long and wiry roots simply go around within their limited volume of soil, trying to find a way out. They can develop a few more fibrous roots than they typically would, but probably not enough to compensate for limited root dispersion.

Wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.), flannel bush, manzanita and smoke tree are not only sensitive to confinement, but have difficulty recovering from confinement if put into the ground after their roots have circled too much within a container. Pines and many other conifers are likewise sensitive to confinement, but some types can recover if the binding roots get severed before they go into the ground.

Plants with dense and fibrous roots are more adaptable to containers. Most succulents and common yucca are good choices. Ferns and some grasses also work nicely, but need to be watered rather regularly. Some types of arborvitae and juniper work better than larger coniferous evergreens. Some small bamboos can stay potted, but not larger types.

Annuals, compact perennials and many ground covers that provide color and fill in space around larger plants are naturally adaptable to container gardening, but their need for regular watering can not be denied. There simply is no practical way of combining container gardening and drought tolerance.

Pot Plants Generally Burn Out

Small conifers grow into big trees.

Pot plants are very different from common potted plants. Potted plants sustain healthy growth within pots or similar containers. They can range from small houseplants to small trees in big tubs out in the elements. Those that do not live for long in a particular pot before outgrowing it can continue to live in increasingly larger pots. They are considered to be sustainable, rather than temporary.

Pot plants, conversely, are generally expendable. They come into the home or office at their prime, but stay only as long as they continue to perform. For some, this may not be more than a month or so. They typically live their entire brief lifetimes within their original pots. Many endured forcing techniques that are difficult to recover from. Some are little more than uncut cut flowers with roots.

Most pot plants are seasonal. Most are seasonal at Christmas time. These include poinsettias, amaryllis, Christmas cactus, azaleas, hollies, cyclamen, rosemary (in conical ‘Christmas tree’ form) and live Christmas trees. Chrysanthemums were seasonal for autumn. Miniature roses will be in season for Saint Valentine’s Day. Easter lilies and hydrangeas will be seasonal in time for Easter.

Recovery from forcing techniques that are necessary to grow unnaturally showy pot plants is not impossible. It just might be difficult. That is why most poinsettias, Easter lilies and miniature roses rarely survive in the garden. Some pot plants, particularly azaleas and hydrangeas, are cultivars that excel as pot plants, but not in a garden. Christmas cactus and hollies are more likely to thrive.

Some types of live Christmas trees are likely to survive as well. That may not be an advantage. Dwarf Alberta spruce can remain potted as a live Christmas tree for several years, and then do well in the garden. Other spruces may remain potted for a few years, but then demand more space in the garden. Most other live Christmas trees either do not recover in the garden, or grow too large, such as Italian stone pine or Canary Island pine.

Pink Iceplant

Pink bloom is merely a bonus.

Lavender pink bloom in spring or early summer can be profuse in sunny situations. Individual flowers are like small daisies with yellow centers. They stay closed through most of the morning, then open by about noon. If the weather is conducive, they can be slightly fragrant. However, the evergreen foliage of pink iceplant, Oscularia deltoides, might be even more appealing than the bloom.

The plumply succulent leaves are a delightfully bluish hue of gray. With two sides and a flat upper surface, these leaves are triangular in cross section. Blunt foliar teeth provide a distinctive texture. Foliage is so dense that the relatively thin stems within are barely visible. Stems can blush with pink or purple. Bloom is better, and foliage is denser, with good exposure and occasional watering.

Mature growth gets at least half a foot deep, and can eventually get a foot deep. It slowly spreads about two or three feet wide. With age, outer stems develop roots where they lay on the soil, and spread even farther. New plants grow very easily from cutting. Pink iceplant cascades nicely from pots or over stone. It contrasts handsomely with richer or darker colors of other foliage or bloom.

Planters Are Overrated But Functional

Some plants should always be confined.

Container gardening is overrated. The endemic soil here is not so bad that nothing will grow in it. What is now suburban gardens was formerly famously productive farmland! Soil amendments make the soil more comfortable to plants with more discriminating taste. Plants that are too discriminating are probably not worth accommodating. With few exceptions, planters are unnecessary.

Plants naturally want to disperse their roots into the soil. Drought tolerant plants disperse their roots even more extensively. That is how they find enough moisture to be drought tolerant. If deprived of such root dispersion, they are always reliant on watering. Plants prefer the insulation of soil too. Many types of planters can get uncomfortably cool in winter, and uncomfortably warm in summer.

Besides, planters clutter landscapes, and occupy space on hardscapes. Decks rot. Patios stain.

The main advantage of planters is their portability. Plants that are sensitive to frost can move to shelter before the weather gets too cool. Plants that are spectacular only while blooming can move for more prominent display during bloom. For those who have not settled into a permanent home, plants in planters are able to relocate. Planters on patios or decks can move about like furniture.

Houseplants obviously grow in planters because not many houses contain enough soil for them to live in. Houseplants can move about just like planters in the garden. That is helpful for those that need a better exposure for winter than they enjoy for the summer. Some might like to go into the garden during mild weather, or for a rinse in light rain. Cascading plants can hang from the ceiling.

Planters can effectively confine invasive plants as well. Montbretia is so invasive that some people will not grow it without containment. (Deadheading to prevent seed dispersion is important too.) Horseradish often grows in tubs for confinement, as well as to facilitate harvest. It is easier to dump the potting media from a planter, and separate the roots out, than to dig roots from the ground.

Burro’s Tail

My pictures are missing, so I found this one online without copyright protection. It demonstrates the cascading habit of burro’s tail.

Back when big spider plants or Boston ferns suspended in fancy beaded macrame were all the rage through the 1970’s, burrow’s tail, Sedum morganianum, was an unusual but also trendy succulent perennial for sunny spots in the home or sheltered and slightly shaded spots in the garden. The refined foliar texture and light bluish green color contrasted nicely with the big and deep green leaves of comparably trendy philodendrons. The thin stems are too limber to stand up, but cascade excellently. Plants in the garden that get pruned back while dormant in winter can easily get two feet long through summer. Without pruning, big plants can get longer than six feet. Pruning scraps and even the small but plump leaves can be rooted and grown into new plants. It is impossible to prune or even move burro’s tail without dislodging some of the leaves anyway. Watering should be regular but not excessive, but then minimal for plants in the garden through winter.

Potted Plants Need Work Too

Potted plants do not have much soil volume to work with.

Potted plants can be a problem any time of the year. Some want more water than get. Most get too much water or do not drain adequately. Large plants get constricted roots if pots are too small. The roots of some plants get cooked in exposed pots that collect too much heat from sunlight. Besides, too many pots just seem to be in the way in otherwise useful spaces on decks, patios and anywhere else trendsetting landscape designers want to put them.

Now that the weather is getting cool and rainy, potted plants are not as active as they were during warm weather. Many are dormant. Although few demand the attention that they got during warmer weather, plants still need to be tended to appropriately through autumn and winter.

Cool season annuals, which are also known as ‘winter’ annuals, should get groomed as long as they are performing in the garden, just like warm season annuals get groomed through summer. Deteriorating flowers should be plucked from pansy, viola, primrose, Iceland poppy, calendula, dianthus, stock, chrysanthemum and cyclamen because they can mildew and spread mildew to developing flowers and foliage. Unplucked cyclamen and calendula can develop seed which diverts resources from bloom.

Pots that are out in exposed areas will not need to be watered while they get enough water from rain. The problem is that many that do not drain adequately can get too much water from rain and stay saturated. Dormant and defoliated plants do not need much moisture at all. Even evergreen plants do not need as much as they do while active during warm weather, because cool and humid weather inhibits evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliar surfaces).

Potted plants under eaves also need less water while the weather is cool and humid, but need to be watered nonetheless because they are sheltered from rain. Plants in hanging pots typically drain and dry more efficiently, so probably want a bit more water. Even a few sheltered small plants in the ground may occasionally want to be watered during rainy weather if they do not extend enough roots where they can get moisture from rain beyond the sheltered area. Sheltered plants are actually the most likely to be neglected because watering does not seem so important when it is raining.

Angel Wing Begonia

This is not the common Angel Wing begonia. I just found it online, in the pictures that are not protected by copyright. I could not find my picture. Storage has been a problem.

The simple pink or sometimes red or white flowers of angel wing begonia are not as flashy as those of other begonias, and are not abundant enough to provide much color. During warm weather, they are merely a minor bonus to the striking foliage. As the name implies, the big and angularly lobed leaves are shaped like wings of angels. Upper surfaces are glossy and dark green with irregular silvery spots. Undersides are even glossier and reddish bronze. With support, the lanky cane stems can get more than twelve feet tall. However, because older tall canes produce runty foliage, they are often pruned out to promote more vigorous and lushly foliated young canes.

Because they are sensitive to frost, and also because they are ideal houseplants, angel wing begonias are typically grown in containers. They like rather regular but not excessive watering, and rich potting soil. Abundant sunlight enhances foliar color; but harsh exposure roasts foliage. Partial shade is not a problem.

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum is famously diverse and colorful.

Chrysanthemum compensates for its lack of fragrance with rich color and variable form. Centuries of breeding have produced countless shades and tints within the yellow, orange and red range. This includes pink as a tint of red, cream as a tint of yellow, and bronze as a shade of orange. Some reds and pinks are precariously close to purple or lavender. There is, of course, white as well.

Flowers may be solitary big pom-poms, multiple small buttons, or anything in between. Many are daisy types, mostly with bright yellow centers. Spider chrysanthemums have strangely elongated and hooked ray florets, which are generally thought of as ‘petals’. Some chrysanthemums that would otherwise bloom with many small flowers can be groomed to bloom with fewer bigger flowers.

Chrysanthemums with compact growth and uniform bloom are popular as short term annuals for autumn. Their primary bloom phase is impressively profuse. Unfortunately, few get an opportunity to bloom again. Other cool season annuals replace most of them for winter. In ideal situation, with rich media and regular watering, chrysanthemums can actually perform as short term perennials.

Nursery Cans Are Only Temporary

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Nursery cans are not permanent pots.

Garden enthusiasts would understand the temporary nature of nursery cans better if they knew more about how plants grow in nurseries. Few plants actually grow in the retail nurseries that market them. They grow in production nurseries, where efficiency is a priority. Nursery cans, which retailers and consumers refer to as ‘pots’, are the most efficient means with which to contain the crops.

Most nursery cans are thin black vinyl. While plants are small, crowded ‘can to can’ arrangement shades the black vinyl so that it does not get too hot from sunlight exposure. Those on the western and southern edges of a crop might get shade from a temporary row of empty cans or a plank leaned against them. As plants mature and need more space, their growing foliage shades the vinyl.

As plants become marketable, they go from production nurseries to retail and wholesale nurseries. From there, they go to new landscapes and home gardens. Only then do they finally escape the nursery cans that they grew up in, to disperse their roots into real soil. The nursery cans have finished their job. Plants can not live in them forever, even if they continue to live in other types of pots.

Nursery cans are efficient, but not necessarily comfortable. By the time they are marketable, the plants that they contain are generally about as big as they can get within their cans. If they get any bigger, their roots will be crowded. If too exposed to sunshine, the black vinyl gets hot enough to cook the roots within. Plants prefer to be in the ground, or at least pots that are more comfortable.

Potted plants that will grow bigger should live in pots, planters or other containers that are bigger than the nursery cans that they grew in. Some will want even larger containers as they grow more later. Annuals and plants that will not grow much bigger are not so critical. However, all potted plants that will not shade their own pots appreciate containers that are better insulated than thin vinyl.

Clay pots, wooden planters and even concrete urns are as practical as they are appealing.