In February of 2011, I was contacted by a previous client. Lazar had finished construction on her residence in 2009, and I’ve kept in touch with her and her husband over the years. They were (and are) awesome clients. We worked on their front and side yards in 2009, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching it mature beautifully over the years. They also have a great backyard with mature Oaks, and at first I thought maybe I was going to get to look at the options there. But I was presented with a different challenge. My client’s employer, a California-based organic food company, was relocating to a new space in Berkeley. The space would accommodate a growing company, and they had a lot of room to work with. And they recognized they had an opportunity to design the space to suit their unique brand. As an organic food company in a LEED certified building, they definitely needed some planting!
This was something of a new frontier for me. Every project is unique, and tough conditions in the Bay Area come with the territory. Heavy or nutrient deficient soils, Redwoods casting deep shade with surface roots everywhere, evil Japanese Maple-eating squirrels . . . I’ve seen it all. But my experience with indoor plants had been somewhat limited. My parents have owned a couple of Ficus trees since before I was born, so I grew up with those, and know how finicky they can be (I managed to kill one moving a mere 7 miles from San Francisco to Oakland), but besides that, I’ve done all my personal gardening and landscape design for others outside.
So I studied, and asked a lot of questions of some local experts. Sunborne Nursery in San Francisco has been a terrific resource, and I always go there for indoor plants. Working closely with the client, we came up with a plan. Initially, there were a few areas that needed a significant amount of planting, both to enhance the entry and divide main passageways from work areas.
Like all projects, budget was a consideration, in addition to aesthetics and sustainability. In the first phase of the project, we chose to mass plant in key areas using galvanized watering troughs.
We needed to customize them and make them appropriate for indoor use, so we had the troughs powder coated in complementary colors to the new paint of the interior offices. Then we waterproofed the inside, installed drainage valves, and installed heavy load-bearing casters on the bottom. Some of the troughs were 8’ long and over 2’ wide, so once they were filled with drain rock, filter fabric, potting soil and plants, they were quite heavy. It’s a good thing we installed the casters, because two years later, the interior of the building has been redesigned, and several of the planters have had to move.
The soil we’ve used was a mix of lightweight potting soil and perlite. In the beginning, the plants were small, and so were the roots. The soil to plant ratio was pretty high, and initially more than two weeks would pass between necessary waterings, as it took a long time for the soil to dry out. I learned how different the plants’ needs were, and not just because of species or size. I noticed that planters a few feet apart, with different exposures to light because of proximity to windows or skylights, dried out at significantly different rates. It’s also obvious with variance in growth – it’s been fascinating to watch three Rubber Plants (Ficus elastica) in separate containers, just a few feet apart, and how much affect the skylights have had on them. There is nearly 18” of height difference from one to another. Two years after the initial trough planting, the plants are established with deep, extensive roots, and the plants drink up all the water between my weekly maintenance visits.
The principles in the planting design weren’t remarkably different from those I might use in outdoor landscapes. I chose taller screening and focal point shrubs first, centering them in the planters, and worked outwards, creating a tiered effect. Trailing plants spill over the edges, and I chose plants with vibrant foliage to pop in areas of dimmer light. Blooming plants are tougher to come by indoors, especially those with longevity, so I’ve relied on foliage color and texture to provide contrast and interest.
I’ve learned an enormous amount about these indoor plants. For the most part, they’ve amazed me with their resilience. I’ve divided and transplanted; they’ve been relocated, underwatered, overwatered; and spent weeks being regularly covered with dust from renovation construction. I definitely lost a few in the beginning. Because they have been known to thrive in some indoor conditions, I initially tried several types of succulents, but they quickly grew leggy and lost color, so I had to abandon them indoors (though I did get my succulent fix with a topiary installation outside the front doors).
Some plants have tripled in size, others seem roughly the same size after two full years, but are still healthy and vibrant. Last month, I noticed plants flowering that never had before.
In phase two of the project, which is almost complete, we added a couple of Weeping Figs (Ficus benjamina) in bright corners of the office near large windows. My earlier experiences hold true- Weeping Figs don’t like to relocate. They drop a LOT of leaves when you find them a new home. But I’m confident they’ll be happy, as long as we don’t move them again anytime soon. I’ve also learned some great tricks for indoor planting that I’ve gotten to apply in phase two, with installation following the office renovation. For example, most indoor plants grow at a relatively slow rate, and can go years without being repotted. So in some cases it makes sense to leave them in their nursery containers, propping them up in decorative pots with interior saucers or foam, and screening the soil and the container inside with moss. This means less soil, less potential mess, and less water used over time.
The finishing touch of the most recent plant iteration has been a living wall. Indoor plants, with their dramatic foliage and bold forms, make for amazing living walls. This one was customized for this space, with a Birch frame to match the company’s signage. The plants are kept in their individual pots, and set in waterproof trays attached to a wall bracket. There are a few inches of space between the back of the bracket and the wall, so there won’t be any wall damage from the water. Also, underperforming plants can be easily swapped out. The watering schedule has been a bit of a challenge, as not all of the plants have the same needs, but I don’t mind. I learn something new about indoor planting design with every visit. I’ve been maintaining these planters myself intermittently since we started the project, which allows me to stay on top of potential issues, and see the evolution of the planting design. I’m always saying that being able to spend some of my work day outdoors is one of the best parts of my job, but working on this project has made indoor landscaping a new passion.
I’ve read that office plants increase productivity and keep employees happier and healthier. It certainly looks like the plants have made a difference for these clients, and personally, I love to see a mini-jungle thriving indoors. Here you thought we were all about outdoor landscapes. Turns out Lazar loves landscaping indoors too.