Cheryl Chesnut calls her indoor landscape "winter therapy." Modeled after the winter gardens in her husband's native Denmark, Chesnut's landscape is a south-facing, self-watering inner courtyard filled with plants, palms and a large fig tree. "People always comment on how nice all the fresh greenery makes our house smell. We've had our garden for 14 years, and the novelty still hasn't worn off. We're able to enjoy being surrounded by live plants every day of the year."
Photo by: Lisa J. Seifert

Inner Garden

Make your home come alive any time of the year with indoor landscapes

By Leslie Boyd

Alaskans are masters of the summer garden. We plant, mulch, water, weed and prune our way to stunning scenery in a span of four months. But what happens when the outside world is saturated in shades of white and gray? Some locals are figuring out a way to stay green in the middle of winter by bringing their gardens inside.

With elements ranging from planter boxes and benches to birdbaths and fountains – and plenty of plant life, of course – interior landscapes make for year-round retreats.

"I think having indoor plants in the winter is a necessity. It's kind of an oasis," says homeowner Jenny Ward. "When you come in from the snow, the cold and the wind, it adds life."

Just off her entryway, Ward has a sunroom that houses a bench, a birdbath and smaller plants. The centerpiece is a fichus tree that is potted in a recessed section of the floor.

"I think if I lived in a warm-weather place I wouldn't think to do this at all," Ward says. "Even pulling in the driveway and seeing that greenery through my window is wonderful."

Frigid temperatures, fluid water and flip-flops

The best compliment architect Mark Ivy ever received from a client, he says, came from a couple standing in shorts and flip-flops in their living room on a dark January night when it was 20 degrees below zero.

"I said, 'You look like you're at the beach.' And they told me, 'We are at the beach. We feel like we're at the beach every time we come home.'"

Ivy is enthusiastic about experimenting with indoor landscapes. He tries to sneak one into every project he works on and even his office, which includes a 150-square-foot waterfall, is a study in indoor landscapes.

"We see more people asking about it," he says. "I get clients joking about it every day."

Ivy's repertoire includes indoor pools surrounded by plants to create an outdoor feel; stone staircases that descend around indoor ponds; and fountains that flow from second-story staircases.

Cleaning and maintenance is always an issue and Ivy has created landscapes from both the "hire a caretaker" and the "do it yourself" ends of the spectrum.

"We play with our clients' schedules and maintenance sensitivities," Ivy says.

Some indoor water features are designed to need only one cleaning a year, while others may require frequent attention. Ivy has even designed features that turn on and off with the flip of a switch.

Maybe it's mind over matter, but Ivy says an indoor landscape can turn a home into a warm, inviting refuge in even the coldest temperatures.

Foliage with artistic flair

"Mood, scale, proportion, line, form, texture, color – they all apply," Erma MacMillan says of designing indoor landscapes with plants.

MacMillan, who works for the Green Connection in Anchorage, has seen an increase in homeowners wanting to create an outdoor environment inside, and she's not surprised.

"I think there's a growing knowledge about the health benefits of plants – cleaning the air, the calming effects," she says.

When it comes to designing with plants, MacMillan considers the kinds of plants to use and how those plants are contained.

The style of the house and the furniture is important in determining what types of containers look best, MacMillan says. Metal containers complement a modern home; ornate clays accent traditional styles; and tall, narrow containers create height in the room.

"It's important to make the container similar to a piece of furniture to compliment the surroundings," MacMillan says.

Repetition is also an important design element. MacMillan says she will usually identify one style of container that is repeated throughout a landscape.

"It's more soothing to the eye – it can get a little busy with lots of plants and containers," she says.

When selecting plants, one approach is to forego the usual indoor choices. Forget spider plants or Mother-in-Law's Tongue – go for something that adds dramatic flair. Customers are often surprised, she says, by the indoor plant options that are available.

"Dramatic foliage, a broad range of colors, sweeping plants, like a Cantia Palm, can become a central element in the room," she says.

Another aspect of the design process is the setting outside the house. If there are specific plants that are native to the environment, MacMillan will incorporate them into the indoor landscape.

"It's kind of fun to make the inside seamless with the outside," she says.

With any plant, there are several factors that should always be considered, especially, MacMillan says, if you are attempting to develop an indoor landscape on your own.

Consider light levels of the space and the light needs of plants, and take into account the temperature, traffic flow and furniture placement in the room. Humidity and exposure to cold air should also be considered when figuring out where to place plants.

Homeowner Jenny Ward, who has been living with her indoor landscape for more than 20 years, keeps her advice simple: "Choose plants that you love. I personally get very attached to my plants. When one gets bugs I kind of agonize over that," she says with a laugh. "I guess plants grow on you over the years."