Guide to Gardening and Keeping House Plants

Thinking about venturing into gardening this Spring and not sure how to go about it? I spoke with two local gardening experts who offered insight specific for city residents.


Hannah Deputy, landscape architect at Stoney Bank Nurseries in Glen Mills, offered a few tips for those just starting their foray into keeping house plants and examples of best ones for apartment dwellers. “Apartments tend to have lower light situations, so you’d want to look at snake plants or philodendrons, which are a vining plant. The snake plants come in a wide array of colors; there are variegated, shorter and taller varieties,” said Deputy.


Spider plants are another easy plant to start with. Deputy told me you can usually find someone who has one of these plants and take one of the babies off it (with permission), put it in water and let it grow that way for quite a while. If you want to stick it in soil, that is fine as well.   


Keep an eye on pests

Spider mites are a common pest for some plants, cactus especially. “Usually you will see the leaves lighten in color and find webs along the leaves. They tend to breed in areas that have low humidity. Another pest you’d want to look out for is scale. If you have a spot that gets some filtered sunlight outside, put houseplants outside for nicer, warmer weather,” said Deputy. That will help knock off any pests that are on them. Natural predator insects will attack those as well. Houseplants put outside also benefit from the nutrients naturally found in rainwater.



Her advice for those who’d like to graduate from just keeping houseplants to starting their own gardens? Deputy said city dwellers have low amounts of space, so you must be very selective with what plants you want to grow and then decide. Are you growing a vegetable, or do you want plants more for flower color or something that is lower maintenance? Fortunately, she said there are a lot of newer shrub cultivars that are dwarf species that can really shine in small spaces. 


Avoid insecticides

For outdoor gardens, keep an eye on pests but refrain from using insecticides except as a last resort. Deputy said this is because the insects that feed on the nectar and foliage are part of the larger food web. “Even if they are feeding on the plant they can have beneficial value to urban wildlife. So, if there are caterpillars the birds use those as baby food for the chicks they are raising. Look for cultivars that are more disease resistant and are tougher if insect damage is a major concern,” she concluded.  


Sally McCabe, Associate Director, Community Education at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), offered advice for people who can only do tiny window gardens in their apartments. “How people grow edibles in windows depends on if they are doing the garden inside or outside the window. The only thing they can grow inside the window would be some herbs in pots,” said McCabe. “The bigger the pots, the better off they’ll be. Smaller pots put a lot of stress on plants, and you must be prepared to replace them. Herbs will get the same bugs that your houseplants get—spider mites, aphids and mealy bugs.” 


Window Planters & Herbs

Treat highly visible outdoor window boxes with edibles differently from those that are less visible. McCabe said if you are showing off the ones out front, you want some pretty house plants and blooming annuals with herbs spaced between them. “If you’re going to put them in the backyard and no one cares what they look like, you can grow whatever you want,” she added.


Her take on growing small herbs? You’ll be cutting chunks out of them to eat, so they won’t be as pretty as something you want on your front step or front window. 


Backyard Garden

For backyard gardens, McCabe recommends peppers, herbs and pot tomatoes. “Read labels and seed packs, because you want small varieties of vegetables. There are varieties of tomatoes that will grow in a pot, but the bigger the pot, the better they will do. You need at least a five-gallon pot to grow a pepper or a tomato,” she said. There are also pots and window boxes that have water reservoirs built in; these are handy if you’re in the heat of the summer or you go away for a few days. Otherwise, group pots can shade each other and maintain some moisture between.


Where to purchase plants:

City Planter, 814 N 4th St, Philadelphia, PA 19123,   

Greensgrow (two locations)

Urban Jungle, 1526 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19147