Plants have been incorporated into buildings for thousands of years, but the business of interior plantscaping really took off in the 1970s. There were two large companies, one in New York and one in Chicago, that caused the service to take off. That grew into a plant craze in the 80s where offices couldn’t get enough foliage. Chris Raimondi, president and CEO of Raimondi Horticultural Group, Inc. based in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, says back then sales were simple. In the 90s, trends shifted to a more sleek, minimalist look and an emphasis on quality and large blooming arrangements. Raimondi says the industry had an issue with staffing qualified people and eventually offices decided to forego the plants entirely.
“Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way and now we’re realizing that we need plants,” Raimondi says. “We have to create a biophilic approach. This human and nature connection is huge.”
According to the EPA, average Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. However thanks to interior plantscaping, they don’t have to be cut off from nature entirely. Being inside also exposes individuals to indoor air pollutants, but plants help clean the air of toxins.
“Plants are the most sophisticated air cleaning device known to man,” says Craig Lustig, president of Anything Groes, based in Buckner, Kentucky. “The plants take up the carbon dioxide and all the other harmful things that are in the air and they take that in and they spew out oxygen.”
Multiple studies have proven numerous benefits to having plants indoors. They have been found to reduce absenteeism and increase people’s health, productivity and happiness. Biophilia also helps individuals feel more comfortable and reduces stress.
Much More Than Watering
Interior plantscaping can be misunderstood by both the general public and others in the industry. The most common misconception is that interior plantscaping just boils down to watering plants.
“Yeah, water is very important, but it’s not the only thing,” Raimondi says. “You could have a perfectly watered plant that dies because of insects or dies because the light level is not correct.”
Steve Wijas, founder and president of Tropical Nature, Inc. based in Tampa, Florida, says clients will cancel because they think the plants are just being watered occasionally.
“I tell people that taking care of plants is similar to diet and exercise; it is all about consistency,” Wijas says. “Another common misconception is that they need a lot of water like outdoors. Overwatering is the number one killer of interior plants.”
Lustig says clients often ask why they’re charging so much when they’re ‘just watering.’ He says even horticulturalists can look at the job and think it’s ideal because they think they are just going into buildings and watering plants.
“What people don’t appreciate is how physical the job really is,” Lustig says. “You are constantly carrying, pulling and pushing that water machine. You’re on your feet all day. You are bending down, reaching across or you’re on your knees all day. It is really a physical position.”
Watering involves filling a water machine, a pressurized tank that can hold 10 to 50 gallons, to tote around the building.
“Moving water from the water source to the plant is a good amount of our effort,” Raimondi says. “Water machines provide the most professional way of getting it there because it doesn’t spill. We’re really always very concerned for safety and slippage with spilt water.”
Linda Young, president of Urban Jungle based in Dallas, Texas, agrees that people often assume interior plantscaping is just a fun job, which it is, but it also requires a lot of hard work.
“Interiorscaping isn’t just about taking care of plants, it’s also about taking care of people,” Young says. “Answering their questions, being courteous as you are working in their space.”
Aside from watering the plants, technicians are responsible for trimming, cutting, pruning, fertilizing and dusting the leaves. Plant assessments based on initial inspection and clues gleaned while caring for the plant help technicians catch diseases and pests early on. Raimondi says they’re doing everything they can to keep the plant alive and in as perfect condition as they can.
“We provide horticultural services, and we guarantee the health of the plant,” Lustig says. “When the plant needs to be replaced there’s no additional cost because we’re basically collecting money from them every single month to make those replacements as and when needed.”
Despite not being a seasonal job, it is no easier to find employees for interior plantscaping. This is due to the sort of skills necessary for the role. Raimondi says you have to not only have horticultural knowledge but also like interacting with people. He says finding someone who likes both people and plants is a challenge.
“Interior plant people are a unique blend of skills,” Raimondi says. “We do customer relations every time one of our employees goes into service to plants. They’re doing customer service for us. They’re checking in with the customer.”
Lustig says aside from horticultural experience, they are looking for individuals with the right attitude and a willingness to work independently.
“That’s a big thing for the horticulturalists particularly,” Lustig says. “They don’t come to the office every day. Maybe they come once a week or once every two weeks to do some paperwork or get some supplies but for the most part, after they’re trained, they’re very much out there on their own.”
While you might think that installing plants inside of buildings would be challenging, this is actually the easy part for the pros. Raimondi admits that while this might still be an issue for newer companies, established businesses like his have this aspect down like clockwork.
The only challenge they have with the installation aspect is the logistics such as securing a docking area or having to wait on a slow service elevator.
At the start of the pandemic, access to some buildings was a temporary problem. Lustig says they had to convince their clients they still needed to care for the plants during the lockdown. However, soon work resumed a steady pace.
“For the past year, it has pretty much been business as usual because everyone wants to be ready for when people come back,” Young says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, a couple of offices did close to us, but most continued on as plants are living things so, in order for them to live, they needed to be taken care of.”
COVID-19 has also impacted the plant supply as growers pulled back on production and consumers have been buying more house plants themselves. Young says another issue is how when the ordered plants arrive, they aren’t up to par or are damaged.
Raimondi agrees that securing the plants has been much harder since the pandemic started. Supplier and transportation issues have also affected their ability to obtain certain plant containers.
“The biggest challenge is getting all the materials, from the decorative containers to the plant material,” Wijas says. “For example, ordering plant material used to involve creating an order list, looking at the availabilities of two to three nurseries and placing an order, which took an hour or so. Now it involves five or six nurseries and most of a day to hopefully find what you need.”
Wijas says the increased cost of everything from gas to plants has been the biggest impact on their bottom line.
Popular Plant Material and Design Trends
Just like how it is important to select the right plant for the right place outside, this is equally important for interior plantscaping. Families of plants like Philodendron and Dracaena are staples of the industry.
“The reason why those are probably most common is because they are the most low-light tolerant,” Lustig says.
Young adds that there are a large array of plants that will thrive indoors. It all depends on the light that is available. Raimondi agrees that everyone assumes watering matters the most, but he says the right light level will determine the success of a plant.
“You can have plants in the basement if you have enough light,” Raimondi says. “If you have enough light to read a piece of paper without squinting you could probably have a plant.”
He says they use meters to test how much light is in a room. While windows are helpful, artificial lights can keep certain plants alive.
As far as design trends, there’s no doubt that green walls, living walls, and preserved moss walls are incredibly popular right now but interior plantscaping can be and is much more than that.
Young says aside from the standard plant in a pot, interior plantscapers can arrange orchids and succulents, rotate colors, group different plants or create linear rows of plants in groupings of 3, 5 or 7.
“Current trends are to replicate an at-home look when it comes to office plants,” Young says. “That means a combination of different planters, not just one style throughout. Another trend is groupings of different plants whether small plants and pots or large plants and pots.”
Raimondi says the clustering of containers is growing in popularity and can be used for directional flow.
“It’s fun to do because you get to design a miniature garden,” Raimondi says. “It’s just not necessarily planted in the earth.”
Raimondi and Lustig have noted a comeback for containers that have a retro look from the 50s and 60s. Lustig says even macrame and rope are becoming more popular as the line between commercial and residential settings is blurred.
“Sometimes what’s old is new again,” Raimondi says. “The plants that I thought we would never see again are reappearing.”
This article was published in the May/June issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.