Tough Love -- How To Perk Up Those Tired Office Plants And Flowers

I'M NOT A GARDENER, but I play one at work.

When I try to grow plants in my little garden at home, all I'm able to grow are rows of dead plants attached to sticks. But for some reason, I can take a plant that other people at work have given up all hope on and make it grow.

I'm not saying that the plants I grow at work look like those you see in garden magazines, but they are green and they have leaves on them. When people look at my plants, however, I sometimes think they are frightened by what they see. These are not normal-looking plants.

My office plants end up looking the way they do because I abuse them.

If you are going to be a plant on my filing cabinet, you better be a tough plant. None of this weeding and fertilizing stuff for these plants. If they can't take it where I work, then they'd better find some new place to live.

Sometimes I think my office plants survive just to show me up. All of the plants are "gifts" from fellow reporters who gave up hope on them and figured they were headed for the garbage can or the top of my file cabinet.

The plants are lined up on a file cabinet that is between my desk and the office coffee pot. I think this is the key to their survival. As I walk by them on my way to get a cup of coffee, I pour my remaining cold coffee into one of the pots. Sometimes the coffee has been sitting in my cup for a couple of days so it is more like a black oil than regular day-old coffee.

Old coffee seems to make them perk up.

Occasionally, when I'm making a fresh pot of coffee, I mix in the old coffee grounds with the dirt in their pots. Once, a plant-sensitive reporter found a paper coffee filter in the poinsettia pot and started to give me a lecture on "plant abuse." She said coffee grounds and paper filters weren't good for plants.

I told her the poinsettia was at least five years old and looked healthier than most of the reporters working in the office. In its own way, I said, the poinsettia was like any reporter. If it didn't get its daily hit of caffeine, the plant would surely die.

When people first see my office plants, they are usually at a loss for words. "What exactly is that?" they will ask while pointing at a plant that looks like a cross between a morning glory and a shrub.

"It's a poinsettia," I tell them.

"What happened to it?" is usually the next question people ask about the poinsettia.

"It has a strong will to live," I tell them.

Granted you don't get to see many poinsettias that creep along the top of a file cabinet like some kind of mutant grape vine, rather than the flashy bright-red plants people normally see at Christmas. But those plants you see at Christmas aren't given a daily jolt of caffeine to keep them growing.

A couple of years ago, I added a fake nose and glasses to the poinsettia to give it a little personality. It seemed to brighten up a bit.

Sometimes people will tell me I should put the poinsettia in the closet a few months before Christmas to make its leaves turn red for the holidays, but I don't think this is a normal poinsettia any more and I think being shut up in a closet would be too much for its system. It wouldn't get its morning cup of coffee and I think it would die.

That's the same with the two other plants sharing the cabinet top with the poinsettia. One is some kind of Japanese tree and the other is a plant that once had a huge red flower growing in it.

Given enough coffee and old grounds, these plants are thriving, too. I noticed that other reporters are dropping off parts of their lunch as they walk by the plants and there are now several new green things fighting for their share of coffee.

I'm hoping we are growing new life forms.

Steve Johnston is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.