Go Green Indoors: Five Easy Houseplants to Grow

Why struggle with houseplants that drop leaves, need constant care or look sickly? To keep your green home décor looking beautiful, choose houseplants that will thrive in the low-light and low-humidity conditions in most homes. Houseplants not only add a living element to your décor, but they also help clean the air by drawing in carbon dioxide and releasing fresh oxygen.

Try one (or more!) of these nearly foolproof plants that anyone can grow:

Aloe
No home should be without this versatile, healthful plant. Grow it on the windowsill in the kitchen, in a sun-filled bathroom or on a table near a window in the living room. Aloe likes a cool, sunny location that’s not too hot (heat can dry out the leaves). Give it a roomy pot of about 6 to 8 inches across with excellent drainage, as it hates soggy roots.

Aloe grows best in a standard potting mix for houseplants and needs only occasional watering, so keep it on the dry side. The best part is that this plant gives back. Cut off a leaf and squeeze out the juice to soothe and heal minor cuts, scrapes and burns.

Oxalis
This tidy little plant is often referred to as Cape shamrock or Four-leaf clover plant. In the wild, it’s known as wood sorrel.

Oxalis is grown from little tubers that sit just under the surface of the soil in a wide but shallow pot. Buy an established plant and let it grow to fill the pot for a full, lush look. Give oxalis a sunny to partly-sunny location in your home on a table near a window in the living or dining room. It likes a cooler location as its tender stems and leaves will dry out in hot, direct sun. When and if they do, just pull them off the plant to clean it up.

Water this plant well when the surface is bone dry or when the plant droops. The bonus of oxalis is that it blooms beautifully. Stems rise up from the tubers through the leaves topped with clusters of tiny pink, purple or white trumpet shaped flowers. At night, the leaves fold up and reopen in the light of day. In the summer, put it outside in a semi-shady area on a deck or patio. If the plant stops blooming for a period of time, give it a rest. In the fall, put it in a cool, dark place such as a basement or garage and give it a drink every month or so. In the spring, bring it back into a semi-shady place, and it will be rejuvenated to bloom again.

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum Comosum)
You just can’t kill this plant. Spider plants seem to thrive on neglect.

Buy an established plant or ask a friend for a “baby” that grows on the end of a long stem from the mother plant. If you start with a baby plant, fill a small pot with standard houseplant potting soil and anchor the roots into the soil with a hairpin-shaped paper clip or piece of wire. Water it well and let the soil dry slightly. You almost can’t over-water this plant, which is the cause of most houseplants’ demise. If you forget to water it for a long period of time, it folds its leaves to let you know it’s thirsty, then bounces right back after a good drink.

Grow spider plants on a sunny windowsill in any room of the house; it will thrive nearly anywhere there is light. It produces tiny white, fragrant flowers along its stems from time to time. Pull off the dead leaves to keep it neat, and clip off some baby plants to share with friends or make new plants. You can even put the babies in a vase of water where they’ll root and grow for years.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera Hybrids)
When it comes to cactus, most people think of thorns and pain -- but not with this variety. Christmas cactus’s smooth, dark green segmented leaves are fleshy and full of moisture. It has the water retention properties of a desert cactus without the spikes.

There are basically three types of this plant, all depending on the bloom time. Christmas cactus is supposed to bloom in late December. Thanksgiving cactus tends to bloom in late November. And Easter cactus might bloom in late March or early April. But you really can’t count on these bloom times. The plant might bloom weeks earlier or later than expected, depending on the amount of sun or darkness it gets. Blooms are generally orchid-like with delicate pink, white, red or orange petals on the outermost tips of the leaves.

Christmas cacti like to be pot-bound -- you can leave them in the pot you bought it in for many years. Some say the trick to getting your plant to bloom is to give it long periods of darkness, then bring it out into the light a few weeks before its bloom time. That might work, but generally, if the plant is watered two or three times a month, it should bloom well nearly on schedule. In summer, bring your plant outdoors to a semi-shady location, then back inside before the first frost of the season. Break off pieces of the leaves at the nodules, let them cure for a few days, and pot them up to share with friends.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria Triasciata)
Tough as nails, this leathery, striped plant is nearly indestructible. Snake plants like a sunny to partly-sunny location on a windowsill or table near a good source of light. It quickly fills the pot and demands little attention except for a good drink about twice a month. These plants have a shallow root system and can grow in a wide, deep saucer or shallow pot in standard houseplant potting soil.

Using a sturdy scissor, clip off any dried-up leaves and cut out any that have brown or dead ends, and it will continuously send up new shoots. Snake plants will send up yellowish-white flowers on wiry stems, but it might take many years to see flowers, so grow them for their leaf color instead.



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Photos: Corbis Images

Christmas Trees 101

Once a year, we have an important decision to make: Fir or Pine? Fraser or Norway?

For those who celebrate Christmas, the tree is the centerpiece of any holiday home decorating. Make sure you get one that fits your needs and style by following our guide to the most common and popular Christmas trees you’re likely to find.

FIR

Types: Douglas, Balsam, Fraser, Noble, White

 

Douglas Fir

Needles are one inch to one-and-a-half inches and have some of the most fragrant aromas among Christmas trees when crushed. The tree, which is one of the most popular trees for the holidays, is a conical shape. Keep it well watered at all times in order to extend its life through the holiday season.

Balsam Fir

These long-lasting needles are three-quarter inch to one-and-a-half inches and are rounded at the tip. The tree’s dark green color has a silvery cast. The fragrance is lasting and pleasing. This is another popular tree for the holidays.

 

Fraser Fir

Soft-to-the-touch needles are a half inch to one inch long. These pyramid-shaped trees are dark green on top with a silver hue underneath and have a pleasant scent. Strong branches turn upward and hold ornaments well. To care, keep it consistently watered and the tree will have excellent needle retention.

Noble Fir

Needles are one inch long. Nobles are deep green in color, sometimes a bluish or silvery tint, with an unusual (but popular) branch shape. Branches are sturdy with spacing between them, making it easy to hang ornaments as well as hold heavier ornaments. These trees are extremely aromatic and keep very well as long as they’re watered regularly.

White (or Concolor) Fir

Needles are typically a half inch to one-and-a-half inches long and are pointed or notched at the tip. Trees are bluish-green when young and turn a dull green with time. They have good needle retention and a nice, citrusy aroma.

PINE

Types: Scotch, White

Scotch Pine

This tree’s vibrant green needles, which are about one inch long, can be sharp, so you may want to wear gloves when decorating. Branches are stiff -- one of the reasons this is one of the most popular Christmas trees. The tree has a nice, long-lasting aroma and good needle retention (about one month). As with all trees, keep it watered, but this pine has a longer survival rate even if left dry for a while (great for the brown thumbs of the bunch!).

White Pine

Needles are two to five inches long in bundles of five. The slender branches of this full-looking tree won’t support as many decorations as the Scotch Pine and aren’t recommended for heavy ornaments. But its bluish-green color and soft, flexible needles are appealing. It retains needles well when consistently watered, and it has little to no fragrance (great for allergies).

SPRUCES

Types: White, Norway, Blue

 

White Spruce

Short, stiff needles are a half inch to three-quarter inch long and have a blunt tip -- excellent for holding ornaments. When crushed, its needles have an unpleasant odor. But this green or bluish-green tree has the best needle retention among Spruces and a nice, natural shape. Fun fact: It’s the state tree of South Dakota.

 

Norway Spruce

Needles are a half-inch to one inch long. Norways have a shiny, dark green color, a conical shape and strong fragrance. The tree has a short lifespan and needle retention is poor unless it’s cut fresh and kept consistently watered, so it’s best to purchase about a week or so before Christmas. This is a popular choice in Europe.

Blue Spruce

Needles are three-quarter inches to one-and-a-half inches long. Needles will shed in a warm room, but typically this tree has excellent needle retention. Its stiff branches will support many heavy decorations. Blue Spruces have good form and symmetrical shape, and its name comes from its bluish hue that can also appear silvery. Keep it well watered, especially in warmer rooms (and if possible, keep room temperature as low as is comfortable).

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How to Decorate with Houseplants

Whether or not you have a green thumb or an affinity for indoor herb gardens, there’s no question that houseplants add a decorative interest to any interior -- as long as they’re kept alive, of course! From color, shape, texture and general eye-catching appeal, the options of plants (and planters) are seemingly endless.

How should you add houseplants to your interior décor? Follow these tips and considerations from Julia Mack, an interior designer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Keep Proportion in Mind
Knowing the proportion and potential growth of a houseplant before you purchase it will help determine the quantity of plants that your space will require. For instance, a small, sunny den may need only one tree and one tabletop plant to improve the space. But a large, sky-lit family room with a glass door leading to a deck or patio could likely handle two or three groupings of floor plants at a variety of heights. Ask your local home or garden store how large each plant will eventually grow to help you plan the amount of space that will be needed, as well as the number and size of accompanying plants.

Add Plants to the Kitchen
When adding houseplants to your interior décor, many people start with the living room. But kitchens also benefit from a little greenery -- particularly indoor herb gardens. A small indoor herb garden placed on a sunny windowsill or hung on a sunlit wall will provide instant gratification -- and your meals will reap the benefits too. Easy-to-grow rosemary, basil, thyme and parsley will flourish throughout cold months and will transition easily to the outdoors in summer.

Consider Your Lifestyle
Selecting houseplants that fit your lifestyle is also important. Some varieties require regular watering and maintenance, so you’ll want to keep your travel schedule in mind when making your selections. If plant maintenance is low on your to-do list, consider cacti or succulents, which require a minimum amount of work to stay both healthy and strong.

Planters = Accessories
Treat planters as an additional accessory in any room and choose styles that complement your existing interior décor. For a room with wood floors and earthy colors, try a bamboo basket or teak planter. A room with antique or period-style furnishings would be enhanced by copper, pewter or antique brass planters. And a modern space would surely pop with sparkling white porcelain or ceramic containers and modern stainless steel planters.

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Photo: Corbis Images