Houseplants 101


It’s impossible to meet Storm Tharp without taking note of his charm and humility, of his exuberant style, of his devotion to his craft.


As a fine artist he is as studied as he is unchained and in 2010, the Whitney included his breathtaking portraits in their Biennial. But in recent years we are in awe of another feat. His collection of houseplants simply kills us. Thriving and alive, they transform his space and breathe life force into his already enchanting home. Read on to learn about his process and his plants.

You live with an impressive collection of plants, both indoors and out! When and how did this become a hobby? Or should we say, obsession?!

It’s definitely a hobby and Mike, my boyfriend, would certainly call it an obsession. But I find it more playful than that. As an artist, it’s second nature: light, texture, form. But now after so many years, I have relationships with these characteristics. I aid in the expression of these characteristics. I love a perfectly cantilevered limb. Seriously.

Did you start as a gardener and then bring your plants indoors or did you fall first for houseplants?

My interest began with indoor plants because, for years, I didn’t have a yard. I think it’s fair to say, my initial impulse about plants had more to do with enhancing the room. The first plant I brought into my home is still with me: a maidenhair fern. Which is funny, because they have a reputation for being impossible. I now have two and they are huge. I cut them back every fall, they sprout in the spring and become these big heads of hair by mid-summer. I planted them in two very different containers, which causes them to grow with slight distinctions. Which is important. Like Ernie and Bert rather than Ernie and Ernie.

What was the first plant that shifted things for you? That inspired your love for cultivation?

Aside from the maidenhair ferns, my first real success was with a Laua’e fern (pronounced lu a ay) that I bought from my friend Sam who owns Sammy’s Flowers in Portland, Oregon. This was in about 2001. It’s a very common outdoor fern in Hawaii and I didn’t expect it to do well in my home. But it has thrived. I named her Meg a few years ago. With Meg, I learned a lot about the importance of container size. She lives outside in the summer.

Are there any plants you find simply too difficult to keep?

I inherited a miniature ficus that was cultivated to appear like a bonsai. Too fussy for me. Although I did my best with that guy for about 10 years.

What plants do you recommend for those of us without a green thumb?

I think there is a huge misconception about the green thumb. Every plant just needs to be watched. You learn from mistakes not unlike cooking from a recipe. I suppose some plants are more difficult than others, but in my experience, it’s all about sunlight. Too much, too little and just right. That said, I’m a huge fan of purple oxalis. And asparagus ferns love to show off if you have the room.

Do you care for your plants each day? Tell us about what’s involved in caring for them?

In the summer months I’m looking after my plants daily. I’ve read that most plants don’t enjoy being wet and hot at the same time, so for the ones that need water, I tend to them in the mornings or evenings. As summer is the season for growth, I enjoy checking in on each of them; new shapes and sprouts happening daily. I’ll bore you to death if I start getting into what’s going on outside. But my outdoor containers are a big part of my daily routine.

How is this process a ritual for you?

I’m not sure. The beginning of the day is filled with rituals: coffee, gym, the plants, you know. I enjoy having a look and checking in. I talk to them sometimes. It’s part of my day. And in the growth months, I’m checking on them more than once.

Where do you find your containers? Do you have any favorites or favorite sources?

Containers are tough. You can still find some pretty great mid-century containers in thrift stores, but I’ve noticed people are catching on. For the kind of plant that I want in my house, the container MUST have drainage. So many handsome options do not. I rely heavily on standard Italian terra cotta.

Houseplants are so 1970s. And then they really fell out of vogue. Why are they so ripe for revival?

That’s not so easy to explain. If I put my decorator hat on, I think it’s related to how streamlined and attractive everything has become. And I say “attractive” with a bit of a sneer. It’s as if we have entered science fiction. The plant unfurls and softens the room. It also changes the chemistry of the space. If you removed the plants from my home, the mis en scene would lack character and humor.

You’ve always surrounded yourself with beautiful things. Plants are beautiful objects but they’re also alive. How does this life force energy come into play?

The other day, I was asked to give a 5-7 minute slide show, introducing myself to a group of artist colleagues. Instead of showing my work, I shared a few of my plants and a couple of books that I’m reading. For me, taking care of the plants becomes this affirmative reminder of what art can feel like. Making Art (whatever that means) often involves destruction and darkness, so it’s important for me to be reminded of the graceful. Have you seen that picture of the giant philodendron in Matisse’s studio? It’s incredible.

Have your plants changed the energy or the climate in your home?

Yes. The plants are a reminder that our house is filled with light.

As a painter and sculptor, so much of your work is figurative, character is so central in your work. Do you attribute personalities to your plants?

Absolutely. Much of that goes unsaid.

I know at least one, Karen, has a name. Are there others?

Karen is an impressive flowering Hooker Cactus. There’s Meg and there’s Toby and J.J. and Phil the philodendron.

Have you done any portraits of your plants?

I have. I painted Karen well before I named her and well before she grew into the 4 foot creature she is now. And I painted smaller versions of Toby. Toby is a huge Desert Cabbage.

Do you have any favorite gardens? Sources of inspiration for your plants?

I have not been to many public or private gardens. But I have seen some. The Tivoli gardens and the Villa D’Este outside of Rome are incredible. The Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon is culturally and aesthetically mind blowing in every season. A couple of years ago I went to the gardens at the Huntington Library in Pasadena and found them breathtaking. This past spring, Mike and I went to the Conservatory at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. And I have recently become enamored with the Mirai Bonsai Garden in St. Helens, Oregon. I’m a big believer in propping and staking plants to allow them to grow strong trunks and limbs, it’s an art form in an of itself in Japan. Sadly, I have never been to Japan. Cindy, grab the family and lets go!!

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