Houseplants Have Become My Summer Oasis

Peacock plant (Calathea orbifolia | Goeppertia orbifolia)
Bromeliad (Vriesea hieroglyphica)
Bromeliad (Vriesea hieroglyphica)

The drought and everything else got to me. Something had to give.

Gardening in our summer-dry climate of Sonoma County requires adjusting to winters that are usually verdant and soggy with vernal pools, morphing into summers dry enough to burst into flames if you sneeze too hard. It’s like living in two separate ecosystems at once, as if Ireland and Arizona were mashed together in a given year. So it’s always a bit mind-bending to think moss for half the year and cacti the rest of it.

And it’s been more parched than usual this summer, since last winter bore few rains. Even the cacti are looking peaky. Any irrigation water has been very carefully apportioned for food and habitat purposes, and, as mentioned before, grey water buckets, the words “mellow” and “yellow” (you locals know what I mean) and every-other-day-showers are the norm. I’m thinking of writing a blog piece entitled, “Gross Things I Did During the Drought” but I wouldn’t want to admit to any of it publicly.

Spider plant ... no, I going to use the other common name Ribbon plant for this one. Chlorophytum comosum.
Spider plant … wait, I’m going to use the other common name “Ribbon plant” for this one! (Chlorophytum comosum)
Arrowhead plant (Syngonium podophyllum)
Arrowhead plant (Syngonium podophyllum)

Without wandering too deep into the murky pond that has been the last couple of years — with the pandemic and so many trials that friends and loved ones have been through, the drought and wildfires, and my own challenge of finding myself on crutches the last three months — let’s just say I was desperate for a healing space around me. I needed something that invigorated the senses with vibrant life and didn’t involve travel (or even moving around much) or an outdoor watering spree.

Enter the houseplant haven!

Actually, at high-summer every year, when the wet green of winter dries up to dusty desert beige, I find myself starting to dream about a lush garden oasis in the manner of the Moroccan courtyards, (riads, I believe they are called), with their colorful tiles, fountains, rills and exotic greenery — a place protected from harsh dry winds, sun and rapid evaporation.

From left to right: Satin Pothos (Scindapsus pictus), Dragon Tree (Dracaena reflexa var. angustifolia), Starfish plant (Sansevieria cylindrica 'Starfish'), Watermelon Peperomia (Peperomia argyreia)
From left to right: Satin Pothos (Scindapsus pictus), Dragon Tree (Dracaena reflexa var. angustifolia), Starfish plant (Sansevieria cylindrica ‘Starfish’), Watermelon Peperomia (Peperomia argyreia). I promise to dust before I post about houseplants again…. or not.
Burgundy Rubber Plant (Ficus Decora Burgundy)
Burgundy Rubber Plant (Ficus Decora Burgundy)

And I always try to imagine how I could create a miniature version of a riad outdoors, given the limited means available (meaning, build it myself). It finally occurred to me that the inside of my house could be turned into the space I long for in summer — a lush overgrown oasis with bold colors and protections from the elements. It won’t be anything like a riad of course, but it will be an oasis with foliage, color, a water element, and shade. I tend to hibernate indoors during the hot dry days of summer anyway, I just never had any indoor plants to keep company with. Now I do.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a houseplant person, unless you count the neglected dracaena I had in college. There was always so much to focus on in the outdoor garden that it seemed pointless. But welcoming some houseplants into my space has been so novel and enriching that now I’m sorry that I deprived myself of them for so long! Well … we’ll see if I still feel that way in a year.

Kangaroo paw fern, dracaena fragrans, Boston fern, heart leaf philodendron. I wanted some invigorating color in the office so I painted a cosmic swirl "mural".
Kangaroo paw fern, dracaena fragrans, Boston fern, heart leaf philodendron. I wanted some invigorating color in the office so I painted a cosmic swirl “mural”.

It remains to be seen if I can keep these new plant friends thriving and growing, and fend off any ant invasions, among other things. To that end, I’ve been reading some new garden books to see what knowledge I can glean.

Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) I love this plant so much!!! I bought two of that stained glass bird hanging--one for me, and one for my mother--so that every time I see it I think of her. Purchased from PBS.
Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) I love this plant so much!!! I bought two of that stained glass bird hanging–one for me, and one for my mother–so that every time I see it I think of her. Purchased from PBS.

The book “Wild At Home” by Hilton Carter is eye-candy to the plant-lover in me, and very inspiring. I wish my space was as jungle-like as his! I just want to snuggle up in that chair with some tea or cocoa and sing lullabies to the plants all day. Alas, I lack the bright light and extra high ceilings. But then, that’s the fun of gardening–to learn and discover and create what works in each space, and to keep getting better at it.

“Plantopedia” by Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan out of Sydney, Australia is another book I’m appreciating. It is a terrific reference book for growing many common and uncommon houseplants while also delivering on plant eye-candy. And any reference book that comes with not one, but two ribbon bookmarks is immediately raised in my opinion.

This one also wasn't labeled, but I think it is Alocasia 'Black Velvet'.
This one also wasn’t labeled, but I think it is Alocasia ‘Black Velvet’.

I’m still reading a few other books as well. Some online sources I’ve been using are The Spruce, SFGate and Apartment Therapy. If you have a favorite houseplant book or source, please share in the comments.

One shocker is the cost of houseplants these days. Were they always so expensive? Happily there are online groups for sharing plants and cuttings for propagation.

Cynlindrical snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica)
Cynlindrical snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica)

To begin my houseplant oasis, I splurged for a few larger specimens — just to give some structure and instant gratification. The rest are adorably tiny.

Until I memorize what each one prefers in terms of watering, I am finding this app helpful to track them: Planta. It not only reminds me when each plant needs water (based on the local conditions and the type of plant) it will also ID a plant with the phone camera. This is handy since it appears that houseplants are not always labeled. I can imagine this app being useful to a plant-sitter as well.

Planta app example-- showing watermelon peperomia
Planta app example– showing watermelon peperomia

Naturally, a new plant vista means I’ve been having fun visiting new nurseries and plant shops. My latest plant high occurred upon finding the shop called Botany Zhi in Santa Rosa CA. See photo below.

For you locals, I also found essentials and treasures at Kings Nursery in Santa Rosa, Harmony Farm Supply, and a nice selection of air plants and other gems at California Sister Floral Design & Supply. A happy surprise was finding a lovely selection at the small but excellent living-plant florist in Mill Valley called Green Door Design. I look forward to discovering many more places and if you know some, please note them in the comments!

Botany Zhi in Santa Rosa
Botany Zhi –in Santa Rosa, California … (happy sigh)

Turns out that houseplants are sort of like having dogs in regards to social situations. We used to marvel at how many people said “hi” to us on a walking path when we were with our dog (lots) versus when we were by ourselves (nearly invisible). Unlike outdoor garden plants that vary by ecosystem, indoor plants are often the same across continents and are therefore common conversation topics.

Cylinder snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica), Zebra plant (Haworthiopsis attenuata), Starlight Silver snake plant (I think. aka Sansevieria Hahnii marginata),Jade plant (Crassula ovata), Moth Orchid. Small painting is one I got from a gallery in Taos many decades ago, by artist Gabriela Ibarra. https://gabrielaibarra.com/
Cylinder snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica), Zebra plant (Haworthiopsis attenuata), Starlight Silver snake plant (I think. aka Sansevieria Hahnii marginata), Jade plant (Crassula ovata), Moth Orchid. Small painting is one I got from a gallery in Taos many decades ago, by artist Gabriela Ibarra. https://gabrielaibarra.com/

For example, I was recently delighted to learn that my niece, who lives in a different climate zone, is an avid houseplant gardener and it’s been fun to share with and learn from her. She tipped me off to an LED plant light that I like. She’s also named every one of her plants. I love that! I hope to follow her example, especially for the plants whose common names I’m not keen on, like snake plant and spider plant. (Snakes and spiders are welcome outside, but I prefer not to be reminded of them indoors. 😉 ) But how about these adorable names: kangaroo paw, elephant ear, dragon tree, dolphin necklace, fiddle-leaf fig, lipstick plant, ponytail palm, panda plant, moth orchids and bunny ear cactus?!

Peacock plant (Calathea orbifolia | Goeppertia orbifolia), Rose-painted Calathea (Goeppertia roseopicta 'Rosy'), Button Fern (maybe: Nephrolepsis cordifolia 'Duffii')
Peacock plant (Calathea orbifolia | Goeppertia orbifolia), Rose-painted Calathea (Goeppertia roseopicta ‘Rosy’), Button Fern (maybe: Nephrolepsis cordifolia ‘Duffii’). I’m hoping these will grow into a lush frame around the little fountain.
Air plant
Air plant

Are you growing houseplants too? Which ones? Have you passed any down through the generations or exchanged with neighbors?

Hope you are all hanging in there, or better yet, doing marvelously well! ~lisa

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10 thoughts on “Houseplants Have Become My Summer Oasis

  1. What a clever idea to bring your garden inside! All these plants are unknown to me as I do not have any houseplants. (Well I have one orchid that I have had for years, it was a gift and I cannot manage to kill it.) We do not have any place inside for plants. We put our lemon tree inside with a LED light to keep it alive in the winter. It is in a spare bedroom and the set-up does not look decorative ;). I think old French houses were made before they thought of houseplants. Amelia

    1. Ha! How sweet you bring the lemon inside for winter. Funny about the French houses and the orchid. 😀 Yeah, I don’t have much space either; we’ll see how long my houseplant love lasts! At least for now, being on crutches and missing the outdoor garden, it’s been nice to have plants to look at close by. 🙂

  2. Your indoor garden looks lovely, I love your mural and stained glass birds as well as the plants. Please tell me how you get your arrowhead plant looking so vibrant, I struggle with mine and it flops all over the place. Btw I also dream of a Moroccan courtyard garden – one day!

    1. Hi Sel! Thanks for the sweet comment. On the arrowhead plant: not sure it’s me… maybe haven’t had it long enough to kill it? 😉 The Planta app has it on a schedule of watering every 10 days, with the top layer being dry before watering. Liquid fertilizer in water every 3 weeks. It’s on the north side of a room with low light and the Planta app says it’s too dark for it there. Indoor temp for last month average is 71°F, humidity average is 55%. Would love to see your houseplants in your blog if you ever feel called to share. Oh yes… dreaming of that Moroccan courtyard garden right?! I can’t think of anything lovelier. Saw your last post… your garden is always so enticing!

    2. Thanks Lisa, I imagine mine would prefer higher humidity especially now that it’s cold enough here for the heating to come on in the morning. I moved it from east facing to south facing which it seems to prefer in autumn and winter (lower light levels, not much sun!). Do you have a special device to measure humidity?

    3. I have these little devices called SensorPush. They are small box-like devices, about 3 inches across. They sync with my phone and work remotely (if not too far away). I keep one in the house, one outside and one in the greenhouse. Measures temp and humidity and keeps records. Just found it here: https://www.amazon.com/SensorPush-Wireless-Thermometer-Hygrometer-Android/dp/B01AEQ9X9I/ref=asc_df_B01AEQ9X9I/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=194026055947&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=4861774192007061240&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=1013838&hvtargid=pla-375433369637&psc=1

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