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Martha's Back Porch Plants

Martha Stewart Living, March 2010

Before moving to my home in Bedford, I never envisioned having a covered, balustraded porch -- a real outdoor "room" -- furnished with seating areas and decorated entirely with many unusual varieties of exceptional potted plants.

The porch at the farm is narrow and extends the width of the main portion of the house. It has a stone floor, a door into the front hall, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the living and dining rooms. Most important, the porch affords a great view of the horse paddocks, the fields, and the stable in the distance. Because I entertain quite often and love to show my guests the view of the farm, the shady porch is the perfect place for a drink, lunch, or even a small dinner party.

And the cats and dogs find the porch a safe haven from the wild things that sometimes come close to the house: the red-tailed hawks, the noisy crows, and the occasional skunk (the dogs love chasing skunks).

In my big greenhouse, I grow a large assortment of ornamental plants that would be more commonly found in the tropics or in the desert landscape. These are the plants I love to place on pedestals, in corners, on the stairs, and in hanging pots over the porch railings.

And during the warm months, I often change the mix of plants, sometimes concentrating on aloes and ferns, sometimes on rhipsalis and begonias.

The porch is pretty safe for all these plants. Even on a very windy day, most continue to stand upright or hang securely because I set each pot carefully, placing heavy stones in the bottom of tall containers and strong chains on the big hanging baskets.

There are several recurring themes at the farm. One of them is color: pretty much everything outdoors is painted beautiful Bedford Grey. I have stained the clapboards and the shingles this warm color. The teak furniture is twice stained, and the metal Windsor chairs (we designed them for our Bernhardt collection) are powder-coated. The stone pillars, which I use as pedestals, are a similar grey, and even the lanterns, from the Nantucket Lightshop, on Nantucket, were spray-painted to match. For pots, I use antique stone or cement urns or special grey clay pots made by father and son potters Guy and Ben Wolff (see their work at guywolff.com and benwolffpottery.com).

It's important to note that I try to obtain a very textural assortment of beautiful plant specimens. The light, feathery maidenhair ferns look great next to kangaroo paws, and the giant staghorn ferns are hung alternately with monstrous Boston ferns, which I have had for several years. The corners of the porch are great for the placement of really large plants, such as the cut-leaved philodendrons.

Because the floor is stone, I water the plants with a hose or a watering can, spraying the foliage lightly and feeding every plant an all-purpose organic plant food at least once a week. If water gets on the floor, I do not have to be concerned.

Decorating a porch with houseplants is a simple and effective way to make it a friendly and inviting place to gather, entertain, and even take a catnap. And from a distance, the plants do indeed make my home lovelier, the green foliage reiterating the greens of the gardens and terraces.

Container Plants to Try
Houseplants brighten interiors during the cold months and add leafy green elegance to a porch or patio in summer. Always move plants outside gradually to avoid burning the foliage in the bright sun.

Bird's-Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus)
One of the easiest indoor ferns to find in the nursery and to grow, it will tolerate the dry air of most homes better than other ferns. Its broad leaves are a good counterpoint to the lacy foliage of the rabbit's-foot fern.

Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)
This fern has been a porch plant since the Victorian age. It thrives in the heat and humidity of a Northeast summer but can sulk during winter months, even in the greenhouse.

Crested Ligularia (Farfugium japonicum 'Cristata')
Hardy in Zone 7 and warmer, this plant is good for a cool greenhouse or sunporch. It sends up spikes of bright-yellow flowers in late autumn.

Mistletoe Cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera)
Resembling Cousin Itt, this shaggy cactus prefers bright, indirect light inside and shade outdoors. Although this is a true cactus, it grows in the rain forest -- not in the desert. It still prefers soil on the arid side, so let it dry between waterings.

Rabbit's-Foot Fern (Davallia fejeensis)
The "feet" are surface rhizomes covered with furry scales. They absorb moisture and nutrients as roots do.

Rhizomatous Begonia (Begonia paulensis)
This begonia is the newest addition to the collection. As with all rhizomatous begonias, the surface of the soil needs to dry between waterings. It likes high humidity.

Staghorn Fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)
This tropical rain forest fern is planted in moss-lined baskets. Spray it gently with a hose every day to keep the humidity up and the growing medium evenly moist. It thrives in bright, indirect light indoors and shade outside.

Tall Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos flavidus)
Better in the cool greenhouse than in the house. This Australian native grows spikes of fuzzy yellow flowers in early summer that last for months.

Tree Philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum)
There are newer dwarf cultivars of this big nonclimbing philodendron, but this full-size species is great for filling corners and making a bold statement.

Variegated Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata')
In Zone 7 and warmer, this plant is a large shrub. In Bedford, it makes an easy-care houseplant that enjoys summer outdoors.

Comments (1)

  • tropicalferns 21 Jul, 2010

    I have a small Rare ferns business that sells all types of Platycerium ferns (staghorn ferns) if you are interested this is my sight. www.tropicalferns.com