When Darryl Cheng first set out to help his mom decorate with houseplants nearly five years ago, there was a caveat: “You better figure out how to take care of them,” she told him. Cheng, creator of the Instagram account House Plant Journal (@houseplantjournal) and author of “The New Plant Parent,” didn’t just figure it out — he cracked the care-keeping code, and along the way amassed half a million followers.
Part of the reason his account has resonated so deeply with the houseplant community is his ability to package technical care information with the optics of appeal, both influenced by his backgrounds in industrial engineering and professional photography.
“Part of my old job was to design training materials. That’s why it really grabbed me when I read training materials for houseplant care and realizing it was just totally lacking in anything that was concrete,” Cheng says. “Most notably, the thing I realized that nobody really ever measures is light.”
Let there be light
He didn’t know much about houseplant care when he first started this journey. When he looked for specifics, Google didn’t deliver, and instructions floating around Facebook and Pinterest were vague at best — until he discovered foliage production guidelines from The University of Florida. Finding this information was “a breath of fresh air.”Cheng saw there was a need to communicate the tangible measurements of light to a broader audience. With this in mind, he set off to create information that appealed to both regular consumers but also the ones who were comfortable enough to sink their teeth into specifics. He’s even in the process of creating a light meter to help with this.
“I think most people today are very comfortable with different technologies. It’s almost as if we need to give more credit to our listeners and give them the more tactical stuff and then allow them to realize, ‘Oh, this is important,’” Cheng says.
He notes that watering instructions are always specific while lighting instructions are often vague.
“If your plant is in a dark corner, there’s no way to water it correctly. You’re still going to be disappointed with it in a few months. The watering is not the independent variable. The water is dependent on the light,” Cheng says.
Labor of love
For Jacquelyn Holland, creator of the Instagram account Little North Plants (@littlenorthplants), running the account is a labor of love. Her mother and maternal grandmother instilled their love of gardening into her at a young age, but it wasn’t until she moved into her own apartment that she took up the houseplant hobby as her own.
“My mom gave me houseplants as gifts to brighten up my apartment and that kind of thing, so it started with those. They’re all long dead now because, in the beginning, you know how it is,” Holland jokes.
Like Cheng, she also has a background in photography, as well as graphic design. She’s also had experience running a business and now runs an online shop of the same name in which she sells T-shirts, accessories and other wares fit for plant parents.
Neither Cheng nor Holland had expected their content to “go viral,” which is when a post gains high traction and engagement across social media. When a single piece of content goes viral, it often paves the way for account exposure, along with an influx of new followers, hungry for more content.
Cheng traces his account’s growth back to when Instagram first released its video feature and he started sharing 15-second time-lapse videos of plants or flowers blooming, which went viral and were picked up by various news media outlets.
“Parallel to that, I was also writing about how to take care of plants in a way that was unique to my own,” Cheng recalls.
As for Holland, she noticed that many people in the houseplant community were frustrated when they bought Monstera cuttings that didn’t grow to fit their expectations. So, she set out to educate them.
“I made a post explaining, side by side, the differences and what you’re going to get from each one. I made it because I heard all of these people were disappointed in what they got,” Holland says. “They’re spending a lot of money on these expensive plants and they’re not getting what they thought they would get, and I guess that just resonated with a lot of people.”
You’ve gone viral. Now what?
As IGCs utilize Instagram as a marketing tool, Cheng and Holland offer practical advice. The first thing IGCs should keep in mind is that building an audience consists of slow and steady work.
“I think I started my Instagram back in April of last year. I had around 1,000 followers right up until around September, and then one post kind of blew up for some reason I still don’t know why,” Holland says. “But that’s when a lot of people started finding me, so it’s always going to be slow in the beginning.”
Currently, she has more than 73,000 followers (and counting). She also recommends that IGCs regularly post content, which ensures your brand will stay memorable in the minds of your followers.
“It may be easier for the algorithm to share your posts if you’re consistent every day. And you don’t need to post at the same time every day or anything like that — just keep generating the content,” Holland says.
In terms of building your brand, Cheng advises IGCs to focus on relevant topics and track what links or posts gain traction with the audience. In his case, pointing out light considerations is all about balance.
“It’s difficult getting people to click on something that’s very abstract about light — for example, ‘How to calculate the daily light integral’ — nobody’s going to click on that. But when I post something like ‘How to get rid of thrips,’ it clicks through the roof,” Cheng says.
In short, keep your posts practical. When followers start to understand more about your brand, you can achieve those means more thoroughly through your website, or the captions on particular posts, he says. In terms of other Instagram influencer accounts, such as travel or fashion, Cheng points out that it’s quite easy to share photos of plants because they’re all around.
Hashtags can be a good way to draw in followers who are searching for a specific plant, but it’s important to be intentional when using them. If your garden center plans to use hashtags to accompany your content, refrain from dumping hashtags at the bottom of the post just for the sake of using them, Cheng advises.
Instead, he recommends placing a hashtag of the plant name, genus or species and embed that into the caption, where the people are reading.
“That way, when they read it, they can see all the posts that are related to that particular plant. It will take them away from your account, but at the same time people will get used to reading your content while connecting them to the broader topic, “Cheng says.
Holland has a similar approach and notes the importance of including the scientific name as well as the common plant name, because people call plants different things (especially in different geographical regions). Additionally, she uses hashtags to connect Instagram users with the hashtag they’re searching for or following. She keeps a document of hashtags that she can easily copy and paste into a post, and tweaks as necessary.
It’s also important to understand the mechanics of Instagram, which is all about quick content. If the information isn’t helpful or aesthetically pleasing, your followers won’t engage with your posts, Holland says.
For garden centers, Holland advises that one person who understands the platform should run the account, but that they should be open to collaboration from the entire team. Using the Instagram business function of the app can help your designated social media person see which topics or posts are resonating with your audience. From there, she suggests the social media person scour through the IGC’s top five or 10 posts and repurpose that information, whether it be in a new form of post, video or something else creative.
According to Cheng, nurseries and IGCs have a prime advantage when it comes to posting because stock is always changing and they can post as often as they want, especially when new shipments come in.
“A nursery has the ability now to say, ‘Oh, this just in, we have Monstera Thai Constellation,’ and then when people scroll past the nursery, that post is almost like a flyer,” Cheng says.
Running an account isn’t without challenges, though. Holland says there are some days she isn’t quite sure what to post and feels the pressure of creating new content as she gains more followers. For Cheng, he tries not to allow the idea of “keeping up with the trends” to permeate into what he does on Instagram.
“Five years in, I do recognize that I have to sort of play a role of being a broadcaster of plant interest. But when I first started, I really took in the mindset that the No. 1 fan of my Instagram account has to be me,” Cheng says.
If there’s one thing houseplant lovers can’t resist it’s more plants. To reach this new and growing market of plant enthusiasts, Barnes Nursery is hosting houseplant swaps to create a space for plant parents to come together, share their excitement and get to know the Ohio IGC.
The idea came about when a Barnes Nursery store manager traveled to New York and saw an announcement for a plant swap at a shop in Brooklyn. Barnes Nursery had been looking for ways to connect with new houseplant customers and Jen Cook, general manager of retail operations, loved the idea. The IGC had been seeing an explosive growth of interest in houseplants and wanted to focus on those new customers.
“This idea seemed like something fresh and unique that this particular genre of customer would love,” she says.
Cook tweaked the idea to take it from a short event requiring entry tickets and turned it into a more laid-back, all-day event.
In the initial planning stages, Barnes Nursery considered requiring an RSVP, charging a fee, having a speaker and a few other options, but decided to keep it simple. “What we kept coming back to is this event isn’t about making money or maintaining a tight schedule,” Cook says. “It’s about providing a place for enthusiasts to gather and share plants, knowledge and information among themselves at their own pace. So we were happy to simply provide the event space and the swappers took it from there.”
Getting it going
To kick the swap off, employees propagated their own cuttings and rootings to supplement customers’ offerings and give early attendees more to choose from. The IGC also donated some plants from the greenhouse to fill ou the early offreings.
For the first year’s event, the IGC gave out one ticket for each plant swappers brought in. Participants could then trade that ticket for one plant of their choice but that format didn’t work well, Cook says, since attendees brought plants of all sizes.
“Some brought cuttings; some brought larger entire plants and some brought small starts,” she says. “We thought it might work better to leave it up to the swappers.”
So in the second year, they did away with the tickets and the swap went off without a hitch. Staff simply kept an eye out while attendees negotiated. “What we noticed is the swappers were all so kind to each other,” Cook says. “We had concerns there may be unbalanced swapping, but everyone was fair, generous and gracious.”
For example, if one swapper brought in a large potted plant, others would ask for a cutting rather than the whole plant to allow others a chance to grow one at home. Cook says there were no arguments or disagreements throughout the event.
Plant swap promotions
To get the word out about their swap events, Barnes Nursery worked with their graphics team to put out a promotional flyer including guidelines for the swap, specifying that only pest-free houseplants, not hardy varieties, were part of the swap. It’s key to include the terms “houseplant” or “indoor plants” prominently so that customers know what to bring.
“This event is strictly for the houseplant customer base so be sure to word it that way or you’ll have people showing up with lilac cuttings and hosta clumps,” Cook says. “Those are two very different customer bases and events.”
Staff handed those flyers out to store customers for three to four weeks before the big event and promoted it on their social media channels. In addition, there was a big banner promotion outside the storefront.
“We had a very simple black and white banner printed to hang outside the building in the weeks prior that read ‘Houseplant Swap Here” with the date and time,” Cook says. “The simplicity of the banner along with the fact that this was a unique event generated a lot of buzz.”
Over the past two events, Barnes Nursery has learned a lot. The garden center chose October for the first event in 2018, right before Ohio gardeners bring their houseplants indoors for the winter. “Our greenhouse was fairly empty so we had a great space and traffic was slowing down so we thought this would increase traffic,” Cook says.
After that first event, the garden center received feedback that the event was too late in the year, so in 2019, they moved the event to September. Cook says the move increased attendance, and the garden center still had a good stock of fall plants and décor, so the space was more inviting. That, combined with warmer weather, allowed attendees a more inviting space to wander outdoors, which provided a better overall experience.
They also learned that food wasn’t as big of a draw as they had originally anticipated. To kick off the event in the first year, Barnes Nursery provided brick oven pizzas, wine, craft beer, water and coffee, but while people loved the idea of pizza, the IGC noticed that not many people were actually eating it. Attendees were too busy in the greenhouse chatting and swapping. So in the second year, they switched it up and provided cookies and drinks, which was plenty to entice swappers, Cook says.
All in all, the events only took about a day to set up, outside of the time spent propagating plants to supplement the swap. And Barnes was able to do it all in an 8- by 4-foot space in their greenhouse.
While the garden center skipped the event last year due to the pandemic, Cook says she’s excited to host it again this fall. Previous events brought 30 to 50 people through the doors, but the event is more about creating goodwill than it is about customers or sales. Although there were a few sales of potting mix soil and rarer houseplants, Cook says it wasn’t a particularly profitable event. “It was more just about providing the space and getting people who have never been in the store before and just talking to them,” Cook says.
At the end of the day, the goal of the event — to bring in new customers — was definitely met.
From the East Coast to the West Coast, increased interest in gardening spurred a boom of demand for containers for 2020, with steady sales streaming into 2021. IGCs across North America experienced record demands since the pandemic began and are well on their way for another successful year in container sales. Here’s how the latest trends and consumer lifestyles are affecting the market, according to two garden retail experts.
Cathy Hough, general manager and buyer at Marina del Rey Garden Center in California, says that living trends have influenced some of the latest shifts in container preferences.
“I don’t think I have a pot that’s not selling,” Hough says. The IGC has been serving Los Angeles and its surrounding areas since 1977 and has one of the largest container inventories in the area, according to Hough.
“Every container itself depends on the needs of the customer. We used to have a lot of inventory in heavy concrete pots, and that has really shifted to lighter weight material,” she says.
In West Los Angeles, many new townhomes and condominiums have weight restrictions for their balconies. As such, clay fiber pots have been one of the IGC’s most popular offerings for several years since they look like concrete but offer a sleek, modern look at a fraction of the weight.
Small seems to be the growing trend, as the IGC sells everything from 36-inch pots to 2-inch pots at a variety of price points. However, Hough says she’s noticed an uptick in demand for the smaller pot sizes over the last couple of years, particularly 4-inch, 6-inch and 8-inch.
“We’re seeing more and more demand for smaller pots. I think, especially as people have been housebound for the past year, people are paying attention to everything in their house and everything in their apartment. And if they only have a little shelf space above their kitchen sink that holds a 4-inch pot, that’s what they’re going to do,” Hough says.
The IGC also sells a variety of ceramic glazed pots, which tend to be quite popular with the local customer base. The ceramic glazed pots primarily come from China and Vietnam, and there are a variety of bright colors like lime greens and oranges. Ocean green and ocean blue also sell spectacularly well, along with classic neutral staples.
Black and white containers are popular with decorators and designers, while homeowners are drawn more to bright colors, Hough says.
“Back in the day, people used to go with baskets back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Baskets were kind of an interior go-to for indoor plants and now it’s all over the map. Now, people will do everything from the clay fiber to Italian clay to glazed ceramic,” Hough says.
The bright colors of the ceramics are an unintentional siren call to curious customers, as the different containers are visible from across the street — something that helps, Hough notes. Additionally, she displays containers within the different plant materials and creates vignettes to spread them around the store so people can see all of the different types they carry.
“In addition to the homes, we have a lot of single-story homes, single-family homes and townhomes. It really is a container-emphasis town. Where we are, there’s a lot of people who live in apartments and a lot of people who live in small spaces who don’t have the ground space, so containers totally suit their lifestyle,” Hough says.
Jessica Beesley, retail store manager at Estabrook’s in Maine, notes a variety of styles rounding out shopping carts this year. The IGC’s flagship store is located in Yarmouth, and has a seasonal location in Kennebunk. When it comes to outdoor containers, customers look for contemporary pieces and shapes, especially cones, cylinders and squares. She notes that these shapes carry over to indoor container popularity as well.
“Terra-cotta has been really big for interior for us, especially in the last two years and it only seems to be growing bigger. The other thing that I’m finding people are picking up, especially for inside, is anything with feet — such as footed containers or containers with pedestals underneath,” Beesley says.
The range of indoor container sizes runs the gamut at Estabrook’s from as small as 2 1/2-inch pots to 10-inch, 12-inch or even 14-inch. The majority of what we sell is probably 4 1/2 to 6-inch pots, somewhere right in that range,” Beesley says.
Price points are across the board, but Estabrook’s has been able to sell more higher-end containers lately. People want their interiors to look nice and they’re willing to pay for it, she says.
To catch the customer’s eye, outdoor containers are stacked in towers on wooden and steel tables. “Inside, it’s pretty much anything goes. We’ll have a specific style amongst some plants, and we have some great wooden hutches that we use as well. Terra-cotta goes on wooden shelves or wooden platforms. We’re kind of squeezing it in here, there and everywhere these days,” Beesley says.
Whenever they get a new piece or an especially striking container, the garden center features it on social media or occasionally in its newsletters.
“Typically, it’s just something that people will pick up when they are here, or they’ll come in looking for a container to re-pot a plant they have,” Beesley says.
Containers are a fairly profitable category for the IGCs that stock them, but once COVID hit in 2020, demand was through the roof. Beesley notes there was a major uptick in container sales last year and doesn’t see the trend winding down any time soon.
Hough says COVID affected every facet of inventory in the business. No category or product was spared from the shock to the supply chain system.
“I’ve been doing this for probably 40 years, and it was my most challenging year. All of a sudden our vegetable areas and the shelves were empty. My pallets of soil were gone,” Hough says. “I mean, it seemed to happen so fast. We were unprepared, the growers were unprepared, we were all just unprepared. We began running out of product by April,” Hough says.
She credits the strong relationships between the IGC and its vendors who kept them as well supplied as they could, as well as ordering brands she had never carried before.
As for the future, Hough says it’s impossible to predict what will happen, but she has a good feeling, considering the IGC’s market share increased nearly 30%.
“The question is, is that new market share — those people who’ve never gardened — are they going to come back this year? Do we grow more? Do we manufacture more? What do we do?
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but last year was a record year. I would only go so far as to say that this will be our second-best year,” Hough says.
I have never been a fan of horticultural segregation. Meaning, I like all the plants together all the time. Mixing edibles and ornamentals of all sizes, shapes and textures is my jam. Shape pruning or boxing is not my style either, which ends up being what I call “fluffy foodscaping.” While order and monoculture still dominate much ornamental horticulture and landscape design — and are clearly cemented as the standard in the minds of many homeowners — I get the sense many of our customers would like to be set free. Free to mix and grow whatever they would like in whatever combinations they would like, wherever they would like. Many of them are just waiting for us to give them permission by example. With the plantdemic push still in full force, now is a great time to remind home gardeners that “fluffy foodscaping” is not only acceptable but desirable.
Those of us in the industry often assume everyone knows edibles and ornamentals can be grown side by side. That is not so. I will never forget my neighbors confronting me on the sidewalk in front of my house. They were in total amazement that there were lettuces growing in my front landscape bed. They said they had no idea you could mix edibles into “regular” landscaping. They were experienced gardeners. Be sure to show your gardening newcomers, and regulars, that mixing herbs, vegetables and fruits together with pretty ornamentals is not only perfectly acceptable but gives them the best of both gardening worlds.
Contain your excitement
With so many apartment dwellers and small-space gardeners getting into the game over the past year, people are looking for just about any available space in which they can tuck edibles. Growing edibles in containers is a great solution for many who want to experience a bit of homegrown harvest, but do not have a yard or space for raised beds.
Mixed foodscape containers are not just for small space gardeners. Even those with good-sized backyards may not have enough sunny space to get a great harvest. Mixed containers can be grown just about anywhere the sun goes, be it your patio, balcony, front yard or even your driveway. No space needs to be wasted!
Grab n’ grow bag
Some of our customers also want some flexibility and ease of mobility when it comes to planted containers. Not everyone can or wants to lug heavy pottery home, or around their landscape, or up to a balcony, especially if they want to get set up quickly. Fabric grow bags are a great solution for small space or patio gardeners — or pop-up veggie gardeners in any space — who want lightweight options that are easy to store when not in use.
Grow bags fold flat for easy storage and are 100% frost-proof, so there is no lugging heavy pots indoors for the winter. They can be used for many seasons and their mobility means you can easily move these pots around to maximize sunlight. Fabric grow bags offer gardeners a great way to grow that is cost-effective, simple and beneficial to plants. Anyone can head home from the garden center with a few folded grow bags, a couple of bags of potting mix and two or three trays of plants, and be set up with a container veggie garden in about an hour.
You could even put together a fun bundle of edible gardening products in a grow bag with a set quantity of plants as a package grab n’ grow bag project purchase SKU. (This would be a great bundled product for your online store). If you are looking for a good educational tool to go with your grab n’ grow bags, be sure to check out my friend Kevin Espiritu’s new book, “Grow Bag Gardening: The Revolutionary Way to Grow Bountiful Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Flowers in Lightweight, Eco-friendly Fabric Pots.”
Small is big
When it comes to edible varieties that thrive in containers, size was often the limiting factor. Big indeterminate tomatoes, huge rambling squash and beans and giant okra plants were not always well suited for smaller containers.
Forget about adding fruits like blueberries or watermelon. Turn over the calendar page to 2021 and you will suddenly discover a widening array of dwarf vegetable and fruit cultivars perfect for mixed container cultivation.
There are many new mini-veggies and fruits to discover but be sure to check out the PanAmerican Seed collection, Kitchen Minis, which are ready to place inside on a sunny counter or windowsill, or outside on a patio table. They are ideally sold with some ripe fruit — ‘ready-to-harvest.’
The collection includes teeny tomatoes ‘Tiny Tom,’ ‘Siam,’ ‘Cocoa’ and ‘Red Velvet,’ along with many compact pepper cultivars.
‘Tatakoto’ is a new Treasure Island series sweet potato cultivar that offers both beautiful cascading container foliage but also lovely, purple-skinned edible tubers with orange flesh.
Do not forget the berries! Strawberries ‘Berried Treasure’ White and ‘Berried Treasure’ Pink are new for 2021, as are the new compact blueberry Midnight Cascade and BABY CAKES thornless blackberry, to name just a few.
Foliage and flowers
Always provide suggested ornamentals to mix with container edibles. Matching sun and water needs is key to successful maintenance. Pair warm seasons edibles such as peppers with flowers such as coleus, celosia, verbena and vinca. Pair cool-season edibles such as leafy green with calendula, alyssum, petunias and violas. Of course, perennials for foliage and flower interest can be added for year-round structure and interest.
Growing small yet diverse is the new big movement in gardening. Do not miss out on this opportunity to mix things up — make edible gardening both manageable and beautiful for your customers, no matter their space.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com