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GARDENING : The Inside Track on Houseplants


When you hear the word houseplants, do you instantly think of the '60s: Boston ferns, spider plants, ivy hanging in a clay pot from a macrame holder? If so, get thee to a nursery, because today's popular houseplants range from new exotic blossoms to variations on the old standards.

"Any plant that can thrive indoors can be considered a houseplant," said Debra Sherman, florist and indoor plant manager at Roger's Gardens nursery at MainPlace/Santa Ana. "That means there's something for everyone whether they're looking for a blooming plant, something hardy that requires little care, or a little greenery to a corner.

"Ivy continues to be popular, but over the last decade, many new strains have been developed."

The changes are apparent in the leaves: sweetheart ivy leaves are heart-shaped; heron ivy leaves look like miniature footprints of this bird, and needlepoint and button ivy have tiny leaves. Glacier ivy has white stripes, and Golden Child has yellow stripes.

"Old English ivy is still popular as well," Sherman said. "People generally like to drape ivy over shelves or a mantel. Some use it as a garland. It adds a little greenery and texture to an otherwise boring corner or breaks up the monotony of a bookshelf."

Topiaries are popular houseplants. They are made by training ivy or other fast-growing plants to cover wire forms in the shape of miniature trees or teddy bears.

"People seem to like the precision and the funny shapes of topiaries," Sherman said. "They're whimsical and are relatively easy to care for as long as you trim them regularly so they keep their shape."

Topiaries are often used as accents on small tables, countertops and in otherwise forgotten corners. Larger ones are displayed in entry ways, and topiaries made of herbs are used in kitchens.

"Can you imagine having a topiary in your kitchen and when you need a little seasoning, just being able to pinch off a few leaves?" Sherman asked.

Orchids offer a more exotic look.

"I think orchids are going to be the hot new houseplants," Sherman said. "They're actually easier to care for than ferns, but people have this image of them as being difficult to grow. Orchids do need bright, indirect light, and you need to water them as soon as the soil feels dry, but they're very elegant and beautiful. People are naturally attracted to them and always comment on them."

Today's orchids come in a variety of colors, from deep pinks to the tall yellow and brown Oncidium orchids that grow to be about 2 feet tall. The Lady's Slipper is dark purple, and the Dendrobium blooms in shades of lavender and white.

"They're not a delicate plant, although they look that way," Sherman said. "Of course, the more care they receive, the more they'll thrive, but they can take a little neglect now and then. Depending on the orchid, you'll see a bloom anywhere from once a year to two or three times a year."

Other exotics that are attracting houseplant enthusiasts are anthuriums in new, bright colors that include pinks and golds, bromeliads with their colorful blossoms, and African violets with variegated colors, ruffled leaves and miniature.

The popular Ficus benjamina trees featured so prominently in entryways have taken a new twist. Today's ficus trees often have braided or twisted trunks to add a little interest.

"You see many instances where horticulturists have taken an old favorite and given it a new twist or shape," Sherman said.

For the holidays, poinsettias still take center stage, but in addition to the traditional red, you can chose from pinks, whites and golds. One variety, aptly named Jingle Bells, features speckled leaves. Lemon Drop poinsettias are white with creamy yellow colorations. Peppermint poinsettias resemble the candy for which they are named.

"Blooming plants make great gifts," she said. "They look great when they're received, and with a little care, they can continue to provide enjoyment for years.

"I like to dress them up for the holidays by putting them in a pretty basket or adding an ornament or special ribbon. It seems like everyone appreciates a houseplant."

Combining groups of houseplants is a popular way to display them.

"Some of our biggest sellers are what we call 'English gardens,' " Sherman said. These are created by putting several different types of plants together in a basket. Often ivy is draped over the side and blooming plants are added for color.

Caring for most houseplants, according to Sherman, is relatively easy.

"Most houseplants will live with a minimum of care," she said. "However, if you want your plants to really thrive, you should know about their needs ahead of time: whether or not they like sun, shade or indirect light; how much water they need; when and what they should be fed.

"The most common mistake is not fertilizing houseplants often enough," Sherman said. "Most houseplants will use up all the nutrients in the soil in about two weeks, so every two weeks or so depending on the plant you need to add nutrients. Fertilized plants are bigger, stronger, bloom more frequently, and in general tend to thrive."

Some plants, such as African violets and orchids, have their own special blends of plant food. Others do well with a standard houseplant mixture.

"The fact is, with relatively little effort, most people can successfully grow houseplants," Sherman said. "We have lots of people who come in here and say, 'Oh, I have a brown thumb.' I simply tell them, 'It doesn't take much to turn a brown thumb into a green one.' With a little knowledge and planning, anyone can successfully raise plants indoors."

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