Most home gardeners likely think of the lush, reliable Boston fern when thinking about ferns as houseplants, but there are many other truly beautiful options for gardeners looking for something unique. Ferns make good houseplants because most prefer lower light levels. Follow their care instructions, and these indoor ferns should provide lasting beauty to your home.
Here is one of the easiest ferns you can grow, and it is a little gem. Button fern (Pellaea rotundifolia) reaches 6-12 inches high and has small, button-like pinnae. Grow it in filtered light or medium sunlight and provide even moisture. Mist occasionally to keep the fronds looking their best.
Crested Japanese Birdsnest Fern
Rather than having an airy look like most ferns, Crested Japanese Birdsnest Fern (Asplenium antiquum) has dense fronds with rippled edges. The variety ‘Leslie’ is especially wavy and pretty, and the twisted fronds of ‘Hurricane’ give the plant a twirly windswept look. It will tolerate partial sunshine or light shade. Mist regularly and water two times weekly in the cool winter months. More water may be required in warmer summer months.
If you are looking for a small, specimen fern, choose the delicate eyelash fern (Actiniopteris australis). When mature the plant only reaches (6-8 inches). The fine, palm-like fronds make the rare fern especially pretty. Most garden centers won’t carry eyelash fern, but specialty several plant vendors sell them online. High humidity is required for eyelash fern, so consider growing yours in a terrarium filled with Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Soil and a layer of decorative sphagnum peat moss on top.
Dragon’s Wing Fern
Be sure to provide plenty of space for a Dragon’s Wing Fern (Microsorum punctatum ‘Dragon’s Wing’), if you choose to grow one. The large fronds have a winged look and happy plants have been known to reach as much as 4′ across in time. A substantial pot and plant stand are required, but the beauty of the fern is worth the effort if you have the space. Provide filtered sunlight, regular water, and ample humidity.
At first glance, most might not recognize heart fern (Hemionitis arifolia) as a fern at all, but the beautiful specimen plant is truly a fern. The leaves have a leathery texture and distinct heart shape. The plants reach no more than 10 inches when mature. They prefer slightly moist soil and high humidity–making heart fern another potential terrarium specimen.
Staghorn ferns (Platycerium spp.) need substantial support, but they are truly beautiful. The large ferns naturally make their home in trees found in the rainforests of Java, New Guinea, and southeastern Australia. Specimens are generally wall-mounted or hung indoors. In warmer climates, they can be grown on trees or patio mounts outdoors. They enjoy warmth, humidity, and regular water–low-mineral spring water is preferred. (Elkhorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) is a particularly pretty and easy-to-find species.)
Most ferns grow best in fertile potting mix with a slightly acid pH. Good water-holding ability and drainage are also necessary soil requirements. Both Fafard Professional Potting Mix and Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix are good choices. Most ferns prefer to be watered regularly with low-mineral water, or bottled spring water and require pots that drain well. Misting and higher-than-average humidity are also recommended to discourage leaf-tip drying. Some gardeners opt to bring a humidifier into a room with potted ferns.
Showy, funnel-shaped flowers; attractive, rounded, or lance-shaped leaves; and an overall velvety to fuzzy texture characterize members of the family Gesneriaceae, home to many popular flowering house plants including gloxinias (Sinningia speciosa), African violets (Saintpaulia spp.), and others. Collectively known as gesneriads, they have a dubious reputation for being fussy in cultivation. In fact, many are quite easy to grow, provided conditions are not too dry, wet, or cold.
In almost all cases, gesneriads prefer a well-drained, organic-rich, moderately moist growing medium (allow the surface to dry between waterings). Peat-based potting mixes with lots of perlite or grit usually work well, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix. Moderate fertility is also best (apply a balanced gesneriad or African violet fertilizer every couple of months or so). Most favor a bright but not overly sunny exposure, such as dappled shade or an east- or west-facing window.
For some gesneriads, such as members of the genera Ramonda and Haberlea, anything above minus 15 degrees F or so is not “too cold”. These hardy gesneriads make good subjects for rock gardens and other well-drained, partly shaded garden sites into USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Most members of the family, however, are native to much milder, sub-tropical to tropical regions.
African Violets (Saintpaulia)
The approximately half-dozen species of Saintpaulia hail from mountainous areas of equatorial East Africa (i.e., Kenya and Tanzania). By far the most familiar member of the genus is Saintpaulia ionantha, parent of most of the hundreds of hybrids collectively known as African violets. These come in a wide range of floral colors and sizes, from miniatures (2 to 6 inches wide) to “standards” (10 to 24 inches wide) to “trailing” varieties that creep and cascade to even greater lengths. Flowering continues sporadically year-round. A number of cultivars sport variegated leaves or double or striped flowers – or all of the above.
Real enthusiasts might want to explore species other than Saintpaulia ionantha (e.g. S. brevipilosa and S. confusa), which are available from a handful of specialist growers. Also available are wild-type forms of Saintpaulia ionantha itself, which is an utterly charming, abundantly blooming thing with periwinkle-blue flowers (or white, in cultivar ‘Alba’).
All members of the genus – and just about all tropical gesneriads – are happiest with moderate temperatures (60 to 80 degrees F) and relatively high humidity. African violets in particular resent cold water, especially on their leaves, which causes spots. Saintpaulia aficionados typically use room-temperature water, applied from below by immersing the container’s base.
Gloxinias (Sinningia spp.)
So-called gloxinias (which actually belong to the genus Sinningia) have similar preferences. Most gardeners know them by the familiar large-flowered hybrids of the tuberous-rooted Sinningia speciosa. These “florist gloxinias” produce flushes of velvety, funnel-shaped flowers in shades of red, purple, white, or combinations of the same. Plants may stop blooming and even die back temporarily if things get too cool or dry, but they can usually be easily coaxed back into growth.
Lesser known – but in some cases even more satisfactory as house plants – are the 60-plus other species of Sinningia and their hundreds of hybrids, which come in numerous forms, sizes, and colors. Outstanding hybrids include ‘Tante’, a cascading plant with lax stems loaded with pale mauve trumpets, and ‘Prudence Risley’, which bears a constant succession of deep rose-red trumpet-flowers on 10-inch stems. Miniature, “teacup” Sinningia hybrids such as the salmon-orange-flowered ‘High Voltage’ are a great fit for terrariums or other small niches.
Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus spp.)
Arguably the most floriferous gesneriads are the many hybrids of Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.), whose narrow-throated blooms with violet-shaped lobes are borne continuously, conditions permitting. The flowers are held on wiry, 3- to 8-inch stems above rosettes of tongue-shaped leaves that superficially resemble primrose foliage. Flower color range spans most of the spectrum, in a wide variety of patterns from solid to striped to speckled to picotee-edged. Streptocarpus typically mature at around 10 to 12 inches wide, but miniatures such as ‘Little Red’ are half that size or less.
Other Popular Gesneriads
Hot water plant (Achimenes spp.)
The colorful trumpet-shaped flowers of these winter-dormant perennials are borne on leafy creeping stems that sprout from scaly rhizomes in the spring. Achimenes function well as house plants or in seasonal garden plantings.
Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus spp.)
Clusters of beak-shaped red or orange flowers protrude from contrasting clasping sepals, on cascading stems lined with paired fleshy leaves. Lipstick plants – as well as the next three plant groups – are ideal subjects for hanging baskets in bright partly shaded locations such as an east window.
Goldfish plant (Columnea spp.)
The common name refers not to the color of the flowers (typically red), but to their arching shape, with fin-like petals protruding from their undersides. Like lipstick plants, they’re mostly of trailing habit, doing and looking well in hanging baskets in bright partial shade.
Guppy plant (Nematanthus spp.)
Yellow flowers with prominent paunches peek from the axils of the narrow, glossy, leathery leaves, giving the appearance of little fish sheltering in the greenery.
Flame violet (Episcia spp.)
Rosettes of colorful fuzzy leaves – often netted with flamboyantly contrasting veins – are the main attraction of this diverse genus. That said, some Episcia hybrids are grown mostly for their red, orange, pink, or yellow flowers, which are showy in their own right.
Lots of other wonderful (and easy) members of the Gesneriaceae are there for the exploring, including:
Close relatives of Nematanthus, these easy-to-grow gesneriads from uplands of eastern Brazil feature a compact, pendant habit, fleshy leaves, and small white or yellow flowers that repeat through much of the year.
Felted bugles line the relatively tall stems of this diverse tropical New World genus, which encompasses more than 20 species and scores of hybrids. Most flower in red, pink, orange, or purple, with contrasting flecking on their lips.
These Central American natives send up compact spires of red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, or white flowers from stout compact rhizomes in spring and beyond. Plants go dormant for the winter. Smithiantha and Achimenes have combined to produce numerous beautiful intergeneric hybrids (known as ×Achimenantha).
Upon seeing all of the diverse and gorgeous gesneriads there are to grow, most plant collectors get hooked fast. Try a few to brighten your indoors this winter.
Specialty house plant vendors are popping up nationwide because house plants are so popular. That means cooler, more wonderful hybrids and species are available as growers compete to provide more and more enticing plants. This trend has been good for the Philodendron. Some of the specimens available now are unbelievably beautiful, and as a rule, they are generally easy to grow.
There are nearly 500 species of Philodendron, which are largely tropical evergreens that inhabit forested areas across Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Many are climbers but there are also many non-vining terrestrial forms. They may have small or enormous leaves, depending on the species.
Many common varieties are well-liked because they are tough and easy to grow as well as being beautiful. The popularity of choice cultivars has driven prices up, so I am including fine specimens that are rare and expensive as well as those that are uncommonly beautiful and reasonably priced.
Ten Must-Have Philodendron
1. ‘Ring of Fire‘ (large-leaved climber) is a spectacularly showy, climbing philodendron. The large, cut-leaf philodendron has deep forest green variegated leaves splashed with ivory, orange, bright red, and pink. At maturity, the leaves can reach up to 2 feet long, so an indoor specimen would require both space and substantial support for climbing. According to Ken’s Philodendrons of Hampton, Florida, it is the most desirable Philodendron in the world. Buy it and be the envy of your house-plant-loving friends. Prices run high.
2.Philodendron brandtianum (compact, small-leaved, vining) is an uncommon, small-leaved climber with heart-shaped, olive-green leaves mottled with silver. It is tough and well-behaved. Grow it if you have little space but a place to train a non-aggressive climber. This one is quite reasonable in most shops.
3.Philodendron ‘Prince of Orange‘ (compact, small-leaved, non-vining) is so beautifully colorful, reaches just 24 inches high, and is easy to grow. Its newly-emerging, glossy leaves are bright orange and change to bright yellow-green and then finally bright green. The leaf stems are red. The comparable ‘McColley’s Finale‘, but has bright orange-red, newly emerging leaves and is a little more compact at a final height of 20 inches. Prices are reasonable.
4.Philodendron erubescens ‘Pink Princess’ (compact, small-leaved, vining) is a fantastic variegated climber with elongated, heart-shaped green leaves splashed with pink and cream. It is truly a collector’s plant, and prices reflect it, but mature specimens are spectacular.
5.Philodendron esmeraldense (large, large-leaved, vining) needs space, but if you have it then grow it. Its enormous, elongated leaves are leathery with quilted venation. They are deep green and stunning. Train it up a strong support system. Prices are moderate to high.
6.Philodendron melanochrysum, (large, large-leaved, vining) commonly called the black gold philodendron, has large, elongated, velvety leaves of the deepest green. The leaves of mature specimens can be quite dark and reach up to 2 feet! Mature plants need a large support system, and this species is intolerant of cool growing temperatures, so give it plenty of warmth. Mature specimens of this rare species are spectacular. Prices are moderate to high.
7.Philodendron plowmanii(large, large-leaved, non-vining) has some of the most spectacular large, heart-shaped leaves that are deeply pleated, darked veined, and marked with lighted green and flecks of silvery green. It is noted for being very easy to grow. Provide a large pot for this substantial plant. Prices are moderate.
8.Philodendron ‘Birkin’ (small, small-leaved, non-vining) is one of the prettiest variegated hybrids with veins of bright white. It is noted for being very easy to grow. Add a pot to any dull corner to give it a bright, fresh look. It is a more reasonably priced variety.
Each new variety or species that you grow may have a few specialty growing requirements, but there are a few growing basics to consider for these tropicals as a whole.
Light: Provide high to moderate indirect light. Most can take lower light, but they will not grow as well and look as good.
Water and Soil: Keep pots moderately moist at all times. They can take periods with dry soil, but they will not grow as vigorously. Plant them in well-drained pots filled with high-quality, porous potting mix, such as Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix.
Fertilizer: Feed with an all-purpose fertilizer for house plants. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions as these can vary.
Heat and Humidity: Tropical forest and rainforest plants such as these like humidity to at least 50-60%, though they can generally tolerate less. If the air is too dry, the leaves can develop brown tips or edges. Temperatures between 65 degrees F and 80 degrees F are ideal. They can seasonally take much warmer temperatures if taken outdoors in the summertime.
Supports: Vining Philodendron like to grow up supports such as sturdy stakes or logs. Tying of clipping them helps gardeners better train them as they grow.
If you want to share one of your new, prize Philodendrons with a friend, simply take a stem cutting, place it in water, and it should root in a matter of weeks. Pot it up for easy gift giving.
The South American Delta maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum, 18-24 inches, Zones 10-11) is arguably one of the loveliest, most delicate house plants you can grow. Its onyx wire-thin stems hold dainty, drooping fronds that tremble at a touch. A few varieties are available–all equally delicate and lovely. One caveat: The plants themselves are on the fragile side, so one has to learn a few tricks to successfully grow them as potted specimens.
About Maidenhair Ferns
A lover of partial shade and humidity, Delta maidenhair fern originates from the tropical Americas, particularly South America and the West Indies, where it naturally inhabits humid forests, rock crevices, rocky streamsides, riverbanks, and embankments as well as shaded cliff faces. It thrives in spots where the soil is moist, fertile, fast-draining, and temperatures are humid and warm. It naturally spreads by rhizomes that creep along rocks. Because of its tendency to naturally spread, it can become invasive when planted in the ground outside of its native territory, so beware planting it in the subtropical southeastern United States (particularly Florida). In such areas, It is best grown as a houseplant or potted specimen.
There are only a few Delta maidenhair varieties available. The lightly variegated Adiantum raddianum ‘Snowflake’ has ivory stripes across the fronds while the extraordinarily hardy ‘Barberton‘ will survive to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.
Sun, Soil, and Water Do’s and Don’ts
When it comes to sun, soil, and moisture for maidenhairs, there are several dos and don’ts.
Do pick a spot that gets bright filtered light.
Do place pots in a sheltered outdoor location in summer.
Do place them indoors in an east, west, or north-facing window.
If the dark days of December have you pining for flowers, foliage, and fragrance, might we suggest some trailing begonias? These fibrous-rooted members of the Begonia tribe include dozens of evergreen species and varieties that burst into aromatic bloom during midwinter. Bless their hearts.
Brazilian Heart Begonia
Blessed indeed are the apple-green, heart-shaped leaves and aromatic white flowers of Brazilian heart begonia (Begonia solananthera), one of the best of the group. As with all trailing begonias, the fleshy foliage and butterflied blooms are borne on lax stems that will cascade picturesquely from a hanging basket or scramble up a mini-trellis or other support. Give Begonia solananthera a warm, bright, partly shaded nook, and it will put on a floral show from December into spring, perfuming the surroundings with its spicy fragrance. An easy keeper, it thrives in porous potting mixes rich in composted bark such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed. Trailing begonias sulk when over-watered, so hold off until the soil surface is dry.
Begonia solananthera has also parented some wonderful hybrids. For example, it teamed with an unknown companion at the venerable Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut, to produce the outstanding cultivar ‘Potpourri’. This 1984 introduction incorporates all the trademark solananthera features with one notable exception: luscious rose-pink flowers. It blooms a bit later than the species, typically from January into April. Also well worth seeking out is the solananthera hybrid ‘Tiny Gem’. Although its bright pink flowers lack spiciness, they amply compensate by reblooming year-round, in masses. The relatively short stems cascade to a foot or so rather than the 2 to 3 feet typical of Begonia solananthera.
Many trailing hybrids with Begonia solananthera in their lineage also carry the genes of shrimp begonia (Begonia radicans), commonly named due to the curiously-shaped buds of its salmon-pink flowers. The cultivar ‘Fragrant Beauty‘ wafts a solanatheran perfume from its pale-pink flowers but resembles its radicans parent in its lance-shaped leaves. Another excellent solananthera/radicans hybrid is ‘Splotches’, named for the silvery mottling on its tapered foliage. It covers itself with pink and white flowers in late winter and early spring, at about the same time as ‘Potpourri’ and ‘Fragrant Beauty’.
Other Trailing Begonias
Several additional trailing begonia species and cultivars make rewarding winter-blooming houseplants. Begonia convolvulacea is among the biggest and boldest of them, developing long 3-foot-plus stems set with broad glossy prominently lobed leaves that earn it the nickname “grape begonia”. White flowers appear in large branching clusters in late winter. The similar but smaller Begonia glabra climbs readily via clinging hairs, although it can also be grown as a trailer. It’s one of the parents of ‘Orococo’, another clinger noted for its copper-tinged, ivy-like leaves and white winter flowers. More diminutive is Begonia fagifolia, whose botanical name references the supposed beech-like appearance of its small fleshy oval leaves. This dainty evergreen is adorned in late winter with sprays of white flowers.
Other random cultivars of note include ‘Panasoffkee’, a bodacious thing with bold angel-wing-like leaves on stems that trail to 7 or 8 feet. The white midwinter flowers contrast beautifully with the glossy dark green, burgundy-backed foliage. The similarly angel-wing-shaped leaves of the cultivar ‘Withlacoochee’ are smaller and felted with gray fuzz. An excellent subject for a large terrarium, it creeps or trails into a 2- to 3-foot-wide clump, covered in winter with white flowers that often repeat at other seasons.
Like most plants, trailing begonias aren’t perfect. Almost all of them benefit from an occasional pinching to encourage denser, branching growth. Additionally, their profuse bloom eventually results in a flurry of fallen petals, so you’ll want to site them accordingly. Give them what they need, and these cascading beauties will give your spirits a bright boost this winter.
What do American gardeners have in common with the cute and cuddly Australian koala? Both animals and humans appreciate the aromatic leaves of the eucalyptus or gum tree (Eucalyptus spp.). Eucalyptus trees are primarily Australian natives, so Koalas have no trouble finding their tasty leaves that comprise their entire diet. But, Americans, especially those in cold winter climates, have to look farther afield to find eucalyptus leaves and branches for winter decorating, crafts, and herbal remedies.
Some indoor gardeners shorten the trip by growing eucalyptus trees at home in containers. Since the trees are normally fast growers, pruning is a must, but that just means more aromatic material with no need for a trip to the craft store.
A member of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), most eucalyptus species are from Australia, with a few others native to Malaysia and the Philippines. Many lose their leaves during the cold or dry season, but some are evergreen. Depending on which source you consult, there are between 500 and 700 eucalyptus shrub and tree species. The characteristic menthol- or camphor-like fragrance comes from many essential oils present in all parts of the plant. While koalas can digest the leaves, they are toxic to humans and other animals. Eucalyptus has long been used for decoration, woodworking, and medicines.
If you live in a warmer US zone it is nice to know that some eucalyptus trees sport silvery gray bark that peels or exfoliates. The green, gray-green, or blue-green rounded leaves, most commonly used by crafters, are generally the juvenile shoots of the plants. Older leaves are elongated or sickle-shaped but retain the characteristic eucalyptus fragrance. While eucalyptus generally bears small, fragrant white flowers when grown in the ground, it is unusual for container-grown plants to bloom.
Eucalyptus for Indoor Growing
Nurseries, garden centers, and mail-order vendors carry a number of species that are suitable for container culture. Among them are:
Lemon Eucalyptus(Eucalyptus citriodora (syn. Corymbia citriodora)): As the name suggests, this eucalyptus features leaves with an overlay of lemony or citrusy fragrance. Left to its own devices, lemon eucalyptus may reach 6 to 10 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide, but a containerized specimen can be kept much smaller. The bark is smooth and gray, and the evergreen leaves are elongated. It is easily grown from seed and grows very quickly.
White-Leaved Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus albida, Zones 8-10): The young shoots of this shrubby, white-leaved eucalyptus are actually bright grayish blue, eventually growing longer and turning green. It is relatively slow-growing and easy to prune to shape. Outdoor specimens can reach 4 to 9 feet tall if left unpruned.
Cider Gum (Eucalyptus gunnii, Zones 9-11): Native to Tasmania cider gum has several compact varieties good for indoor growing. ‘Silver Drop’ is a compact variety (2 to 3 feet high and 1 to 1.5 feet wide) perfect for pots, with small, silvery leaves. It is also easily grown from seed. Steel Tower is another vigorous gunnii variety of similar dimensions.
Caring for Eucalyptus
Some garden centers and big box stores carry young eucalyptus trees and shrubs, especially during the growing season. Alternately, you can start eucalyptus from cuttings, which will root readily in water, or from seed. Start seeds, cuttings or young specimens in large pots, because the plants dislike being repotted.
Sun: A full-sun exposure (at least six to eight hours per day) is necessary to keep eucalypts growing to their fullest. It helps to take containers outdoors in summer when the weather is warm. During the cold months, position eucalyptus in the sunniest available space, preferably near a south-facing window. Turn plants to keep them growing evenly if light is one-sided.
Soil and Fertilizer: Plant in large, fast-draining pots filled with well-drained soil, and fertilize regularly with all-purpose plant food. It helps to give them a leg up with an enriched potting mix, like Fafard Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed.
Water: Water regularly when the top few inches of soil feel dry. Reduce watering significantly when you bring pots indoors during winter.
Pruning: To keep growth in check, promote fullness, and ensure an ongoing supply of young branches, the most important thing you can do is pinch off older growth and prune and shape the plant regularly.
The most common way to preserve eucalyptus is by drying—hanging branches upside down in bunches, or spreading them on a screen placed in a cool, dry location.
For applications like wreaths, where a more natural look is desirable, it is best to treat stems with glycerin to keep them more pliable and long-lasting. Cut fresh, 12-inch stems, and crush 2 inches at the base of the cuts. Place the branches in jars filled with two parts water to one part glycerin (heat water to 180°F, add glycerin, stir well, and let cool). Allow the branches to cure in the solution for two to six weeks. Refresh the solution as needed within this time.
Eucalyptus oil should never be taken internally or rubbed directly on the skin, but many books and online resources supply directions for making infusions, ointments, and other aromatic remedies. Insect pests don’t care for the scent of eucalyptus, especially lemon eucalyptus, so it makes a good repellent when tucked into sachets or included in potpourri.
Most of us will only experience koalas via nature shows or zoos, but we can channel their sunny Australian homeland by growing beautiful and fragrant eucalyptus indoors.
“I’m new to the succulent world. Now that winter is fast approaching, I’m wanting to learn about indoor lighting for the succulents. Any helpful information would be so appreciated. Thank you so much!” Maria of Young Harris, Georgia
Answer: Truly, it depends on the succulent. Most grow best in natural sunlight, while others perform better in bright, indirect sunlight. As a rule, most spined cacti prefer direct sunlight as do many broad-leaved succulents, like kalanchoes, and sedums. A few for bright indirect light are Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), jade plant (Crassula ovata), and Mother-in-Law’s-Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata). Here are some more lighting details along with some grow-light options, if you lack sunny windows.
Sunlight for Succulents
South-facing windows are always the sunniest, so place your plants along these or in a sunny room that has excellent direct of indirect light for your succulents. Bright, indirect light can be found just outside of the direct sun rays. It feeds the plants but won’t burn the foliage of more shade-loving succulents.
Grow Lights for Succulents
Here are your indoor grow light options listed from the lowest to the highest price. You can use these if you lack good sunlight in your home.
1. Fluorescent Lights: There are several ways to go with fluorescent bulbs. The cheapest way is to use a balance of warm/red and cool/blue bulbs. Together they cover much of the light spectrum, but not all. Some fluorescent bulbs are specially designed for plant growing and cover more of the spectrum–up to 94%. In general, fluorescent bulbs are not very strong, so they must be placed just inches above plants for best light reception and growth. Most growers choose shop-light fixtures, which support long bulbs.
2. Metal Halide (MH) and High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) Lights – These bulbs can be quite expensive (both the bulbs and fixtures) and have high heat output, but they are stronger and can be used to grow larger plants. MH bulbs cover much of the warm/red light spectrum, which is best for foliage growth, while HPS bulbs cover more of the cool/blue spectrum, which is best for flowering. For this reason, these bulbs are often paired to cover a full spectrum for plant growth. If you want to use both bulb types, choose a fixture that will accept each.
4. LED – Great strides have been made regarding full-spectrum LED growing lights, and they are now superior to both fluorescent and MH-HPS options. They can be pricy, but they are long-lasting, full-spectrum, lack heat output, and require less energy. They are also stronger and can be used to grow larger plants. (Click here to learn more!)
The beauty of succulent house plants is that they demand little attention. The beauty of little succulents is that they demand little space. When placed in an indoor terrarium or rock garden, they create quaint little easy-care landscapes to enjoy year-round.
Mini cacti and succulents are basically comprised of those that form rosettes, clumps, or gently spread/cascade. Just be sure that you know growth habits–final heights and widths–before creating your planting. Stay with small, slow-growers to avoid fast overgrowth. Some plants may be able to withstand close quarters, but overpacking your pots will eventually smother the least aggressive plants in the group.
When designing your potted succulent garden, include little plants with varying shapes, habits, and colors. Play them against colorful pots, add pebbles, rocks, or shells for interest, and you’re set. You can also use rocks to create varying topographies within the pot to add drama and interest.
Because the design process requires that you know your plant palette, here are a few plants to consider to get your project started.
Some Miniature Succulents
Some aloes are tiny, compared to the common Aloe vera and lack medicinally useful foliage. Aloes are known for their impressive red, coral, orange, or gold spikes of tubular flowers as well as their attractive clumps of foliage. Here are two good small ones that can be found at garden centers or online.
Lace aloe (Aloe aristata) is named for its dark rosettes of foliage decorated with lacy white edges and spots. It reaches just 3 to 5 inches high and 6 inches wide. If given good sunlight indoors, or brought outdoors in summer, it will produce stems of pendulous, coral-orange flowers in midsummer.
Little Gator Aloe™ (Aloe ‘Jimmy’) is a very tiny variety that reaches just 3 to 5 inches. It has silvery foliage with white markings. If provided good, consistent sunlight, it will produce a spike of Creamsicle-orange tubular flowers in summer.
There are hundreds of very small cacti perfect for indoor potted landscapes. Types that are less prickly and/or bloom well inside are good choices.
One for all-round good looks is feather cactus (Mammillaria plumosa), which is tiny (to 4 inches), round, and covered with feathery white plumes that are finger-friendly (no spines). It is cuter than cute, reaches just 3 to 5 inches and produces yellowish-white flowers in spring. Over time, it will form a clumping mound.
Small urchin cacti (various Echinopsis spp.) are also good bloomers, and the little Easter lily sea urchin cactus (E. subdenudata ‘Dominos’) is spectacular when in bloom. The plant stays between 3 and 4 inches high and looks like a green, ribbed sea urchin with sparse tufts of white spines. In spring or summer, huge, white tubular flowers are produced that are very fragrant and bloom at night. (In the wild they attract bat and moth pollinators.) The flowers can reach between 6 and 8 inches long!
A good one that’s just lightly prickly and very textural is the thimble cactus (Mammillaria gracilis var. fragilis). It creates a 2- to 4-inch high mound of many thimble-sized balls with few spines. In late winter, expect a flush of tiny, pale-yellow flowers that are as cute as the plant itself.
Lots of crassulas become quite large, like the common jade plant, but others are tiny and terrarium-worthy. Tom Thumb rosary vine (Crassula rupestris ssp. commutata ‘Tom Thumb’) is one. Its short chains of succulent leaves are bright green and edged in red. Expect it to reach between 6 to 8 inches long.
The impressive miniature spiral jade (Crassula ‘Estagnol’) is even smaller and more visually impressive. It has dense clusters of brilliant green leaves that spiral into beautiful patterns. The maximum height is just 3 to 5 inches. On occasion, it may produce small clusters of white flowers in the fall.
These popular little succulents are largely native to southern Africa, and there are lots of different varieties available. Some look like tiny aloes while others look more like little, rounded hens-n-chicks with translucent leaf markings. Sizes vary, but many stay compact.
Zebra plant (H. fasciata)is one that looks a bit like an aloe. It has dark spiky leaves with knobby white stripes and reaches just 3 to 4 inches high and 4 to 6 inches wide. The variety ‘Super White’ has extra bright stripes. Zebra plant almost never blooms indoors, but if it does, it puts forth delicate stems of white spring flowers.
Star window plant (H. cuspidata)and cathedral window plant (H. planifolia) are both squat, fat-leaved, and have variable, translucent markings at their leaf tips. Both are slow-growing with rosettes that reach 3 to 5 inches. Their flowers are comparable to those of zebra plant and equally uncommon in indoor specimens.
There are several very cute succulent senecios, but most of them are aggressive spreaders. The small and bright mini blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens ‘Mini Blue’) does spread, but slowly. It has slender, upright, dusty blue stems that reach 3 to 5 inches. Be sure to give it some room to roam.
Purchasing Mini Succulents
Visit any purveyor of succulents to discover lots of other interesting finds, but get informed before you make a purchase. Succulents sold in tiny pots don’t necessarily stay tiny. Some can become very large specimens, so check the plant tag for size parameters, and if the tag doesn’t say, then ask a staff person or look the plant up on your phone.
Mini Succulent Garden Preparation and Care
Start with the right pot and growing mix. Large planting bowls or bonsai pots look most impressive. These may be ceramic, plastic, or fiberglass. Be sure that they have good drainage and a watertight saucer below to catch excess water and protect table surfaces.
When it comes to potting mix, it must drain very well but also have some organic matter. A good recipe for succulents contains three parts Fafard Professional Potting Mix to one part perlite. The addition of crushed granite (Gran-i-Grit) is also recommended to add extra weight and increase drainage.
It’s also smart to top the soil with fine, decorative gravel to keep the surface dry and attractive. Pebbles and gravel for terrariums, potted plants, or fairy gardens come in different sizes, textures, and colors. Those in light or neutral shades let plants stand out without overstatement. A bold shell, geode, or another natural decorative element may also lend the final piece appeal and distinction.
Grow your plantings in bright or indirect sunlight. A south-facing window or sunroom is ideal. Give them once-weekly water in summer and little water from late fall to winter. Even moderate watering in the winter months can cause cacti and succulents to rot. Taking your potted creations outdoors in summer will help with their overall growth and performance.
These little gardens take some time and investment to create but their beauty will reward you through the seasons. Give them good care and clip and divide them as needed, to keep them in bounds. Reserve any leftover pieces as welcome gifts to share with other plant-minded friends.
Although bought and sold by the millions during the Thanksgiving season, “Christmas cactus” remain something of an enigma. For example, why do plants that bloom at Thanksgiving bear the name “Christmas”? why do they reputedly mope as houseplants, when they bloom so lavishly in your local supermarket?
Their form itself is puzzling. The showy blooms arise directly from what appear to be arching chains of fleshy leaves, which in fact are flattened, narrow-jointed stems. The shape and spininess of these leaf-like stem segments are key to identifying Christmas cactus and its relatives, which all belong to the genus Schlumbergera.
Christmas Cactus Types
Examine the stem segments of the Schlumbergera that throng the stores as Thanksgiving approaches, and you’ll discover the answer to the riddle of their name: they aren’t Christmas cacti at all. Almost all plants sold under the Christmas moniker exhibit the jagged-toothed stem segments characteristic of crab (aka Thanksgiving) cactus, Schlumbergera truncata. In contrast, true Christmas cacti possess bluntly toothed segments that bear pendent (rather than horizontal) blooms in early winter. If you want a yuletide Schlumbergera, look for varieties of the real McCoy, Schlumbergera x buckleyi(the hybrid between Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana). If you want a Thanksgiving cactus – go to your local garden center or upscale grocer right about now.
Whichever Schlumbergera you bring home from the store, one thing’s for certain: it ultimately comes from moist, humid, relatively cool upland forests of Southeast Brazil, home to all six species in the genus. In their native haunts, these succulent evergreens grow as epiphytes and lithophytes, taking root in decayed leaves and other detritus that accumulate on moss-covered tree limbs and rock ledges.
Cultivating Christmas Cactus
They are easily cultivated (and flowered) in conditions that mimic their natural circumstances: bright full shade; well-drained, humus-rich, evenly moist growing medium; moderate to high humidity; and moderate temperatures. A hanging basket filled with Fafard Ultra Container Mix will suit them nicely, as will a northeast- or northwest-facing windowsill, or a lightly shaded southern exposure. Water them thoroughly when the top inch or so of the growing medium is dry, applying a complete liquid fertilizer every few waterings. Many Schlumbergera aficionados keep their plants outdoors (either suspended on hooks or elevated on stands) during the frost-free season. A spot under a shade tree will provide ideal spring to fall growing conditions in most parts of the United States.
Contrary to popular horticultural myth, neither Christmas nor Thanksgiving cactus requires any mystical lighting, watering, or temperature regimens to induce them to bloom. Although lengthening nights do indeed trigger flower bud development, natural light cycles at United States latitudes (where winter nights are considerably longer than those in the plant’s native Southeast Brazil) provide ample darkness. Placing the plants in a dark closet for 14 hours a day (as is often and erroneously prescribed) may slightly hasten bud development, but is not required (and may do more harm than good).
Temperatures below 60 degrees F will also encourage bud formation, but “more cold” will not result in more flowering (and white- and yellow-bloomed varieties will become pink-tinged if brought from bud to flower at sub-70-degree temperatures). In most parts of the United States, ambient outdoor temperatures and natural illumination (with no strong artificial night lighting) will do quite nicely. So rather than exiling your cactus to a closet, move it to a shaded porch for a late-summer to early-fall vacation. Plants may even rebloom in late winter if they continue to receive long nights and proper care.
Christmas Cactus Varieties
Schlumbergera fanciers have it good these days: the numbers of Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus varieties rival those available in the nineteenth century, when Schlumbergera were widely grown and highly popular. Many cultivars (often un- or mis-identified) of Schlumbergera truncata and its hybrids are grown and sold, including new developments such as the Reginae Group, a series of crosses between Thanksgiving cactus and the relatively early-blooming Schlumbergera orssichiana. Real Schlumbergera maniacs might want to give some of the more obscure and difficult species a try, including the aptly named prickly-pear schlumbergera, Schlumbergera opuntioides, and its hybrids. Christmas comes many times a year if you’re a Schlumbergera enthusiast.