Daniel Keeley is an award-winning exterior designer and a regular contributor to numerous publications. He lives in Arkansas and works on a variety of projects across the country.

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Growing Success
by Daniel Keeley       #Containers   #Design   #Environment








A series of staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) creates a dramatic and unexpected statement in the office foyer and echoes the soothing green foliage outside the window. A weathered teak garden chair blends perfectly with the rustic mood of the ferns and provides seating for clients and colleagues.

I have to admit: It was only after signing up to write this article that I realized I had never really thought much about office plants before… that is, at least not the kinds of plants that live inside an office. As an exterior designer, I deal almost exclusively with outdoor spaces and, therefore, with plants that do not really fall into the category of what we commonly refer to as house or office plants. Consequently, as I began to prepare for my writing assignment, I experienced what can only be described as the beginnings of a slight panic attack. As I continued, however, I realized that good design applies just as much to indoor office plantings as it does to outdoor plantings, and many of the same principles that guide garden design are just as applicable inside an office. Whew, panic attack averted!

A trio of flapjack kalanchoe (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) adds life to a rack of organizing bins. Their placement mimics that of the bins, yet their unique form and common terra-cotta containers stand in stark contrast to the rigid plastic tubs and stainless-steel shelves.

For me, a garden is decidedly manmade, a deliberately arranged space. After all, no matter how natural or realistic a garden is designed to be, it is, by its very nature, contrived. Furthermore, a garden (along with its plantings) is meant to activate one or more of the five senses. In other words, it sets a specific mood and engages the visitor; and so it is with indoor spaces and plantings as well. So, why should designing for the attractive and effective use of office plants be so different from doing the same thing outside in the garden? With this in mind, I decided to use my own office as a testing ground for learning more about this living form of decoration. I hope the results will stimulate and inspire you to grow your own success story by adding a little stylish green to your workspace.

As I began my design experiment, I first asked the question: “Why?” What are the reasons for having office plants in the first place? The primary answer for me is pure aesthetics… just as it is with a garden. Sure, many modern-day garden spaces have functional and aesthetic value (to provide a venue for education, outdoor dining or playing children), but their main purpose is simply to be beautiful. The same is true for the plants in our offices, and it seems perfectly logical to create an atmosphere that is visually appealing to clients and workers alike. I mean, who would not rather go to work in a space that incorporates beautiful, living plants than one that is devoid of such life? I don’t think many of us need much convincing on this point, or I hope not.

In addition to making our working environment more attractive, it turns out there are also some rather convincing scientific arguments for bringing plants into our workspaces. For starters, many indoor plants contribute to cleaner, healthier air by removing contaminants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and even cigarette smoke. This has been shown to reduce headaches, fatigue, cold-related illness and even to lower blood pressure. Similarly, plants are known to lower stress levels and to improve our overall mood, so it is perhaps not surprising then that plants lead to increased efficiency and productivity in the workplace. Aesthetics aside, as an employer and business owner, I can tell you this was just about all the reason I needed to turn my office into a veritable jungle! It is no wonder that the indoor plant-care business is thriving, and large corporations across the world are filling their headquarters with live plants.

Left: The dark leaves and funky inflorescences of this Peperomia sp. look great in silhouette against a frosted window in the kitchen’s coffee station and enjoy the filtered light the window provides. The bright orange container provides an eye-catching pop of color amid the otherwise monochromatic countertop and walls. Top Right: Air plants and orchids are right at home in the office washroom, where they can be easily watered and thrive in the extra humidity. The yellow container and gnarly piece of sandblasted grapevine add color and texture to the arrangement and stand out beautifully against the sleek counter and glass sink. Bottom Right: Offering long bloom cycles with relatively low light and water demands, orchids are hard to beat for color and beauty when it comes to choosing a plant for your office or workspace.

So, how does one begin selecting particular plants for the office? Just like in the garden, there are a few technical issues to consider. These primarily include the sunlight, water and temperature requirements of the plant, as well as any fertilization or additional care it will need. Not to worry, though — these things are the easy part, as they should be clearly identified on the plant’s identification tag, and most common indoor plants are relatively low maintenance anyway. For additional advice, you can also always consult your friendly local nursery.

A towering fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) brings the outdoors to a workstation with an otherwise limited view. The simple container keeps the focus on the intriguing form of the tree’s huge, glossy leaves.

It is in the design decisions regarding your office plantings, rather than the technical requirements, where the potential for growing success truly lies, and there are several things to consider. The first, uniqueness, is the criterion I focused on the most when devising my planting scheme. I wanted office plants that would not feel or look like “office” plants and offer an unexpected, atypical beauty. I achieved this primarily by choosing plants that feature strong form and structure. In most cases, their shape alone is intriguing enough to stand out and provide interest. Color is also an important factor when choosing your plants, and while we think of most plants simply as green, the many subtle differences in shades can be used to great effect. Blooming plants, and those with white, purple or maroon leaves, are also great opportunities for creative design expressions. Finally, give careful thought to the placement of your office plants. Rather than just plopping something green down in the corner, consider how all of the aforementioned physical qualities of your plant relate to its immediate surroundings and the office as a whole. Choose plants that extend the intended mood and ambience of your work environment, either through uniformity or through contrast. Indoor plants can even relate to what is outside the office and, in fact, are a great way to blur the lines between indoors and out.

Closely related to the attributes of the specific plants you choose are the characteristics of the decorative containers that will house them. Choosing the proper container can effectively make or break your office plantings in terms of both appearance and health. For the most part, indoor plants are sold in appropriately sized growing containers, but over the long term, plants should periodically be repotted in slightly larger containers to promote healthy root growth and foliar rejuvenation. From an aesthetic standpoint, think again about those factors that drove your plant choices (uniqueness, color, texture and overall form), and let these same criteria guide your container selection. Choose containers that match the mood and statement of the plants themselves and, of course, that complement your office décor as a whole.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Stephen Ironside.


Posted: 06/09/17   RSS | Print


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