The Plant Lover’s Guide to Styling a Bookshelf

published Mar 29, 2021
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These days, bookshelves are more than just a storage solution for your ever-growing collection of titles. In fact, they’ve become certifiable style moments that more often than not double as the focal point of a room. In a small space, one may take on a multitude of roles — bar cart, home office, and media center, to name a few. In a slightly more spacious setting, one can rise to new heights as a wall-to-wall construct that transforms a living room into a dream library. When decorating these shelves, we often outfit them with framed art, sculptures, decorative vases, and other tchotchkes. And when all is said and done, we may filter in a few potted plants for good measure. 

Now, adding live plants to a bookshelf may seem easy enough in theory, but doing so in a thoughtful and intentional manner may not be as foolproof. From the specific variety of greens to their proper placement and the planter pots they’re displayed in, there is a whole host of factors to consider when attempting to reinvent an ordinary shelf into a green-filled, design-forward moment. 

“It’s really a styling exercise, so always take into consideration the other associated objects that will also find a home on said shelf and start to curate a moment,” says Danu Kennedy, design director at Parts and Labor Design. “The most important consideration is going to be keeping your plant alive, so make sure that whatever you choose is easily accessed to water and has all the natural light it needs to thrive.”

To help you get started, here’s the lowdown on styling a bookshelf with lively greens. 

A quick heads-up: Note that any specific plants mentioned in this story or any others may be toxic to pets or humans. “Toxic” plants can induce symptoms that range from mild (upset stomach) to severe (possible death). If you have a cat, dog, or kid, make sure you research the plants ahead of time on a reputable site like, or by calling your vet or pediatrician.

Step 1: Gather some bookshelf intel. 

First things first: Identify the holes and empty spaces on your shelves that could benefit from a new element, whether that’s a new texture, color, or more height. If you can’t find any blank space, make it yourself. For example, if your books are arranged back-to-back in a single-file line, consider shuffling them up so that some are situated vertically and others in horizontal stacks of three or more — the latter makes for an ideal platform for a planter. Another option: You might swap out a bookend and allow a plant to serve that functional purpose.

Also survey the bookshelf and its surroundings, from the amount of light the shelves receive (When working with plants, lighting is, of course, of utmost importance!) to the other colors on them and in the room. “Before filtering fresh greens into a bookshelf, we think about the colors and lighting,” says Melissa Lee, founder and creative director of Bespoke Only. For example: “For shelves that aren’t well lit, avoid plants with dark foliage, which, visually, could become a black void.” 

Finally, think about the number of plants you’d ideally like to see on the bookshelf. If you’re going for a maximalist, boho-inspired finish, more is always more, while a cluster of three plants will completely suffice in a modern, minimalist scheme. 

Step 2: Assess your inventory.

Corral together all of your plants so that you have a clear idea of what greens you’re working with. 

The amount of natural light your bookshelf receives can help you figure out if you can use those plants you already own or if you might want to invest in new ones and/or some plant accessories. Darryl Cheng, author of The New Plant Parent and creator of House Plant Journal, notes that, “Unless your shelf is right beside a large window or directly below a skylight, most plants will die slowly when placed far from any windows — some slower than others.” If you don’t have a viable alternative, in terms of space, the next best thing here is LED lights. “They’re cheap and compact and can easily be installed onto shelves without taking up too much room,” says Cheng. “When your plants have the light they need, you will be happier with their growth and the overall experience of caring for them.”

Another solution for bookcases that don’t have optimal access to natural light is to opt for a green that can survive in that sort of a setting, so that you’re not forced to constantly move it in front of a window and back. Dutch designer Judith de Graaff, who’s also the author of Urban Jungle and Plant Tribe, advises going with a Calathea zebrina or a ZZ plant

Buying vessels specifically for this space? “A sculptural ceramic vessel is a visual statement on its own while making a powerful complement for the greenery inside,” Lee says. 

If your bookshelf features an eclectic assortment of colors, you have a little more leeway when it comes to experimenting with interesting shapes, tones, and forms. For the modern, monochrome shelf, your better bet would be to stick to reserved neutrals (white, black, cream).

De Graaff prefers a color palette that complements her interior, which includes soft pastels and neutrals, such as white, gray, black, green, and terracotta. The creative also suggests a little monochrome magic. “Why not pick plant pots in the same colors as your plant’s leaves? A beautiful plant deserves a beautiful matching pot. Nothing is more disappointing than one that just sits in its ugly plastic grow pot,” she adds.  

And when it comes to selecting vessels, don’t forget to factor in room to grow — literally. Lee emphasizes the importance of considering the plant’s mature form and specifically thinking about how much taller and bigger it will get. “What’s the shape of its growth — does it grow upward? Will it develop a full/round form, or do the stems tend to droop?” Lee asks. Those questions will give you a better idea of the best-shaped and -sized vessels for your shelves.

Credit: AT Video

Step 3: Abide by the rule of threes.

Ready to start plant styling? Meet the rule of threes, which is a standard in photography and design. It basically states that when styling a vignette or capturing a photo, you should strive to incorporate three standout elements in one frame. It creates a visually cohesive story that’s subconsciously pleasant to the eye.

Naturally, according to de Graaff, styling in clusters of three will make your shelves look more attractive. “Even if there isn’t much space in between all the plants and books on your shelves, making small groups of items can help you decide what plant looks best next to which item,” the author explains. 

Step 4: Consider size and scale.

Plants come in an abundant array of shapes and sizes, which means that experimenting with scale need not be an intimidating process. De Graaff suggests playing around with plants of varying heights, to find which setup best complements your shelves, starting by putting the larger ones on the ends of the bookcase to anchor your styling. “Place tall ones next to smaller, wider plants, or stack some books on their side and use them as a throne for a nice potted plant,” she says. “I like it when there’s some volume on the top that visually makes the shelves take up more space in your room and turn it into a veritable vertical garden.” 

Of course, the top of a bookshelf may be the only spot that works for a plant. “The structure of some plants as they grow may not lend themselves to being restricted by a shelf from above,” says Cheng. “The money tree (Pachira aquatica), jade, Aglaonema, and Dieffenbachia tend to grow upwards so you might only be able to display them on a shelf for a few months.” Instead, consider propping these on the very top of the bookcase for unrestrained growing space. 

You can also think about featuring some plants that take up space in other ways — like trailing greens with leafy vines that stretch out onto neighboring shelves. “I love using a mix of plants: some tall ones for the top, like an upright Philodendron or a smaller Kentia palm, some trailing or cascading plants that can grow along the shelves, like a Hoya carnosa, a Tradescantia pallida, or a Philodendron micans. And some smaller potted plants that fill the smaller areas on the shelves,” De Graaff says.

Credit: Samara Vise

Step 5: Go for an element of interest. 

De Graaff recommends using plants with different colored leaves to add depth and extra appeal to your shelves. The plant pro’s favorites include Syngonium Red Heart, a small Stromanthe Triostar, and a Calathea picturata

To take it all to the next level, de Graaff suggests adding in a few accent stems throughout by trimming a leaf from a larger plant, such as a fan palm or a Monstera. Prop each one in an individual vase or vessel and it can last for multiple weeks if you change its water frequently.

Lastly, have fun with it! “Don’t feel limited by the things that could or should be on your shelves, and let your imagination run free,” says de Graaff. Sprinkle in personal touches such as photographs, travel trinkets, and even a design-forward mister or watering can. Allow the objects to tell a story, elevating a simple green into a lively moment.

Apartment Therapy’s Styling with Plants vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy editorial team and generously underwritten by Greendigs.