Desktop gardening: Lush d'ecor for a more livable office

NO feature of your office or reception area - not a photo of the kids, not a pile of familiar magazines, not even a Norman Rockwell print - will put your visitor at ease more than a well-arranged collection of plants. Encountered 70 stories up in an office building, plants are not only admired for their foliage but seen as exemplars of the natural world, where harmony rules, and the flutter of the butterfly merges with the low moan of a spring wind.

Calm. That's what moist greenery brings. So wake up! Put some plants in your office.

The successful cultivation of houseplants is difficult enough at home. The office - with its five-day schedule, low light, and limited space - is a challenge to the greenest of thumbs.

Yet certain plants will adapt and sometimes thrive in office conditions, even when busy workers can offer only minimal care. The following are some plants that can withstand some neglect.

Robust species easy to care for

Pothos is one of the toughest plants ever brought indoors. It can be pruned to stick close to its pot or trained to climb a bark board especially sold for such purposes. As pothos grows, you can arrange it any way you like.

The ivies are a tolerant group, with English ivy among the most durable. Like pothos, English ivy's final shape is up to the grower.

Desert cactus such as cereus and mammillaria adapt to any indoor environment. It is important, though, to let the soil dry thoroughly between occasional watering. Once a month is enough. In dim or artificial light, a cactus may stop growing, but given minimum care, it should retain its original shape and robust character. The old-man cactus, covered by a mat of gray spines that look like hair, doubles as a conversation piece. Easter cactuses are not good candidates for the office.

A jade plant needs some window light, but if you can give it that much it will ignore drafts, random waterings, stale air, and even cigar ashes. Cut jade back when it grows too large or set it on the floor and let it develop into a small tree.

The snake plant, with its industrial-strength foliage, seems as tough as some man-made materials. Also known by its Latin name, Sansevieria, it is an old favorite and available now in variety. `Designer' plants requiring more care

The philodendrons are well known for their tolerance to dim light and desultory watering. Some will reach ceiling height. One philodendron, the monstera, has leaves the size of baby elephants' ears and is a good choice for a tropical look.

Dumbcane is another tropical plant. It resembles a banana tree and is an ardent grower even in low light.

Dumbcane should not be cultivated where unsupervised children might get to it. The plant is poisonous if ingested, though perfectly safe to touch. A one-foot dumbcane can reach designer size in just a few years.

The windmill palm, or Trachycarpus fortuneii, is a tough palm tree that grows in the snowy regions of central China. Indoors it is just as hardy, because it keeps its shape even when not watered for long periods. With a five-foot specimen costing as much as $100, the palm is not cheap, but it is a stunning plant with a presence that will enhance any d'ecor.

Dracaena and weeping figs

Dracaena (D. Marginata) is one of the most popular plants grown anywhere. Its daggerlike leaves suggest an arid climate, and it is one of those sculpturesque species that add a certain sharpness to an area. It is especially appropriate for a board room, where the ambiance should be brisk and well ordered.

One of the most popular trees grown in offices and malls is Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig. The plant is not the perfect choice for the office, however, because it requires some care. Considering its delicate beauty, it is rugged enough. The weeping fig will invariably shed leaves when first placed in a new environment, but foliage generally grows back within weeks and gives the plant a new luster.

For less than $200 you can bring a luxurious dimension to a stolid, lifeless suite of offices. To achieve as much with building materials and furniture could cost 10 times as much.

Though these plants were chosen for their durability - including resistance to parasites - pests may attack. A good reference book will show how to check for spider mites or mealy bugs (nearly microscopic and always harmless to humans) and how to eradicate them. When buying plants, pick up a bottle of fertilizer as well and apply at least once in spring and summer. Avoid placing plants on windowsills and radiators, where there are extremes of temperature and humidity.

Consider office plants an investment - one that pays for itself by offering visitors a relaxed setting. If you're in for some tough negotiating, there is nothing like a weeping fig to bring out the sympathetic side of the most antagonistic dealmaker.

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