Interior Design with Plants

I have this client that I really like. Why? Well, for starters, she and her family are very nice—deep in their bones nice. And she approaches the aesthetics of her home with both an open-mindedness and a decisiveness that is just such a pleasure to work with. But one other thing I really like is her collection of happy, unusual, well-groomed and thriving plants scattered throughout her home.

I know what a feat that is—because those living things need to be welcomed into your home with some of the same care you might give a new baby. They won’t wake you in the middle of the night, or throw up breast milk on to your dress shirt in the morning—but they are a commitment for sure. And when done right they add to that quality you want in a home. The quality of “Life Happens Here”. 

I say this because, I will now confess, I am a little bit of the Angel of Death to many houseplants that have crossed the path of my interior design business. I know, I know. It’s almost like saying I kick puppies, right? But hear me out. Say I’m with a client or a friend who is showing me their house – and a common complaint is that it just doesn’t feel “pulled together” in that home-magazine way they strive for. With clients it’s easier, because they are willing to pay for change, but for friends that want to do it themselves? Well, it’s tricky advice to give. They start talking about new couch pillows and should they buy all new furniture? But I look around and I frequently see some of the same familiar culprits which really should be addressed as a first step. (Spoiler alert, yes, some houseplants have been harmed in this process.)

The culprits that keep you from figuring out your room’s needs aren’t terribly exciting. You know them already. They are all based around clutter and deep cleaning. When my kids were young, I would stand in their doorway with a dinosaur in one fist and a sassy little Barbie gown in the other and demand of them, “These items need to find a home!” Because if there is not a home for all the unexpected dribs and drabs that daily infiltrate your very existence -- then you’ve already lost the battle. Other common clutter culprits? Well, those old book-club paperbacks aren’t doing you any favors, and sometimes (the Angel of Death has arrived…) neither are your house plants. Yes, be very afraid you silly, boring, struggling, dusty, unsentimental, plastic-potted, unhealthy, unattractive or ridiculously unwieldy houseplants. I’m coming for you.

You know the ones that have to go—you might even own some. They are those giant (and to me a little creepy) spider plants—and some of their ridiculously prolific offspring which seem to get tucked into yogurt containers and old coffee mugs nearby. They are the sad orchid bases, still in their plastic pots and praying for re-growth. I had a friend that dutifully saved a (now) massive holiday poinsettia for years. Its pot was still wrapped in that hopeful green tinfoil, and it had grown so much it was now dwarfing the table it was on and gobbling up every ounce of sun from its window. And here my friend is, showing me this room that nobody uses because it’s too dark and too small. I cautiously ask her where she got the poinsettia. “Oh, my neighbor put it out after Christmas a few years back,” she answers. (Shhh… if you listen closely you can hear the beat of the Angel’s wings in the distance.)

But let’s talk a moment about how to do houseplants right. First off, buy the plants that you love from a plant store, not the supermarket or HomeDepot. And learn about them. Where do they need to live? Do you have a spot like that? Are they heavy shedders? Do they need misting? Or are they hearty and can take a week or two with no attention? Be realistic about your skill set and habits and buy a plant accordingly. Secondly, always re-pot. Or at the very least put the plastic pot into a nicer pot, and then put enough of that moss on top to fool The Angel. And lastly, think of your plant when you purchase it as a little piece of architecture. Do you want tall and spiky? Soft and foofy? Lazy and drapy? They all strike such wonderful unique profiles, so celebrate that and choose carefully.

After that the proof will be in the pudding as they say. Not all plants make it. But have a special, out of the way place for struggling plants. They all deserve a chance to survive, but let them struggle with honor in a back hall -- not front and center in the family room. I hope my family does the same for me when my Angel starts beating its wings nearby. Come visit me in a quiet back room. Just do me a favor, and put a plant in the window.

Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her instagram is: @coles_color_and_design. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com