Bonsai hacks: It's as easy as one, two, tree

By Gary McGregor

Don’t you just love bonsai? The elegant little trees capture the imagination and look great in just about any setting.

The best are shaped and crafted over generations by bonsai masters who trim, style and maintain their trees with great care and attention to detail.

Bonsai are often pruned and wired into shape to create the desired look, whether it be windswept, upright, horizontal or slanting. Some are trained to grow over rocks, while others form part of fantastical miniature forests.

While I’m sure this is fun for bonsai fanatics, few of us can spare that much time. Luckily there are ways to get a basic bonsai look without all the work.

Here are five readily-available plants that look the part, but won’t hack into your spare time.

1.  Jade plant (Crassula ovata): These popular succulents develop a brown stem, which begins to look like the trunk of a tree as the plant ages. Some Jades look like a small tree just as they are, or you can gently break off lower leaves to expose more of the “trunk”, while unwanted branches may be trimmed to encourage a more tree-like shape.

Jade plants have fleshy leaves and can become top-heavy, so choose a pot big enough to anchor the plant. If you plan to use a bonsai pot, it’s best to transplant while the plant is small.

Crassula ovata can become quite a chunky plant, with some garden specimens topping 2m, but keeping them in a pot restricts growth and they are easily pruned.

Another succulent worth trying is Portulacaria afra, which is also sometimes known as Jade plant, or Dwarf jade.  Small leaves and reddish brown stems lend themselves to the bonsai look and they are hard to kill and easy to prune. P. afra can also grow 2m tall or more if not confined in a pot.

Both species need plenty of light, so place near a window if used as an indoor plant. The crassula flowers in winter, while the portulacaria may bloom in summer given the right conditions.

2.  Dwarf White/Canadian spruce (Picea glauca): Great as a compact Christmas tree, or this conical species can be opened up and styled into a more horizontal look by removing some lateral branches and wiring others into the desired position.

But I love the natural cone shape and keep mine un-bonsaied and ready for Christmas tree duty. They don’t like to be heavily root-pruned so proceed with caution if you plan to move them into a more compact pot.

Often promoted as a living Christmas tree, the attractive deep green Christmas Star version of  P. glauca has been bred to be slow-growing and is one to look out for each December (or wait until January when they can be a real bargain).

It needs plenty of light, but not too much direct summer sun. If you plan to bring yours indoors for Christmas, find a light-filled spot then return it to the outdoors once Christmas is over.

After a year or two, lightly trim any roots emerging from the drainage holes and refresh the potting mix. Move to a bigger pot at this stage if you want it to promote growth, or if the tree obviously needs a bigger container.

3. Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans): You can’t bonsai these small palms, but you can use them to create a bonsai look. Fans of miniature gardens use them to create a tropical look and they are also popular as the central plant in a terrarium garden.

Being slow-growing, they can stay in the same pot for years and rarely grow beyond 1m tall.

Most Parlor palms you buy are actually multiple plants growing in the one pot. But they look more like an individual tree when displayed as a single plant or in small clumps. They can be divided and spread out across a bowl or dish planter to look like a tropical garden.

Take care when dividing because palms don’t like to have their roots disturbed. Trim dead stems off at ground level, but don’t prune healthy fronds.

While tolerant of most indoor conditions (they prefer good light and don’t like the cold), PP likes humidity, so consider displaying in an open bowl-shaped terrarium or mist occasionally with a spray bottle.

4. Boxwood (English box and other buxus species) are often used for hedging or topiary, but are also easily shaped into bonsai. Small leaves help with the bonsai look, and buxus are as tough as old boots, making them an excellent low-maintenance plant.

Look for older plants with a thick stem. If you like, lower leaves can be removed to expose more of the pale brown “trunk”, while branches are easy to trim. Box needs plenty of light, so keep near a window if using as an indoor plant, or place it on a balcony or out in the garden.

Boxwood is said to sometimes develop an unpleasant smell (I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this), so try moving yours downwind if this becomes a problem.

5. Pot-belly or Buddha belly fig: This mass-produced bonsai is often sold growing in a bonsai or compact pot. It’s usually a Ficus microcarpa (Chinese banyan, Indian laurel) or has been grafted with microcarpa foliage. The bulbous trunks are actually exposed roots, which the foliage grows directly from.

An indoor plant in most climates, the Pot-belly is considered low-maintenance, but does need regular watering, particularly in summer. Foliage will eventually need trimming, while a bigger pot will be required after a couple of years.

Microcarpa can become a big tree outdoors, so this is definitely one to buy as a finished product with the bonsai work already done.

Ficus benjamina is another fig used for bonsai, but you need some bonsai skills to keep them in shape.

Some Fiddle Leaf (Ficus lyrata) owners remove the lower foliage to create a tree shape, but with huge leaves these popular indoor plants don’t suit bonsai.

If you are feeling inspired to go “full bonsai”, here are a few points to consider:

  • True bonsai need ongoing trimming of roots and foliage, but choosing dwarf or miniature trees, shrubs, and other naturally-small species can slash this workload.

  • Most bonsai need to live outdoors. If you want an indoor plant, opt for something suitable such as a fig (ficus).

  • Bonsai pots have good and bad qualities. Being shallow, they can allow the bonsai to dry out quickly. But wide, shallow containers are more stable than tall pots and are unlikely to tip over and damage the plant.

  • Fertilizer is crucial for container plants, particularly bonsai. Fast-growing young trees need more nutrition than mature plants, but it’s important to ease off in winter when growth slows. Excess fertiliser can damage plants, so it pays to double check application rates.

Tree seedlings are sometimes sold as “bonsai starters”. I’ve seen these for less than $7, but they are in tiny pots and will dry out quickly. Slightly bigger trees with some basic bonsai shaping are still good value and have a better chance of surviving.

Trees traditionally popular for bonsai include Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), compact junipers such as Juniperus sabina, yews and other conifers, while the Australian Native Plants Society says some bottle trees, eucalypts, bottle brushes and banksias are among Aussie plants suitable for bonsai.


Jade is made for bonsai

It’s not a tree, but this crassula is beginning to look like one.

Bring nature in and enjoy the benefits

By PlanterGarden horticulturalist, Gary McGregor

What’s cooler and better for you than a hipster’s lightly-chilled Mason jar of kale-infused organic kombucha?

Why biophilic design, of course.

Pardon? Bio what?

Unless you are an architect or an office plant specialist, you may be unaware of this design movement, but it’s becoming a major force.

Biophilic design brings nature indoors in a way that improves our physical and mental health. Green walls and office plants are part of it, but the philosophy and principles go way beyond that.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, back in 1973 psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive”.

The term was later used by US biologist Edward O. Wilson in his work Biophilia (1984), which suggested the tendency of humans to relate to nature has some genetic basis.

Biophilic design, which developed out of these ideas, incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, and other links to the natural world.

One of the experts in the field, Stephen R. Kellert, said: "The fundamental goal of biophilic design is to create good habitat for people as biological organisms inhabiting modern structures, landscapes, and communities."

So plants, natural light, fresh air, natural materials … it seems a pretty obvious way to make life better, right? But if this is such a no-brainer, why do so many of us still work in such depressing places? No one wants to spend their working day in a dingy, viewless office which stinks of acrylic carpet and photocopier fumes, but many of us do.

But at least employers are beginning to realise the benefits of creating a healthier, more productive workplace, while biophilic design is also being incorporated into public projects.

Melbourne’s five new Metro stations have been designed with biophilic principles in mind.

Dr Phillip Roös, a Senior Lecturer in Architecture at Deakin University, was principal technical advisor for sustainability to the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority when its Metro Tunnel Project went out to tender, and championed an innovative approach to the underground stations’ design.

“This isn’t just about low-impact features like green power or water recycling, it is also recognizing that humans are drawn to the patterns inherent in living things, so if we can create something that follows these rules of nature, humans will benefit as well as the planet,” he told Australian Design Review.

“By connecting us with nature, we believe biophilic design can reduce stress, improve well-being, help us think clearer and even assist with self-healing.”


My word, this is one out of the Gogglebox

As much as we love Gardening Australia, it's rarely been a barrel of laughs.

But that all changed when Channel Ten's Gogglebox zoomed in on some of the ABC show's segments.

First Gardening Australia’s Queensland presenter Jerry Coleby-Williams decided to explain his love of pantyhose (for gardening purposes only, of course), much to the delight of the armchair critics.

But it was WA presenter Josh Byrne who really had them in stitches when he decided to explain the meaning of the word fecund, which is obviously a fertile comedy topic.

Then, just when you thought it was back to planting and pruning tips, came the item on peonies. Needless to say, the Goggleboxers were more interested in the sound of the word than the beauty of the blooms and nearly fell off their couches as they rolled about laughing.

And be sure to watch the video clip all the way to the end, because apparently elongated pumpkins are also hilarious. Oh, gourd.


This plant's not dead, it's just having a bad (Maiden)hair day

By Gary McGregor

Q: What’s worse than throwing out your dead Maidenhair fern?

A: Being told it probably wasn’t dead and would have revived if you had kept it.

Alas, it’s true. Many “dead” Maidenhairs end up in landfill when they are actually just having a bad hair day (or month) .

If your plant has wilted brown fronds and looks like its time is up, trim the foliage right back and keep the soil moist. Wait at least a couple of months before deciding if it’s time to buy a new one.

Native to many countries around the world, Maidenhair (Adiantum spp.) can be tricky to grow, but is a joy to behold when you get it right.

Most of the hundreds of species in the genus like humidity, so a steamy bathroom without direct sun can be an ideal location. Keep the potting mix moist but not saturated.

Self-watering pots can help. Mist or sit the pot on a tray or wet gravel to create humidity around the foliage.


Relax, your plants will survive your holiday

Flights and accommodation are booked, the dog's off to a kennel and that long-anticipated break is all you can think of.

But wait, who is going to look after your beloved plants?

Except in hot weather, your outdoor garden can probably look after itself for a week or two, but potted plants are a different matter.

The ideal solution is to ask a green-thumbed friend or relative to swing by occasionally. But  failing that, a little planning may be required.

In hot weather you can use the old bathroom solution and group your pot plants together in the tub or shower and give them a good watering. You can put in the plug and leave a little water in the tub for them to soak up later.

This is a great option for Peace lilies, ferns and other thirsty plants, but don’t leave plants such as succulents sitting in water for too long.

Self-watering pots are another option, but it’s best to have the plants established in the pot well before your holiday so you can check they are thriving.

In cold weather it’s vital that the plants are not suddenly left to freeze if heating is turned off while you are away.




A beginner's guide to indoor plant pests

Healthy plants do better against pests.

Healthy plants do better against pests.

Houseplants generally have fewer pest and disease problems than those out in the garden, but they can still suffer.

The best way to beat harmful pests and diseases is to look after your plants well. Ensure they are getting the right amount of light, water and fertilizer and act fast if you see problems.

Trim off brown or damaged leaves and clear them away to halt the spread of the problem. A plant that is obviously under serious pest or disease attack should be moved well away from your other plants so the bad guys don’t spread. Alas, seriously damaged plants may need to be thrown away.

Here’s what to look for, plus some tips on how to treat the problem:

Aphids: These pesky little sap-suckers are rarely a major problem for indoor plants, but an infestation can do a lot of damage. Look for: Damaged or distorted leaves, small pear-shaped green, yellow or brown insects, particularly under leaves. Treatment: Wash them off with water. Try mild insecticide such as pyrethrum spray if washing fails to defeat them.

Fungus gnats: These tiny mosquito-like flies buzzing around your plants aren’t a direct threat to them, but their offspring are. The gnats lay eggs in potting soil, and the resulting larvae are the problem. They feed on fungi, but also like organic matter and may chew on the roots of your plants. Look for: Tiny black flies and/or a slime trail across the soil surface. Treatment: Avoid over-watering and allow the top few cm of soil to dry before watering again. Try pyrethrum spray or neem oil if this fails.

Mealybugs: Probably the most common pest on indoor plants, mealybugs can appear on just about any part of the plant. Look for: While they are a slightly oval shape, mealybugs look like little white spots of cotton wool and often clump together. Treatment: Spray with soapy water then wipe leaves and stems with a cloth after a few minutes. If that doesn’t solve the problem, try pyrethrum spray or one of the insecticide oil products.

Scale: Scale including the common soft brown scale suck sap from the plant. Look for: Dark bumps on leaves and stems which can sometimes look more like a part of the plant than an insect. Treatment: Pick off individual insects then wash plant with soapy water. Try one of the houseplant “eco oils” if problem persists.

Thrips: These tiny black flying pests cause damage by rasping and sucking away at the surface of leaves. Look for: Black specks of excrement (frass) on leaves, damage to plant. Treatment: Misting with water can help, or use pyrethrum spray.

Two-spotted mite (aka red spider mite): Look for: The mites are so small they are hard to see with the naked eye, but damaged, mottled leaves are easy to spot. Webbing similar to a spider web can sometimes be seen under leaves. Treatment: Warm dry conditions can make the problem worse, so try misting or washing the leaves.

Whitefly: Rarely a big problem for indoor plants, but infestations can damage plants as these tiny pests suck sap from leaves. Look for: Flying pests that look like tiny white moths. Treatment: Spray with one of the low-toxicity products. Sticky yellow traps are sometimes used in greenhouses, but are rarely called for in minor indoor infestations.

The A-Z of indoor plants

Aloe Vera: This is a handy plant to have around. It’s good at cleaning the air and the gel from its fleshy leaves can be used on burns. Needs plenty of light. Water well in summer, but ease off a little in cold weather.

Aluminium Plant (Pilea cadierei): Native to tropical parts of Asia, Aluminium Plant won’t last long in temperatures below 15C. Keep well-watered and avoid heating and air-con vents.

Agave attenuata: Sometimes called Fox Tail Agave, this fleshy succulent is often known just by its botanical name. One for the sun room or near a window, it can also be placed on a balcony or in the garden. Water well during hot weather, less in winter. Tolerates a range of temperatures, but protect from frost.

Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium Australasicum): Tougher than most other ferns, the Bird’s Nest makes a surprisingly good indoor plant. Likes indirect light. Water regularly in summer, then allow to dry out a little in winter. Try to water the potting mix rather than into the centre of the plant.

Blue Chalk Sticks (Senecio serpens): If you like blue-grey foliage and have a bright spot near a window, Blue Chalk Sticks could be for you. A succulent, Chalk sticks need bright light, but not too much water. Can be put outside, but not in frosty weather. Prefers a free-draining potting mix.

Boston Fern/Sword Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata): Boston Fern remains popular because it is tough, attractive and easy to care for. Looks good in a hanging basket and survives outdoors in most climates. Prefers medium light and moderate water.

Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior): A tough old-fashioned plant with deep green elliptical leaves. Tolerates low light, dust and inconsistent watering, making it a true survivor. Likes low to moderate light and thorough watering, especially in spring/summer, but allow soil to dry out a little between drinks. Water less in autumn/winter. 

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema sp): Easy to grow and tolerant of low light conditions (avoid direct sun), Chinese Evergreen needs humidity and frequent watering. Use free-draining potting mix.

Devil’s Ivy/Pothos (Epipremnum aureum): A houseplant classic, Devil’s Ivy will cope with most light conditions except hot direct sun. Aim for a spot in medium light if possible and water well in the hotter months without leaving the plant constantly saturated. Looks good in a hanging basket or a pot positioned on a shelf so its long stems can hang down. Stems that get too long can be trimmed off and put in a water-filled vase, where they will quickly sprout roots.

Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’: A low light specialist, this Dracaena is often used as a floor-standing plant in shopping centres and other commercial settings where its toughness and deep-green foliage are appreciated. Tolerates a range of light, but not direct sun. Water well, then let it dry out. Dislikes flouride, so water with bottled water if possible, or let tap water stand overnight in a covered jug before using.

Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata): One of the great survivor plants, the Dragon Tree adds a tropical feel to any room. It tolerates cold better than many plants and is forgiving if you sometimes forget to water. Medium light/moderate water. Allow the top few centimetres of soil to dry out before watering again.

Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia sp.): Keep moist during growing season, when it likes misting to boost humidity. Less water over winter in cool climates. Feed with liquid fertilizer, mostly in summer and spring, or use slow-release pellets. Toxic, so wear gloves when handling and keep away from children and pets.

Fatsia japonica: Glossy dark green palmate leaves are a feature of this tough indoor plant. Tolerates cold better than most houseplants. Likes low to medium light and plenty of water.

Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata): The houseplant star of the past few years, the Fiddle Leaf  has graced the pages of just about every home/design magazine. Likes medium light but keep away from direct sun. Over-watering kills many Fiddle Leafs, so let soil dry out between drinks and don’t water again until top few cm of potting soil is dry. Wipe its huge leaves occasionally with a damp cloth to remove dust.

Flamingo Flower (Anthurium andraeanum): Attractive plant from tropical South America with shiny dark green leaves and red, orange or yellow flowers. Likes bright light, but no direct sun. Keep soil evenly moist spring to autumn, slightly drier in winter.

Happy Plant/Corn Plant (Dracaena massangeana): With its yellow-striped mid-green leaves and long woody stems, Happy Plant is a distinctive indoor plant. Prefers filtered light indoors, or can live outdoors in the shade in warm climates. Keep potting soil moist in the warmer months.

Jade Plant (Crassula ovata): Jade Plant is a tough succulent that can cope with most conditions outdoors, but needs reasonable light to thrive as an indoor plant. Lower stems can be trimmed off to create a bonsai tree effect. Moderate water in summer, but not too much in winter.

Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana): One of the most popular indoor plants in the world, the Kentia Palm is as easy to look after as it is elegant. A native of Australia's Lord Howe Island, Kentias like bright indirect light. Keep soil moist spring to autumn, drier in winter.

Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa): An ideal houseplant in cooler climates, Lady Palm can be grown outdoors in the tropics. Features distinctive fan-shaped foliage. Prefers moderate indirect light indoors and moderate watering.

Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana): This popular desk plant will grow in water or soil. Likes bright light but not direct sun. Keep well-watered if growing in potting soil and change the water now and then if growing in water.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum sp):  Can be tricky to grow, but is a joy to behold when you get it right. Likes humidity, so a steamy bathroom without direct sun can be an ideal location. Keep moist but not wet.

Monstera/Fruit Salad Plant/Swiss Cheese Plant: An indoor favorite in the 1970s, Monstera deliciosa is big again in the houseplant world. Tough and easy to look after, it likes good drainage, medium light and moderate water, except in winter when it needs less. 

Moth Orchid: Beautiful long-lasting blooms make Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis) one of the world's most popular indoor plants and a popular alternative to cut flowers. They are treated by some people as a plant to be thrown away once flowers are finished, which is a pity because the foliage is attractive and plants will sometimes bloom again. They like humidity and moderate water. Keep out of direct sun.

Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans): Sometimes mistaken for a fern because of its foliage, Parlor Palm is slow-growing, so larger plants tend to be expensive. While it looks like a multi-stemmed plant, Parlor Palm is usually presented as a group of individual plants. Likes medium filtered light and low to moderate water.

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum species): The popular Peace Lily comes in many varieties these days. A great plant for low to medium light conditions, Spaths like plenty of water. Plants that become badly dehydrated can be soaked overnight in a container of water.

Philodendron: This genus of hundreds of species includes some popular indoor plants, many of them climbers with heart-shaped leaves. Monstera deliciosa (Swiss cheese/Fruit salad plant) is sometimes confusingly known known as Split-leaf Philodendron, so it pays to check you are buying the right plant. Philodendrons are rainforest plants which like humidity and hate temperatures below 15C.

Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica): The long-popular Rubber Plant is bigger and better than ever, thanks in part to new red, lime, and variegated variants. Prefers filtered medium to high light indoors and moderate water. Wipe leaves down with a damp cloth occasionally to remove dust.

Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata): Actually a succulent and not a palm, it likes bright, filtered light. Because it stores water in its bulbous trunk, the Ponytail needs only low to moderate water.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii' and other variants): Likes a bright position but will cope with most indoor and outdoor conditions, except frost and hot summer sun. Does best in a succulent potting mix. Moderate water.

Spider/Ribbon Plant (Chlorophytum comosum): A new "curly" variant has helped the good old Spider Plant remain a popular choice in both the indoor and outdoor world. Bright to moderate light, moderate water.

String of Dolphins/Dolphin Necklace (Senecio peregrinus): This unusual Senecio hybrid has cute dolphin-shaped leaves. Can be grown in a pot or hanging basket. Like the String of Pearls, it likes bright light but will tolerate part shade. Moderate water in spring/summer, less in winter.

String of Pearls (Senecio rowleyanus): A succulent that looks great trailing from a pot or hanging basket, the String of Pearls likes bright light and moderate to low water. Allow to dry out a little in winter.

Syngonium podophyllum: Sometimes known as White Butterfly or Arrowhead Plant, it can be used in a pot or hanging basket. Does best in medium to bright light. Keep soil moist but not always wet in warmer months, drier in winter.

Tradescantia zebrina (Spiderwort) An attract light green and purple plant suited to a hanging basket or display pot. Likes a bright position indoors, but partial shade is best when grown outside. Has weed potential in warmer climates, so take care when using it as a garden plant. When used indoors, water when potting soil begins to dry out. Pinching out stem tips helps keep plant compact.

Umbrella Tree (Schefflera and Tupidanthus species):  Newer forms keep their shape well as indoor plants. Likes a bright spot out of direct sun. Pot can be placed on a saucer of wet pebbles to increase humidity, or mist occasionally.  Allow the top few centimeters of potting soil to dry out between watering, and avoid cold drafts and blasts of hot air from heaters.

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula): While not the easiest plants to care for, Venus Fly Traps are among the most fascinating species you can own. Known for their ability to feed on livings insects (don’t feed them dead ones unless you know what you are doing), these plants don’t need fertilizer. What they do need is water, and lots of it. They can sit in a saucer of water for a few days at a time over summer, or place on a moist sponge. Leaves drop during winter dormancy, when they need less water, but regrow in spring. Pinch off flower stems as they appear. Fly Traps need plenty of light, but don’t let them burn in hot summer sun.

Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina): This “mini tree” needs just the right position indoors or it may begin to shed leaves. Find a spot with good light, but not direct sun, and ensure temperature doesn’t fall below 15C. Avoid hot or cold drafts. Water freely in hot weather, much less in winter (use lukewarm water in cold weather). Mist to boost humidity in dry conditions.

White Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia nicolai): With attractive wide leaves reminiscent of a banana plant, this tough Strelitzia helps create a tropical feel indoors. Can grow into a large plant outdoors in the tropics, but remains manageable in a pot indoors. Bright light/moderate water.

Yucca elephantipes: These hardy yuccas are falling out of favor because of the risk of injury from their stiff, pointy leaves. Plants grown out of direct sun tend to have softer leaves. Bright light/moderate water.

ZZ Plant/Zanzibar Gem (Zamioculcas zamiifolia): This low-maintenance plant is legendary for its toughness. Needs little water, and doesn't like too much direct light. It's sometimes mistaken for a plastic plant because of its glossy leaves. 

* Plant list updated March 15, 2019


Devil’s Ivy looks good in a hanging basket. Picture:

Devil’s Ivy looks good in a hanging basket. Picture:

Black plant lurks monsteriusly in back yard


Do you like our new Goth version of Fruit Salad Plant? We call it Monsterius black.

This new dark Monstera was created by PlanterGarden in our backyard in conjunction with a frosty Melbourne winter.

Our potted Fruit Salad Plants had a nice warm winter indoors and are doing just fine, of course.

But don't worry about the frost-burnt black monster, it will spring back to life soon, proving just how tough these jungle-origin plants are.


Balcony plants: Sky's the limit when you're gardening on the edge

An exposed concrete platform high in the sky isn't the ideal location for a garden, but many apartment dwellers overcome the difficulties to create wonderful green spaces.

From a few succulents in small pots to productive vegetable gardens in clever planters or "pods",  there's plenty you can do with a little planning.

The key to success is knowing your site. It may only be a few square metres, but it's still crucial to know how much sun it gets, where the shade is on a hot sunny day and how the wind buffets the balcony. 

Frost-tender plants may be able to cope if there is an overhang or some other form of protection in the middle of winter, but will suffer out in the open.

Wheeled plant caddies make it easy to move pots under cover if frost is forecast. Failing that, throw an old sheet over the plant, ensuring it is secured and can't blow away.

Pot size is a major consideration. Many small trees thrive in containers, but pots need to be big enough to hold adequate moisture and let the tree develop a robust root system.

Deciduous trees can be a great option if you don't want to block out scarce sunlight in winter, while lemons and olive trees can be a tasty choice. Dwarf varieties are available in most fruit trees.

There are many vertical garden, green wall, or plant stand options to consider if space is particularly limited.

Safety comes first with anything you put on your balcony so please ensure pots and plants aren't at risk of being blown over the edge and injuring someone below.





Easy office plants: 10 tips for greening up your workplace on a budget

By Gary McGregor

So you've read all about the benefits of having plants in the office and now it's time to do something about it.

Greening up your office doesn't have to be difficult, time-consuming or expensive. Simply buy a few plants and look after them yourself.

And before you shout "but I'm a plant killer" while waving your black thumbs at me, check out PlanterGarden's 10 tips for office plant care. 

1. Get tough plants. Thirsty ferns will go to plant heaven fast if you often forget to water, but cast iron plant, dragon trees, yuccas and kentia palms are beautiful and hard to kill.

2. Provide the right pot or planter. Succulents don't need self-watering pots, but they can be good for peace lilies and ferns. Complicated watering systems, such as those used with some green walls, will eventually need maintenance, so opt for simplicity.

3. Find the right position. Maidenhair ferns don't belong in north-facing windows and snake plants, while tolerant of most conditions, can't live in the dark. 

4. Appoint a "designated waterer". I've seen office plants rot and die because two people were watering them, both thinking it was their job.

5. Put your plants on a diet. Moderate doses of slow-release indoor plant food (read the instructions) are all that's required.

6. Moth orchids and peace lilies bloom for months and are a great alternative to cut flowers. With a little basic care they may even flower again next year.

7. Give your plant babies a holiday. Sick plants may simply need a few weeks outdoors in warm weather (check light requirements) to soak up a little extra sunlight, but don't  leave indoor plants in hot summer sun. A shady spot that gets a little morning sun is often best.

8. All living things die eventually. Replacing a plant that's enhanced your quality of life for years is better than not having plants at all.

9. Safety first. Wear gloves if you have to trim plants and don't eat the foliage, no matter how much you've had to drink at the office Christmas party.

10. Ask Google. There's plenty of good plant care information online and it's usually obvious which info sites know their stuff.

And don't forget to smile. Air quality, mood and productivity are all better with some nice plants around.

Easy vertical gardens: All in all it's just a simple trick on the wall

Green walls (those created using plants, not just green paint) are all the rage, and with good reason.

These innovative vertical gardens create a calming, natural ambience without taking up valuable floor space in your home or office.

The downside is that they can be expensive, fiddly to set up and hard to maintain.

But there is a simple alternative.

Grouping some favourite plants together on a plant stand or bench is any easy way to create an indoor garden.

Two or three shelves, one above the other, can help replicate the green wall effect and it’s easy to move your pot plants around to achieve the look you are after.

To achieve the maximum wall coverage, put tall plants on the floor and vines such as Devil’s Ivy (Pothos) up higher, letting the stems hang down,

Grouping plants together helps create humidity around them, which is crucial for many tropical plants, while colourful orchids look even better framed by the leaves of deep green foliage plants such as the hardy Cast Iron Plant.

Succulents and other sun-loving plants should go on the brightest side of your “mini-jungle” to get the light they need while shading delicate species such as ferns.

Succulents (Snake Plant, Jade Plant etc) don’t like humidity, but will cope in medium to bright light indoors as long as they are not overwatered. You may need to water your Peace Lily deeply once a week (depending on conditions), but giving Snake Plant (or even a Fiddle Leaf Fig) that much water will probably rot its roots.

To avoid messy leaks, make sure your pots have deep saucers or opt for sealed cover pots.

Check plant labels to determine the appropriate light and water requirements for your plants and arrange the collection accordingly.

Follow these few simple rules and you will be enjoying your indoor rainforest for years to come.

Orchids look even more spectacular surrounded by Maidenhair and other lush plants.     Picture: Gary McGregor, PlanterGarden

Orchids look even more spectacular surrounded by Maidenhair and other lush plants.     Picture: Gary McGregor, PlanterGarden

Food for thought on indoor plants

There are many ways to feed your indoor plants, ranging from homemade compost (usually a bad idea) to specially formulated plant food (a good idea).

If you learnt about photosynthesis at school, you will know plants make much of their own food using light energy from the sun, water and carbon dioxide, a handy trick if ever there was one.

But they need fertilizer as well. And while plants growing outdoors in soil can send out roots in many directions (and often long distances) in search of food, your potted plant doesn't have this luxury. The food you give it is all the food it gets, and if you don't provide the right fertilizer the plant will suffer.

Potted plants need complete fertilizer containing the macro-nutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), sulphur (S) and magnesium (Mg), plus all the micro-nutrients, which include iron, zinc and boron. While some are needed only in tiny amounts, they are still essential to plant health.

The easiest way to feed your plants is with complete slow-release products (usually in pellet form) that provide small amounts of plant food each time you water. Osmocote says its "prills" release more fertilizer is warm weather, when plants are actively growing. These products are relatively expensive, but one application will feed your plants for several months.

Soluble products such as Thrive and the fish-based fertilizers are fast-acting because they feed plants through both leaves and roots, but take care not to use too much. Fast-growing food crops need plenty of fertilizer, but your house plants don't.

If you are moving your plant into a bigger pot, or if you think it may need a boost, give one of the seaweed products a go. They stimulate root growth and promote resistance to insect and disease attack, but unless they contain added macro-nutrients, seaweed-based products are considered a great plant tonic rather than a fertilizer. 

Plants need fertilizer in the warmer months when they are putting on new growth, but ease up with the food over winter. 

And please don't kill your plants with kindness. Too much fertilizer can be worse than too little, so it pays to double check application rates. 

- Gary McGregor









Indoor plants hot for a steamy bathroom

PlanterGarden horticulturalist Gary McGregor has featured in an article about bathroom plants in Melboune's Herald Sun (Saturday, January 28, 2017).

“Many of these plants originate from the understorey of tropical rainforests, so a typical bathroom with low to medium light and some humidity from your bath or shower is just about ideal,"  he told the newspaper.

“The exceptions are bathrooms that let in lots of direct sunlight or get really cold in winter,” he says.

As well as being a beautiful addition to any bathroom, plants improve air quality, while some actually remove toxins from the air.

Bathroom plants can range from a small fern on the countertop next to your basin to a complete green wall, if you’re feeling adventurous.

Plant placement is usually determined by how much light there is and what you have room for. It’s important to put plants where they look good but won’t get in the way and end up being knocked over.

Shelving or an attractive plant stand are a good way of grouping some of your favourite plants together.

If you have some room for floor-standing plants then kentia palms, fiddle leaf figs, Swiss cheese plant (monstera) and rubber plants are options, while peace lilies, moth orchids, lucky bamboo and Boston fern may be suitable smaller plants.

Spider/ribbon plant works well as long as it can get reasonable light and isn’t over-watered.

If you can’t keep a maidenhair fern looking lush, a humid, low-medium light bathroom may do the trick, he said.

Plants such as devil’s ivy (pothos), heart-leaf philodendron and syngonium white butterfly all look fantastic with their attractive foliage hanging down from a basket, but take care if you have kids or pets who may be attracted to them because the foliage is moderately toxic if eaten. The same applies to peace lilies.

Windowsills are an option for light-loving plants, but rooms with windows facing north and west sometimes get too hot in summer and plants may need to be moved to a cooler spot for a while.

Drought-tolerant plants including succulents don’t like steamy conditions, but a bathroom with good ventilation and reasonable light should be OK as long as they aren’t over-watered.

Plants such as orchids can use the moisture in the air after you have a bath or shower, but your bathroom plants still need regular watering. Self-watering pots may help with thirsty plants like peace lilies and ferns.

“Extra humidity is good for many tropical plants, but basic care requirements don’t change massively because a plant is in a bathroom,” he says.

“The best advice I can give it to read the plant label, consider how much light your plant needs and keep an eye on how it’s responding to the conditions.”




Help indoor plants light up your life

One of the main things to consider when buying an indoor plant is the light it requires.

Many people buy a plant they like the look of then try to find a spot for it. But sometimes it makes more sense to consider where you want to put a plant, then find the right one to go there.

Light conditions change through the seasons, so a plant growing happily in a medium-light spot in summer may need to be moved if available light falls dramatically in the depths of winter.

Here’s a list of some indoor favourites and the best light conditions for them. Some plants are included in more than one category if they can cope with a variety of light levels.

Low light

Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior), Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum Clevelandii, Wallisii etc), Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema), Devil’s Ivy/Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), Dracaena Janet Craig.

Medium light

Devil’s Ivy/Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata), Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia), Happy Plant/Corn Plant (Dracaena massangeana), Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana), Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata), Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa), Monstera, Parlour Palm (Chamaedorea elegans), Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica), Ribbon/Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla).

High light

Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa), Pony Tail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata), Succulents (Snake Plant, Jade Plant etc), Yucca elephantipes.




Water wisely and your plants will thrive

Some indoor plants need a lot of water, some need a little, and at certain times of the year some need none at all.

If that's too much information, here's a general rule that works most of the time: Water thoroughly, then don’t water again until the top few centimetres of potting mix is dry.

If you don't want to bother with a moisture meter the best way to check the "soil" is simply to stick your finger into it. If that doesn't appeal, use a stick instead. If the stick comes out clean, the potting mix is dry.

Avoiding soggy potting soil is particularly important with drought-tolerant plants such as succulents. If you continue to pour water on to plants growing in sodden potting mix there's a good chance your succulent will rot and eventually die.

The same applies to many indoor plants in winter when days are shorter and growth slows. They don't need fertiliser at this time of year and they certainly don't need to be over-watered. 

Tap water can be quite cold In the colder months, so it pays to add a little warm water before watering your plants.

Giving a plant a good watering means pouring on the H2O until it drains freely from all the holes at the bottom of the pot. This is better than dribbling on small amounts of water because it ensures adequate moisture is distributed evenly through the potting mix.

A thorough watering also helps flush away harmful chemicals, which can build up over time. 











Why artificial plants will never grow on me

Artificial plants used to look fake and quite silly, but that’s all changed.

Many of the new “plastic fantastics” are so realistic it’s hard to tell them apart from the real thing, but I still don’t like them.

They don’t need watering (although the occasional rinse helps get rid of the dust), they don’t require fertiliser and they won’t die on you like some temperamental rare orchid.

So why don’t I like them? Because they’re FAKE … not the real thing … artificial … bogus and not even slightly alive.

Worse still, I sell real plants so I can’t make a cent out of them.

But the No.1 reason you should avoid fake plants is because they are bad for you. Not only do they take the place of oxygen-producing living plants, but they almost certainly give off toxic fumes. Maybe only in small amounts, but these are gases you can do without.

Paint, furnishings, carpets, cosmetics, printers and copiers and many kinds of plastic are among the culprits that can emit these gases, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They exist in the air outdoors as well, but in far lower concentrations. (You can Google VOCs to discover more, but it’s not that interesting.)

The good news is that many indoor plants mop up these airborne nasties at the same time they produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide.

Peace Lilies, Rubber Plants, English Ivy and Snake Plant are among the champions of air purification.

- Gary McGregor