A few years ago, I transitioned from self-employed landscaper to garden center manager. My new boss was a legend in horticulture. I was thankful to have the opportunity to be mentored by someone like him. In the first year, I was constantly eager to impress him, my behavior bordering on sycophancy. Accordingly, I was full of suggestions, some of which he was receptive too. But, for at least one, my idea that we should consider carrying houseplants, his response was blistering, the rebuke still carrying a bit of sting. In fairness to him, he has turned out to be right regarding almost all my ideas that he rejected. He taught me a lot. But, I think he has turned out to be mistaken about the market for houseplants being dead. Though it may have been on life support for many years, it seems to have come out of its coma.
When I was hired by another retail business that wanted to add a horticulture division, my new boss asked about houseplants, I expressed skepticism that it would be wise to spend much money on a houseplant inventory. But, then one of my customers, Jason Lurie informed me that he was a member of a houseplant group on Facebook, called Bluff City Blooms, and asked me to give a presentation on terrariums at a party he was hosting for members. I didn’t know much about terrariums or houseplants, but I figured I knew enough to fake it. In fact, it turned out to be pretty awkward, the majority of the group knew more than I, and I began to realize it might be time to order some houseplants and start learning.
So, what caused the change? The conventional wisdom, repeated often in my garden center management magazines, is that millennials are driving the resurgence in interest in houseplants. Millennials, so the logic goes, came of age as we entered a housing crisis, in which the secondary mortgage market collapsed. During this time, the value of many homes plummeted. So, whereas previous generations had an undying faith that the purchase and ownership of a primary residence was an excellent vehicle for the accumulation of wealth, that home values were guaranteed to appreciate each year, millennials lacked that faith. They were more likely to be renters than owners, but still began to have an interest in plants as they moved into their twenties and thirties, like previous generations. So, not wanting to invest in landscape plants they could not take with them when they moved from one rental to another, the channeled that interest into houseplants.
Though big box stores spotted this trend early, owners and managers of independent garden centers, traditionally considered the greatest source of expertise in consumer plant purchases, were late to the party. This was perhaps because many of the older members of that group still remembered the lingering houseplant inventory they could not get rid of after the houseplant boom of the seventies. But, a bigger reason might be that, though they love plants, professional horticulturalists often get their fill of plants working with them all day outdoors. Though plants interest us tremendously, many of us associate them with our jobs. Like many people, desiring to be free of thoughts of work when inside our home, houseplants, perhaps, had less appeal to us than they do for others. Rather than relaxing us, plants sometimes trigger thoughts of work. So, we just weren’t as enthusiastic about houseplants, since we didn’t have them in our own homes.
During shorter days of the fall and winter, the amount of natural light coming in through windows decreases. So, houseplants often go into dormancy, needing less water and fewer nutrients.”
So, I and perhaps some other garden center managers, are finding ourselves scrambling to catch up with our customers. We are not only having to learn the names of these plants; we are having to learn different care techniques as well. Thankfully, I had the many members of Bluff City Blooms, numbering well over 500, mostly millennial and mostly women, to help me get started. Although indoor plants have a great deal in common with outdoor plants, making much of my knowledge transferable, there are some differences I have had to learn too.
First, plants sold as houseplants are often from the tropics. Specifically, many come from rainforests. As such, they are used to a great deal more humidity. Though our humidity outside in Memphis is very high, the modern climate control systems in our home make our interior air very dry. Thus, owners of houseplants with high humidity needs must compensate. This is typically done in one of these three ways, or some combination of thereof: 1. They can use a spray bottle to mist plants regularly; 2. They can purchase a humidifying machine to add humidity to the air; or 3. They can put their plants on top of trays of pebbles or gravel, about one inch thick, with half an inch to ¾ of an inch of water that humidifies the air above it as it evaporates.
Second, there is the degree to which customers take responsibility for watering. When landscaping customers complain that a plant is dying or is dead, most of the time, it is due to a failure to adequately water. In contrast, when a houseplant dies, or shows signs of stress, it is usually due to over-watering.
Third, houseplants need much more frequent fertilization than outdoor plants. Potting mix is better draining, there is less residual moisture, and nutrients don’t stick around. They get flushed out of the pot quickly. So, many houseplants need fertilization monthly or more often during the growing season.
Fourth, I mostly focused on dropping temperatures as the most important trigger of dormancy in plants. Since temperatures in homes are constant, I assumed houseplants never went into dormancy. In fact, there are other clues that houseplants pick up on that it is winter, other than temperature change. The days shorten. The amount of natural light coming in through windows decreases. So, houseplants often go into dormancy too, needing less water and fewer nutrients, during the fall and winter. I learned that, whereas most outdoor plants die during the drought period of late summer in Memphis, most houseplants die during winter, when plant owners fail to moderate their normal watering and feeding regimen.
Inspired by the enthusiasm of the members of Bluff City Blooms, I have jumped into the world of houseplants. Already in love with Saxifraga stolonifera (Strawberry Begonia) as a landscape groundcover, I have also become enthusiastic about it as a houseplant. Going beyond my go-to recommendations for customers inquiring about houseplants, Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZs) and Sansevieria spp. (Snake Plants), I have gained tremendous appreciation for Philodendron x ‘Prince of Orange’ (Prince of Orange Philodendron), Monstera deliciosa (Swiss Cheese Plant), Aglaonema spp. (Chinese Evergreen), Senecio peregrinus (String of Dolphins), Senecio rowleyanus (String of Pearls), and Peperomia argyreia (Watermelon Peperomia), just to name a few. I give them as gifts to friends. I love that the area where my desk is, at work, is filled with houseplants. But still, I do not have them in my home. I hope you understand.