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Styling at home

3 November 2022
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Liz Carlson shares an extract from her new book, Houseplants and Design, on how to style houseplants in your home. Words Liz Carlson

To read more about Liz Carlson, from living in Wānaka and Lyttelton, to her obsession with houseplants, click here.

I’ve always found it fascinating that people spend tens of thousands of dollars on landscaping but might baulk at spending the same on styling the insides of their homes, where they spend the bulk of their time. I can’t tell you the last time I hung out on my front lawn except to turn the sprinklers on and off.

While I’m certainly not suggesting spending the equivalent of a small mortgage on interior design, I can suggest many clever and, if I might say so, delightful ways to spruce up your space with plants. Let’s create a bright, joyful and lush home, tailored to your style and aesthetic.

First things first, figure out what you do and don’t like. Is there a colour palette that speaks to you? Are you hoping to match your furniture? What is the lighting situation in each room? What’s your budget? Do you want easy-care plants that can handle a bit of neglect?

Many people prefer one style and colour of planter, usually white or terracotta, both of which emphasise a plant’s foliage. I tend to go for a messy-yet-stylish mishmash of colours, usually a natural and warm palette: creams, tan, sage, mustard, terracotta and even brick.

I prefer things to not match and to feel a bit wild and untamed, whereas others might favour a more sleek and streamlined aesthetic.

If you’re keen to embrace your connection with nature, consider using natural materials to feature your plants, like rattan or cane plant stands or macrocarpa shelves.

When styling with plants, I always try to keep the values of biophilia in line with the style I’m creating – such as mimicking spaces in the wild, incorporating patterns from nature and using sustainable products. I’m always trying to evoke a feeling of nature inside.

Look for plants with patterns, textures or shapes that speak to you, like the pink lines on a stunning Stromanthe ‘Triostar’ or the heart-shaped leaves of lemon lime philodendrons.

I start by filling awkward negative or empty spaces with plants in a variety of sizes, textures and colours. Plants are perfect void fillers, in every sense of the word.

There are essentially two main styles of plants: plants that cascade down with vines, and plants that grow upwards in more of a bush or tree style.

Trailing plants are perfect for shelves, tops of cabinets and even hanging on a wall or from the ceiling. Bush and tree-like shapes are more suited for tabletops, windowsills and on the floor. Trailing plants actually like to climb towards the light (which is what they do in the wild), so you can plant with a fern pole or support stick and wrap the plant around it to grow upwards in a vertical shape.

If you pin up traditionally vining plants, the leaves will grow larger and larger. You can even carefully attach the vines to a wall to create a vining wall inside, though be warned that sometimes plants themselves will actually attach to walls with their aerial roots – rent deposit be damned!

Grouping plants is another key area of plant design. I like to build layers when grouping plants: taller in the back, shorter in the front, the mullet of houseplant styling. I try to group plants based on similar watering requirements, to make the care a bit easier. I also like to mimic natural environments by placing low-light plants underneath the foliage of larger plants.

I think I have to address the elephant in the room – faux plants. I’m not going to say don’t have any fake plants, because I’m not here to judge and to each his own. But… I’m going to say DON’T HAVE ANY FAKE PLANTS. Don’t bring imposter nature inside. If you can’t deal with keeping a plant alive, get a vase of dried flowers or dried foliage, which is real and has no care requirements. Phew, glad I got that off my chest.

While there are plenty of lists around of which houseplants suit which rooms in a house, from my experience, it’s all about your home environment and where the best light is. Some plants thrive in unexpected places, and there are always outliers that just make no sense at all. The best way to figure out where plants are happiest is by trial and error.

Tips for plant placement in the home

• Humidity-loving and low-light plants such as prayer plants and ferns tend to prefer bathrooms.

• If you have little natural light in your bedroom, opt for low-light plants here. Plants that produce more oxygen, like snake plants, also do well in bedrooms and can have a calming effect which may help with sleep, according to lore. You could even consider carnivorous plants, like pitcher plants, which can help control insects that might keep you awake at night.

• When placing plants high up in the kitchen, on top of the fridge or on top of cabinets, remember that the heat and humidity from cooking will rise. If the plants are above or near the stovetop, they may also have to contend with cooking grease.

• Low-light hardy plants such as snake plants and ZZs do well in hallways, corridors and corners where there might be less light and some draughts.

• Consider placing an air-cleaning plant in your living room to help with filtering toxins. Air-cleaning plants include Aglaonema, golden pothos, parlour palms and peace lilies, according to legend.

My all-time favourite houseplants

• Monstera, the first plant I bought that I found interesting. I think every house should have a monstera.

• Philodendron gloriosum is my favourite leafy aroid and rare plant.

• Goeppertia orbifolia is one of my favourite foliage plants because it’s just so attention-grabbing.

• Myrtillocactus geometrizans cv. ‘Fukurokuryuzinboku’ is my favourite cactus because it looks like boobies. Never lose your childish inclination to laugh!

• Some of my favourite succulents belong in the Stapelia genus, because their flowers look like aliens and smell horrendous. They’re so weird!

• Lithops are another favourite, because they’re so unusual. I love to pot up little bowls of them in rainbows colours.

• Tillandsia xerographica, the mother of all air plants, is my dream plant.

• My Swiss cheese vine (Monstera adansonii) was the first cutting I ever purchased online

• Pink princess philodendrons are one of my favourite philos — when I managed to nail an exclusive philodendron grower for NODE, it changed everything.

• And last but not least, the good old peace lily that just won’t die, no matter how many times I’ve forgotten to water it. Stubbornness in plants makes me happy.

Edited extract from Houseplants and Design: A New Zealand Guide by Liz Carlson. RRP$45. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ.

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