The Way We Work Now

My Year of Tending to Indoor Plants Left Behind in Empty Office Buildings

‘You’re working on all these plants and you’re the only person who’s appreciating it’

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The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Jacob Nguyen, 27, is a horticulturist for an interior landscaping company in the New York City area. He spoke with Mai Tran about tending to the indoor plants left behind in empty office buildings after employees moved to fully remote work.

I was doing plant care for about a year before the pandemic. Normally, I have a list of sites and offices I go to that are all located in one part of the city. I would check in with our contact and get started on making sure everything’s still green and lush and alive. Now we fall under the category of building workers who are providing essential services. We were shut down until the end of April, which is when we got the okay to return to work. It was such a surreal experience to go back while the rest of New York City was still confined to their homes.

“Social distancing” has been such a huge phrase floating around for the last year or so. Having the ease of working in a larger space by myself was weirdly relaxing, being able to blast music or just take my time and really give these plants the proper care they need. Before the pandemic, we had people who would stop by and ask what we’re doing, and get our two cents on their houseplants at home.

Some offices are smaller and take an hour; some have multiple floors and I’ll be there for anywhere between two to two and a half hours, ensuring these plants are being treated for any pests, wiping them down because dust does accumulate.

Keeping in mind that what we work on are considered houseplants or indoor plants, the basis of what I do is try to mimic the care they would need in their actual environment as much as possible. I pay attention to how much light they’re getting. Are they located somewhere that’s being blasted with heat or cold air? If there are any plant pests, which inevitably happens because pests will latch onto whatever organic matter they can find indoors, my job is to make sure that the plants have an upper hand in fighting them off. The plants aren’t in nature where they would have checks and balances from the weather or from the ecosystem. As a horticulturist, we have to step in and be that balancing act.

It’s just devastating for someone to come back to their workplace and be like, “Oh no, this little plant I left behind is dead.” As humans, we’re so sentimental.

I keep weekly notes of everything I water or take care of at any given site so I can refer back to them. There are also visual cues — are the leaves drooping, or does the stalk of this plant look a little withered? And I always check out the soil. I poke around and touch it in order to ensure the plant is getting the proper amount of water, instead of eyeballing it. Sometimes it is out of your hands, especially when you have plants in these office spaces where people haven’t been around. Sometimes the heat’s been blasting since last winter and these plants are drying out in addition to the additional sunlight they’re getting. I’ll reach out to people and figure out solutions, but plants do inevitably die. I used to beat myself up over it, but normally I am fully transparent like, “This happens, I think we should consider replacing this and maybe relocating it or adjusting the temperature so this plant can thrive and live its best life.”

I’ve tried my best to take care of personal plants as well if they’re still healthy, alive, and kicking. It’s just devastating for someone to come back to their workplace and be like, “Oh no, this little plant I left behind is dead,” because as humans we’re so sentimental.

When I was in college five or six years ago, I was in such a sterile environment that I really missed being around greenery. That’s when I first started getting into plants, and something I’ve been noticing since then is this return back to nature, or a refocusing of what engages people. We live in these cities where there are little pockets of nature here and there, but they’re not really designed to be organic, so having indoor plants allows us to attach to, or remind ourselves, of the world that’s out there still.

A lot of the people we work with have such an affinity and love for plants. I have a feeling that as people are trickling back and getting vaccinated they’ll reach out to us to be like, “We just came back to an office full of dead plants because we couldn’t afford a landscaper or couldn’t access the building at this time, but we would love to have your services help us,” and in a lot of ways I look forward to that. It’s different when you’re working on all these plants and installations and you’re the only person who’s appreciating it. It would be nice just to have people around.

writer based in new york

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