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.