Aesthetic Atrium Plant Design with Practicality In Mind

The first time a brand-new atrium plant design is installed, it looks amazing.  There is nothing more satisfying to an interiorscape designer, than watching their vision go from a computer screen to reality.  The plants are in perfect shape, fresh from the greenhouse.  The foliage is spaced to your formula and everything is neat with clean lines.  Less than a year later, you can return to that same atrium and find it completely overgrown and your original vision now looks like a scene from the amazon. 

As a designer, if you’ve never had to maintain an interiorscape, this jungle transformation will probably shock you and then make you wonder how this happened.  Many times, I’ve taken over atriums such as this, knowing they looked gorgeous and now appear as if there’s no rhyme or reason to the design.   Letting an interiorscape get overrun, reflects company apathy and an easy way for the client to put your contract out to bid.  After years of maintaining and creating designs, I’ve learned a few reasons how and why this can happen.

In most cases, anyone hired to maintain your interiorscape will have a different idea of what looks good. If a plant is still alive and green, that’s an average person’s idea of good maintenance.  I started my career working at a commercial ornamental greenhouse, so it’s easy for me to see the difference in foliage quality.  I have come across a few exceptionally good horticulture technicians without greenhouse experience that had a natural talent for keeping an atrium looking as if it was newly planted.  If you have someone like that on your staff, do everything in your power to keep them.  Otherwise, take into account that this work is challenging for most technicians. Making it as easy as possible will benefit the longevity of your design.

The overrun atriums that I redesign have a few things in common.  One of those is accessibility to the foliage.  A good example is creating a continuous bed of foliage that is extremely wide.  Over time, a plant like a pothos is going to creep into other areas, grow on top of other plants, and the older leaves in the middle are going to die out.  If a technician has to crawl or walk on existing plants to care for the inner areas, it’s going to get neglected.  

Whenever creating an interiorscape, every plant section should be within arm’s reach with some negative space between areas for someone to stand.  This way, they are more likely to make the effort to reach every plant. 

Another way to make maintenance easier and withstand time, is to use hardscaping between different foliage areas.  Not only does, rock, tumbled glass, or a type of mulch allow you to stand and walk between the plants without crushing them, but it also keeps the definition of your design easier for technicians to recognize. Without a border, it’s easy for plants to spread and grow wild. 

The types of foliage you choose for your designs can also have a big impact on its aesthetic longevity.  It can’t be just about looks, unless your client has unlimited resources to continuously rotate them.  Certain foliage such as spathiphyllum, ferns, calathea, cordyline are hard to hold up without a perfectly controlled environment.  Delicate, paper-like foliage like those varieties tend to brown and shrivel when too dry.  

Plants that drop leaves, such as ficus, can create other maintenance problems. I had a three-story atrium plant design where the ficus trees had grown to the glass ceiling.  Not only were they covered in scale and sending their sticky sap down onto the plants below, but they were a dangerous OSHA nightmare at thirty feet to trim. After sending tons of dirty sticky leaves to the floor, it took hours to remove them. 

Plants that have rigid leaves and naturally hardy, can hold up their appearance for several years.  ZZs, aglaonemas, succulents and most varieties in the dracaena family are sustainable choices.  Dracaenas such as the lemon lime, limelight and carmen can add contrast.  Super easy to maintain, using Janet Craig compactas and ZZs with their unique shapes can help create visual interest. 

Keeping these two things in mind, planter accessibility and foliage choices, can keep your atrium plant design looking fresh for years to come.

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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