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Houseplants are a wonderful decorating tool

I again managed to overwater my once gorgeous poinsettia, neglecting to use the finger test to see if there was moisture at the level of my first knuckle. I banished it to the lights in my basement so that I don't have to be constantly reminded of my failure. I have numerous plants throughout my house that seem to do fine, but some houseplants give me trouble. I am completely unsuccessful with African violets. Over the years, I have had many houseplants come and go and have learned not to bemoan lost plants.

The popularity of specific houseplants has changed in the past few years. Orchids, once rare, have become very popular and are readily found in garden centers and DIY stores. The peace lily, with its glossy leaves and white flowers, is found everywhere. Lucky bamboo, which is a dracaena, is a favorite. There is a big interest in architectural plants; the large plants that make a statement in a room. Plants are used more now as interior design items and not just as 'green pets' according to Dr. D.G. Hessayon in 'The House Plant Expert.'

Flowering pot plants can be used as temporary design and moved away or discarded once they have finished blooming. Chrysanthemum, poinsettia, azalea and cyclamen are examples. The bromeliads are some of the most colorful and exotic houseplants and are easy to care for. The showy rosette forming varieties are very popular. The display lasts for months and after the colorful bracts are gone, the leaves are still attractive. They are very undemanding, but care must be taken not to overwater. Most bromeliads are attached to trees, not soil, in their natural habitat.

You can use the same rules of design that would be used for landscaping or floral arranging when placing your houseplants. A landscape is formal, informal or cottage and uses the principles of unity and balance. The florist considers style with mass and line and the principles of texture, proportion and movement.

Scale is the relationship of the plant and container to the size of the room and its furniture. Unity is the way that various items in a room blend harmoniously. Yet, there should be some degree of contrast between the plant and its pot or the plant feature and its background. Movement is a design concept that moves the eye from one object to the next with separate but equal focal points or curves in an arrangement. Balance means that the plant in its receptacle does not look like it could fall over and that it visibly has the same weight as other objects in the room.

Some plants, because of their large size, eye-catching foliage or bright flowers are used as stand-alone features. They form focal points in a room, but sometimes the spot that they look best in does not have the best light conditions. This can be remedied by moving the plant to a bright location for about a week every month. However, certain plants (weeping fig) will drop their leaves if you do this.

While an outstanding plant needs to stand alone, the average houseplant displays better in a pot group. Think of it as a large floral arrangement that can be a riot of color or muted and restrained. The pot group has many advantages. You are able to disguise individual imperfections such as a long stalk or an unbalanced shape. Plants usually benefit from the increase in humidity arising from damp soil in surrounding pots. It is easier to care for plants in one area rather than scattered around a room and smaller plants are often more attractive as part of a group.

Place together plants that have similar light and temperature needs. Use groups of three or larger odd numbers. Use a range of height, foliage color and textures, but it is best to keep the containers similar. You may use a permanent grouping of foliage plants and add flowering types for temporary color. Or your display may rely on different leaf sizes, textures and color for variety. If the arrangement is seen from the front, place the taller plants in back, and if it is seen from all sides, the tallest should be near the middle.

Placing all of the pots on a pebble tray is the answer to many problems. Any shallow waterproof container with 2-4 inches of gravel will do. Keep the water level about halfway up on the gravel. Your table or floor is protected, you don't have to empty drip trays and the atmosphere remains moist.

The multi-plant container is another way to display houseplants with the same advantages of a pot group. The pots are not visible in this arrangement and may be removed altogether. A large bowl or other waterproof container is a popular way to display multi-plants. It is best to have one with a drainage hole and a saucer underneath. Use a tall plant in the back with bushy and trailing plants in front. A flowering plant such a Kalanchoe creates a focal point. This type of arrangement is not permanent as it eventually becomes overgrown, but the plants can be repotted and used elsewhere.

You may choose to use a basket or other planter as your container keeping the selection of plants in their own pots. Place a waterproof tray in the bottom and place 2-3 inches of gravel in it. Arrange your pots on top using supports to raise them to just below the rim of the planter. Pack peat or potting soil all around the individual pots and keep it damp, but not wet.

Breitling is a longtime West Fargo resident and avid gardener always in search of new ideas.