Why every desk at your office should have a plant

May 20, 2019 / +

Call it green energy — by giving every employee a plant, engineer Mike Robinson created an environment where both humans and their leafy friends thrive. Plus, 9 recommendations for hardy, hard-to-kill plants to call your own.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Besides a paycheck and reasonable hours, what else does a person need to thrive at work? Decent space, adequate supplies and tools? Yes. Lunch breaks, sick days, time off to recharge? Sure. A plant? Well …

Such an idea had never occurred to engineer Mike Robinson. He owns a small company based in British Columbia, Canada, that designs and builds windbreaks and other control structures. One day, his wife, Suzanne, who runs the company with him, said: “I think we should give every person in the office a plant for their desk.”

Robinson was skeptical. He thought that plants would be distracting and a drain on people’s time. “The average staff member would probably spend about five minutes a day either looking after the plant or admiring it,” as he puts it in a TEDxWhiteRock talk. Upon his wife’s insistence, however, he agreed to give it a try.

He and Suzanne bought 20 plants for their 20 employees. Then, they did something a bit different. Instead of handing them out, they asked each employee to approach the tableful of plants and choose their own — but from the perspective of the plant.

Think of it like a human-plant speed-date. Robinson explains, “So you have to put yourself in the spot of the plant, as it were, and say, ‘Which person do I want to be my new friend?’” Employees then received a small sign on which they wrote ‘My friend is …’ and their own name, stuck it in the soil, and brought it into their personal workspace.

Over time, Robinson realized that the plants were having a positive impact. He says, “I did my own mathematics, and I reckoned that we might be doing about 30 percent more business per staff [member].” Of course, this is far from a scientific study. There’s no control group or double-blind — just a company filled with happy plant lovers excelling at their jobs. And maybe that’s enough.

Another sign that something is going right: After 5 years, not a single plant has died. Robinson guesses that since each was hand-selected and bears the employee’s name on the label, they’re well-tended because “this is your friend and you care about your friend.” As he explains, “Our office is a more contented place, a relaxed place, and a place that I’m proud to be to be a part of, and a big part of that is the personal plant.”

But what plant is right for your desk? Perhaps you’ve gotten one and felt the warm glow of human-plant friendship — only to see it wither before your eyes. We asked Rebecca Bullene, New York City horticulturist, cofounder of Greenery Unlimited and the person who designed and tends the greenery at the TED NYC offices, to recommend hardy plants for different light conditions. Note: Almost all of these plants are available in desktop sizes, but if you want them to stay that way, you will need to prune them.

Plants for low light

Sansevieria plant, or snake plant: “They’re an architectural plant; I usually use them in spaces that have a more modern aesthetic,” says Bullene.

ZZ plant, or emerald palm: “This plant has very deep glossy leaves and a kind of two-tone coloring. It’s a softer plant.”

Aglaonema, or Chinese evergreen: “It has very beautiful patterning on the leaves, and it’s a larger-leafed plant. It is a welcoming plant.”

Plants for medium light

Monstera deliciosa, or Swiss cheese plant: “It’s a fabulous name for a fabulous plant. The leaves have a really interesting texture, and this plant is a fast grower.”

Schefflera arboricola: “it’s very cute. It’s one of my favorites, and it’s easy to take care of.”

Anthurium, or laceleaf plant: “This is one of my favorite flowering plants. I prefer them to orchids because orchids can be difficult to care for and their blooms only last for about six weeks, whereas the anthurium puts up new flowers year-round.”

Plants for high light

Ficus audrey, or banyan fig: “While the fiddle-leaf fig is the most popular ficus, the ficus audrey is gaining. I think it’s just as beautiful, if not more so. It has very velvety leaves, and its growth habit is more restrained.”

Philodendron selloum, or philodendron hope selloum: “This was popular in the 1970s and the 1980s and fell out of favor, but it’s having a resurgence now. These plants have large tropical leaves with really deep cuts in them and a lovely, ruffle-like texture. This is not one that you’d have on your desk — it’s large — but next to it.”

Succulent plants, such as aloe vera, pincushion or zebra plant: “These are very popular right now. They’re best on a sunny windowsill rather than away from natural light. Most need water every 7 to 10 days, but touch the soil first — if it’s damp, don’t water it. They really like to dry out between waterings.”

Echeveria: “This is a flowering succulent that’s good in high light. They put out these long stems with bell-shaped flowers.”

But what if you’re in a space that has no windows or a window facing a stairwell? “The sansevieria and aglaonema can survive in a room with no windows, although they won’t flourish. But people without natural light should known that grow lights have come far in the past three years,” says Bullene. “They screw into any fixture and they provide the same kind of light to work by, but they’re actually introducing a full spectrum of light for plants. I’ve seen plants respond really well to them.” One brand that she’s had good results with is Sansi.

What about air plants? “These generally require more care and attention than people are willing to give. When I’ve gone into a store and the sales people are like, ‘Oh, you don’t need to do anything with them,’ it breaks my heart,” says Bullene. “One of the fundamentals of plant care is to think about a plant’s native habitat and how to recreate it so the plant will be happy. Air plants grow in extremely high humidity environments that are full of life; they get their nutrients from the air.” She recommends either putting them near a humidifier (and misting them regularly) or soaking them for 20 minutes at a time in a bowl of water. Air plants like bright, indirect light.

Last but not least: Don’t overwater. “There’s a direct proportional relationship between light and water. The less light a plant gets, the less water it should receive; the more light, the more water,” explains Bullene. “Often, people think they should water every day, and that’s the kiss of death. In a low light environment, you should water plants every 10 days or so.“

What’s confusing is the signs of overwatering and underwatering are largely the same — yellow leaves, wilting — and most of us respond by adding water. Says Bullene, “I’d say 80 percent of the time plants are receiving too much water, and the correct response would be to withhold it for a little bit longer.”

Watch Mike Robinson’s TEDxWhiteRock talk now: