Gardening: Making the leap to indoor plants

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
Lisa Steinkopf poses in the sunroom of her own house which she and her husband John  converted into a greenhouse.

When I volunteered to steward the indoor garden atrium at the senior citizens center (called the OPC) in Rochester, it was a real leap of faith. I have a passion for outdoor gardening and am pretty successful at it, but indoor plants, not so much.  The raised beds in the room were filled with ivy and had been poorly tended for several years. I also, along with all that ivy, inherited a dismantled water feature, a 16-foot Norfolk Pine and a tall but struggling dumb cane (dieffenbachia).  

With lots of help from a small but hardy band of volunteers known as the Late Bloomers, the beds were cleaned out, the Norfolk Pine was pruned back, the water feature became an attractive dry river bed and we were ready to plant. 

So, I called up my good friend, Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, whom I dubbed the House Plant Guru, and we made a date to go plant shopping. Though the OPC atrium has a full glass ceiling that provides sunlight, there are large overhangs that shade areas, and the huge Norfolk Pine casts a dark shadow on a part of one bed. I needed a combination of low-light and high-light plants, and Lisa picked out some real winners for the space.

For the  darkish corner that only gets illumination from overhead pot lights, Lisa recommended a Z Z  plant.  Taking Lisa’s advice, we whacked off the Z Z ‘s  next-door neighbor, the forlorn corn plant, at ground level. Sure enough, it sprouted two new stems. While the going is slow, it is coming back. Old-fashioned Chinese evergreens do well under the "shade" of the Austrian Pine.

A visitor favorite is the colorful Stromanthe ‘Triostar,’ with its white and green variegated leaves and elegant burgundy undersides. Another colorful character, our Ficus elastic ‘Ruby,’  better known as a rubber tree, sports green and white leaves with pink edges that add color to our collection of ferns, which is also thriving.

With Lisa’s busy schedule -- she’s written two books and is working on a third -- I now have to strike out on my own.  But sitting on my desk are two great houseplant references: her books, "House Plants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing and Caring for Indoor Plants" and "Grow in the Dark: How to Choose and Care for Low-Light Houseplants" (Cool Springs Press) to guide me along and take the mystery out of  choosing and growing houseplants

If you’re looking for a holiday gift for a houseplant enthusiast, these books are perfect choices.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at