Houseplants 101
August 28, 2015 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I want plants in my house. I tend to kill most plants. Also, I have hardwood floors and curtains and cats. Help.

So I've moved into a new home with a nice big sliding glass door in the family room. It's the perfect place for a few houseplants. I need help with a few things:

1 - suggest varieties of plants that don't die easily and aren't harmful to my kitties or kids (so no cacti, sorry). I will make a concerted effort, but history has shown that these plants will be mostly fending for themselves.

2 - tell me how you handle the gunky stuff that comes off of plants. I don't want sticky, gummy stuff on my beautiful new hardwood or my curtains. Is it only certain plants that give off this stuff?

3 - what do you put your pots on when you have hardwood floors? I hate the look of those wire plant stands!

4 - tell me anything I need to know about cats and plants. I don't want them digging in the pots and spraying soil everywhere. Or...God forbid...peeing in them. Is this a thing? Can it be avoided?

posted by yawper to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Not all succulents are cacti. Aloe vera are succulents, thus foregiving of neglect, but are not cacti. It was the first thing I successfully grew. I was born with a black thumb, not a green one.
posted by Michele in California at 11:13 AM on August 28, 2015

1. I am a fan of spider plants. They grow easily, can survive/wilt/revive after long periods of no water, and are non-toxic to cats and kids.

2. I'm not sure what you're talking about, as I haven't experienced it myself.

3. Plant stands made of other materials? Small re-purposed tables and shelves? If it's a large pot and a tall plant, you can place them on the floor on a big platter, or some pots come with their own dish for catching water/soil.

4. Digging and peeing is something that can happen, though it hasn't happened to me. You can combat this by covering the top of the soil with pebbles. There are also non-toxic cat repellent substances that you can spray.

My cats like to eat plants. It doesn't hurt them and they don't kill the plant. But you'll want to make sure that the plant can't be pulled over, or you may have a mess on your hands. Also be prepared for ratty-looking leaf ends, and for small piles of cat puke with leaves in them (something else my cats love to do).
posted by Knicke at 11:14 AM on August 28, 2015

I just put mint and cat mint together in a planter in my sunny bathroom. I'm happy, the mint is happy, the cats are happy, it's low-maintenance and great.

You won't know how your cats react till you do it. One of ours was OBSESSED with watering time for a year, but now doesn't care. They nibble sometimes on some plants but nothing serious. Digging is fairly unusual—but your cat mileage, as always, will vary.

Don't get poisonous plants. :)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:23 AM on August 28, 2015

Benjamin Ficus will survive a nuclear war. Don't know about toxicity but they are very very hardy.
posted by Iteki at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2015

I like big house plants myself. I have a few 8 foot tall fishtail palms and they require little except for water every two to three weeks. They are 10 gallon ones in baskets that are lined with heavy construction grade plastic bags which are tucked so you can't see them, but water doesn't get to my floors.
posted by cecic at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2015

Lots of plants disagree with cats, not necessarily killing them, but making them foam at the mouth, run at the bottom, or generally be uncomfortable and ill. The ASPCA's list of plants toxic to cats is here. My cats climb into large planters--I can't really blame them; they're animals trapped indoors. But the traditional way of discouraging that is chicken wire or pebbles.

I've had great luck with terrarium and air plant planters, personally. Violets, too, are hard to kill (just put them in water-from-the-bottom planters) and actually bloom indoors. They don't get tall, but they will get lush.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2015

Ok, the ficus is on that toxicity list.
posted by Iteki at 11:51 AM on August 28, 2015

1. Killing plants is par for the course. Gardening, both indoors and outdoors, is basically the hobby of getting plants and killing all of them. Except for the ones that don't die.

1a. Have you tried growing humidity-loving plants under heavy glass cloches or in big enclosed glass jars, especially if the sliding door does not get direct sun? It's a popular look these days, and it cuts way the hell down on watering/cats getting into them. It means you can grow plants, like orchids, that are otherwise super-fussy or poisonous to animals.

1b. Maidenhair ferns are delicate and fancy-looking, but require minimal maintenance and are tough as hell if given enough sun and humidity (see comment above on cloches or big enclosed jars). Even if everything green dies, you trip down lots, wait a couple weeks, keep things moist, and new fronds usually come up. Bonus: not poisonous to cats if you forget the lid or leave the cloche off.

1c. As others have said, succulents are not cacti and would love a super-bright, sunny space where they are left alone to be dry. You'll want to check individual types against the ASPCA list of toxic plants.

2. Not exactly sure what you're talking about? Some plants do have gummy secretions, like some rubber plants or aloe if you break the leaf, but they're the exception, rather than the rule.

3. My mother has hardwood floors, and she puts down either the felt pads that they sell to keep furniture from scratching hardwood (they come in packs, and you peel off the felt pad that matches the size and shape of the bottom of your table leg/chair leg/pot), or potholders she doesn't care about anymore.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:55 AM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

"trip down lots" SIGH. "trim down fronds".
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:01 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pothos: indestructible and visually appealing, but toxic to cats. But it also looks great in a hanging basket! I have a very large pothos hanging from a corner in my kitchen and a) no cats could reach it, b) it goes for weeks without watering, c) does well in all kinds of light.

I also see that fittonia is missing from the list of toxic plants, which is great news for you! Fittonia is a lovely plant with dense little leaves, and it is very forgiving if you accidentally let it dry out (if this happens, trim off the dead growth and soak it for several hours).

Also, orchids. A healthy phalaenopsis (the kind most commonly sold in the grocery store) will hold blooms for a really long time, and after the blooms are gone it needs only to be soaked every time it dries out. Don't believe the instructions to water it with an ice cube--this is a marketing ploy designed to get you to buy more orchids after you ice them to death. Just soak it here and there (not too much) and put it in a room with decent air circulation. Light can be in the medium range.

Finally, my top #1 houseplant tip: mist mist mist! Mist your plants with warm water from a little spray bottle (I repurpose a Mrs. Meyer's All-Purpose bottle for this) most mornings, or really whenever you think about it. Plants also like a little wind, so blow a fan or open the windows occasionally. You'll be golden.
posted by witchen at 12:05 PM on August 28, 2015

I've had luck with a lemon geranium, which grows well, has lots of fragrant leaves and not many flowers. Cats tend not to be attracted to citrus scents – anyway, six cats have passed through here and none has ever messed with this plant. Also it's tolerant to variations in light and watering.
posted by zadcat at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2015

I've had good luck with mother-in-law's tongue. It's sturdy and hard to kill, and my cats (who are inveterate leaf-chewers) completely ignore it. I keep it in a concrete planter that is small enough that the cats can't get inside to dig. Be sure to use a planter with a hole in the bottom for drainage, in case you over-water. I put my planters on small wooden stands with wheels that look like this; they're usually pretty cheap at plant nurseries, and they keep the planter off the floor so you can check for drips.
posted by neushoorn at 12:12 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I keep a big can filled with soil and wheatgrass seed that I redirect my cats to whenever I catch them putting their dumb faces in my nice plants. They love to eat the stuff more than the real plants, it grows super fast with zero effort, and because I keep it in a closed can I hardly have to water it after the initial planting (I just rip out the old grass and replace it once it starts getting gangly and dying)

Aloe is nice looking and low maintenance and also serves as a self-serve cat face comb.
posted by ghostbikes at 12:16 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

er, just saw aloe on the toxic plants list, so ignore me, i guess i need to manually comb my cats' faces now
posted by ghostbikes at 12:21 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bamboo is very hard to kill, and can just sit in a pot of water with stones holding it in place. It is also completely nontoxic to cats.
posted by LilithSilver at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2015

You can hang plants from the ceiling, which may be attractive and reduce the cats' interest. It can be troublesome depending on your kids, though.

To reduce problems with cats eating plants:

- Avoid the super-deadly plants, like lilies.
- Use bitter apple to make the plants taste terrible to the cats.
- Re-spray bitter apple every few months to cover new growth and replenish the old stuff.
- If your cats seem to really, really want to eat the green plants, give them some cat grass. I have seen this do the trick for cats who were otherwise obsessed with plants; they just need to eat something green, and the grass is the right thing. (note: this will not make cats throw up unless they eat a lot and/or feel sick anyway)

About cat grass: You can bring in some from the yard IF you know it's not got pesticide or herbicide on it; otherwise, you can grow your own using a handful of wheat berries from a grocery store's bulk bin, or just order a packet of "cat grass" seed (usually rye).

Do not just leave cat grass sitting around for months, though. After too long, it will grow tough and stringy; cats should just eat the tender parts that they can chew easily. A tough stringy piece of grass will act like any other string in the cats digestive tract.
posted by amtho at 12:47 PM on August 28, 2015

our ficus does leave some sticky stuff on our hardwood floors, but it's easy to remove with a damp cloth.

personally, i tend to kill plants mainly by over-watering. sticking to a once-a-week and only if it feels really dry schedule has helped.

aspidistras are simple, don't need much light, and aren't on the cat list.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:55 PM on August 28, 2015

definitely supporting the suggestion for hanging pothos plants from the ceiling! it's also easy to snip off a bit of the plant and plunk it in a jar or interesting glass bottle with some water and it'll do just great, so you can put a bunch of those in higher places that the cats might not be able to easily access. philodendron (the sweetheart / heartleaf variety) plants are also great for that, and like pothos, are almost impossible to kill. i'm terrible at keeping pretty much anything else green alive, and i have a cat, so i just stick with hanging plants and a couple succulents on high shelves.
posted by burgerrr at 4:29 PM on August 28, 2015

I would caution against putting too much faith in on-line plant toxicity lists from the ASPCA or wherever; it looks like a lot of lists are just being copied from other sources without any verification, and consequently there's a lot of disagreement between lists, and a lot of misnamings, pairing the wrong photo with a plant, listing toxic plants as non- and vice-versa.

I tried a few years back to do some actual research to come up with a toxicity list for my blog; I'd be happy to send a link by MeMail if you're interested.

A few to consider:

Tradescantia zebrina (wandering jew) -- gets scraggly over time and needs to be restarted from cuttings periodically, but very easy otherwise. Some people get skin irritation.
Tradescantia pallida (purple heart) -- ditto.
Schlumbergera (holiday cactus) -- non-toxic, easy to grow, will drop spent flowers on your floor when it's finished blooming, but they're dry by then, and easy to clean up.
Plectranthus verticillatus (Swedish ivy) -- do not confuse for English ivy, which is toxic. Broken stems will sometimes temporarily stain skin orange. I don't think it stains clothing, but I've never tested it. Extremely easy to grow.
Aechmea fasciata (silver vase plant) -- may or may not ever do much for you, but pretty tolerant of missed waterings. Slow-growing and therefore usually expensive.
Billbergia nutans (queen's tears) and other Billbergia -- looks like coarse grass for most of the year, but the blooms are pretty spectacular.
Hatiora salicornioides (drunkard's dream) -- more weird than pretty, but easy to grow.
Aeschynanthus speciosus (goldfish plant) -- easy, orange tube-shaped blooms in mid- to late summer. Flowers may drip nectar sometimes.
Crassula ovata and C. argentea (jade plant) -- they don't like me much, but they're one of the classic low-care houseplants, and I don't believe they're toxic.

It's possible/likely that your "gunky stuff" may have been honeydew, the secretions of scale insects or mealybugs. A few common houseplants will drip nectar when they're blooming, but most don't, and I can't think of any that do it when they're not blooming.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 6:55 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just a quick note on spider plants. Yes, they are technically nontoxic to cats. HOWEVER, they are apparently also a mild hallucinogenic and/or amazingly appealing to kitties. My cats ate half the plant with no ill effects. We began keeping it in a cat-free room (closed door) and they would go absolutely bananas when I would bring it out for watering. We lost many leaves to ninja kitty nibbles while it was in the sink.
posted by WowLookStars at 7:01 PM on August 28, 2015

I find that my cats are more interested in chewing on spiky, dangly grass-like plants like the aforementioned spider plant and Boston fern, so if you get one of those, maybe hang them to avoid losing your entire plant. As others have said, Pothos are great, impossible to kill as long as you water them once a week or so, but are bad for kitties — so also should be hanging out of reach. On the other hand, my cats ignore both the pothos and the philodendrons I have, and also the jades. They're just not interesting, I guess. (I am about to move the jades to my office just in case, however, and the pothos and philos are already up high.) African violets are pretty easy to care for and are non-toxic. This page has some interesting choices. I love the burro's tail, personally, and that's another super-easy one to care for.

Of course, all cats are different and judging the hazards is your job. Basically, keep an eye on any plant for a while after you buy it. If you notice teeth marks or mysteriously missing parts, the cats are chewing on them. I don't have really large plants with huge pots, so I haven't had any digging or eliminating problems with my kitties. Keep your plant pots smaller and they won't be as tempted to get in there and do damage. Get a big indoor tree? They'll climb it, knock it over, and possibly poop in it. Older cats will probably do less damage than younger ones. I bought cat grass for my cats, grew it from seeds, kept it out of sight until it was sturdy, and my four year old boy kitty had eaten it down to a dead stump within four days. Can't decide if I'm going to revisit that experiment!

As far as stands, just take the "wire" part off of your linked search and you'll see many many options. My plants are all along the top of a couple of window-high bookcases, so I've arranged them with different colored plant pots and plant pot sizes/heights to make them a little more visually interesting. Since your area has a slider, you'll probably place them to one side of the slider so some differences in height might add some visual interestingness. Maybe a couple of funky tiled occasional tables of varying heights? Put something under each pot to catch over-watering. Most Home Depot-type stores sell clear plastic trays for that very purpose.

Have fun! I was never a green thumb type at all and one day bought a plant for my office. After a while I had a bunch at the office. Eventually they spilled into the house, and now I grow things on my porch, too. It's kind of addictive.
posted by clone boulevard at 9:15 PM on August 28, 2015

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