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Right at Home: expanding the indoor garden with some cool greens (and other colours)

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On the indoor gardening stage, plants such as peace lily, Boston fern and sansevieria are veterans, tried-and-true performers that require little fussing over.

But there are scene changes afoot; new plants and ideas are making indoor gardening a more exciting show.

So what's on the playbill?

Quirky succulents, spring bulbs, small trees, even outdoor plants, such as blue fescue grass, begonias, flowering maple and lobelia — all are suggestions from Tovah Martin, a horticulturist in Roxbury, Conn., and author of the new "The Unexpected Houseplant" (Timber Press).

"Not everything translates, but some plants make the leap indoors without a whimper," Martin says. She also suggests fragrant plants like lavender, Constantinople narcissus and night-blooming jasmine.

There are some eye-popping new offerings on the market for indoor gardens, agrees Doug Jimerson, garden editorial director for Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

"Some of the most exciting things are new colour forms of classic varieties like Chinese evergreens, imported from Thailand, that have boldly patterned red, cream and green leaves," he says. "For years, they were only available with green or mottled leaves."

Creative indoor gardeners also can make interesting tablescapes using a flat tray, potting mix, and aquarium gravel or river rocks, suggests Rosemary McCreary, author of "Tabletop Gardens" (Storey, 2002). "Closely plant small succulents of contrasting textures and hues, like sedum, echeveria and sempervivum. They're showstoppers!" she says.

Contemporary living spaces are well served by such minimalist table gardens, but they also could be enhanced by a single dramatic tree. Figs and palms are common choices, but Martin suggests dwarf citrus and coffee trees, and even little conifers for a chilly alcove.

Grasses like rye, wheat and sedge can create bold living art indoors when planted in intriguing containers made of pottery, wood or metal.

Martin started making terrariums as a child and has more than 20 in her home. Don't put succulents under glass, she warns: "They won't work in a terrarium over the long haul. Succulents like dry, arid conditions." Ditto cacti and herbs. But anything that likes high humidity and low light will thrive: mosses, creeping fig, miniature ivies and orchids.

Get creative when thinking about containers for a terrarium: cake stands, apothecary jars, cookie jars, fishbowls. Search tag sales and off-price stores for inexpensive, out-of-the-ordinary receptacles, but make sure you can stick your hand inside easily. A simple glass plate can serve as a lid. has a selection of chic, streamlined terrariums resembling large clear pill capsules, with bases in white, green, orange and teal.

And New York-based ceramicist Nicholas Newcomb makes organic, clay "air pods" meant to house epiphytes, or air plants. These plants need no soil; they gather nutrients from the atmosphere and usually need only a light misting or brief occasional bath to grow well for years.

Shane Powers' collection of hanging glass "bubbles" is another striking way to display air plants, and is offered at West Elm; check the website for how-to videos.


Sourcebook: - Pill terrariums, $119; - Nicholas Newcomb's clay vessels, $38-$110; - Shane Powers' hanging glass vessels, $9-$34; also, ceramic wall planters, $24; and - Tovah Martin's blogs

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