Here's some photos of my loft. Plant advice?
June 8, 2020 10:11 AM   Subscribe

The pandemic has me concentrating on plants, something I don't have a great history with. Help me understand houseplants in regards to my particular apartment / window situation. Photos inside.

First off:

I live in a large loft with one large window. Here's a photo of the window, which faces south in Toronto, from about 16 feet back.

(All photos were taken today just after noon.)

Though the apartment is 1100sf, that's the only window.

Here's a photo focusing on the east wall and the west.

At the window is a table, window height. Because there is a rad between the table and the window, some light escapes to the floor. Here's a picture of the floor at 12:30pm today. The photo is angled west but the line of light continues across the floor and at the east end is another square of light similar in size.

There is an air conditioner near the east wall, which is on almost 24/7 because I have a thick-haired dog who wouldn't last without it.

Lastly, here's a photo from about 18 or 20 feet back from the window, where I have a bench, which cannot be moved closer to the window, on which I currently have a rubber plant.


I think I had 8 plants before lockdown. I'm at 62 presently. Ideally, I'd like to cover the front table and as much of the area in the photos with plants as is possible. I am even considering getting rid of the books and putting plants there (I don't read much any more due to a stroke and seeing them kind of depresses me).

I have difficulty understanding terms like "bright indirect light" and "diffused light" and all the other light-terms I see in books in regards to my situation. I'm only starting to understand the watering terms (moist but not wet, etc).

I only recently discovered that I can use plants to block other plants to cut down on their light -- but mostly that just ends up hiding pretty plants behind bigger plants which kind of defeats the purpose (and is what I think I've been doing on the east wall).

So, I'm curious:

1. What plants would you recommend for this space and where in the space would you put them.

2. Will plants that need little or low light survive under that table?

3. With such a large window, how far back can I go and still have plants live. I've had that rubber plant for about 2.5 weeks and it looks as healthy to me as the day I got it. Is it getting enough light? What other medium to large plants can survive at that distance that I can use to barricade off the living room space from the rest of the loft -- similar to how that rubber plant is working?

4. What about distance back but not center, say along the east or west walls. Can you recommend specific plants?

5. I have grey translucent blinds which I rarely lower. Should I be lowering them? Should I be putting them on a timer?

6. I have read The New Plant Parent, which seems pretty good, but again, I have neurological issues translating "concepts" into my actual space, hence the purpose of this Ask. Any other books or websites you'd recommend that perhaps have practical photos or illustrations to explain these concepts?

7. Plants I should avoid in this space?

8. Most all the plants on the table (except, I think, the Lemon Cyprus) are succulents. Am I correct in assuming all succulents will be fine there? Are there non-succulents that can survive that light?

9. How does the air conditioner affect things? I usually keep it around 72/73 degrees. Right now I have a zebra plant succulent directly in its path and it seems to be doing great (I've had it 3 years), and I've put the Lemon Cyprus on that end of the table because I read it likes things cool, but is it bad for all the plants on the west wall?

10. Any other general info you could provide based on this space would be appreciated.

(Sorry for the mess in the photos. I've been moving a ton of things around and there are piles of stuff everywhere. :)

posted by dobbs to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1. What plants would you recommend for this space and where in the space would you put them.

Honestly, with that layout (south facing window, long-looking room) you could probably get just about any plant you wanted; it's just a matter of placing it in the right spot. With a window like that you have lots of flexibility in what plants will work or wont work. This is a blessing and curse.

3. With such a large window, how far back can I go and still have plants live. I've had that rubber plant for about 2.5 weeks and it looks as healthy to me as the day I got it. Is it getting enough light? What other medium to large plants can survive at that distance that I can use to barricade off the living room space from the rest of the loft -- similar to how that rubber plant is working?

I would say back pretty fuckin' far back; you mention not quite understanding diffuse/bright-indeirect light. I've always pictured this as "if an object is placed between the light source and the area you want to put the plant, does the object cast a shadow with hard lines or soft? Soft lines = diffuse light (which can be bright and indirect). That window should give you a pretty long zone of 'hard line shadows' that would be your 'direct sunlight' zone, and anything beyond that would be your diffuse/indirect light zone, growing softer the further away you go. I think I see a snake plant to the left of the window near the brick; that little buddy would probably do well anywhere in any room connected to that area; they don't need much light at all to survive or thrive. For closer up, I would start exploring just straight up cacti; myrtillocactus, san pedro, moon, bishops could go nuts over there. Some like san pedro might like living under that table as long as they get a sip of sun every once in a while.

That window, facing south, should give you a pretty long runway to put some plants that enjoy those diffuse-light conditions. Peace lillies, coffee plants, pothos/philodendrons would all do well. Some smaller palms like those conditions (if you're okay with them staying small; I have a Ravenea palm that is quite content to just hang out in a less-than-optimal-for-palms just doesn't grow much, which is fine with me. It sends up a new shoot every year or so to let me know it's still alive, and is otherwise content to hang out) I live in the PNW and mostly due to cloud cover, most of my light is 'diffuse' just by what reaches the house; summers we get more, but it' still largely indirect/diffuse at our house.

I have a couple philodendron and pothos that tend to live in darker zones of my house; I rotate them in and out with another pair because I like having plants in lots of places, but not every corner of my house is optimized towards what will fit. Two hanging baskets of philodendrons get rotated from a darker-but-not-dark corner of the house, to a brighter window. Yeah its a shuffle, but it allows both to grow well, and gives my space some nice green in otherwise dreary spots. The suboptimal growing areas of my house aren't usually a death sentence to hardier plants.

For larger buddies, I mentioned coffee plants; they can get pretty sizable after a few years and are really pretty. They like indirect, bright areas (so midway down your room, outside of the bounds of the 'hard sun' shadow lines). I have one that I've had for six or seven years (which just fruited for the first time!!!!) that's a solid 6ft tall. I would also look at the classic monstera deliciosa; they can grow to be quite, quite large (and they're a classic for a reason!! I mean, look at those friends!)

I am intensely jealous of your window and plant collection; several of those are just looooovely. I would have a heyday living in that spot.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'd say most spots in this room that aren't directly in the sunbeams of the window experience "bright indirect light". This is actually a pretty ideal space for most classic "houseplants", especially where you've started to fill in.

The thing is, many/most of what we call houseplants are tropical plants that live in the understory, i.e. they never get more than a few minutes of direct sunlight, but still have lots of light bouncing around.

1. I'm not sure what all you have, and you may well have some of these . Spider plants, philodendron, pothos, ferns. For showy pieces, I bet you could do some orchids on the side, and some colorful bromeliads.
2. Maybe, just try. A Sansevieria might work (though I see since 2017 it is a Dracena, neat.)
3.The Sansvieria above, as well as e.g. Zamioculcas.
4. I think as far as you want, but you'll just have to try. the 15 ft back space on a wall may well get more light than under the table.
5. Plants don't care about the blinds, you don't need to close them if you don't want to.
6. I personally recommend lots of observation, trial and error, not making any sudden changes. Books are fine but you can learn how to think like a plant without them.
7. No trees (don't get suckered into Bonsai, they will all die there)
8. You can probably do various herbs there, if you don't cook much they still smell nice, can make potpourri/sachets etc.
9. The AC is fine except for many plants won't want to be right in from of it, they will let you know.
10. In general, you just have to watch your plants, and learn to listen to what they are telling you. If a plant gets elongated, spindly growth, that means it wants more light. If it apparently does nothing over a few months, it's probably perfectly happy. Most houseplants are killed by overwatering, only rarely by underwatering. If in doubt, skip the water. Plants don't like sudden changes (2.5 weeks is like an hour or so to a plant, you won't know if it's really mildy happy or sad in a spot for more like 4 weeks, though if it's a horrible spot you'll be able to tell much sooner). If you're going to move them around, move them halfway for a few days if possible. Turn them every few months. You can do 1/3 rotation at a time, or random, or whatever, just make sure they rotate the side that faces the window sometimes. Get some spiderplants, even if you don't like them. You can practice your propagation and care skills on them, and use them as experiments that you don't have too much money or feelings invested in. If a spiderplant is growing happily in a spot, so will many others. They will get darker and grow slower in lower light, and get leggier and paler in stronger light. (I've had hundreds of potted plants, only killed a few, mainly by paying attention to them and not overwatering :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:29 AM on June 8, 2020

I love this question and I love your loft and your plants! And that exposed brick is gorgeous!

I am concerned your plants aren't getting enough light. Darryl Cheng, the author of the New Plant Parent, has a great online presence, including on Instagram. I do think his book is one of the best I've read. Online he talks a lot about getting a light meter, and I wonder if that might be useful for you. He translates terms like "bright indirect light" into more concrete numbers.

But, a few thoughts, including some I learned from Darryl: sunlight is your plant's food, so if they're not getting it, they're dying a slow death. That rubber plant seems way too far from the window. It might survive for a while, but it's slowly starving. I would move it to your table soon. I think just about any plant would be fine on a south-facing window in Toronto. The more sun they get, the more water they need. And this is a big part of why our plants here in the northern hemisphere need a lot less water in the winter.

In terms of watering: for many plants that are cacti or succulents, water when the top inch or two of the soil is try if you stick your finger in the dirt. That might be a more helpful metric.

Also, can you clean the inside of your windows or is that dirt outside? I'm not saying this to make you feel any shame, I promise. Until I read a few house plant books this winter, I just did not realize what a big difference that would make. I still need to clean the outsides of my windows.

I really think some additional lights might help you grow your plant collection. I don't mean like big grow lights that you'd use to sprout seeds, but perhaps some spot lights or track lights you could shine towards your bookcase. Something like this.

But, you now how I'd take advantage of that gorgeous big window you have? Go up! Is there a way you could mount a pole or something in front of the window and in between the brick? Then you could hang so many plants from your window on a pole. You could hang in multiple layers event. Could be amazing.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:34 AM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Don't apologize for the mess; it looks like a really nice space. (Also, I wish all questions about houseplant recommendations were so thorough at documenting the space, light, temperatures, and other conditions involved.)

1. Ordinarily I would come up with a super-long list of plants to recommend, but to me, it looks like you have a fairly wide range of conditions, to the point that there is likely a location with suitable light for most plants somewhere in the room; it's more a matter of matching plants with locations. To some extent, my advice on what plants you should get would amount to what I did: buy one of everything and see what survives for you. That's what I did, and you're obviously not averse to acquiring new plants. (Obviously you should look up the species or variety of whatever plants you're getting before getting them, as this will help you find the right places for them.)

2. Yes. Since the space between the table and window allows some direct sun through, you might not need to restrict yourself to low-light plants. A bigger concern in Toronto during the winter would be the temperature, since cold air will be running off the window onto the floor all the time. But even there, there are options for cold-tolerant lower-light plants, like Spathiphyllum (peace lily), Clivia, maybe Schlumbergera (holiday cactus).

3. Can't really answer that one. I will say that the rubber plant surviving for 2.5 weeks doesn't mean very much, as they don't fall apart very quickly. I'd personally be inclined to move it much closer to the window (possibly on or just to the side of the table). They may not die in low light, but the new growth tends to be slow to appear, and is weak and floppy when it does. Better options for largish low-light plants at that location: Aglaonema (Chinese evergreen), Dracaena fragrans (corn plant), large varieties of Spathiphyllum if you can find one, Clivia if you can find a full-size specimen, Rhapis excelsa (lady palm).

5. I personally wouldn't lower the blinds for the plants unless I was already lowering the blinds for myself, but my approach is to decide what I'm willing to do for the plants and then see which ones will live through that, instead of adjusting my environment and care to fit what the plants want.

6. (no recommendations, sorry)

7. There are some plants that are generally understood to be fussier or more difficult than others; I'd avoid those. I mean, everybody seems to have some "difficult" plants that grow fine for them, and "easy" plants that do not, but you probably don't want to start out with bonsai, Gardenia, maidenhair ferns (Adiantum), Calathea, rex Begonias, Codiaeum (croton), Lithops (living stones), Maranta (prayer plant), etc., right off the bat unless you have specific reasons to think they'd work for you.

8. I'm hesitant to agree with "all:" I don't think there are any conditions that all succulents find acceptable. But likely most. And yes, there are a lot of non-succulents that would be fine there too: Coffea (coffee plant), most if not all of the Ficuses (fiddle-leaf fig, "ficus tree," long-leaf fig), Yucca guatemalensis (spineless yucca), Dracaenas, Scheffleras (umbrella tree), Ananas (ornamental or edible pineapples), Strelitzia (bird of paradise) etc. In some cases, it could be necessary to introduce the plant to the direct sun gradually (i.e. by moving it closer to the window slowly, or putting it in direct sun for specific intervals which gradually increase each day), as most commercial plants are grown in shadehouses to acclimate them to lower light levels before they're sent to stores.

8b. It should be noted that the more plants you stick in the window, and the taller they get, the more you're going to cut down on the light available further into the room. Doesn't mean you can't do tall plants in the window, but it does mean that sometimes plants that you could grow fine one year don't work for you later on. (I've gone through this a couple times with Dieffenbachia -- I could grow it, then couldn't grow it, and now I can grow it again.)

9. I would not recommend putting any plants in the direct path of the air conditioner; same thing for heat vents if you have central heating. Temperature fluctuations can be rough on some plants, but the bigger problem is usually that air from either source is very dry, and dry air is stressful for many plants. I don't follow this rule myself, but I should.

10a. On preview, I think I agree with the other commenters pretty well. Would like to underline furnace.heart's plant-rotation idea, SaltySalticid's #6, and bluedaisy's hanging-plant and window-cleaning recommendations in particular.

10b. Oh, um -- the more plants you get, the more likely you are to bring in one with pests of some kind. There are a lot of plants that I just don't try anymore, because they're that likely to have spider mites (Hedera spp. - English ivy; Codiaeum - croton; Schefflera spp. - umbrella tree). You will encounter fungus gnats at some point; I deal with this by deciding to find them cute, but other people freak out. You will find countless fungus-gnat-related questions on AskMe if you look. You should also be familiar with the appearance of scale and mealybugs (in particular if you're going to have a lot of succulents). I've also had: thrips, springtails, viruses, aphids, bacterial leaf spot, mildew, whitefly, and caterpillars, some of which weren't really a problem and others of which required me to throw out large chunks of my collection. Few things will ruin your month as thoroughly as finding a scale outbreak on a third of your plants all at once, but it's part of the hobby and will likely happen to you sooner or later.

10c. It's good practice to have a quarantine area for new arrivals, separated by substantial distance from other plants. Also sometimes helpful to spray leaves, stems, etc., thoroughly with soapy water when you first bring plants home, and then several more times before you put the plant in with the other ones: doing so can kill some pests before you know they're there.

I'm happy to answer questions by MeMail about my own experiences or whatever; there's also a link to my (no longer updated) houseplant blog in my profile, and I still agree with about 80% of the advice that's in there.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 12:07 PM on June 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Regarding the filthy window: unfortunately that dirt is outside. I live over top of a construction supply company and the grit is never ending.

I already have a bunch of the plants mentioned (multiple Sansieviera, 2 marantha, a peace lily, a ZZ plant, a croton). Most of those are on the east wall presently. Will investigate others mentioned.

Thanks for the answers thus far. I will read them over carefully (I'm a little slow there and have to read them multiple times).

Does anyone have any experience with a light meter vs a light meter app for a phone?
posted by dobbs at 1:46 PM on June 8, 2020

Does anyone have any experience with a light meter vs a light meter app for a phone?

I thought I saw some content about this recently, where a plant person compared them but I can't find them.

In the meantime, this video might be helpful for figuring out some of your light questions.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:07 PM on June 9, 2020

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