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Tips for Decorating with Houseplants

By: Chloe Deike 
We asked a pro to share her favorite tips for decorating with houseplants. Folia Collective’s Denae Horst shares the best ways to display plants and which houseplants work best in every room of the house.

Denae Horst of Folia Collective, Portraits by Kristin Guy: Denae Horst of Folia Collective.

Houseplant tips from a pro

It starts with the desire for a fresh look inside your home. You rearrange furniture, declutter and then you spot it: An empty space on your shelf. An idea to thrill every gardener lights your eyes — I could put a houseplant there! But how does this story end for you?

We all have places in our houses that would look better with more plants, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine how to make it work. Or maybe the plants you have tried just don’t survive. Danae Horst has experienced it all, and she’s here to help you decorate your home with houseplants using equal parts practicality and style.

After growing up with a “crazy plant lady” mom in a home where she could connect with nature indoors every day, it was discouraging to experience as an adult one wilting houseplant after another. But Danae’s journey from “black thumb” to houseplant afficionado (a road paved by classes, mentorships, vintage gardening books and lots of unfortunate plants lost to trial and error) is an encouragement that, with the right plant, place and knowledge, you probably can grow something in the space you never thought you could. Danae so passionately believes this that she founded Folia Collective plant shop in southern California and recently published a book, Houseplants For All, to equip others with the ability to grow vibrant houseplants, green thumb or not.

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Decorating with houseplants in a sunroom: This sun room has areas of direct sunlight in front of the east-facing windows on the right and dims to medium light near the brick wall.

The best light for houseplants

Danae’s first word of advice when you're ready to decorate with houseplants: Don’t forget that houseplants are alive. Unlike home decor, they have needs, and one of the most important needs is a light source. She recommends getting familiar with how much sunlight your space receives. Divide it up into zones: direct sunlight, bright, indirect light, medium light and low light. The sun room pictured here has areas of direct sunlight in front of the east-facing windows on the right and dims to medium light near the brick wall.

Houseplant light zones

  • Direct sun refers to areas that actually receive the sun’s rays for at least 1 to 2 hours per day.
  • Bright, indirect light is bright for 6 or more hours but doesn’t get hit with the sun’s rays for more than 1 to 2 hours per day.
  • Medium light is diffused by a sheer curtain or a few feet away from a spot with direct sun.
  • Low light is several feet away from a spot with direct sun.

Evaluate your space for houseplants

After identifying the available light, take note of how much space is available in each zone. Is there room on the window sill for a plant? Floor space for a large plant stand? Can one hang from the ceiling? Make a list of which size of plants will work for each light zone. (This way you can avoid purchasing a plant that’s destined for doom.)

Houseplants for different situations

To help you imagine how to incorporate houseplants into your home, Danae has shared her advice for several different tough situations, from low light to bright, with great tips for how to pack a space with plants (This sun room has little space for shelving or plant stands, but now holds over a dozen plants!). You might be surprised at what transformations can happen when you find realistic solutions to your plant decorating dreams, or as Danae says, “style with the plants in mind”. Let’s see what tricks Danae has up her sleeve with a few before-and-after transformations.

Decorating with Houseplants in a sunroom: Plant hangers create a lush look in a room of windows and little floor space. Hang them with ceiling hooks, mount them on curtain rods, or use a sturdy branch.

Design tips for decorating with houseplants in a sun room

A) Double up A mirror fills blank space on the wall, reflects light and gives the impression that there are more plants.
B) Be prepared to downsize When plants get too big for these shelves, take cuttings to make a smaller plant or prune back any overgrown stems.
C) Create balance Find room for a few containers of plants on a coffee table or corner of a windowseat to balance out plants that hang.
D) Dig in Danae suggests joining a Facebook group devoted to a specific plant family, such as Planet Philodendron, to find a greater variety of plants that will work for your space, especially if you’ve had success with a plant in the family already.

Decorating with houseplants in a bathroom: Decorative accents in the bathroom echo the markings in the plant’s leaves.

Bathrooms offer low light, high humidity for houseplants

With only one north-facing window, this bathroom isn’t going to receive much sunlight. Danae suggests two ways to maximize the light in the room: use sheerer window treatments or install some grow lights. You need the opaque shade to keep this bathroom private, so a grow light is the best option. Can you spot it? One of Danae’s favorites is the GrowFrame by Modern Sprout. Mounted above the window, this box has grow lights in the top, a timer and can hold three to four small containers of vining plants, which creep out of the frame for some living art. The vines resemble a botanical valance, don’t you think?

Place plants as close to the window as possible. On top of the cabinet is a bird’s nest fern and a prayer plant, which both thrive in a humid bathroom. Two different humidity-loving calatheas nestle onto the windowsill (because the shade is rarely lifted, they won’t be in the way.)

Perfect Plants for Bathrooms

A) Prayer plant Maranta leuconeura
Bright to medium light; without added humidity, brown edges appear on the leaves
B) Bird’s nest fern Asplenium nidus
Bright to medium light; grows well in normal humidity but best with added humidity
C) Calathea Calathea spp. and hybrids
Bright to medium light; without added humidity, brown edges appear on the leaves

Decorating with houseplants north facing nook: Snake plant and ZZ plant are houseplants tolerant of dim light.

Use houseplants to decorate a north-facing nook

Because privacy isn’t an issue, a sheer curtain in place of the blinds or shade lets more light through this north-facing window. Now you can incorporate some medium-light plants, such as Chinese evergreen and all-green pothos. A hanging pottery planter and wall-mounted pots take advantage of the available light. A slim shelf or plant stand that directly aligns with the window sill would create room for a grouping of plants without stealing a lot of floor space. Or, as in this case, a small pot sits on the sill and a shorter shelf holds medium-sized plants. Snake plant and ZZ plant are the most tolerant of dim light, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited: You can see here that four different varieties of snake plant in shades of deep green, yellow and cream and in vastly different shapes add loads of interest.

Low-light-loving plants

A) Pothos Epipremnum aureum
Bright to medium light; trailing habit works well in a plant hanger
B) Chinese evergreen Aglaonema spp. and hybrids
Bright to medium light
C) Snake plant Sansevieria species
Any light except direct sun; leaves can be wide, narrow. short, tall, plain or variegated, and habits range from cylindrical to broad.
D) ZZ plant Zamioculcas zamiifolia
Any light except direct sun

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Decorating with houseplants west facing window: Plants dry out more quickly in direct sun. Thankfully succulents and cacti prefer their soil to dry out between waterings.

Summon the desert with a west-facing window

A west-facing window that receives direct, hot afternoon light is actually problematic for many houseplants, whose leaves will scorch in the sun. So when decorating with houseplants, Danae recommends starting with plants that naturally thrive in desert conditions. This window is the spot for you to finally grow popular cacti and succulents with success. A deep, wide shelf a third of the way up the window makes a sturdy spot for a collection of plants. And this window features one of Danae’s favorite hanging succulents, string of dolphins, which is named because each small, succulent leaf curves like a diving dolphin and even has small “fins.”

Plants for west-facing windows

A) String of dolphins Senecio peregrinus
Some direct light to bright indirect light; let soil dry between waterings and only water once a month during the dormant summer months
B) String of bananas Senecio radicans
Some direct light to bright indirect light; let soil dry between waterings and only water once a month during the dormant summer months
C) Narrow-leaf chalksticks Senecio cylindricus
Some direct light to bright indirect light; let soil dry between waterings
D) Ladyfinger cactus Mammillaria elongata
Direct sun; let soil dry completely between waterings and only water a few times throughout the winter dormant months
E) Flapjack Kalanchoe thyrsiflora
Some direct light to bright indirect light; let soil dry between waterings and only water once a month during the summer dormant months
F) Aloe Aloe vera
Bright indirect light; thoroughly soak soil with water in a container with good drainage and let dry completely

Published: Dec. 10, 2020
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