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Young man chills out looking after office plants, everything from fake-looking corn plants to the delicate ming aralia

You can't help noticing office plants around the holidays — from the scarlet poinsettias that appear and vanish without warning to the fragrant Christmas trees surrounded by fake presents.

Looking after those plants — and the regular ferns, ficuses and draecena that make up office life in Portland — is a full-time job. You may lovingly empty your Evian bottle into a parched planter, but the chances are they already are being looked after.

Jacques Cayton, 28, is one of the technicians from Foliage Services who look after plants in Portland. On a recent fall morning, his first stop of the day was at Deschutes Brewery, at Northwest 11th Avenue and Davis Street. He arrived at 10 a.m. before opening. Cayton entered by the side door where the place was already busy with managers, kitchen and serving staff setting up. He's service industry-savvy: He called "CORNER!" as he went around corners, which has prevented a few collisions in the past.

This part of the job is simple: check soil, water plant, dust leaves, repeat.

He mounts a step stool and waters the pothos, which hang in baskets from the carved wood beams that dominate the pub. Up and down he goes, up and down. Then he moves over to two rows of sansevieria (snake plants) at head height behind the benches.

The fashion for trailing plants, in hip bars and apartment buildings, means work is booming for firms like Foliage Services. Cayton usually visits 15 accounts per day, working seven to five, four days per week. The pay at his level is more than minimum wage but under $20 per hour.

He loves his job. It's chill.

"I see this job as getting paid to meditate and relax. Working with plants is very relaxing, there's something kind of therapeutic about it. I grew up with my grandparents, and they had a property with their own garden by Sherwood, Oregon. I have good memories of the garden there. That's kind of my emotional background in terms of why I got

into this."

Actually, it's better than a job. Cayton likes to set his own pace and enjoys the interaction with people.

"Some people that have jobs say they get paid to work out. And that's great. But this is not like having a job. You're getting paid to do something you enjoy, versus forcing myself to be somewhere."

Le philosophe

His French mother met his American father while he was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Thirty years ago, they moved to Oregon. Cayton was born here but his two older siblings were born in France.

"My dad's mom told him about all these great philosophy teaching jobs here in Oregon that were around in the '80s. I think she embellished a little bit just to get him back and get the grandkids over."

He didn't get the travel bug or become fluent in French. Plants took over.

"I guess you could say I'm in the business. I've done this about five years now."

He started out working at Al's Garden Center and learned about plants through serving customers and reading at night. He went to PCC for history, government and political science but, after two years, left to work.

"I got into working with my hands, and I really liked the feel of getting your hands dirty and working with plants. It's just something very fulfilling about getting something to take root and flourish."

He then got into office plant care at Evolve, whose approach was a little more "cookie-cutter," than he liked, then left that for Foliage Services.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM  - Cayton works on a ten-year-old efflera arboricola at the Deschutes Brewery brewpub. Cayton says if it gets any wilder they can always move it to a McMenamins, where odd-looking plants are always welcome.

Plant types

He sees a lot of aglaonemas, which are busy with a kind of camo pattern. People often mention them to him as though they are ailing, but that's their typical look. He also sees a lot of what people call "corn plants" with slender leaves like corn.

The routine is simple: water, pick off dying leaves, and buff away the dust. If Cayton wants to make a plant look shiny, he uses Brand X spray. He says it makes leaves look so glossy they seem fake, which is a look that some office managers like. He learned the etiquette of entering different kinds of offices. Lawyers tend to like privacy. Sometimes they have their papers spread out on the floor.

"It's very instinctive. You try not to make too much noise and splash water on their desk or papers. You have to pick up on their facial cues."

He usually deals with the receptionist and the office manager first. In some places, he feels like a "plant ninja," coming and going silently, so people barely notice. In other places, people want to chat.

"They're generally pleased to see me," Cayton said. He feels he gets more attention from the office workers than they might give the cleaners because a plant is a shared, living thing they can bond over.

"If you live in Portland, you're surrounded by nature, and a lot of people want to bring that nature into their home somehow." They quiz him about their house plants at home like you might a doctor at a party.

"I'm kind of seen as an encyclopedia, Google, like, 'Oh, I can ask you anything.' And generally, it's easy softball questions, thankfully." He often has to point out the basics, such as that plants drop leaves when there is less light, so house plants aren't dying in December. It's more like an animal shedding its coat in summer.

The most frequent question is, can people fertilize their house plants? He generally says, no. If the temperature is stable and they are watered, the soil should provide enough nutrients.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Jacques Cayton checks out the coffee plant at Caffe Umbria in the Pearl District.

Pub to office

In the window at Deschutes, by the waiting bench, there is a tall, Schefflera arboricola that is leaning over. It has been tied back and staked many times. Cayton sees no point in rotating it. "It may be leaning because of the light, or because the soil in the pot is hollowed out." He likes it as is. It's probably 10 years old. If it gets out of control, they can always move it to a McMenamins. Foliage Services does all the Portland-area McMenamins bars and hotels, and says they prefer their plants natural and with character. "Anything that looks just out of place or out of character, anything that's unique looking, anything that's growing crazily. They'll take that."

His second stop of the day is in the Brewery Blocks, Greystar Management, at 1125 N.W. Couch St. This property management company is hushed and tidy, and has the usual smattering of rubber plants and corn plants. In one boardroom, there is a ficus tree and a ming aralia, which is a fine-leaved mini tree, almost like a bonsai. Both get plenty of light in the best room in the building, and both need lots of watering.

But not too much. One problem Cayton sees elsewhere is teabags in the planters, or people dumping their coffee dregs into the soil. The acidity can hurt a plant.

Or even well-meaning people who are overwatering the plants at the first sign of a yellow leaf.

The ficus is tricky in an office since it gives off a sticky sap when trimmed.

"It's kind of difficult to trim these because they will release that sap on people's desks and flooring. And you can use it like School Glue."

App for that

Greystar also has a living wall in the reception, which was designed by Foliage Services. It's a series of plastic containers mounted on the wall, with some trailing plants covering up the gaps. It takes Cayton about 10 minutes to water every pot. He points out where the harsh spotlight hits the center and how it's causing the plants to grow differently. There's not much he can do about that. He finishes up and politely takes his leave.

He uses a mobile app to clock in and out of each account. The app makes it easy to keep track of the health of plants, when they were watered, moved, and other variables.

"And we've also got it set up how we can write up plant replacement orders, which is if a plant doesn't look good, or if it has disease, or if it's just old, I can basically push a few buttons on here, it pulls up the PDF, and I can give my people back at the headquarters, my job specifics and why it needs to be replaced."

The cloud has finally replaced faxes.

"It's so nice to be able to kind of have a cell phone and have this all kind of accessible. I can go in and see the whole inventories of all my accounts, and I don't have to have a stack of paper."

A lot of students like the work because of the four-day rotation, and because anyone with a love of plants can pick up the knowledge pretty quickly.

The job is similar to customer service, but not a sales job. Cayton doesn't hustle bizdev, but he did land the Keen HQ in the Pearl account by handing over a card. Someone stopped him as he was eating his lunch in the van outside the store. Now the second-floor cafeteria is a plant wonderland.

Taking a break at nearby Caffe Umbria, I asked Cayton to check out the coffee plant growing in a pot it the corner. He wondered how they kept it healthy since coffee bushes require a lot of humidity. He stroked the leaves and felt a branch, and declared it good enough.

He does fine art painting on his long weekends, but more than that, he camps and hikes. Biophilia (the love of plants and their therapeutic properties) is his life right now.

"With biophilia, hopefully, people will respect nature. The more that they feel like they're comfortable around it and it's not something that we need to defeat, it's something that you can live with and bring into their homes. Because the whole idea of a home is to keep nature outside. We want to bring it inside. It does some good for the mindset, having a plant in there, some greenery and not just, blank walls or some generic painting."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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