When I was growing up, my mother understood the necessity of having a piece of greenery in the home, whether it was faux or real. To her, it was almost like a staple of home decor. But she didn’t really have time to tend to plants, she was tending to me and busy working.
I always had a passion for the outdoors as a kid; playing in the woods or outside in greenery. But it wasn’t until I got older, at around the age of 30, that I found myself in a garden center in a town in Pennsylvania and it truly took my breath away. There was a feeling in that space that was different to anything I had experienced before and I immediately wanted to replicate it in my own home.
At that point I was living in Los Angeles and didn’t have a large enough space with enough daylight, but in early 2014 I moved from LA to New Orleans and I started to bring plants into my home. From then until 2015 I probably accumulated about 60 plants but my knowledge is all self taught. I learned through online research, trial and error and developed through speaking to friends’ parents, my mom’s friends and people who are more well-versed in plants and biology, like horticulturalists.
When I left New Orleans in the summer of 2015 to move back to my hometown of Baltimore. We had a U-Haul full of plants and I was a bit protective of them; the way people ask movers to be careful with precious art, I was that way with my plants. I’m sure the movers wondered who I was!
My full-time hustle at the time was a job in an ad agency, but I had always been interested in interior styling and design and felt my personal space should speak to who I am. As I was becoming accustomed to a full time job after being freelance for a decade, I began to realize I needed a way to channel my creativity. People who saw my home would often ask me to come and style their space, so I decided I would start using my Instagram as a portfolio. As I captured more images of my home I was also accumulating many more plants, until I had around 160.
There were a lot of people who tapped into what was happening style wise, but many pointed out the greenery and I started to receive questions about particular plants.
People would ask me what type of plants would work well with their space or the light they had and I started to get a lot of requests to bring plants in and style them. I’ve kind of named myself a plant stylist.
To me, an interior stylist is someone who has a particular eye for placing things, who is able to understand how to curate a space, with furniture and art for example. When it comes to plants, my job is to seamlessly weave plants into a space in a way that works not only with the design that the individual has in mind for their home, but also with the light that they have and their budget. Of course, I haven’t been able to style as many spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but I’ve been giving people guidance via Zoom or email and trying to help the process of making their spaces more liveable and more comfortable. For anyone wanting to cultivate a green indoor space at this time, I have a few simple tips that anyone can use:
You can’t do anything at all with plants without knowing what light is coming into your home. Breaking that down is understanding what direction your windows are facing; north, east, west or south and learning the different types of exposure that come from windows facing in different directions. If you have a western facing window, for example, in the afternoon direct sunlight will be coming through that window if it’s open to the sky. That light can be very harsh and brutal and a lot of plants cannot survive in it. If that’s your situation, I’d suggest it’s better to have plants like cacti.
2. Bring in a statement plant
When trying to create a space that blurs the line between indoor and outdoor as seamlessly as possible, I always suggest bringing in a statement plant. Something that immediately alters a typical indoor space and makes you feel connected with the outdoors. That plant doesn’t have to be specifically styled to the space itself, it’s more about size—the bigger the better.
A statement plant tends to live in the living room area or foyer in your home, but it’s striking, bold and grabs your attention. It could be a bird of paradise plant, a large rubber tree or a larger, tree-like ficus, but it almost sets the tone of your home. If you have a large ficus alii by your couch and it begins to almost canopy over your couch, you have a form that is almost like a living cloud over the area where you relax. It’s reminiscent of what people enjoy when they are on vacation—lounging under the trees.
3. Create a “plant throne”
Always create several pockets of lushness where you can escape from the reality of being inside, but still be in your home. I suggest creating a little nook with greenery around it, which I call a “plant throne.” You have a comfortable chair—I have a chaise lounge that my wife and I love—and then layer the greenery around it. Imagine a group photo where you have smaller people at the front and taller people at the back. In such a photo you would typically put the most important individual in the center and the other people are hovering around or hugging that one person. That’s how a plant throne works. Larger plants are placed at the back and can cascade over almost like a canopy, then you have your medium sized plants that fringe the chair and then smaller plants that sit below at the floor. But it’s worth remembering that you have to have the right type of light for all of the plants in that space. Set it up in a corner of the home where you have windows flanking each side of the chair, so that all the plants are getting light.
4. Get creative with levels and surfaces
I’m really into the idea of every surface having the potential to be a plant stand. While everyone likes bouquets of flowers on the dining table to make their space feel more fresh, the reality is that the flowers will die over time. So, why not set a potted plant on a dining table? It doesn’t have to be large or grand, although it can be.
Corners in most homes are hard lines and plants soften those corners. I also like the idea of using pedestals for plants to create height. Anything you put on a pedestal can instantly become like art and demand attention. Even if you don’t have a really tall tree, if you set a large tree or plant by your couch you can raise it up and give it even more height. To be able to give plants height and move greenery higher in your home helps in the process of blurring that line between indoor and outdoor. When you’re outside there is greenery at every level, so I always suggest finding ways to use the vertical space in your home. My home has an entire wall of propagation cuttings and I utlize that space to only show off my love of the art of plants but also as a way to house gifts. Any time we have a birthday or a housewarming, we take a cutting from that wall, pot in some soil and share a piece of our home.
A lot of people are limited in what activities they can do and searching for companionship at this time. Surrounding yourself with plants can really be a form of companionship. I find a lot of tranquility in the time I spend nurturing and tending to plants. When people cultivate the ability to focus on this life they have brought to their homes, they can create moments to separate themselves from the stress and uncertainty of what’s happening in the wider world this year.
Introducing plants into my home and becoming a plant stylist has been life changing. The many plants in my home allow my mind to pull in memories of when I have been surrounded by greenery; hiking in a forest or on a nice vacation surrounded by flora and fauna. Whenever I begin to see my efforts come to fruition and see new life unfurling from a plant, I am filled with joy. Plants create a space that feels more alive.
Hilton Carter is a plant and interior stylist. He is the author of two books; WILD INTERIORS and WILD AT HOME. Carter lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife. You can follow him on Instagram @hiltoncarter and visit his website thingsbyhc.com.
All views expressed in this piece are the writer’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.