LANDSCAPING THE INDOOR ENVIRONMENT

Is Interior Landscape The Business For You?

by Joelle Steele

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Plants. Everybody loves them and everybody wants them in their homes and offices. This "offshoot" of the landscape industry is called interiorscaping, plantscaping, or interior landscaping. Whatever you choose to call it, it's becoming a big business in its own right and everyone wants a piece of the pie, including the landscape contractor. And if you're a landscape contractor who is just starting to dabble in interiorscape or even if you're only thinking of the possibility, here are some important things to know about the interiorscape business.

Interiorscaping is not the "same as landscaping only indoors," a comment I hear from many landscapers. Working indoors requires an entirely different technology. While the basic botanical concepts of plant growth and development are the same as far as photosynthesis is concerned, you're working with tropical foliage as opposed to ornamentals. And, once you place that plant in an artificially lit and artificially heated/cooled environment, and in a restricted growing container, things start to get tricky.

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THE INDOOR ENVIRONMENT

When working outdoors you're at the mercy of the elements. When working indoors you're at the mercy of people. People who lock their office door while they're out of town on business, incidentally leaving their drapes closed, blocking out what little light their plants normally receive. People who crank the heat up full blast in the winter and turn up the air conditioner to the freezing level in the heat of summer. People who pour foreign substances such as coffee and soda into the root systems of their beloved plants and then complain when the foliage begins to look "funny." People who move their plants from office to office and from one lighting and heating condition to another without regard for the safety of the foliage during transport. People who paint their offices without removing the plants or returning them to the newly painted rooms too soon, resulting in leaf drop, particularly in ficus trees.

Add to these problems the architectural features of hot, non-coated windows and improperly installed gro-lites which burn and fade the foliage and encourage the growth and development of mites, scale, and meally. In addition, there are problems of access to plants, not only when someone goes out of town, but during regular office hours when meetings are taking place and a maintenance technician has to work around access to an occupied office or conference room. Then we also have those small offices where the staff takes a long lunch or leaves early for the day, leaving the maintenance person unable to service the account.

MAINTENANCE CONCERNS

Watering a containerized plant outdoors normally presents few problems. You can usually drench it fully, leaching out all the soluble salts. Indoors it is just the opposite. In addition to the fact that you must cart your water around with you in either a bucket or a pressurized watering machine of some kind, refilling it over and over again can be extremely time consuming as the water source may be located in an area which is much less than convenient. It is virtually impossible to fully leach a plant indoors and salt damage is of major concern to most interiorscapers. As for leakage, ask any interiorscaper about carpet or floor damage of any kind, and they will probably be able to give you a two-hour dissertation on the subject. Even the slightest, most invisible cracks in a container can cause hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars worth of damage.

While a plant usually dries out outdoors, fully flushing out a plant indoors results in the water stagnating in the saucer (if the plant is not direct-planted into a container without drainage) and/or rotting of the root system. Because most indoor plants usually have topdressing, sphagnum moss being a common type, the moss must frequently be moved to see if the water is coming into the saucer. Eventually the moss, if not properly staged, begins to sag and look sloppy, usually about the time it is losing its green color and turning brown and must be replaced.

In an effort to avoid root rot, there is frequently a tendency to underwater indoor foliage. This not only makes the plants look unwell because of the salt damage to the leaves, it also puts the plants in a water-stress condition which makes them prone to disease and insect infestation. Many manufacturers have designed subirrigation containers, a.k.a. self-watering containers, which contain reservoirs that hold a supply of water that is used by the plant as it needs it. These are an excellent solution to the aforementioned problems, but the use of these containers is not anywhere near as widespread as it should be to fully eradicate the problem and make it a thing of the past.

When a plant outgrows its pot outdoors it is relatively simple to pot it up a size. Indoors you have a grow pot inside of an expensive decorative container. Transplanting up a size may not be possible because the client may not wish to pay for another larger size deco container. Root trimming and a soil change may be the only answer other than a complete replacement with new plant material at the expense of the interiorscaper. If transplanting is an option then the question becomes, where to do it. If there is no work area available, as is often the case in high-rise buildings, it may have to be done on a tarp in the client's office, possibly being disruptive to the client unless it can be scheduled for off-hours.

Plants have been known to grow and flourish indoors. Sometimes so much that a ficus tree will be found growing into the air conditioning vents, the curtains, against the wall, or into the line of foot traffic. Proper trimming is critical to help the plant retain its shape and character before it become spindley and unattractive. But once again, trimming on site in someone's office is no easy trick and if it's a ficus tree you have the sap to worry about. In the event that the overgrown plant is a slow-growing dracaena, pruning and trimming may be impossible without completely damaging the appearance of the plant for an indefinite period of time. Replacement in this case may be the only answer.

PEST CONTROL

Interiorscape does have the advantage of having fewer pests than outdoor foliage. Indoors the main problems are mites, scale, meally, and occasionally, fungus gnats. But when we get mites, we get MITES! Hot windows, poor air circulation, dusty foliage, and water stress all contribute to pest infestation. If leaves are not kept immaculately clean, mite colonies thrive and the devastation can be fatal. And cleaning leaves is a very time-consuming effort.

Prevention is the key word to indoor pest control. Plants must be carefully examined before installation on the job site. They must be kept clean, properly irrigated, and examined regularly for even the slightest sign of a pest problem. The use of most predators is not possible in many cases and chemical controls are no easy means of irradicating the problem.

Interiorscapers are limited in the types of chemicals they can use indoors or on foliage plants. Very few chemicals are labeled for interior use and therefore, the rotation of pesticides is difficult if not impossible. Application can be a real fiasco as tarps must be laid out to catch drips and clients complain about the smells.

SPECIAL SERVICES

Many interiorscapers provide cut flowers for their clients. They also offer color rotations of orchids, bromeliads, mums, kalanchoes, etc. Plant leasing is common as are guaranteed maintenance, both conditional and non-conditional. Short term rentals are available from some interiorscapers for parties and public events.

There are many specialty areas within interiorscape. Some interiorscapers specialize in commercial, some in residential. Some specialize in hotels and restaurants, others in institutional environments. And some specialize in small offices while others have made their mark in malls and large corporate headquarters.

PUBLIC RELATIONS

Working indoors, the interiorscaper is in constant contact with people. Wearing sloppy jeans or clothing with stains is not acceptable in an office or even indoor residential environment. The interiorscaper must be a real people-pleaser. Attitude is everything in a service business and the close proximity to the clients means that the service technician will often be asked questions about the plants they service, their job, and about plants the client has at home. A non-English speaking technician is going to have a rough time on a route and may cause clients to feel "neglected." The service technician is expected to appear at a regular time on a specified day each week with a smile on their face and a friendly hello. Anything less is unacceptable.

SUMMARY

So, as you can see, interiorscaping is quite different from landscaping in many ways. If you are a landscaper who is considering tapping the interiorscape market, I advise you to take the time to do some research on the subject. Interiorscaping can be a profitable business when executed in a well-thought out manner with proper planning and technical, as well as design expertise.

This article last updated: 05/21/1997.