Did you realise your house has a bunch of different microclimates?
Your kitchen may be light and sunny, your bathroom probably hot and steamy. Some corners will be shady, areas near doors and vents are draughty, and north-facing windows will be hot.
Just as you’ll feel more comfortable reading, eating or sleeping in different places in a home, so is each spot better suited to certain plants than others.
To choose the right greenery for these different parts of your home, you’ll need to think like a plant and attune to these microclimates.
Research your favourite indoor plant’s natural habitat
If you already have a plant and are looking for a suitable spot, research its natural habitat and try to find a place that is close to that.
So if you’re lucky enough to be given a fiddle-leaf fig, it helps to know its wild cousins live in lowland tropical rainforests in West Africa — think filtered light, high humidity and rainfall, on sloping land that offers good drainage.
Also consider that in the wild they often grow on a host plant, which they will slowly strangle as they develop their own roots, becoming 15-metre-tall monsters. Don’t be surprised if you need to prune yours to keep it from pushing out the ceiling.
However, plant whisperer Jason Chongueis the first to admit he’s always challenged traditional thinking around what plants were “indoor” species and what should be grown in gardens.
Some of his experiments have ended up with dead plants, but sometimes they’ve worked.
“I have a Browneopsis that’s very rare,” he says, referring to a colourful flowering pea plant from South America.
“It took me three goes to find the right spot in the house but now it’s working.”
Another experiment was with a tropical Hoya (“they’re really not meant to grow in cold Victoria”) but he finally found a spot on top of his fridge, where the plant gets some extra heat from the motor, and “now it’s about a metre long and thriving”.
Find the light
“I always teach new plant growers to choose a plant for the light it needs rather than its aesthetics,” Jason says.
“Don’t fall in love with the look.
When the sun goes down
Be aware of how conditions change during the day and night.
- If you’ve got a plant on a windowsill and you close the curtains, you’re taking it from the hottest spot in the house to the coldest in just a couple of hours. This might suit desert plants but others will struggle.
- And if you’ve got a plant near a window but keep the blinds closed all day in summer, your plant might as well be in the dark.
“In my previous home, the light was very intense, which was good for succulents and ferns, but in my new house the light is very different, and I lost a lot of plants when I moved.”
Jason, whose love of plants took him from being an architect and interior designer and led him to launch a thriving indoor plant business in Melbourne, now grows more tropical and rainforest species, which are better suited to lower light levels.
Botanist and indoor plant stylist Alice Crowe says a simple way to tell if there’s enough light for a plant is to wander around your house with a book. If it’s too dark to read in a space, it will be too dark for a plant to thrive there.
“Once you have an idea of the sort of microclimates you have in your house, you’ll have a better idea of what plants will survive there,” Alice says.
A matter of degrees
Indoor plants might be out of the weather but they are still affected by seasonal change.
“People forget the light intensity changes over summer,” Jason says.
“You’ve got to treat plants like your skin; if it’s in the midday sun it will burn.”
This is especially important in early and late summer when the sun is lower in the sky — so it will reach further into rooms through northern and western windows.
“Sometimes a 30-centimetre change in location can make a difference,” he says.
Your handy what-to-plant-where guide
- Shade-tolerant plants: Jade plant (Crassula ovata), heartleaf philodendron, rex begonias, Boston fern, spider plants, fishtail palms (Calamus caryotoides)
- Plants needing bright light: Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), rubber plants (Ficus elastica), ponytail palm, crotons, Hoya australis, umbrella plants (schefflera), ficus
- Dry air: Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum); Hoya australis or Hoya carnosa
- High humidity: Boston fern, monsteras, ficus
- Hot spots: Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum); cordylines, ficus
- Cool areas: Mint, Hoya australis, kentia palm (Howea forsteriana)
Assessing the microclimates in your home
As well as light, microclimate conditions include warmth, humidity and airflow. Here’s a checklist of what to look for when assessing your home before you buy your next indoor plant:
“It’s the only variable you can’t change,” says Alice.
“However, you can pick different spots in the house for different light levels.”
A sunny windowsill might look enticing, but it delivers extremes of daytime sun and night-time cold that many plants can’t handle.
Exceptions to this include super-hardies such as cacti, kalanchoes, and those that last for weeks as a cutting in water, such as geraniums, pothos, and Vietnamese mint.
Slightly back from the window offers a gentler light. Most plants love east-facing, morning light, while a hardy few will take deeper shade, such as peace lilies, ZZ (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) and spider plants.
Avoid placing leafy plants near heating; dry heat is a killer.
Likewise, refrigerated air-conditioning tends to dry air out; conversely, air-con may even cool a plant so much that it absorbs less moisture so becomes waterlogged, so avoid placing plants near outlets.
Plants that can handle hot, dry air include desert plants such as cacti and some succulents.
Many plants that suit indoor use are rainforest species. While they cope with low light levels, they need humid air.
In drier conditions the leaves lose too much moisture and plants suffer.
If you run out of space in the humid rooms — the bathroom and kitchen — you can provide artificial humidity by spraying the leaves, arranging plants in groups that will create their own mini microclimate, or providing water either in a small dish nearby, or by placing plants on a pebble-lined tray with a small amount of water in the base.
If that’s all too hard, choose dry-tough plants like English ivy and philodendrons.
Few plants appreciate being in a cold draught, but to avoid fungal problems it’s a good idea to have some spacing between plants and a reasonable airflow, such as provided by an overhead fan.
Tillandsias, AKA air plants, which survive without soil by collecting moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere, especially need some air movement to thrive.
Tough cookies that won’t care where they’re placed include the jade plant (Crassula ovata).
‘It’s OK to kill a plant if you learn from it’
If you’re going to get into houseplants, one thing you need to remember is that failures are OK.
“Failure is seen too much as a negative thing in Australia. It’s like, ‘If I fail I’m going to get yelled at or something bad’s going to happen’,” Jason says.
“I meet a lot of people who have had one plant die so they assume they can’t grow indoor plants. But the key to success is picking the right plant for your house, then getting to know its needs,” she says.
“It’s OK to kill a plant if you learn from it,” Jason says.
“Learn why it died; treat it like a multiple-choice question and try to work out what was wrong. And talk to other people who grow plants; talk to your neighbours or parents or join a club and learn from them.”
However, he warns not to buy lots at once.
“Get used to each plant’s needs before you expand your collection. You also need to get used to recognising what plants look like when they’re healthy and what they look like when they’re sick.”
Jason now has a vast collection of more than 400 plants in his tiny inner-city home and, while he loves rarities, he also owns a lot of commonplace species: “I call them ‘ice-breaker plants’ and I recommend them as easy plants to get to know.”
“Indoors, plants can be temperamental, and rare plants are rare for a reason.”
As anyone who’s trawled eBay will know, it’s not uncommon for collectors to spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on rare and unusual plants.
Apart from being more easily available, ice-breaker plants are also cheaper to replace, should you kill your darlings, so check out your home and give one a go.