(Family Features) - The variety of indoor potted plants available at garden centers grows each year. In a classroom setting, choose those that are easy to care for so you’ll have the best chance to succeed.
Look for plants that are easy to propagate, both for use in science experiments and so students can take some home. (Check out the related lesson, Indoor Plant Propagation.) Depending on the age of your students, you may also want to avoid plants with poisonous parts. A comprehensive list of poisonous plants is available from North Carolina State University. On the list below we include an asterisk beside any plant listed in this database, even though most are only dangerous if consumed in large quantities or because they cause skin irritation in some people. Please visit the site for more details.
Leave Pests Behind
When choosing plants from a store or accepting them as a donation, check carefully for pests such as thrips, aphids, spider mites, scale, and mealybugs. Visit National Gardening Association's Pest Control Library for images and symptoms of pest infestation. To be perfectly safe, it's best to quarantine new plants for a couple of weeks before you mingle them with those you already have, and to check plants frequently to see if pests emerge. When you’re sure they’re "clean," you can add them to the classroom garden.
A Few Favorites
- Coleus is a popular outdoor bedding plant that comes in a wide variety of colors, sizes, and shapes that add a real punch of color to any room. Shorter varieties adapted to lower light levels do best indoors. Coleus is very easy to propagate from cuttings placed in water or soil, making it an excellent stock plant for science experiments.
- English Ivy grows easily in low light. Use this evergreen vine to make topiaries to add a bit of whimsy to your indoor garden. You can purchase wire frames, such as the rabbit and squirrel offered in our Gardening with Kids Store, or you can make your own from wire coat hangers.
- Ficus species, also know as weeping figs or rubber trees, are very popular and hardy indoor plants. They can take on many growth habits – shrub-like, multi-trunk, or traditional tree form – and their size provides some real height to classroom greenery. Another cool thing about ficus trees is that you can propagate them using air layering, where roots are developed without detaching cuttings from the mother plant. Air layering can be a challenging and intriguing experiment for older or more advanced students. Learn about air layering here.
- Ferns grow well in hanging baskets, helping you make the most of limited space. They prefer environments with higher humidity. Ferns have a unique reproductive cycle, growing from spores rather seeds, and provide an opportunity to learn about the diversity of the plant kingdom in a hands-on way.
- Jade plants sport thick, fleshy leaves that can store water. They’re tolerant of infrequent watering and need little care. They also are excellent for propagation experiments because they grow easily from stem and leaf cuttings.
- Polka-dot plant is as cute as its name suggests, flashing bright splashes and speckles of pink, white, or red on green leaves. Although it can grow 2 to 3 feet tall, it tends to stay much smaller indoors and does well in terrariums.
- Pothos is one of the easiest and hardiest of indoor plants. The vining stems grow vigorously. To maintain a mounding appearance, pinch back the vines. Alternately, plant in hanging baskets and allow the vines to cascade, or let them grow vertically, as the roots that form along the vines allow them to cling to poles and trellises. Their heart-shaped leaves come in solid green, green and white, or green and yellow variegated patterns. They propagate very easily from stem cuttings.
- Spider plant is commonly found with solid green or green and white strap-like leaves, and they can really brighten up a dull room. Grow in traditional pots, or in hanging baskets to save shelf space. They produce lots of new plantlets on runners that you can use to start new plants. In humid environments, plantlets form new roots while still attached to the mother plant. Spider plants are great for plant sales or special projects.
- Strawberry begonia is a small, mounding plant that grows well in a regular pot or a hanging basket. It also produces small plantlets on runners you can separate from the mother plant to start new ones. Watching these "babies" grow is fun for kids and a great way to produce large quantities of new plants so each child can take one home. (Unlike it's blooming relatives, Rex and tuberous begonias, it is not listed on the North Carolina State University Poisonous Plants List.)
- African violets provide beautiful, colorful flowers with just a little bit of light and regular applications of fertilizer. Flower colors range widely, but are most frequently found in shades of white, pink and purple. Propagate from leaf and stem cuttings. If plants are healthy, they will also multiply in their pots and can be propagated by division.
- Begonias are a huge family, with varieties expressing diverse leaf and flower colors. They also make an excellent botany subject because they’re monoecious, meaning they have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Their succulent leaves and stems make them great stock plants for propagation. Check out the American Begonia Society's Virtual Greenhouse to learn about the variety of begonias available.
- Phalaenopsis orchids may be the easiest of orchids to grow. They do well in low light and need little maintenance. They grow in a loose mix of bark and peat rather than traditional potting soil, and do best in a relatively humid environment. Though orchids bloom just once a year, the blossoms can last for up to three months! From an education standpoint, the fused parts of the orchid flower can help you demonstrate the adaptations of flowers over time.
Although many herbs prefer full sun, you can try growing those listed below indoors under lower light levels. Plant dwarf varieties and provide as much light as possible by placing them in a south- or west-facing window or under grow lights.
- Basil is a stimulating sensory plant for children to smell and taste. Aside from traditional basil, there are also lemon, lime, anise, and cinnamon-flavored types. Leaf color and shape also varies, from tiny, pale green leaves to deep purple ruffles.
- Chives are normally grown for their flavorful leaves, which add a mild onion/garlic-like flavor to salads and baked potatoes.
- Oregano leaves are a favorite addition to in Greek, Italian, and Mexican cuisines (think pizza sauce). Choose seeds or plants of Origanum heracleoticum, which has the best flavor.
- Parsley is high in Vitamin A, and by weight has more Vitamin C than an orange! The curly variety has a tight, mounding growth that resembles a bed of soft moss, making it a nice "touch plant."
- Thyme is a low-growing woody shrub with oval leaves. Creeping varieties are a good fit for indoor growing. Like basil, you can find varieties with different fragrances and flavors, such as lemon, lime, and orange.
Read Indoor Herb Gardening for planting and care instructions.
Sarah Pounders - An Education Specialist at the National Gardening Association, Sarah is a graduate of Texas A&M University where her Master's thesis focused on the use of school gardens to teach nutrition. Through her work with NGA, various botanical gardens and Extension, she has coordinated numerous children's gardens, written curricula and activities for youth of all ages, conducted formal and informal youth education programs, and taught teacher training sessions on integrating gardens into the classroom.