A houseplant whisperer


9781604695014l-1Once again, writer Tovah Martin, author of The New Terrarium (reviewed here in 2009), goes where many gardeners fear to tread—within the confines of the average centrally heated American home. This is the threshold that—for many gardeners—forms an impenetrable barrier. “Plant cultivation stops here” may as well be on the welcome mat for many otherwise fervent gardeners. But I’ve never given up on indoor plants and I know I have countless comrades. Martin takes it further, though. For her, it’s not just enough to keep houseplants alive—she knows how to make them look awesome and she shares her wisdom on styling the common houseplant within the pages of her latest book, The Indestructible Houseplant, with photographs by Kindra Clineff.

Photo by Kindra Clineff
Detail of photo by Kindra Clineff

I have to admit that although I’ve managed to keep a lot of indoor plants going over the years—and I rock it out with bulb forcing once a year—I don’t always make them work as décor. I don’t give enough thought to containers and I rarely combine plants in interesting ways. I’m happy just to keep them alive, but Martin reminds me that I can do better.

Detail of photo by Kindra Clineff
Detail of photo by Kindra Clineff

Consider the African violet (Saintpaulia). Martin suggests cement cubes and zinc containers for them, and I must admit the contrast between the dainty flowers/foliage and the rough texture of the cement works great. That’s what’s best about this book; Martin talks about plants that have long been taken for granted—Dracaena, Aspidistra, Ficus (yes, I can hear you snickering)—introducing unusual containers, lesser-known cultivars, and the best ways to display the plants. For Ficus, she suggests creeping and variegated varieties. For Dracaena, she praises the brilliant chartreuse, white, and green stripes of the ‘Lemon Lime’ cultivar.  She suggests using old colanders as containers for aloes; you can tuck a few varieties in the wide-mouthed opening and they love the extra drainage.

An interesting way to grow Iresine (detail of photo by Kindra Clineff)
An interesting way to grow Iresine (photo by Kindra Clineff)

There is plenty of down-and-dirty basic advice that is great for the beginner (though most of us could use a refresher), but what shines  throughout is her love and respect for these oft-insulted denizens of the botanical world. I don’t do many book reviews here, but I couldn’t overlook this title. I’ll be making good use of it as I prepare for the Northeast winter gardening season. Thanks, Tovah!

Previous articleWhen gardens become reminders of war and tragedy
Next articleWhile This Agave Gently Weeps

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I find it humorous that there is a Christmas cactus on the cover. I find them to be tough, darn-near indestructible and have a dozen of them both inside & outside my house. My mother-in-law, however, can’t keep one alive to save herself. But this is the same woman who can coax a bloom out of any orchid – the same plants that I sometimes think I kill just by being in the same room.

    • Ain’t that the beauty of gardening, Laura? One gardener’s snap is another gardener’s Waterloo. I’m thinking that your mother-in-law is probably giving her Christmas cactus the same fuss as the orchids. Sometimes tough love is the way to go.

  2. I’ve currently got this book checked out of the library and it’s a great reference tool. Lots of photos and unusual display ideas. I second your thumbs up.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here