The Botanical Cubicle: The Best Office Plants for Beginners

Dan Katter
January 23, 2020

The first thing I notice is the palm tree. It sticks out above the other foliage and seems to be swaying, even though there’s no breeze. The ground is barely visible, carpeted by a dense layer of flowering grasses and orchids. In the distance, a small waterfall cascades over smooth stones. But I’m not in the jungle–I’m in Midtown Manhattan, in a towering office building with a small forest of well-tended plants in the lobby.

Even if you’re just redecorating your desk, plants go a long way towards making our work habitats livable. Plants look great, filter the air you breathe, and even appear to boost office productivity. A little bit of nature brings the outside world to an environment that can feel a bit grey and sterile. Of course, a cubicle or corner of a conference room isn’t the first-choice habitat for your typical plant, and it takes some work to get and keep them thriving.

We’ve all seen the damage. Withered succulents, drooping ferns, slumping trees with bare branches. For every magnificent desktop orchid, there’s a handful of plants that just don’t make it. Office planting can be a headache, but you don’t need a green thumb to become a master indoor gardener. Here are a few essential tips for finding the best office plants and turning your space into an oasis of healthy, happy foliage.

Be choosy

While offices are far from the natural environment for any plant, certain species can thrive there. These easy-to-grow options are great picks for the beginner because they require minimal upkeep. You’ve seen them everywhere, and they’re classics for a reason.

Snake Plant 
Also known as mother-in-law’s tongue (for its sharpness), this long-leafed beauty comes in a wide variety of sizes. It only needs watering every few months and can grow to be quite tall, making a great privacy screen.

Easily recognized from its white-spotted leaves, Pothos can grow prodigiously with low light and water. Pothos’ long vines make it a great plant to hang, and if the shrubbery gets too bushy you can take a cutting and start a new offspring in a cup of water.

Native to the jungle floors of Central America, this familiar houseplant is popular for its tendency to flower in low light. Certain species also produce bright berries, making Arthurium one of the easiest ways to inject a splash of color into your office.

ZZ Plant
 Otherwise known as Zamioculcas zamiifolia, the ZZ plant is quite possibly the most indestructible plant on this list. Able to thrive under fluorescent light and in poor soil, ZZ plants seem almost too good to be true–and because they always look healthy and have waxy, shiny leaves, they’re often mistaken for fakes.

Unless you’re ready to commit to more intensive plant care, the following types of plants should be avoided:

Although they’re common in offices and homes, don’t be fooled: ferns require constant maintenance. They need to be kept in high humidity, which typically can only be achieved with a humidifier or by coating the inside of a pot with damp moss. What’s more, if a fern dries out, it usually won’t be able to recover.

Ficus trees tend to shed leaves when stressed, which wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t so finicky. They have a strong preference for a moderate amount of light, and too much or too little will cause leaf discoloration. They also tend to struggle in temperatures below 70ºF and require monthly fertilizing and high humidity.

Sourcing matters

Desk plants can be found anywhere. Grocery stores, bodegas, and big box stores all carry a wide variety of seedlings, but it’s worth springing for a plant from an established garden store or nursery that you know and trust. According to Eliza Blank, who founded The Sill, a plant shop and nursery in Lower Manhattan that also ships nationwide, two plants that look the same can have totally different pasts. “When you’re investing in something that you know you’re going to look at every day, it’s important to establish that it was raised carefully.”

Blank says that plants raised in poor conditions often don’t show signs of that stress until later in their lives, when they become more sensitive to pests and diseases. Plants, especially young ones, need consistent conditions in order to thrive. The offerings in grocery and corner stores often move several times before reaching their final destination, and at big box retailers they typically spend weeks in a basement before ending up on the sales floor.

Keep up appearances

Overwatering is the most common mistake people make when caring for their office greenery. Plants that thrive indoors usually don’t need all that much water, so it’s easy to overdo it. Many species, especially succulents and cacti, need to be misted instead of poured on directly. “People see that their succulent wants two tablespoons of water per month, so they dump it all in at the same time,” says Blank. “And that can overwhelm and damage the plant.” Another key to success is making sure that your pot is an appropriate size and has good drainage. Even plants that are given the correct amount of water can “drown” if their roots stay wet for too long.

Blank can’t stress enough how important it is to give your botanicals what they want. “Shockingly, so many people who have plants in their office forget that they need light.” It helps that many species can survive with only artificial light, like the ZZ plant, which makes a great bathroom decoration. Ordinary desk lamps can provide enough energy for smaller plants to stay hardy, but it might be worth investing in an LED bulb if you really want your plant to grow.

Overall, whether you aspire to a single potted cactus or a full indoor garden, stick to a consistent watering schedule and make sure everything’s cared for if you’re away from the office. With any luck, you’ll be well on your way to creating your own corporate jungle with the best office plants.

Photography by Dominick Mastrangelo at The Sill

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