Designing for Plants

Designing For Plants

Foliage plants add a finishing touch to a beautiful interior design. The wide range of available plants provides selections that can complement any design: traditional or contemporary, sleek modern or Victorian, Italianate or southwestern. Designing with plants requires special care. Plants are alive and require specific environmental conditions to survive and thrive. There are a few basic considerations that will enable a full range of plant species to be successfully incorporated into your design. These are:

Other considerations when designing for plants are:

If you are designing a planter or atrium see our:


Improper light is the number one reason that plants do not thrive in office environments. All plants require different amounts of light to photosynthesize (manufacture food) and grow. Quantity and quality of light available indoors is significantly less than light in nature. (e.g. Average indoor office lighting is ~75 footcandles while outside full sun is ~12,000 footcandles.)

Window size, distance from the window (to the side or under), the presence of curtains or shades, partial obstructions (awnings, overhangs, trees, other buildings, etc.) influence the amount of light the area receives. Our light code is a guide for your plants, and should be adjusted to seasonal variations and individual locations. In WNY, it is unlikely that any plant indoors will get too much light, so plants in the lower light categories will grow in many higher light areas (although they may need more additional care).

  • Low light: under a bright fluorescent fixture, at least 50-100 footcandles measured at desk height
  • Medium light: near windows (2-4 feet back or set to side of South, West, East window) 100-250 footcandles
  • High light: directly in front of a window (without blinds, shading or overhangs) over 250 footcandles. Other High light plants:
  • Giant Plants: Trees and palms up to 30´L

These light intensity categories are based upon duration of 10-12 hours per day minimum of 5 days per week. Lower duration of light requires higher intensity for plants to live.You may want to rethink plant variety (even consider “silk” plants) in offices or conference room that are seldom used. Will the lights be left on? Will there be motion sensors that turn off lights if room is not in use?

Even bright atriums sometimes do not have high light levels (>250 foot candles at leaf height). The following changes the amount of light that reaches the plants:

  • Glazing, tinting, and use of opaque materials instead of clear glass (can reduce up to 90% of sunlight)
  • Blinds, shading or overhangs can dramatically reduce or even eliminate direct sunlight
  • Distance from windows (light at 5′ from window is 2x light at 10′ away)
  • Direction & angle of windows or skylights – light sweeps from east to west, shining below on the opposite side of the skylight; north side has no direct sunlight, south has bright ambient light. Smaller width of skylight (if narrow, light may only shine in from 11am to 1pm) See planter/atrium guidelines for more info.


Tropical plants need a sustained environment of 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Only a few plants can tolerate dips below 50 degrees without major systematic damage. Even a few seconds of cold air (from an open door for example) can damage a tropical plant. Dips below 60 degrees will cause Ficus to lose leaves, and other plants turn yellow. Exposure to very hot temperatures causes some plants to wilt, others to lose leaves.

Live plants will not thrive in airlocks and near busy entrances in WNY during winter. Consider using artificial plants.

If heat or conditioning is turned off, indoor temperatures can easily become damaging to plants when outdoor temperatures are extreme (such cold winter nights or hot sunny summer days). One idea is to use the setback option on your thermostat to maintain 60-85 degrees during times when the building is closed.


Live plants need ongoing care such as water, fertilizer, cleaning and pruning.

Access to the plants – Consider how the care personnel will be able to reach plants. It may be cost-effective to use artificial plants where access is difficult or dangerous.

  • Plants up higher than 4´ will require a stepstool or ladder to reach (adding to the cost of service). Is there floor space for this equipment to be used? A place to store it?
  • Plants may look great on balconies or on atrium overhangs but is there a safe way to reach the plants?
  • Secure areas or Clean rooms may have issues with access for care personnel and equipment. Areas that are seldom used and generally locked may pose access problems for ongoing care.
  • Is access to plants blocked with desks, furniture or other items? Will people need to stop work and move for the care person to take care of the plant?

Water hazards -Even with the most careful person, plant leaves can catch water and drip. Some plants naturally condensate and drip occasionally. (See containers for more concerns.) This is a concern when using plants on unprotected fine wood surfaces and antique desks. Consider relocating plants that are above areas with electronics and important papers.

Access to water and equipment – Plants require lots of water! 10 floor plants in good light might require 20 gallons of water a week (at a total weight of 160 pounds). The ideal is a nearby Janitor´s Closet with a floor basin (not a counter-high utility sink) with hot and cold running water. Water quality is important also: chemically softened or treated water can damage plants over the long term. Giant trees, many plants (>50), or large planters may need a secure area for on-site equipment storage (such as carts to move water). If the plants are on separate floors is there access to elevators?

Plant selection and acclimatization

Have you ever purchased a beautiful tropical plant at a local store and taken it home only to have it quickly look poor and shed many leaves?

Unfortunately many inexpensive plants are not grown to live in the low light levels in northern interiors. Some foliage plants are grown in full Florida sun, and then transferred to shade cloth (which filters out 30-90% of the light), rather than being grown completely in shade. While this shade period does help the plant “acclimate,” or adjust to lower light levels, a “sun grown” plant does not fare as well as “shade grown” material. Sun-grown plants will need more light to thrive than a shade-grown plant of the same species. Although a leaf that has been produced under full sun can adapt to less light, it can never become a “shade” leaf. The difference is in the physical arrangement of the leaf – a sun-grown leaf has chlorophyll molecule turned sideways to the sun, a shade-grown leaf had chlorophyll molecule facing the sun, to continue photosynthesis with less available light.

Another concern is plant insects and diseases. These can easily spread in Florida nurseries and are difficult to treat in office interiors.

At Botanicus, we specially select plant material that has been custom grown in Florida with special soil, lighting conditions (shade grown!) and watering, nutrient systems. Plants are held locally under indoor lighting and lower humidity to acclimate them (and inspect/treat for insects and diseases), ensuring plants are healthy and ready for office conditions.

Decorative Containers

Decorative containers add to the design impact of plants. There are thousands of decorative containers on the market, yet only a few are designed to perform well in commercial interiors. We recommend heavy-duty, unbreakable, scratch-resistant, nonporous, undrained containers that are designed to be direct-potted with plants.

Some observations from our experience: Most metal containers will corrode over time. Ceramic containers can sweat and leach moisture on unglazed bottoms (marking or staining floors). They are also very heavy and difficult to move. (We carry resin Ceramic-look containers that avoid these problems.) Some containers (e.g. fiberglass) can crack or break easily with a sharp impact (cleaning machines, carts, etc.) Even the most heavy-duty container will deteriorate with frequent moving (especially on textured floors and tile with grout).

Decorative containers can always be used as pot covers (especially baskets, wood and other natural materials). The plants can be directly-potted into a simple commercial-quality container and set in the decorative container. With full bushy plants the inside container will not even be seen. Although it is possible to hide this pot with top dressings (bark chips, spanish moss), we do not recommend this. Bark and moss can harbor bacteria, fungus, or gnats and make it very difficult to accurately test the soil moisture needs. In addition, we do not recommend using top dressings because they significantly reduce the plant’s ability to clean the air.

Also see Decorative Containers “What size do I need?”

Available space & Traffic

Many plants are damaged by people brushing or bumping into them. It is important to give plants enough space to grow in. Plants have natural growth patterns and sizes that vary by plant species. Some plants grow very wide while other plants grow tall. The growth of some plants such as cactus or palms cannot be controlled to keep the plant a certain size while other plants can be pruned or trimmed to stay within design limitations.

Available space is also a concern for plants near exterior windows, since glass can become very cold during winter (and hot during summer) damaging any leaves that touch the glass.

The plant information grid at the bottom of each plant gallery page lists the expected height and width of each plant species. This can be your guide to assure that each plant has enough room to thrive and grow.