The Star Early Edition



MANY of us work in open-plan of­fices where our al­lot­ted cu­bi­cles are small but our own, so to speak. We per­son­alise them with baubles that mean lit­tle to oth­ers but a lot to us. A col­league, for in­stance, has a lit­tle blue glass dol­phin that re­minds her of a sun-drenched hol­i­day on the Greek is­land of Paros. An­other has a snow globe of San Fran­cisco, a city where he used to work.

Noth­ing quite marks one’s space like a plant, how­ever. Ter­ri­tory, af­ter all, is a word rooted in the soil. I was asked re­cently to talk to col­leagues about car­ing for their cubicle flora. Al­though you can find whole vol­umes on how to cul­ti­vate house plants, suc­cess can be dis­tilled into a sin­gle sen­tence: Pick the right plant, pay at­ten­tion to the soil, and wa­ter as needed.

To state the ob­vi­ous: Most of­fices and many homes are aw­ful places to grow plants. That is why peo­ple in­vented green­houses as en­vi­ron­ments where the trop­i­cal plant devo­tee could con­trol tem­per­a­tures, hu­mid­ity and light lev­els.

As for the of­fice, the dim­mer an en­vi­ron­ment and the more an­ti­quated its heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tems, the tougher it is on the plants. Even in nice, bright and well-ven­ti­lated of­fices, you have to worry about plants be­ing too close to heat reg­is­ters and win­dows that are too hot in sum­mer and too cold in win­ter.

The quick­est way to kill a plant is to over­wa­ter it. The slow­est way to kill a plant is to wa­ter it just enough to keep it alive but in­fre­quently enough that it is in a con­stant state of stress.

This is con­nected to the type of con­tainer you’re us­ing. If your plant is in a pot that doesn’t drain, you might un­der­stand­ably be spar­ing with the wa­ter you apply. The very best set up is to have the plant grow­ing in a free-drain­ing pot that is then set in a slightly larger one that doesn’t drain, a cachepot.

The in­fre­quent watering con­di­tion is wors­ened by soil that is old, tired and de­pleted. If it has light­ened in colour and is sunken, dense and crusted, it’s time to re­pot your old dar­ling. Early spring is the op­ti­mum time for this, to co­in­cide with the plant’s nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tive growth cy­cle, but if your sit­u­a­tion is dire, any time is a good time. The stan­dard ad­vice is to put the plant in a slightly larger pot, teas­ing out the con­gested roots while you’re at it. Use fresh pot­ting soil be­neath and around the root ball, wa­ter it well, watch the soil sink, and back­fill it some more be­fore giv­ing it a fi­nal watering.

Plants dif­fer in their mois­ture re­quire­ments, but if you have fresh, free-drain­ing soil, it is hard to over­wa­ter.

Your fin­ger is an ex­cel­lent tool for mea­sur­ing watering needs; the sur­face should be dry be­tween wa­ter­ings.

I have a small list of plants that I rec­om­mend for of­fice en­vi­ron­ments. It’s a group that may not win prizes for nov­elty, but the va­ri­eties are all sur­vivors.

Pothos is not one of the three mus­ke­teers but a fa­mil­iar leafy vine from the South Pa­cific that ben­e­fits from an an­nual trim to keep the plant bushy and the vin­ing stems in check. Va­ri­eties tend to be lime green, dark green or var­ie­gated. Satin pothos be­longs to a re­lated genus but is just as easy to grow.

The Chi­nese ev­er­green is an­other stal­wart house­plant, val­ued for its large, pointed leaves, some­times nar­row and all marked with in­ter­est­ing var­ie­ga­tion that in some va­ri­eties re­calls the prayer plant.

Dra­cae­nas come in many forms, de­pend­ing on the species, but the fine-bladed, red-edged Dra­caena marginata Tri­color is as fine an ar­chi­tec­tural plant as you will find. It’s com­mon but in no way vul­gar. I have had suc­cess with philo­den­drons and clivias, though they may be too big for most cu­bi­cles. The spi­der plant is pretty fool­proof, and it’s fun to root and then de­tach the pups af­ter they de­velop. Some of my col­leagues thought this the most pop­u­lar of house­plants. But that ti­tle these days goes to pha­laenop­sis, the moth or­chid.

This would work in a cubicle on the brighter end of the room, though you might be tele­graph­ing the wrong message.

In spite of its ubiq­uity, the or­chid re­mains glam, if not flam­boy­ant. This is the of­fice, af­ter all.

No one said any­thing about par­adise. – The Washington Post

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