Gardens Illustrated

Pots of style: Three creative houseplant displays

Published: January 15, 2022 at 10:53 am

Planting designer Alison Jenkins combines some familiar houseplants to create three unusual indoor displays. Photography by Eva Nemeth

It was an interesting challenge to come up with a different take on working with houseplants. Traditionally, they tend to be displayed in single pots rather than combined together as you might when arranging pot displays of garden annuals and perennials. Fortunately, I live with a sculptor, Patrick Haines, and enlisted his help in finding alternative ways to bring these arrangements to life.

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STAR TURN

This star-shaped steel sculpture turned out to make a perfect frame for this collection of plants. I like the way its three-dimensional form allows the plants to nestle together while the strong, linear outline draws in the focus to the plants.

How to achieve the look

Container and composition

The Fittonia, Soleirolia and Peperomia are all naturally low, ground-hugging plants, which means they knit together and spill over the front edge. The asparagus foliage is so light and feathery that you can still see the outline of the sculpture through it and its upright form contrasts with the low-growing plants. The bright-white veining on the Fittonia provides a good colour lift to break up the greens.

The plants

Clockwise from top left:

Peperomia tetraphylla An epiphyte with rounded, succulent-like leaves. A drought-tolerant plant that grows on trees or rotting logs in humid forests. 15cm. RHS H1B†.

Fittonia albivenis Verschaffeltii Group Forms neat mats of brightly veined foliage. Needs to be kept out of direct sunlight. 5cm. AGM*. RHS H1A.

Soleirolia soleirolii Known as mind- your-own-business or baby’s tears, this useful groundcover can become invasive if planted outdoors. Prefers partial shade. 5cm. RHS H4, USDA 9a-11.

Asparagus setaceus Commonly known as the asparagus fern, this plant is not in fact a fern but a climber and member of the lily family. Native to humid forests in South Africa. 2.5m. AGM. RHS H2, USDA 9a-12.

Cultivation and care

The plants used here all have a similar need for high humidity and indirect light, which means they associate together well and are easier to maintain. Misting at least once a week is essential to keep them happy. I took the plants out of their pots and wrapped the rootballs in sheep’s wool secured with string so that I could pack them in more easily, but you could use moss as an alternative to the wool.

I would treat them like Japanese kokedama moss-ball displays, and soak the rootballs in water once a week, making sure they are well drained before putting them back in the arrangement. The Peperomia likes lots of drainage so it’s important to ensure that it doesn’t get too wet.

LIGHT AND AIRY

These glass laboratory jars had been knocking around in Patrick’s studio for some years. I like their solidity and the different shapes, and thought it would be interesting to experiment with using them to display plants. I tried potted ferns at first but they would quickly outgrow their confines and the pots detracted from the shape of the jars. Air plants became a better alternative because they grow slowly and don’t need containers.

How to achieve the look

Container and composition

These are all different species of Tillandsia, air plants originating from South America and members of the Bromeliaceae family. I was intrigued by the different forms they take and how displaying them in these jars implied a sense of scientific investigation. As epiphytes they obtain their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain rather than soil so can be displayed attached to pieces of driftwood or rocks, or suspended in small terrariums. I kept things simple here by hanging the T. usneoides from the top of one of the jars with a small piece of wire and placing the group of three Tillandsia ionantha on a dried branch which meant that they were easier to hold in a good position.

The plants

Clockwise from top left:

Tillandsia ionantha Forms a compact, dainty rosette resembling a pineapple, which colours red before it flowers. Known for being one of the most robust air plants requiring minimal maintenance. 5cm. RHS H1C.

Tillandsia usneoides Known as Spanish moss, although it’s neither from Spain nor a moss. It forms
large festoons of silvery-grey, wiry foliage and grows up to several metres long in its natural tropical habitat. Usneoides means ‘resembling lichen’. 10cm. RHS H1C, USDA 8a-11.

Tillandsia xerographica Known as the queen of air plants, this evergreen, epiphytic perennial forms a rosette
of silvery-grey foliage that tapers to a fine, curly point, creating a quirky, otherworldly silhouette. 20cm. RHS H1C.

Cultivation and care

It’s important to ensure that tillandsias receive adequate moisture. Clean rainwater is preferable as they are sensitive to the chlorine and lime in hard-water areas, which can block their trichomes (the small, specialised, hair-like growths that coat their foliage and through which they absorb the nutrients they need). They need to be fully soaked in water at least once a week for an hour or so. Drain off any excess water before returning to the display by placing them upside down as they may rot if water becomes trapped inside them. They may also need additional misting if they are in a dry spot. Bright but filtered light suits them best.

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HANGING TOGETHER

I wanted to find a way to display trailing plants together, but when I tried using a collection of hanging containers the composition was too busy. These rusted, mild steel shelves with a narrow profile and near-invisible supports meant that the plants themselves remained the focus. I also used containers that were the same colour tone as the shelves, terracotta pots and a rusted bread tin, which blend in with the shelves and help to highlight the foliage.

How to achieve the look

Container and composition

The shelves are cut from 6mm thick mild steel, which was left to rust naturally outside in the garden. I drilled holes in the stone wall and inserted rusted steel bars for the shelves to sit on, creating a floating effect. The shelves aren’t fixed so can be lifted and replaced with different sizes quite easily. The strong outlines of the fishbone cactus and the Echeveria were a good contrast with the more delicate, cascading forms of the Hoya and Senecio. Giving each plant an individual shelf meant I could play with the composition, almost like hanging pictures on a wall. You could continue adding shelves to fill a whole wall and rearrange the plants as your collection grows.

Plants

Clockwise from top left:

Senecio rowleyanus Known as string of beads, this tender, trailing succulent is native to deserts of East Africa where it forms groundcover. Avoid overwatering. 15cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-12.

Echeveria agavoides Rosette-forming, evergreen succulent, native to Mexico. It throws up red flowers on tall, thin stems in summer. 10cm. AGM. RHS H2.

Hoya linearis The porcelain flower is an epiphyte native to forests of the Himalayas, with long, slender leaves on trailing stems. Produces clusters of scented, creamy, waxy flowers in summer. 20cm. RHS H2.

Disocactus anguliger The epiphytic fishbone cactus is native to the Mexican rainforests. Once mature, it produces white, fragrant flowers. 30cm. RHS H1B.

Cultivation and care

The Hoya and Epiphyllum are epiphytes and like a humid atmosphere. They benefit from an occasional misting and a position that doesn’t get too dry, so avoid placing them near radiators. The Senecio and Echeveria are succulents that can take a drier situation, so it’s important not to overwater them. I aim for a weekly soak in summer, reduced to monthly in the winter. They all like bright, indirect light so an east- or west-facing wall near a window would suit them. All can be propagated with stem or leaf cuttings placed in water or well- drained compost. Eventually these plants may grow too large for the narrow shelves and need potting on, so having young plants to replace them could be useful.

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* *Holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.†Hardiness ratings given where available.

Agata Wierzbicka's illustration of a Dragon Plant

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