Inside Outside

Terrarium Plants Flourish in the Garden

By Virginia Hayes

I recently was looking for information on the Internet about a plant and realized that most of the entries listed it as a terrarium plant. It was pretty widely available, but only from growers who saw it as a tender subject suitable only for hothouse culture. The interesting thing was that I’d just walked by a robust, blooming colony of it in a garden setting. It was listed along with a number of other plants we take for granted here, adding more proof that our outdoors is just as congenial a habitat as a glass bowl on someone’s countertop in many other parts of the country.

The plant I noticed as I made this observation was Ruellia makoyana. It is commonly known as the monkey plant or trailing velvet plant. Its leaves are a deep green with a white midrib and it flowers profusely in shade or partial shade with bright pink, trumpet-shaped flowers. The plant itself clambers along the ground, never getting taller than a foot or so in height, but making a nice dense mound that can eventually cover quite an area. It is not common yet (although I suggest it should be), and you will still probably have to buy it from a purveyor of greenhouse subjects.

Other plants that fit this category are a little better known as houseplants, but their use in landscape is still somewhat limited. One familiar terrarium plant is the bird’s nest fern. In that environment, it sports a clump of undivided, shiny green leaves usually a few inches across with fronds from 3 to 8 inches in length. While it may seem perfectly happy in its terrarium, this is one plant that has a big potential in the garden. In the ground here it grows a dozen or more fronds that are as many as 8 feet in length, so it is no wonder that when a person familiar only with its diminutive juvenile form sees it fully grown they have to ask what it is.

Another genus of plants that is often seen in pots on windowsills, but not often in the garden, is Calathea. Often called maranta, these plants have paddle-shaped leaves growing in a clump and often have beautiful stripes of pale green, gold, and even pink. Many are too tender for the outdoors, but several will survive easily and become much larger than their potted siblings.

One of the most prolific species, whether you grow it indoors or out, is the spider plant (Chlorphytum comosum). Best known as a hanging-basket subject, it is quite adaptable to gardens in our mild climate. This shade-loving plant is most often seen in its variegated form with grassy leaves striped in green and white. There is also an all-green form and both of them reproduce by forming little plantlets at the end of their flower stalks. These root easily wherever they touch down on the ground, making this a fast-growing groundcover. Beware of snails, but growth is so prolific that the damage will disappear quickly once they are picked off. Another hanging-basket plant for indoors is Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis). This trailing plant with glossy green leaves is adaptable as a groundcover in moist, shady spots.

Begonias are another group of plants often seen on lists of terrarium plants. Only the fussiest ones, like the Rex cultivars, find our climate a little too rigorous. Many others of the cane and rhizomatous types grow readily in our shade gardens. Which brings me to another topic: Not only are these plants pretty tender and not suited to outdoor culture except in warmer zones, they are also mostly denizens of the shade. If they weren’t they wouldn’t thrive in our houses, no matter how warm they were. Many also do best in higher humidity, so place them in protected shady areas and plan to mulch to retain moisture and water often. Since they don’t have deep roots, frequent irrigations of short duration will provide the humidity and not waste too much water.

One of the joys of living and gardening in such a benign climate is seeing the wonder (and even envy) of visitors from colder climes. You can just imagine their expressions as you stroll with them through a landscape they’ve only ever known in miniature under glass. A groundcover of baby tears punctuated by gigantic ferns and billows of begonias is indeed magical.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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