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