I care for hundreds of plants in the homes and offices of other people - environments over which I have little control. Consequently, I am often challenged to keep plants alive and healthy where the conventional plant care wisdom simply does not apply or can not be used.
For example, most homes and offices have very low humidity here during NYC winters. Installing humidifiers and pebble trays are not options. As it turns out, if I compensate for the low humidity by increasing the soil moisture, the so-called high humidity plants seem to do quite well in low humidity.
Likewise, repotting plants in other people's spaces is difficult if not impossible. It is messy, time-consuming and expensive. (I charge for my professional services based on time spent.) That means I look for other solutions to plant problems that others might solve by repotting. Surprisingly often, plants seem to do quite well when left in their pots even though they are quite potbound. Crowded roots may deter growth a bit, but it does not seem to have an adverse effect on a plant's health. In some instances where a plant will not last a full week between my weekly service visits, I may install a sub-irrigation system or just leave the plant sitting in a couple of days worth of water, something that is ordinarily a no-no!
Replacing soil is another problem in other people's homes and offices, so I rarely do it. I care for plants that have been in the same pot and soil for over 25 years and they are doing just fine. So, maybe that conventional wisdom about repotting or replacing soil periodically is not so essential after all.
Available light in homes and offices is often challenging. I cannot relocate a plant in someone's home just to improve its light. That means I have to be able to properly assess the light and make recommendations for specific low light plants. I have learned from experience what plant species will manage to survive in the very low light. Along with that, I have learned that the usual watering regimen is not appropriate because plants in very low light use very little water or nutrients and also grow very slowly.
Treating plant pests in the spaces of other people is another challenge. Personally, I don't like using chemical pesticides and I would never use them in someone else's space. So I have been forced to rely on safe products that are also effective. Those include dish soap, alcohol and water. More importantly, I know how to spot pest infestations very early so that spot treatment is often all that is necessary. I also understand that plants that are under stress due to improper light or water are more prone to pest infestations. As I have improved my own skills in assessing light and understanding watering, I have discovered that I have far fewer plant pest issues that I did before.
I am often called upon to repot a plant that looks too big and/or is leaning. When I see the plant, all I may need to do is physically reposition the plant in its pot and then prune back the overgrown branches that have created an unwieldy appearance. Many times a little pruning, a little dusting and the removal of some discolored leaves improves a plant's appearance so much that the client is thrilled and amazed that major replanting wasn't necessary, as they had assumed.
There are many other examples, but my profession dictates that I seek the simplest, neatest and cleanest solutions to various plant problems. That means I have to discard the conventional methods of plant care and find creative, less intrusive ways to treat plants. Not all my experiments with simplicity have succeeded, but most have and that has opened my eyes to the way most people go about caring for their plants and how those ways could easily be improved.
My book, "Don't Repot That Plant and Other Indoor Plant Care Mistakes," is a result of my many years of experimentation with the most effective plant care techniques in the less than ideal home and office environments in which most of us live and work.
For folks who are new to indoor plant care, getting a plant to grow bigger and faster is understandably the most tangible measure of success. However, at a certain point having a very large plant may not be the best outcome. Moving a large plant into ever larger pots is also not always practical. Large plants can take up too much indoor space or may start hitting the ceiling or may lead to complaints from others who have to share the same space. If that happens to you, then it is probably time to understand how to prune.
Not all plants are pruned in the same way. However, most plants that tend to get very large can be pruned back fairly simply. Pruning will not affect the health of your plant, but it will affect its appearance - much like getting a haircut. You get to decide just how big and what shape that plant will take and you prune accordingly. In general, any stem can be cut back to any height that you prefer. The pruned stem will not die but will produce new foliage on that stem starting just below where you make the pruning cut. Use a sharp knife or pruners and make a clean cut at any angle. It is that easy!
Keeping a plant at an appropriate size and shape for its space is an individual choice and one that raises your level of plant care expertise.
On a personal note, I am often called upon to repot a plant that has grown too large. Instead, I simply prune the overgrown plant and the owner is amazed at how much better it looks. Besides, pruning is much easier and less risky than repotting! Give it a try.
A leggy plant is one that has long lower stems that are mostly bare, but have healthy growth and foliage only at their tops. This happens with may plants as they get older. It does not mean they are unhealthy, need fertilizer or a bigger pot.
We all know that plants require light to survive. Indoor plants often get less than the ideal amount of light required for vigorous growth. Any plant can support only a finite number of leaves The more light a plant receives, the more leaves it can support. In reduced light, a plant may max out and no longer be able to support more leaves. But it doesn't stop growing. Rather, it continues to put out new foliage at the growing tips while shedding older leaves on the lower parts of the stems. Hence, you end up with tall, bare stems with all the growth at the top ends of those stems.
There is another reason a plant may lose lower stem leaves. Under watering will often cause lower leaves to die prematurely. If you have been watering a plant properly and it still gets leggy, it is most likely because it is getting less than optimum light. You then have two choices; one is to move it to a sunnier location; the other is to prune back the leggy stems.
For a leggy plant, any stem can be pruned back to almost any height. New foliage will then emerge on that stem just below the pruning cut and grow upward from there. Pruning is usually the only way to eliminate long, bare stems and to get your plant back to being shorter, but fuller and more compact.
I will be interviewed about my book, "Don't Repot That Plant," on radio station KSFO in San Francisco on Sunday 2/25 at 8:30 AM PST. It is Bob Tanem's garden show now in its 23rd year.
For those of you in the Bay Area and up that early on Sunday, take a listen and call in to say hello and ask a question.
There is a little-known industry called Interiorscaping or Indoor Landscaping. Companies in this industry have contracts with corporate offices, shopping malls, restaurants, building atriums and high-end residences to care for the indoor plants used in these spaces as decorative items and environmental enhancements. Perhaps you have seen someone watering the plants in your office or at your local mall. Most often, these plant maintenance technicians work out of sight so the interior landscape industry is largely unknown.
Who they hire
Indoor landscaping companies often hire people with little or no professional experience or training in horticulture. An interest in plants and some experience with personal plants is helpful. More importantly, they look to hire people who are reliable, personally presentable and in good physical condition. Plant maintenance techs are considered to be entry-level positions so the pay is usually not too much above minimum wage. But there is room for wage improvement if you are reliable and a quick study.
Interior landscape companies usually provide 1 to 3 months of supervised training before assigning specific accounts to their trained plant techs. The training includes properly assessing light and water requirements for various plant species that are commonly used. In addition, techs are trained to identify and treat plant pests; when and how to fertilize; and cosmetic techniques such as pruning, trimming and cleaning plants. It is not complicated, but attention to detail and reliability are of prime concern because techs work in well-designed spaces and the plants must always look good. It is the responsibility of the tech to make that happen.
If you love plants, this can be a great occupation. However, interior landscaping is ultimately a business. That means that techs have to not only be conscientious, but they have to learn to work efficiently. That requires making quick assessments of a plant's weekly water needs and identifying any problems quickly and treating them right away. Plants that start to look at all unsightly (sparse, leggy, discolored leaves, etc.) are replaced and not rehabilitated. You cannot become personally attached to plants you are servicing.
You only get one chance each week to take care of a plant. That means anticipating its water requirements for the next week and preventing any significant plant deterioration before your return in a week.
The work can at times seem routine and even boring. Techs see the same accounts every week. The variety of plants used is limited by the available light. For accomplished plant techs, the plants will look the same from week to week and providing proper water is all that will be needed.
In many areas, you may need to use your own vehicle to travel between accounts and carry light equipment. Most companies have some travel reimbursement provision.
Who might be interested in this work?
People who like and have an affinity for plants, of course. Someone who is willing to learn and re-learn plant care techniques. Many companies hire part-time, as well as full-time plant techs and can offer schedule flexibility. Tech work requires being on your feet and on the move most of the time that you are working. Big muscle strength is not required, but overall stamina is important. Fit seniors who are already on a fixed income can be good candidates for plant tech work
Where Do I Apply?
Check local listings for interior or indoor landscaping companies. All urban areas and most suburban areas have companies that do this work. Because there is a fair amount of turnover among plant techs, there are often openings, if not immediately, probably soon. Contact the personnel office of these companies and find out about their application process. Unlike outdoor landscaping that is seasonal in northern areas, indoor landscaping is non-seasonal so jobs may be available year-round and there are no seasonal layoffs.
Check it out and good luck!