Indoor gardening: Choosing plants

Deciding what you want

Before you buy an indoor plant, consider the following:

  • Which room? Temperature and humidity levels vary from one room to another, and a plant that might flourish in a humid bathroom could be unhappy in a cool study.
  • Aspect: The direction in which a window faces will affect the amount of light available in a room. Some plants need bright light or even full sun; others prefer indirect light.
  • Flowers or foliage? Decide whether you want attractive foliage all year round, or an eye-catching display of flowers or berries in a particular season. Some plants, especially those with variegated leaves, may combine more than one of these features.
  • Size: How much space have you got to accommodate a full-grown plant? Some plants, such as polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), take up comparatively little room, while others, such as a grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), rapidly reach 2m (6ft) or more, unless pruned back.
  • Cost: Popular houseplants such as spider plants, ivies (Hedera) and cyclamen are fairly cheap to buy and easy to replace. A palm or orchid, on the other hand, can be expensive. Before purchasing a costly specimen, consider carefully whether you know how to look after it and can give it the care and the environment it needs.
  • Maturity: Expect to pay more for a mature houseplant, and to give it extra special care while it is getting used to its new surroundings. A small plant is often easier to manage, and can last longer before it outgrows its position.
  • Special purposes: Plants can improve the atmosphere of the home and office by lifting the spirits and raising the humidity. Gerbera, nephrolepis and certain other plants also have the capacity to 'clean the air' by removing harmful chemical compounds such as carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke or formaldehyde, given off by carpets and foam insulation.

Easy houseplants to grow

If you are not yet confident of your growing skills, or want a plant that needs little attention and can tolerate a wide range of conditions, choose from the following:

  • Abutilon 
  • African violet (Saintpaulia)
  • Aspidistra
  • Cacti and succulents (many)
  • Chamaedorea
  • Chlorophytum
  • Cissus
  • Coleus (Solenostemon)
  • Dracaena
  • Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia)
  • X Fatshedera
  • Fatsia
  • Monstera
  • Pelargonium
  • Pick-a-back plant (Tolmiea)
  • Sansevieria
  • Tradescantia

Temporary plants

Some flowering houseplants are intended for short-term display and, like cut flowers, are discarded once they are past their best. These include cinerarias (Pericallis cruentus), chrysanthemums, Exacum affine, greenhouse primulas and bead plants (Nertera granadensis).

Others such as gerberas and winter cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) can be kept from one year to the next, although they may need special care during winter or while they are resting. Annuals, such as capsicums, will die after flowering and fruiting.

Choosing a variety

Plants within the same genus can vary widely in appearance and growing requirements, so you need to consider the following qualities of a specific plant:

  • Habit: Plants may be upright (such as cyperus, Ficus elastica, yucca), arching (such as nephrolepis, spathiphyllum, spider plant), rosetted (such as agave, aloe, echeveria), bushy (such as Euphorbia milii, impatiens, justicia, peperomia) or climbing (such as Hoya carnosa, jasmine, stephanotis).
  • Leaf shape: The huge variation in leaf shape can influence a plant‧s impact within a room. Plants with large dramatic leaves include monstera, philodendron and howea. At the other extreme are the dainty leaves of asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus), ceropegia and Ficus pumila.
  • Leaf colour: Foliage may be plain green or patterned with startling colours. Vivid plants, such as crotons (Codiaeum), cordylines and coleus (Solenostemon), need either to harmonise or contrast with your room décor.
  • Flowers: The shape, size and colour of a plant‧s flowers affects container you choose and its position within the room. For example, bold-flowered hippeastrum needs lots of space and will look good in a simple but striking pot.