All relationships begin with empathy; a tiny seed of understanding from which a partnership will blossom.
With humans, this demands communication and transparency.
With office plants, it requires a misting schedule.
Tending for an office plant — a new venture for us here at AG’s Brooklyn office — is not dissimilar from caring for another person, whether it be a colleague or client, friend or family member. It doesn’t matter whether your client metabolizes energy—from what? Fig newtons? Those ubiquitous snack bars in every office?—or photosynthesizes: the act of empathy, applied to any living thing, reminds us that goodness can flourish if all parties are sensitive to each others’ needs.
Sometimes, the end result is a new digital campaign.
Other times, it’s a fern.
I caught up with Shelby Beyler, AKA The Botanist Rochester, for tips on how to keep our new office flora and human fauna happy and healthy.
Article Group: Let’s start with something uplifting. What’s the most difficult plant to kill?
Shelby Beyler: Probably a cactus. As long as it’s sitting in a window it won’t die. You could forget to water it for months and it’ll be fine. If you look at [a cactus’] environment it’s very arid and it rains like once a year, so it’s very low maintenance.
Another good option is a snake plant because it’s a succulent that holds moisture. It’s also a low light plant so if you forget to water it it’s not going to die. If you don’t have a window that’s facing sunshine, it’s one of the best plants to start out with.
AG: Can you kill a plant by watering it too much?
SB: Yes. That probably means you cared too much.
AG: On the flip side, what’s the bare minimum you need to do to care for an office plant?
SB: You should have only one person in charge of watering it to avoid over or under-watering the plants. Also you have to make sure there are windows somewhere in the vicinity of the plant. There needs to be some source of light.
AG: Do any of your clients ask you how to keep a plant in complete darkness?
SB: Yeah. There are people that ask me about plants that can go in their bathroom, and I tell them, like, “You can get a plastic plant.”
AG: What plants work best in dog-friendly offices?
SB: My personal experience is that dogs typically don’t eat plants but if you have a puppy, the ASPCA has an app where you can choose the plant you have and it will tell you the toxicity for your pet. I always have the app on my phone because it’s really a great resource.
AG: Are there any plants that are super dangerous for pets?
SB: There’s one plant in particular that’s an indoor plant that you should not have called Dieffenbachia.
AG: Well it has “die” in the name.
SB: Yeah well, you know, Latin. People sometimes call them “Chinese Money Plants” or “Chinese Evergreens.” There’s a chemical called calcium oxalate in it that is toxic to everyone from human babies to cats. If you split open a leaf you could actually get a rash. If you ingest it, you might throw up. Humans would have to eat a lot of it to actually die. But yeah, it has a toxicity level that could affect your skin.
AG: One of our office plants is listed on the Lowe’s site as a “Chinese Evergreen,” but its scientific name is “Aglaonema.” Should I panic?
SB: Oh that should be fine. My dog chews on mine all the time.
AG: What about the lemon button plant we ordered? It’s very dinosaur-chic. But how do you care for a fern?
SB: As long as you have somebody in charge of watering, I would say that’s fine. Ferns can be pretty difficult to keep alive indoors because we don’t have the humidity they’re used to. They’re used to constant wetness and low light. If you’re gone for two weeks it’s gonna be totally dead. You’d need to have it on a misting schedule.
That said, I always recommend trial and error. If something dies, you just figure out why. That’s the best way to learn.
AG: Is that part of the reason caring for a plant is so rewarding? Why is tending to a plant enjoyable, even if it dies?
SB: There’s something about humans that de-stresses them when they care for something or somebody else. When humans start to nurture something, whether it’s a dog or a cat, it just takes their stress down a notch. It’s therapeutic. There’s also camaraderie: people name the plants and anthropomorphize them. It’s rewarding to see people’s happiness.
AG: What music should people play for their plants?
SB: So there’s actually an album called Plantasia! It was created in the ’60s by some huge weirdo plant lover. But he did scientific research on how plants react to sounds, and so he hand-selected certain songs for plants. (Editor’s note: You can find the whole thing on YouTube and it’s worth a listen for unbearable cuteness.)
AG: Do you recommend talking to plants in the office? Like just crouching down and whispering to them?
SB: I personally don’t talk to the plants because I’m not much of a talker in general. I like to make sure I have good energy around me when I’m with my plants, like I’m not yelling in my house or anything. I do caress them and take care of them and try to keep them in a soothing atmosphere, with low stress. My dogs do bark a lot around the plants, though.
AG: Why are plants so special?
SB: Plants teach us about empathy. This is super philosophical but I think they force us to take a step back and realize how inconsequential human beings are. There’s no reason for being super stressed over most of the things we stress over. Like I just want to take care of my plant and my dog and then I’m going to die no matter what so like, most things just don’t matter.
Plus, plants are smart. They’ve survived ice ages. That’s impressive.
AG: Who knew plants could be so existentially liberating?
SB: Right? I think it just came from playing with plants and realizing they’re smarter than me.