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Finding that corner with optimal sunlight, the perfect pot, and the trick for guiding a little sprout to its full, wild potential—is there anything more gratifying than helping a leafy, living thing thrive? In our new Plant Parents series, we spotlight flora lovers and their tips and tools for raising happy, healthy buds and blooms.

In the magical, pre-pandemic world, having plants scattered around her fashion brand’s sun-soaked Manhattan office was important to designer Mara Hoffman. Greenery was a calming force in otherwise busy days. “I think they contributed to our happiness, to the air we were breathing there, and were just something beautiful for us. They’re my friends, and they’re really close to me,” she says.

When the day came to shut down the office and send her staff home to work remotely, Hoffman had to devise a contingency plan for the dozens of succulents, philodendron, and potted pothos vines. 

She couldn’t just leave them there to wilt. Instead she loaded up her car with every pot and planter in the space and headed north to her cabin in the upstate New York hamlet of Stormville. The same way Hoffman and her family decompressed from city life, the plants were all lined up on the back porch for some direct sunlight, fresh air, and a chance to acclimate to their new environment. Here, the designer walks us through how she got them settled inside.

On Calling in the Experts

Hoffman’s home looks out over a lake; the yard is dotted with trees; and all that energy is reflected inside with wood-clad walls. Building a living wall felt like a natural solution for the plants. After researching the process, she tapped landscaping designer Kari Brooke Elwell-Katzander of Mingo Design to nail down the finer details. “Five years ago, I’d seen her featured in a story about living walls in The New York Times,” Hoffman recalls. “I reached out to see if she could help create something to put all of them in order, because we have so many.”

On Going Vertical

Elwell-Katzander surveyed the collection, and after picking through a few that didn’t quite make it on the journey upstate, she knew the best way to create two living walls would be through a series of custom racks (seven total) that would support the roots and soil. The series of planters were custom-made by Elwell-Katzander and mounted on the wall evenly to space out hanging vines.

On Location, Location, Location

Hoffman found two walls that measured perfectly for the job. One is at the top of the stairs leading to the upper family room. Just above the wall is a big skylight, so the plants can constantly get sun. The second was just around the corner, facing the massive windows that look out onto the lake. “It was wildly serendipitous,” she recalls. “It reads more like they were able to find their way home now that they’re here.”

On Planning for Upkeep

To house all the different shapes and sizes of plants, Elwell-Katzander built a pod system that would irrigate the soil from a ½-inch tray on the bottom of each basin that can be refilled. She and Hoffman removed each plant from its pot, then put the root ball into a specially–designed pouch so the roots wouldn’t get tangled. Each unit is made from 85 percent recyclable materials and can either be watered by hand or by a timer—the latter of which can also conserve water by preventing overwatering and human error.

On Mixing and Matching

The top two rows on the stairwell wall are filled with succulents, which need the most sunlight. The lower ones are a mix and match of philodendrons, pothos, and button leaves for a gradient of lush greenery that disguises the braces beneath. “We moved the plants around a lot—especially at first—to make sure everything was getting enough sun. They’re all doing really well now,” says Hoffman.

On Swapping Things Out

“It took a bit of time to figure out the perfect spot for all of them,” admits Hoffman—a few days to be exact. And since the installation, she has rearranged even more so that some have more (or less) access to sunlight. Putting in the time to tend to the greenery’s changing needs has been a comforting routine. “These are highly intelligent organisms,” she says. “I learn a lot from them about caring for things and giving people what they need.”

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