5 Best Indoor Trees For The Home or Office

No matter how content you are with your houseplant collection, it’s natural to be drawn towards large indoor trees.

There’s no question that an indoor tree is adds a touch of class to the home, and is one the best ways to complement large, airy spaces with that “interior-scaped” look.

In my opinion, you just can’t compare the impact of just one healthy tree, even compared to a mountain of leafy 6-inch pots.

But finding and growing beautiful indoor specimens is not the same as choosing a typical houseplant.

That’s why I figured it would make sense to go over my personal picks – but first let’s talk about the constraints to bear in mind when selecting your own.

Selecting Suitable Indoor Trees

Recognize that most trees generally do poorly indoors, for a variety of reasons; chief among them is the lack of light.

Lemon trees tend to suffer indoors due to weak light and stale air.
Lemon trees very rarely thrive indoors.
by tiny banquet committee – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Unless you are blessed with large, floor to ceiling south-facing windows, most larger indoor trees will need to get buy with little to no direct sunlight.

Beyond tolerating relatively weak indoor lighting, a good indoor tree must naturally reach tree-like proportions. At minimum, this requires a plant that is tall (versus low and shrubby) and can reach a height of 6 feet.

Finally, good indoor trees should all be capable of adapting to home or office environments and actually growing. This includes thriving in varying humidity levels, tolerating stagnant indoor air, and not needing a winter cold-dormancy (such as that required for temperate zone trees).

Now let’s get started.

My Favorite Indoor Trees With Care Instructions

Here are our top (5) best indoor trees, based on attractiveness, ease of care, and tolerance for indoor light levels.

1) Fiddle-Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata)

In the wild, where it grows along a thin coastal swath of steamy West African lowland rainforest stretching from Sierra Leon to Cameroon, the fiddle-leaf fig is a formidable tree that can exceed 40 feet in height.

Ficus lyrata outdoors is a very different looking tree!
Ficus lyrata outdoors in Kahului, Hawaii.
by Forest & Kim Starr – CC BY 2.0

This species falls within the subgenus Urostigma and is therefore considered one of many types of “strangler” figs, which refers to a group of fig species that have the ability to first take root in the crown of other “host” trees as a hemiepiphite (usually from seeds carried by bird droppings) where they send roots downward around the host until it’s smothered out via “girdling” (constriction around the trunk until the thin ring of living vascular tissue is cut).

This adaptation is a result of the fierce competition for light in the very tall and dense canopy of lowland tropical forests.

The flowers of Ficus lyrata are pollinated by a fig wasp in the genus Agaon. The small figs that result mature at roughly an inch in diameter.

Fiddel leaf fig is one of the most tasteful indoor trees for interior-scaping.
Ficus lyrata in the home.
by Sarah Sosiak under CC BY-NC 2.0

Indoors, the fiddle-leaf fig is much more tame, and is typified by a thin upright trunk (or multiple trunks) topped with oversized pear-shaped, wavy deep green leaves. Presently, this may be the most fashionable home or office tree, thanks to its leafy, bold tropical appeal and wide tolerance for varying light and humidity levels.

As with most indoor trees, the real key to keeping this fig happy and looking good is light, as much as you can provide it.

Although it can certainly still do well in very bright indirect light, as long as this plant is gradually acclimatized to it, several hours of filtered direct light through a south, west or east-facing window will be greatly appreciated, and will create a much more vigorous, fuller tree.

Another important care tip is to be conservative with watering (especially in winter) and ensure proper drainage.

A health leaf of F. lyrata soaking up direct sunlight.
Ficus lyrata enjoying full sun outdoors.
by Forest & Kim Starr – CC BY 2.0

Only water this tree when the surface soil layers begin to feel slightly dry when probed with a finger. But when you do water, really soak the roots and flush the plant out, taking care to dispose of the water that fills the collection tray.

This will help ensure that fertilizer salts and hard water minerals don’t wick their way back up into the soil where they can accumulate over time and result in leaf tip burn, a common condition in tropical plants whereby the tips or margins of the leaves become black and/or brown and resemble heat damage.

For an extra “purging” of accumulated salts in plants already affected by significant burn (or as a first aid for over-fertilized plants), you can water the tree with distilled or reverse osmosis water every couple weeks or so to strip salts from the roots.

Ficus lyrata enjoys high humidity, but will adapt to drier environments typical of most home or work spaces. A good way to give it some localized humidity is by misting daily, which will not only foster health but help keep its broad leaves dust free. For very dusty leaves, it’s best to wipe them down periodically with a damp cloth. Leaf shine looks very good on this plant.

F. lyrata is one of the least demanding indoor trees.
F. lyrata – undeniably fashionable.
by Emily May under CC BY 2.0

A healthy fiddle-leaf fig in good light will grow quite quickly. And a 6-foot plant from small starter plant material is easily attainable by even inexperienced growers. And as with most ficus species, they don’t need a very large pot to attain tree-like proportions either. If anything, resist the temptation to increase pot size too rapidly; these trees seem to do better when their roots mostly fill the pot.

If you see roots coming out the drainage holes, or the tree has been growing vigorously in the same pot for more than a year, gradually start increasing pot size annually. Any high quality potting mix should do.

Ficus lyrata should be fertilized during periods of growth (especially during the summer months), at a dose commensurate with growth rates. For example, a tree grown in strong light should receive an all-purpose indoor plant food at full dose; whereas a tree kept in dim light may require only 1/2 of the manufacturer’s recommended application.

This is easily one of the most durable indoor tree species, which is why they’re so often used in interior landscaping for homes and offices. In fact, even if this species is placed in a totally unsuitable location (e.g., a very dim, windowless corner) and is in fact slowly dying, it may still seem outwardly healthy for months. Although they are not unusually susceptible to pests by general houseplant standards, they can be infested by the usual suspects.

The dreaded blotches commonly reported for F. lyrata.
F. lyrata with badly blotched leaves.
by Robitika – CC BY-NC 2.0

A much more common problem with F. lyrata are the development of brown or black blotches or spots on their leaves. These spots are normally a result of some trauma caused by physical injury, pests, chemical/fertilizer residues, nutrient / trace element deficiencies, heat or fungal/viral diseases. Unfortunately, in many cases it can be very difficult to determine the exact cause.

If lighting is sufficient, good watering practices are being used, and no pests are found after careful inspection of the leaves and roots (pull plant from pot to look for root mealybugs – look for their telltale fluffy secretions), it is a good idea to “reset” things and try to re-establish mineral balance with this detox procedure.

Flush the pot with a thorough watering with distilled or reverse osmosis water; really soak the plant, let the water run out of the pot and be sure to discard the drained water. Then immediately apply an all purpose plant fertilizer at 1/2  manufacturer’s recommended strength, and continue watering using distilled or reverse osmosis water for the next month or two.  If the blotches resulted from either a nutrient deficiency or an excessive buildup of fertilizer or hard-water mineral salts, this should help.

In addition, it is not unusual for nursery plants grown in optimal conditions (high light/humidity) to gradually lose some leaves upon acclimating to a much dimmer, drier location in a home. Leaf loss should stabilize within a couple months at most; if not, look for pests, confirm sufficient light is being provided, and make sure to avoid over or under watering.

2) The Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

While we’re on the subject of Ficus, let’s not forget the venerable weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. While the fiddle-leaf fig has enjoyed a comparatively recent surge of popularity, the weeping fig has been a popular indoor tree for much longer, and is presently growing in many more households than any other fig species, by far. As you might expect, there’s a good reason for such ubiquity.

F. benjamina can become a huge shade tree outdoors.
F. benjamina can become immense outdoors.
by Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

With its roots in lowland southeast Asia, the weeping fig thrives in the heat and humidity, and in the wild it can grow into a towering tree with a canopy pushing over 80 feet high that rains down elegantly drooping boughs teeming with shiny, lanceolate leaves. The bark is smooth and pale, and will often give rise to aerial roots along the trunks and lower branches in regions with particularly high humidity. This species can produce an edible fruit, but they are small and mostly favored by birds.

Ficus benjamina is a very tough tree that is frequently used for exterior landscaping; it is a common street trees in frost-free zones worldwide, along with the also ever-present and bulletproof Ficus microcarpa. However, it is indoors where the weeping fig has an earned even broader recognition, as it can be grown into an attractive and stately indoor tree that demands remarkably little care.

The weeping fig is probably the popular of all indoor trees.
Variegated F. benjamina indoors.
by Maja Dumat – CC BY 2.0

Despite what you may have heard, Ficus benjamina grows very well in full sunlight, even outdoors.

Consequently, there is absolutely no way you can provide too much direct light when growing indoors unless you (1) shock the plant by failing to acclimating it when moving it from a low to high light location, or (2) burn the leaves due to excessive heat buildup near a window in direct light, which can often occur in a poorly ventilated rooms in summer. Filtering such “hot” light through blinds or screening is recommended.

Having said that, the wonderful thing about weeping fig is its adaptability to fairly dim conditions. This tree can do reasonably well with no direct light at all, provided it is given very bright indirect light along an east/west facing window. Of course, even brief exposure to some direct sunlight will promote a much fuller, more vigorous tree.

A north-facing window is not recommended.

F. benjamina’s reported vulnerability to cool weather in some sources is overstated. Again, this a common street tree in many cities in the U.S. that experience winter temperatures that routinely dip below 45F. These temperatures will certainly suspend growth temporarily, but the tree will generally retain a full canopy of leaves and otherwise remain unaffected. A bigger concern are very cold drafts, which prevent the plant from adapting to falling temperatures naturally.

F. benjamina will produce dense aerial roots where humidity is very high and constant.
Aerial roots of F. benjamina in high humidity.
by sclereid0309 – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

If continuous, strong growth throughout the winter is desired, keep ambient temperatures above 70F and keep floor pots a few inches off of the ground to slow heat loss from the root mass. A heating pad applied to the bottom of the pot can also be used.

Misting this tree is a good idea, not so much because the species needs it (it can adapt to very dry air), but it does help make it less vulnerable to dry air-loving spider mites and helps keep leaves free of dust.

Aside from providing moderate to high light, give Ficus benjamina good general houseplant care:  pot in a well-draining medium; fertilize regularly with a general purpose houseplant fertilizer (especially in summer and when grown in bright light); water thoroughly but allow the surface layers of soil to dry very slightly between waterings; and repot vigorously growing trees annually, with only a slightly larger pot each time. Do these things and you will find the weeping fig to be a very fast-growing and trouble-free indoor tree to cherish for a very long time.

As an added bonus, I find Ficus benjamina to be relatively disease-free compared to most houseplants, and not particularly vulnerable to sap-sucking insects either, probably due in part to the thick latex they exude when subjected to even slight injury. Still, they can be targeted by mealybugs and spider mites, among other pests, so monitor them periodically to catch/react to any infestations early.

The weeping fig is well-known among bonsai enthusiasts for its suitability for training.
F. benjamina make outstanding bonsai material.
by Pierre-Selim CC BY-SA 2.0

Probably the most common issue with this tree is its well-know habit of shedding leaves when acclimatizing to a new location.

This can happen to any houseplant to some degree, especially if it’s going from a much brighter location to a dimmer one, but the weeping fig is legendary for doing this even in the face of slight moves in the same house.

Don’t panic! Just continue applying good basic care and this should stop fairly quickly. Remember that a weeping fig grown in primarily indirect light will have a much more sparsely-leaved, open look compared to the leafier form it assumes when grown in partial to full direct light.

Light pruning of branches is a good idea, especially if needed to keep a compact shape in moderate light situations; however, F. benjamina does not respond well to drastic pruning, and is often reluctant to re-sprout from old wood unlike other Ficus species that can regrow from stump cuts (e.g., F. microcarpa).

Don’t forget that variegated (white-streaked) forms of Ficus benjamina, while beautiful, will need substantially more light than the standard type to support itself, since variegation dramatically reduces the amount of leaf area dedicated to light-capturing chloroplasts. Thus, if you are looking for a tree for moderate light conditions, do yourself and the plant a favor and pass on the variegation.

3) The Umbrella Plant (Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola)

There are two species that go by the common name “umbrella plant” or “umbrella tree,Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola. While the two share many features, they are quite distinct.

Schefflera actinophylla – The “Octopus” Tree

The octopus plant is a large and robust species suitable for indoor culture.
S. actinophylla with its tentacle-like flowers.
by Ahmad Fuad Morad – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Also referred to as the “octopus plant,” S. actinophylla is native to the rainforest of Australia, Java and New Guinea where it often grows as a large multi-trunked tree that can reach up to 50 feet tall.

Owing to its more common handle “the umbrella tree,” this species produces very large, palmate and compound leaves that can stretch up to two feet across like a small parasol. The name “octopus” tree likely follows from its 2-feet long, red and tentacle-like raceme flowers. Like the fiddle-leaf fig discussed above, S. actinophylla is also known to sometimes start as a hemiephiphte on host trees.

In the wild, and in virtually any other region with suitable moisture and a frost-free climate, S. actinophylla is a quick-growing and highly versatile species that can thrive in full sun or nearly full shade. Unfortunately, this hardiness has made it a very troublesome invasive species in most of the Hawaiian islands and in south and central Florida, where it has been shown to rapidly colonize disturbed areas and also infiltrate pristine forests.

S. actinophylla grown outdoors in full sun can become a very large tree.
Multi-trunked growth habit of S. actinophylla.
by Tony Rodd – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the confines of the home, however, S. actinophylla makes a very adaptable and attractive indoor tree that can very easily reach 10 feet tall or more, if given good light (ideally including some filtered direct light), fertilizer and room to grow.

Water as any large houseplant (allowing surface soil to dry slightly between waterings) and prune as necessary to encourage fuller growth and increased branching. Pruning can be quite severe with this species, and it should resprout quickly from old wood if otherwise healthy.

This tree is comfortable at common room temperatures and not particularly sensitive to cold; in fact, it can tolerate brief exposure to temperatures just above freezing with no apparent problem. However, protect from drafts and keep warm to encourage vigorous growth throughout the year. High humidity is appreciated but not required.

Unfortunately, neither the flowers or fruit that this species produces outdoors or in a greenhouse setting is likely to be observed in most homes.

Schefflera arboricola – Dwarf Umbrella Plant

S. arboricola is a smaller, yet no less impressive tree for indoor culture.
S. arboricola has a relatively compact growth habit.
Tuojia Elementary School – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

S. arboricola, or the “dwarf” umbrella plant,  is a smaller, shrubbier version of S. actinophylla that hails from the cool, misty forests of Taiwan.

This evergreen species reaches a maximum of about 15 feet in height in the wild and has a similar leaf morphology to S. actinophylla. It also produces similarly-shaped flowers and fruit compared to its larger congener, which are likewise rarely observed indoors.

While outwardly similar, S. arboricola is much more manageable outdoors than S. actinophylla, where it is a popular patio and hedge plant in USDA Zones 9b and above. However, it is this specie’s adaptability as a houseplant that has made it a favorite.

Indoors when grown in good light and humidity, this plant can reach up to 5 or 6 feet tall and be pruned into an attractive tree or shrub. It’s tolerance for drastic pruning and re-growth from old wood also makes it a favorite among indoor bonsai keepers.

If you’ve ever visited Taiwan, you would not be surprised to hear that this species enjoys high humidity; therefore, daily light misting is a good idea, especially in dry/high light situations that can make it an attractive target for spider mites. High humidity has the added benefit of encouraging the formation of aerial roots in this species, which are especially attractive for specimens trained as bonsai.

S. arboricola can be trained into bonsai with some skill and lots of patience.
S. arboricola are highly suitable as indoor bonsai.
Cliff under CC BY 2.0

The dwarf umbrella tree is very flexible in terms of light requirements, and can grow reasonably well in full shade, especially outdoors, but it will look and do better if given a bit of cool direct light; an east-facing window indoors is ideal.

It is a bit sensitive to excessive heat, so light through a south or west-facing window in summer should be filtered to prevent leaf burn. Although it is very amenable to low light levels, at minimum, very bright indirect light should be provided. A north-facing window is insufficient to support healthy growth.

The dwarf umbrella plant enjoys being watered thoroughly, but it is advisable to let the surface layers of the soil dry slightly between waterings, especially in winter. Not quite as cold tolerant as its larger cousin, try to keep S. arboricola on the warmer side, at temperatures above 70F to promote constant, vigorous growth year-round.

Beyond the above requirements, treat as any other houseplant and fertilize with a general purpose indoor plant formulation. Various cultivars are commonly available, including a variegated form.

4) The Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata)

D. marginata can be grown outdoors only in the warmest zones.
D. marginata planted as a hedge row.
Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

The red-edged Dracaena, or more commonly the “dragon tree,” is a species native to Madagascar that can attain a height of 20 feet tall with a spread half as wide.

Unlike many other members of the popular houseplant genus Dracaena, the dragon tree sports thin and stiff, ribbon-like leaves that sit like pom-poms on top of skinny, curvy trunks.

While it is not terribly tree-like in form, it can easily reach 6 feet high indoors and therefore makes a great houseplant for making use of vertical space in corners or between furnishings.

More importantly, it is one of the most abuse-tolerant indoor trees you are going to find.

D. marginata is not at all demanding, and will thrive in strong indirect light from an east or west-facing window. Of course, it will gladly accept some filtered direct light as well, which can give it a bushier look and spur growth.

In addition to being a relatively low light tree, it is also very adaptable to a drier environment despite it’s tropical, exotic look. Daily misting is greatly appreciated, however, and will help it fend off attack from spider mites.

Fertilize this slow-growing species conservatively (i.e., at half manufacturer recommended dose/frequency) and water the dragon tree as you would any typical houseplant, taking care not to leave the plant sitting in water and allowing the surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.

It’s not finicky about temperature, but locate away from cold drafts or exterior doors in wintertime. As will other members of Dracaena, the dragon tree can be sensitive to fluorine in municipal water sources, which can lead to blackened or dying leaf tips. This can also occur due to build up of fertilizer or hard water mineral salts.

The more familiar look of the dragon tree when grown indoors.
D. marginata indoors.
Mark Santa Ana – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

If leaf tip burn for whatever reason is noted, it is a good idea to water the plant thoroughly with distilled or reverse osmosis water weekly to leach out accumulated soil salts and chemicals.

Just be sure to fertilize regularly in such case, since water of this purity will be hyposmotic relative to the surrounding soil and quickly leach out the bad with the good – i.e., the beneficial macronutrients and trace elements in the soil needed for plant maintenance and growth.

Another issue that may arise with D. marginata is that it can get too tall, making it look a bit spindly. This is particularly noticeable for single-trunked specimens grown in relatively weak light. Fortunately, this can be dealt with by cutting off the leafy tops (taking care to leave a good 6 inches of stalk on) and putting them into the same pot (if there’s room) or another pot to start a new plant.

Rooting hormone can be used, but is not necessary. In any case, be sure to keep the soil from drying out to avoid quickly desiccating fragile new roots as they emerge.

As with most Dracaena, topping also has the salutary effect of causing new shoots to develop below the cut, thereby promoting a fuller plant. This species is also a great candidate for propagation through air layering.

5) The Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)

In the wilds of southern Asia where the “rubber plant” grows in dense rainforest, it is a beautiful and large tree that is reported to reach heights up to 100 feet and boast massive crowns thick with broad, glossy leaves. In most other outdoor settings it generally reaches 40 or 50 feet tall.

This is the third Ficus species discussed here, but is no less impressive as F. lyrata or F. benjamina when given proper care. Don’t confuse this “rubber” plant, with the real rubber plant (Hevea brasiliensis) that is the primary used for commercial latex production.

F. elastica can attain truly gargantuan proportions outdoors.
Massive field-grown F. elastica with aerial roots.
Mauricio Mercadante – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Care of Ficus elastica is generally similar to that described for F. benjamina and F. lyrata.  Remember to water thoroughly but avoid over-watering this plant by following the general rule of allowing surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.

Misting this plant is not required, but is recommended for optimal growth and health, along with periodically wiping its broad leaves with a damp cloth. Under good growing conditions, F. elastica can very easily exceed 6 feet tall indoors.

As usual, the most important factor governing health and appearance of this species is light. And as with F. benjamina, this is another species that is often erroneously reported to be averse to direct sunlight indoors.

On the contrary, F. elastica is known as plant that does best in full sun, even when planted outdoors. What this species does not tolerate is the heat buildup associated with direct sunlight indoors, which unfortunately is common in most interior spaces/offices where ventilation is poor and the air is still, especially in summer.

Therefore, it is advisable to situate this species along an east-facing window and/or filter any hot direct sunlight through blinds, drapes or some type of screening.

With it's sharp tropical look, it's no wonder why F. elastica is one of the most popular indoor trees.
F. elastica in the home.
Margaret Shear under CC BY-SA 2.0

Indeed, without providing some measure of at least filtered direct light, such as that through an east, west or south-facing window, most growers will find F. elastica to become leggy, weak and require constant staking to remain upright. Thus, growing this species in purely indirect light does not do it justice.

Even under relatively good conditions indoors, these trees will often get a bit long and/or begin to lean. An option in such cases, besides staking, is to prune the tree back, which will encourage side-branching and give it a fuller look.

As a bonus, the cut tops can be rooted by dipping in a hormone and inserting into a light, seed-starting medium. Place the cuttings in indirect light to prevent heat stress or drying and mist regularly; if successful, the new plant will begin producing fresh growth in four or five weeks and it can be gradually acclimatized to brighter light.

The rubber plant is also easily propagated via air layering.

Featured (top) photo credit: “Indoor Tree” by Jeremy Keith under CC BY 2.0

So You Want an Indoor Herb Garden?

Let me start by saying what an indoor herb garden is not.

It is not a cute little collection of pots that support weak, spindly herbs that can give you at most a few leaves a week of production.

I don’t know about you, but I need a good handful a basil each week throughout the winter for pasta sauces, salads and many other dishes, otherwise it’s a waste of time and the windowsill space is better used by a houseplant.

To put it bluntly, if your indoor garden does not actually produce a reasonable amount of the herbs you need, then save yourself the grief of the whole exercise and just buy them at the grocery store.

Forgive me if I come off a tad direct here, but there are just too many blogs out there that merely sell the idea of an indoor herb garden – and how great it is to have so many herbs at your fingertips – without providing any practical advice. After all, what good is it to laundry list all of the herbs one may possibly grow indoors, without emphasizing the basic considerations that must be met to grow even a single herb species effectively?

I am not saying that creating an indoor herb garden is necessarily difficult, but it is not carefree-easy either; growing most houseplants is far more straightforward. However, the challenge lies not so much in the small things you do, but rather how you go about the basic set up and maintenance of your garden. I’m talking big picture stuff. I don’t care if you are hooked on chives or are a freak for rosemary. The overriding considerations in either case are the same.

Here are the 8 Golden Rules to follow when creating a productive indoor herb garden.

1) Light, Light, Light & More Light!

There is absolutely no question that insufficient light is the biggest reason why indoor herb gardens fail.

An Indoor Herb Garden needs bright, direct light.
Strong lighting is paramount for herb growth.
photo by Narrow under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Think about it, the goal here is not merely to keep your herbs looking pretty in their pots, but to make them grow at a rate such that we can harvest a large portion of their standing biomass each week! Even if water, fertilizer and temperature are all optimized, this demands a very high rate of photosynthesis driven by high light, much higher than a typical houseplant will need.

How often do cut off 1/3 of your African violet to eat?

In addition, most herbs are very high light plants to begin with. Put them in even bright indirect light and they are bound to grow poorly and turn into a lanky mess, even if you aren’t routinely harvesting them.

So how much light do you need? Conservatively speaking, a solid 5 hours of direct natural sunlight is the bare minimum amount necessary to sufficiently power plant growth, with 6 or more hours being much better.

Just to be clear, I am talking about direct light – the kind that will warm your hand when held in it. Indirect light, no matter how bright, simply cannot be factored into this minimum requirement. Further, the pots should be situated right up against the window – i.e., within a foot or two of the glass (so long as the direct light reaches that far). The further you move away from a window, the more dramatically light energy is reduced.

Are there some herbs that can be grown in fewer hours of direct light? Yes, a few can probably limp along with 3-4 hours or so.  But your choices are so limited at that point, and growth will be so slow, that it makes little sense to bother at all. The cornerstones of most herb gardens, things like basil, rosemary, parsley, etc., all need the minimum of 5 hours of light just to grow well enough to allow a reasonable harvest from time to time.

The only place you are going to get this kind of natural sunlight is through a southerly-facing window free from shadows cast by obstructing overhangs, window dressings, surrounding vegetation, etc. I don’t care if the window is south-east facing or south-west facing, but a purely east or west facing window is just not going to cut it. Put a beautiful houseplant there instead.

The AeroGarden makes indoor herb gardening easy.
The AeroGarden is a popular hydroponic herb kit.

And what if you don’t have a suitable south-facing window? The next best thing is using (or supplementing with) artificial lighting.

The two most common types of artificial lights for indoor gardening are florescent and metal halide lamps.

Florescent lighting is by far the most common and inexpensive type, and is the type used in various indoor herb garden growing kits, like the popular and hassle-free Miracle-Gro AeroGarden ULTRA. You can also forgo a kit and simply by the florescent lamp, such as the Hydrofarm FLT24 2-ft/ 4-Tube T5 Commercial System, which provides good light for a modest indoor herb garden.

Whatever you do, just remember that florescent lighting – even strong lighting – loses its potency very rapidly beyond 6 inches from the bulb. This short working distance is its biggest drawback. Consequently, to use it efficiently, it is advised to keep any florescent lamp within 4-6 inches of the tops of your herbs – and keep all of your herbs pruned to the same height so they can all benefit from the light equally.

A powerful florescent fixture can be used to grow herbs indoors.
This Hydrofarm T5 fixture is a good choice.

As you might guess, another consequence of this short working distance is that the lower leaves of herbs grown purely under florescent lighting tend to grow relatively poorly; what you are really doing is growing and harvesting the tops.

If you use florescent lighting exclusively for your indoor garden, you will need to keep the lights on for at least 12 hours each day, with 16 hours being better.

For supplementing natural light, calculate the number of hours of direct sunlight received and then subtract this from 6; take the resulting number and multiply by 2, using the product as the minimum number of hours you should keep the lights on (do not use the lights while plants are in direct natural sunlight). For example, if your west-facing window gets 3 hours of direct light, you will want a minimum of 6 hours of supplemental florescent lighting each day.

Metal halide lighting is arguably the best form of artifiial lighting for indoor gardening.
This Apollo metal halide fixture provides strong light.

Metal halide lighting, on the other hand, while a bit more expensive up front, is by far the better means of providing artificial light, especially if you plan to grow herbs in areas that receive little or no natural sunlight at all. These lamps are much more intense, and produce light that is usable several feet from the bulb. This allows them to penetrate  the plant canopy to encourage strong growth not only on the tops of the plants, but also down to the bottom leaves/branches of the plants as well. As such, you could use these lights to grow herbs that are over three feet tall, if they can grow that large.

In addition to providing a more natural-looking plant, metal halide lighting simply produces more vigorous and sturdy plants overall, with more leaves, shorter internodes (the distance between branches/leaves on the stem) and an all around bushier, healthier look. This also gives much more opportunity for frequent and substantial harvests. For example, with the Apollo Horticulture MH HPS Grow Light Digital Dimmable Ballast System, you can support a sizable indoor herb garden, and grow herbs indoors nearly as well as you could grow them outdoors in full sun!

The downside of metal halide lights, beyond the greater up front cost of the fixtures and bulbs, are their higher cost of operation (given their higher wattage) and much greater heat output. Unlike florescent lights, you generally need to keep a metal halide bulb at least 12 inches away from your plants to prevent burning them.

2) Choose Suitable Containers for the Indoor Herb Garden

Square pots make the most of your indoor gardening space.
Square pots make the best use of windowsill space.
photo by F.D. Richards under CC BY-SA 2.0

Assuming you have met the light requirements, the next most critical decision is the growing container(s).

If you are relying on natural light, first examine the size/width of your sill. If it is very narrow (less than 6 inches), I’d suggest installing a shelf or using a table/rack or something else to hold the pots. You can certainly use a narrower sill, but you will be restricted in terms of the pot size you can use.

When growing herbs in soil (versus. hydroponically, which is a bit more complicated), the size and growth rate of your herbs will be limited in small pots, especially those under 6 inches in diameter. Small pots also dry out faster than larger pots, which could spell disaster if you decide to go away for a long weekend. To make the best use of windowsill space, try to find square pots.

Planting herbs separately has distinct advantages.
Potting herb species separately is a good idea.
photo by Frankie Roberto under CC BY 2.0

In addition, I would strongly encourage you not to plant various herb species together in one container. Yes, I know planter boxes are cute and fit nicely on the sill, but they present a few serious drawbacks.

First, a common container requires you to treat all plants similarly, when species often vary in their preferences. The most notable point of variation is soil moisture. For example, due to its Mediterranean “roots,” rosemary does best in fast-draining soil that dries out a bit between waterings. Contrast this with parsley, basil and mint, which enjoy more regular watering and and a more organically-rich soil. If all of these species are grown together, someone will have to tolerate suboptimal conditions!

The second consideration is the spread of pests and disease. If plants are grown in a common container, you have little recourse when it comes to preventing the spread of things like aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, mealybugs and other parasites. If plants are grown separately, they can be removed from the window and treated individually at the earliest sing of infestation, thereby helping prevent the spread of pests while sparing nearby herbs the stress of treatment if not required.

Box planters are attractive, but they are not the most practical way to plant herbs.
Moving plants grown closely in boxes can be tricky.
photo by david.dames under CC BY-ND 2.0

Finally, separate growing containers allow you to simply change things up when necessary, without having to dig up and disturb the roots of surrounding plants.

Say you’re using a common planter and your parsley has fizzled out for some reason, but your basil and rosemary on either side are going strong.  You could dig up the plant and replace it; however, this is problematic.

Plants grown closely in a common container usually have co-mingled root systems, so if you dig up one of them, you will likely damage some of adjacent plants’ roots. This most likely will not kill them, as long as they are healthy, but it will certainly cause a temporary cessation of growth – similar to the shock associated with transplanting.

3) Start Herbs From Seed/Cuttings or Buy Young Plants

The quickest way to start the indoor herb garden is by purchasing small plants.
Buy plants to start your indoor herb garden.
photo by MBK (Marjie) under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The easiest way to start your garden is with small, already potted plants, which are commonly available at most good nursery centers throughout summer and usually into the fall months. Don’t wait for the dead of winter to start your garden.

The next best method for quick-growing herbaceous species, like parsley, mint, basil, etc. is by seed. Of course, this takes a bit more time and planning, and if you have little experience sowing seed it may be more trouble than it’s worth.

If you are handy with propagating plants by cuttings, then feel free to do so. Basil, mint, rosemary and many other herbs strike root fairly easily; and most fresh herbaceous (i.e., soft, green) material sold at grocery stores can be rooted in water. For woodier plants, like rosemary, plant cuttings in a light seed-starting mix after treatment with a rooting hormone dip.

I do not recommend digging up outdoor plants as winter approaches, for a couple reasons.

Many herbs can be started by simply putting cuttings in water, and waiting.
Basil will normally root in water easily.
photo by Liezl Yap under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

First, these fall herbs are normally winding down their lives due to hormonal triggers set off by falling temperature and decreasing day length. For example, basil will be flowering at this time and often be reluctant to push new vegetative growth. This could also make using such material for cuttings more difficult. Exposing basil cuttings to long days (i.e., providing light for more than 12 hours each day) could help switch them over to the vegetative state.

Secondly, outdoor garden plants are likely to carry with them outdoor pests, which prove substantially more difficult to control indoors, where herbs are weakened by lower light levels. This is not to say that nursery material is always pest free, but they tend to be cleaner than most plants grown outdoors in the open soil.

4) Use a High-Quality Potting Soil in Your Indoor Herb Garden

A high quality potting soil is essential for any actively growing indoor herb garden.
Espoma makes a high-quality potting mix.

Do not make the mistake of using soil in your backyard. Herbs grown in containers generally need a light, rich mix to support strong growth.

Depending on where you live, the soil in your garden is likely to be high in clay, which drains very poorly and can cause root root; or very sandy, which drains too quickly and possibly cause your herbs to dry out and die if you go away for the weekend. If you are experienced with plants, by all means make your own mix, but if you aren’t, just buy a bag of prepared potting soil.

Note that some brands of potting soils come with a fertilizer already mixed in. Always check the bag to make sure. If so, take note of how long the manufacturer says the fertilizer will last, since this will delay the onset of any feeding schedule, which we will be discussing later below.

5) Adopt Healthy Watering Habits

Overwatering or underwatering is a fine way to kill any indoor plant. Follow the general houseplant watering guidelines and “finger-stick” method I discuss here, which basically require you to develop a watering regime based on how fast your plants are drying out.

Be careful not to water based on a fixed schedule; monitor your plants needs as they change.
Water well, but careful not to overdo it.
photo by chichcacha under CC BY 2.0

For herbs on a sunny windowsill, this will vary tremendously depending on the size of the plant, size of the pot, temperature, and the maturity of the plant. In addition, the ratio of plant to pot – i.e., more plant there is for a given volume of soil in the pot, the more water you will need to provide.

In addition, ensure proper drainage as I previously discussed for houseplants generally. This is especially important since, as we’ll discuss below, your herbs will require fertilizer; and fertilizer will cause the accumulation of salts in the soil absent proper flushing and disposal of the water drained from the pot.

6) Fertilize Your Indoor Herb Garden, But do so Sensibly

If your herbs are growing strongly and especially if you have been harvesting plant material frequently, they will need to be fertilized. Fail to do this and growth will begin to slow and/or your herbs will being to lose color and suffer from various deficiencies.

Fertilizing is essential for any actively growing indoor herb garden.
Osmocote – an old favorite.

To produce new growth, a plant must tap a soil’s macro-nutrients and trace element stores to provide the raw materials needed for photosynthesis. Strong light without sufficient nutrients therefore does little good.

The loss of nutrients and trace elements is particularly important for herbs because they are being periodically harvested, thereby forcing them to produce more new growth that we will ultimately take again later. Without putting back these raw materials needed for growth, the small volume of soil most indoor herbs are grown in will rapidly become barren.

Because the vast majority of windowsill herbs are used for their leaves, rather than their fruits or roots, a general-purpose indoor/outdoor fertilizer with an emphasis on nitrogen is best. Personally, I like Osmocote. However, whatever you use, careful not to overdo it, as fertilizer burn is a always a risk in small pots. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and maintain a steady schedule as long as your plants are growing vigorously.

Very young plants/cuttings, plants that are weakened by pests or diseases, or those grown in lower light levels need less fertilizer to match their correspondingly lower growth rates.

7) Choose Your Herbs Wisely

I’d encourage you to give careful thought to start by picking at most three or four herbs that are your favorites – and that are either hard to get or expensive to buy at your local grocery store. You may even decide that there is just one type that fits this description.

Grow only your favorite herbs indoors.
Save window space for your favorite herbs.
Eric Allix Rogers under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The reason for this discretion is that it takes a fair bit of work to maintain an indoor herb garden, and space at the windowsill is usually at a premium. In addition, it is usually too much for the beginning indoor gardener to handle numerous herb species at one time. The fewer herbs you start with, the fewer you need to master at once.

For example, on my modest south-facing windowsill at this very moment are only two herbs – basil and lemon grass. I actually have two pots of basil, since I use this herb the most, and it can be quite expensive to buy it fresh in this area. And the single 6-inch pot of lemongrass (another hard-to-find herb) grows quickly enough to use for soups, sauces and cups of tea. That’s really all I need. Common herbs like parsley are dirt cheap to buy, and rosemary is a common landscaping shrub here in the southwest; no need to grow that indoors!

8) Avoid Extreme Temperatures

Indoor herbs thrive at temperatures that most people find comfortable.
Herbs and people enjoy similar temperatures.
photo by _vikram under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Most herbs don’t require any special temperatures when grown indoors.

Daytime temperatures of anywhere from 70 – 90F at the windowsill are fine, and getting sufficient heat is usually not a problem when growing in direct light, even in the dead of winter.

Nighttime temperatures of 65-70 are ideal, but most herbs can withstand nightly lows of 55F with no consequence.

The thing to be on the lookout for are cold drafts. If your windows have large gaps or otherwise promote drafty conditions, this could be a problem for your indoor herb garden, especially if you enjoy warm-weather herbs like basil, which are often the first plants to fall due to early frosts.

Featured (top) photo credit: “Kitchen herb garden” by Christine & David Schmitt under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


All About The Elephant Ear Plant

Unfortunately, the common trade name “Elephant Ear Plant” has been used and abused so tirelessly that, standing alone, it is absolutely impossible to know which plant is being discussed.

Moreover, this confusion is perpetuated by nursery stock with labeling that fails to list a scientific name, at least to genus. One can therefore go home with an elephant ear and have little idea as to how it should be maintained.

In fact, this colorful moniker is often associated with no less than four distinctive genera of herbaceous perennial plants. And while they all share some characteristics, such as being toxic, they do vary in their husbandry requirements such that a separate discussion for each is useful to grow and care for them properly. For example, things like sun exposure, cold hardiness, soil type and moisture, and mature size are not standard when talking about elephant ears.

Please follow along as we break down each type of the four so-called elephant ear plants and provide basic growing instructions.

1) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Colocasia

Elephant Ear Plant: Colocasia esculenta
The “elephant ear” of Colocasia esculenta.
photo by Jeevan Jose under CC BY-SA 4.0

Commonly known as “taro” in many areas of the world (especially Asia) where it’s grown for its carbohydrate-rich corm, the genus Colocasia enjoys wide popularity as a food crop and a bold ornamental plant. There are just over a dozen species of Colocasia named to date, with several more likely to be announced in the near future. Colocasia esculenta is a particularly widely grown species used for food production.

Given Colocasia’s cosmopolitan distribution and the many thousands of years that it’s been under cultivation, its origin is a subject of debate. Nevertheless, it is believed that it may have originated Asia, most likely in lowland Malaysia. The corm of this plant is edible, as is the rest of the plant. However, its tissues are laden with calcium oxalate crystals – a potent plant toxin that can cause an acute reaction at very low doses. Symptoms of mild poisoning include chocking and burning/swelling in the mouth and throat, which could last for weeks. Thorough cooking is necessary to deactivate this toxin, although Colocasia varieties grown specifically for food are likely to have much less calcium oxalate to start with.

Elephant Ear Plant: Colocasia esculenta corms
Elephant Ear Plant corms – i.e., “taro” roots.
photo by Paxsimius under CC BY-SA 2.5

There are many cultivars of this type of elephant ear plant, but most are very large specimens and some species, such as the Thailand “Giant” strain, can grow over 6 feet high and push massive leaves that may in fact approach elephant size ears! Needless to say, a plant of this stature is best shown off growing outdoors or in a greenhouse where it can reach full size; however, it can be potted and kept indoors in very bright light, where it will remain much more manageable while still making a spectacular and large indoor plant.

An important consideration to bear in mind when growing this type of elephant ear is that they thrive in moisture. Indeed, their affinity for water makes them an ideal marginal plant around ponds or other water sources, and they are often grown partially submerged in water. Consequently, if grown in the ground or in a large planter, make sure that the soil remains uniformly moist. They are also notorious for being very heavy feeders, so keep them well fertilized with a balanced formula throughout the growing season if you want to enjoy this plant in all its glory. They prefer soil that is well-draining and neutral to slightly acidic.

As you might guess given their distribution among equatorial zones, this species appreciates high humidity. And while it can tolerate dryer conditions, this does make it highly susceptible to spider mites. Diligent monitoring of plants grown in drier climates should be performed to avoid a full-blown mite infestation that could prove difficult to control. Colocasia generally do best and reach their most attractive proportions in full sun, but can tolerate partial to full shade outdoors and still thrive. Indeed, locating specimens in shade is preferable in regions that experience lots of heat and low humidity during the growing season.

Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic'
Colocasia esculenta var. ‘Black Magic’
photo: Drew Avery under CC BY 2.0

In fall, shortening day length will gradually trigger a cessation and die back of vegetative and root mass in favor of flowers and corm formation. Depending on the variety, Colocasia may be overwintered outdoors in regions as cold as USDA zone 7, but always confirm before purchasing. If overwintering in zones colder than 8a, it is advised to bury the corm in mulch up to a depth of 6 inches. If the corm successfully overwinters, you should see new growth emerge in spring. In zones below 7, growers should trim the remaining leaves and roots from the corms and remove them to overwinter indoors buried in mulch; they may be stored anywhere temperatures remain above freezing, and can be replanted in spring after the danger of frost passes. Alternatively, the corm can be treated as a houseplant and given bright indirect light in a cool location. Take care not to fertilize or water excessively during this time as the plant’s growth will be very slow.

2) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Alocasia

Elephant Ear Plant: Alocasia x. amazonica 'Polly'
Alocasia amazonica ‘Polly’
Greenery Nursery – CC BY 2.0

The genus Alocasia is a plant collector’s dream, currently holding about 79 species, not including various hybrids. They are native to southern Asia and Eastern Australia, but have long been cultivated in the South Pacific and elsewhere for food. Their rich corms are edible like those produced by Colocasia described above. And like Colocasia, the tissues of Alocasia contain toxic calcium oxalate as a means of defense against herbivorous animals.

The breadth and variety of this very interesting genus makes generalization difficult. For example, Alocasia x amazonica is a striking small to moderate sized specimen that boasts gorgeous contrasting dark foliage and whitish veins. This is one of the most highly-celebrated members of the genus for cultivation as an indoor plant, given its exotic look and relatively straightforward care. While not as easy as the typical houseplant, A. x amazonica has a fairly short list of requirements – provide them very bright indirect light or filtered direct light; maintain warm temperatures; give them high humidity; and grow them in quickly draining soil that is always kept uniformly moist.

Elephant Ear Plant: the huge Alocasia macrorrhizos
Alocasia macrorrhizos: a large species!
photo: Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

In stark contrast to the comparatively dainty A. x amazonica stands Alocasia macrorrhizos (sometimes denoted A. macrorrhiza), which also goes by the names “elephant ear taro,” “giant taro,” and “ape.”  Unlike the horizontal or drooping orientation of most elephant ear plants, this behemoth proudly stands with its massive leaves pointed upwards toward the sky. This is a true mountain of an herbaceous plant, and under ideal growing conditions the “Borneo Giant” strain can throw up two to three meter long stalks supporting one meter long leaves for a total height of 10-12 feet from base to leaf tips! Recent taxonomic study of the giant elephant ear taro using DNA sequencing places the origin of A. macrorrhizos in the Philippines.

If you seek maximum size and rapid growth, provide the giant elephant ear plant with full sun. However, it can also do fairly well in partial shade but may not reach gargantuan size. It also enjoys warm temperatures, high humidity and needs lots of water throughout the growing season. Avoid letting the soil go dry and be sure to feed well. Enriching the soil with high amounts of organic matter, such as steer manure, is recommended.

Alocasia cuprea
The colorful Alocasia cuprea.
by Frank Schulenburg under CC BY-SA 2.0

Like most elephant ears, they are highly vulnerable to mite attack in arid regions, which can be mitigated to some degree with frequent misting or spraying.

This species will not tolerate cold winters, and is generally less cold-hardy than Colocasia. For growers in USDA zones 8 and below, it is advisable to dig up the corms in fall around the first frost and overwinter indoors.

Despite its towering stature and almost frightening growth rate in ideal conditions outdoors, the giant elephant ear can be tamed in a container, and makes an outstanding, large indoor plant. It can grow 5 feet tall (or more) if provided with enough bright indirect/direct light and grown in a large pot.

Space permitting, I can hardly think of a more majestic and bold tropical plant for any home or greenhouse.

3) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Xanthosoma

Elephant Ear Plant: Xanthosoma sagittifolium
Arrowleaf elephant ear: Xanthosoma sagittifolium.
photo by Olaf under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Xanthosoma is a roughly 50-member genus that, unlike those discussed previously, is believed to have originated (or at least been first domesticated) in the New World tropics. Overall, they are quite similar in form to Colocasia, and are likewise grown widely for their starchy, edible corm. Although they are cultivated for food in various parts of Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and the Netherlands, they are a particularly important staple in Puerto Rico, Cuba and, more recently, West Africa.

Perhaps the most broadly distributed member of the genus is Xanthosoma sagittifolium, which is primarily grown for food but is also a common collector’s plant.

This is a fast-growing, large species that under ideal conditions can produce leaves up to 4 feet long and 3 feet wide on petioles of a meter in length. The foliage is attractive but relatively understated compared to some elephant ears, and it produces an unremarkable spathe type inflorescence common to the family.

The dramatic Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger'
Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’
meddie / aka Gramps – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

X. sagittifolium does best in warm, very humid environments in strong, filtered light. This species requires continually moist soil that is fast draining and rich with organic matter to reach its full potential.

It can be grown in a large container where will it will make a very large and interesting indoor plant.

Outdoors the corm can survive winters in USDA zones 8 and higher; in colder regions the corm should be dig up and brought indoors until frost danger passes in spring.

In contrast, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ is a cultivar that is grown only for its striking bright lime green foliage.

This plant can reach proportions roughly equivalent to X. safittifolium and is in all other husbandry respects likewise similar.

4) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Caladium

Elephant Ear Plant: the elegant and beautiful Caladium lindenii
Gorgeous Caladium lindenii
by Ahmad Fuad Morad under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unlike all of the other genera above, which are often grown for food, Caladium are strictly ornamental and do not form a corm (the are a tuberous plant). There are roughly a dozen species of Caladium, not including the myriad of popular cultivars available at most large nursery centers. Like Xanthosoma, this is also a New World elephant ear, with its “roots” primarily in South and Central America where they occupy the dappled realm of the forest understory.

Caladium are by far the smallest elephant ear plants discussed here, with an average size of roughly two feet tall by two feet wide. However, what they lack in stature they make up for in color and beauty; these are the showiest of all elephant ears, with varieties coming in a myriad of colors and leaf patterns, including red, white, bright green and pink.  For example, the species Caladium lindenii (formerly placed in Xanthosoma) presents a striking arrow-head leaf with a deep green background that’s overlaid with wide, white/cream veins; whereas Caladium bicolor ‘Florida Sweetheart’ has reddish pink leaves fading to green along the margins, and C. bicolor ‘Angel Wings’  has bright white leaves with thin dark veins.

A colorful variation of Caladium bicolor
A variation of Caladium bicolor.
Olaf under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With their striking coloration, small size, and preference for shade or well-filtered direct sunlight, it’s no wonder why this is the most popular indoor elephant ear plant. Further, there are very few rules to abide by when growing these species. Like most of the types discussed above, they crave moisture and humidity. Keep them in a light, neutral to slightly acidic and well-draining soil that is rich in humus and kept continually damp/moist, but not waterlogged. Do not make the mistake of sitting their pots in water as you might a Colocasia!

Light requirements are also easily met, since most Caladium will thrive in full shade outdoors or in bright indirect light or filtered direct light indoors. Keep in mind that bright light is needed for most showy specimens to reach their full color potential. Fertilize as any foliage houseplant, with heavier feeding during the warmer months and when growing in bright light. As with the other elephants ears, all parts of this plant are toxic, therefore care should be taken to avoid accidental ingestion by children or pets.

A reddish pink variation of Caladium bicolor
Caladium ‘Carolyn Whorton’
by bigisbetter under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps the only real shortcoming of  the Caldium is that they are not especially cold hardy, making them ill-suited as an outdoor perennial in many regions of the country. In fact, unless you live in USDA Zone 9 or warmer, you will need to bring this plant indoors for the winter or be prepared to buy new plants each spring. The tubers can be dug up in the fall as nights become cool and, after trimming any remaining leaves/roots, the bulbs can be stored in a moderately-dry peat much in a dark and cool place (around 55F-65F) until spring. Alternatively, the tuber can be transplanted to a container indoors, where the plant may continue to grow (albeit slowly) if kept warm and provided sufficient lighting.

Featured (top) image credit: “Caldium” by Robert S. Donovan CC BY 2.0