OFFICE PLANTS:

How Clients and Janitors Can Protect the Interior Landscape

by Joelle Steele

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Almost all offices have plants. From small desktop pothos plants to large, expensive specimen trees. A typical foliage investment, along with the necessary containers, for a medium sized suite of offices could run anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the types, sizes, and quantities of plants and containers selected. The business of installing and maintaining indoor foliage is called interiorscaping, plantscaping, or interior landscaping. Whatever you choose to call it, it's a fast growing industry composed of highly skilled individuals who have gone through substantial training in order to learn how to properly care for and handle tropical foliage.

THE INTERIORSCAPE SERVICE

Interiorscaping is more than just watering plants. In fact, the watering process is quite an art in itself because the maintenance technician must know not only how much to water each individual plant according to its individual moisture requirements, but must also be aware of how such environmental factors as light, location, heat, cold, and air circulation affect the irrigation needs of each plant.

The technician must also know how much fertilizer to mix in the water, how frequently to fertilize, what kind of fertilizer to use for each individual plant variety, how to properly clean leaves without damaging the foliage, how to properly trim and prune a plant, how and when to transplant and when to trim roots and change soil, and, how to diagnose and treat various types of pests and plant diseases.

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Interiorscaping is a fast-paced, highly technical industry. Maintenance technicians usually receive their training in one of two ways: college or on-the-job training. More often than not, a little of both is required to really understand plant growth and development and the practical application of theory as it relates to maintenance out in the "real world."

Part of a maintenance technician's job is second guessing what may or may not have occurred in her absense. When a maintenance tech is only at the client's office once a week, she doesn't see what goes on with the environment while she isn't there. The client may have turned up the heat full blast and forgotten to turn it down two days in a row. The client may have gone out of town for four days leaving his drapes closed and blocking out what little light normally shines on his ficus tree. When Mr. Smith spilled his coffee into the $800.00 rhapis palm, the technician could have been at home sleeping!

It's important to remember that when you take care of someone else's plants, particularly when any one of those plants may have cost the client anywhere from $10.00 up to $1,500, that it is not just a simple homestyle hobby. In an office plants are part of the corporate image, and if they look bad they must be replaced at the interiorscapers expense. A technically incompetant maintenance person can be extremely costly to an interiorscape company in terms of plant and client losses.

THE JANITORIAL SERVICE

The cleaning crew is there when everyone else, save for an occasional overly-dedicated office worker, has gone home for the day. There's no one there to ask what to do if there is a problem involving one of the plants. What frequently happens is that a plant is damaged, sometimes fatally, simply because the janitorial staff did not know how to handle a particular situation.

For the most part, unless you know for a fact that your client does not have an interiorscape service, it is best not to do anything to the plants at all, aside from removing trash from the base of the plant or dead leaves from the carpet. Not handling the plants will usually eliminate the chaos which arises when a plant has a problem which the interiorscaper says was due to someone else tampering with it.

However, there will be times when it is necessary for you to in some way handle a plant. The following are some of the more commonly found situations along with some recommendations about what to do in each case.

MOVING A PLANT

There will always be a time when a plant needs to be moved so that you can clean around it. Be gentle with the plant. Handle it by the container only if possible. If it is a very large plant you should not attempt to move it by yourself unless you have a hand truck or dolly. If someone is there to help you, one of you should hold the bottom of the pot while the other holds the upper portion of the pot at an angle with one hand and carefully supports the stalks with the other. If you're moving it by yourself you can try handling it like you would a baby.

If your client asks you to move a plant to another location you should avoid doing so and ask him to have the interiorscaper do that as they will know what location is environmentally suitable for that particular variety of plant. If, however, your client insists on having you re-locate the plant, use the techniques noted in the previous paragraph and also take care with tall plants in moving them through doors and around furniture. When you take it through door ways, always lead with the pot end first.

Wherever you move the plant, never move it by pulling on the stems or trunk. Avoid locating it where the foliage touches the walls, windows, drapes, or furniture. The plants used indoors have delicate leaves which are easily battered so just take you time and don't rush when you handle them. Also try not to drop the plant down hard because you will not only risk hairline cracks in the container, but may also risk damage to the delicate root systems of some plants.

SPILLED PLANTS

Occasionally a plant will be knocked over either by the cleaning crew or by someone who left the mess for the cleaning crew to take care of. In either case don't panic. Gently pick up the plant and set it upright again. If a lot of soil has been lost try to pick as much of it up and put it back in the pot, tapping the soil gently in place. If it is a tall plant that will no longer stand upright on its own, very carefully lean it against an inside wall. Just straighten it up the best that you can and leave a note on the plant for the interiorscaper saying that the plant was tipped over and needs their attention. They will handle it from there. You might want to leave a message on your client's desk saying that they need to contact their interiorscaper ASAP. It may require re-potting with new soil or there may be root damage which the interiorscaper will be able to fix.

WATERING PROBLEMS

A problem that occurs more often than should be necessary is the question of "unauthorized watering" by non-interiorscapers. Many times a well-meaning client or janitor will see a plant and think it looks like it needs water. More often than not, a plant with a wilted look is probably suffering from over-watering already and any additional watering could be fatal. Some plants just don't require a lot of water and do better if they are allowed to dry out between waterings. Use the interiorscaper's rule of thumb, when in doubt about whether to water or not, don't water at all.

An item which really should be mentioned while we're on the subject of watering is sub-irrigation planters, also known as self-watering or controlled watering containers. There are several different kinds and they have built in reservoirs which hold water that is used by the plant as it needs it. Watering a plant in one of these containers, using the conventional method of dumping water over the soil, will usually upset the mechanism of the system and cause it to shut itself off. The plant then either dries out or rots from too much water, depending on the type of container it is. Some of these containers have wicks, sensors, tubes, corks, etc., which are quite delicate and very carefully placed and therefore should never be touched under any circumstances except by the interiorscaper.

If you see a ring on the carpet where a plant is located or if you find that the carpet is damp around the base of a plant, please advise the interiorscaper or your client immediately. Hairline cracks in decorative containers are not easily seen and can cause severe damage to carpeting and floors if not replaced.

CLEANING LEAVES

Clients frequently complain that the leaves of their plants are not shiney. They would ideally like a nice high gloss like that found on plants purchased at flower and plant shops. Interiorscapers do not usually use substances which give the leaves such a waxy shine because the chemicals in the leaf polishes can clog the pores and damage the plant. Leaves are best kept clean and minimally shiny with a damp cloth.

Unless your client does not have an interiorscaper you should not attempt to clean the foliage. There are two reasons for this: 1) the leaves are easily bent and broken if not handled correctly; and, 2) transmission of insect pests and diseases is accomplished by using the wrong kind of cleaning materials.

If you must clean the leaves do not use any chemical substance of any kind. Use disposable rags or wipes that can be tossed out after you clean each plant. Never use the same rag to clean more than one plant. Most of the small pests which infest indoor foliage are so small in some of their developmental stages that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. They could easily be transported from plant to plant on your cleaning rag.

Start cleaning from the uppermost foliage and work your way down. If the plant is very tall, get a step ladder so that you don't have to pull the plant down to your level, possibly at the expense of a broken stem or uprooting of a stalk. Wipe the leaves with a firm but gentle solid stroke. Don't rub back and forth like you would on a piece of furniture.

INSECTS AND PESTS

Most of the pests which prey on plants are those which cannot be easily seen without very close examination of foliage, usually with a hand lens. The chemicals used to treat these pests can only be applied by an individual who has a state pest control license, so leave the pest control to the interiorscaper.

If you see ants in a plant or around a plant you might want to leave a note for the interiorscaper. Sometimes clients spill soda into a plant and ants become drawn to the substance. Also, some honeydew-producing foliage pests attract ants who harvest the honeydew. In either case the interiorscaper should be informed so that they can apply the proper types of chemicals to eradicate the pests.

CHEMICALS

Most cleaning chemicals, if introduced onto the leaf surface or into the soil will cause irreparable damage to the plant. Some chemicals can do damage if they are present in the air in high concentrations, such as when a room is newly painted. Ficus trees in particular are very susceptible to leaf loss if they are in a room that is newly painted or if they are placed in a room too soon after it has been painted. This is particularly true in highrise buildings where air circulation and ventilation can be poor.

If you are a part of a project that involves painting or the use of any major amounts of chemicals which you suspect may endanger the health of the plants, please advise your client that the interiorscaper be notified as to whether the plants need to be moved, where to, and how soon they can be put back in their original locations.

SUMMARY

To recap, interiorscaping is not something that you can just pick up from reading a book. It takes a lot of time and serious dedication and the client's foliage investment must be taken into consideration at all times. As part of the outside services hired by the same clients, interiorscapers rely on janitorial cleaning crews to take every precaution possible in handling foliage and to advise them whenever they even suspect that there may be a problem that could damage a plant.

This article last updated: 03/11/2002.