Back in the mid 1970s and early 1980s, North America was plunged into a period of great passion about houseplants. People were calling that period “the 1970s Houseplant Craze” or the “Houseplant Explosion.” Everyone and her brother had a pet houseplant (pet rocks and macramé were also in vogue in case you have trouble pinpointing the era). However, unless you’re as old as I am (I’m 68), you probably have no recollection whatsoever of the time! I don’t think it was all that memorable an era!
Well, flash forward to today, and we’re well into a second Houseplant Craze. I mean, houseplants are everywhere. And I for one couldn’t be more pleased! Although I cut way back last year, I still have over 70 of them. Interestingly, many of the most desirable plants of the 70s are still just as beloved in the 2020s. I still salivate over the extraordinary anthuriums and orchids that were way over my budget back then … and the same plants are still on offer and are still just as monetarily unavailable today!
Swallowed Whole by the Houseplant World
I was swallowed up hook, line and sinker by the craze and collected houseplants faster than I could learn to enunciate even a few syllables of their complicated botanical names. 100 plants, 200, 300 … there was no limit to the possibilities.
Well, there was, really. My budget! So, I began exchanging plants and cuttings with people, both locally (I joined all the local garden clubs) and by mail through national and international plant societies.
I joined and, in many cases, wrote for, organized events, edited or did other work as a volunteer for the American Gesneriad Society (now The Gesneriad Society), the American Orchid Society, the African Violet Society of Canada, the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, the American Begonia Society, the Indoor Light Garden Society of America … and there were at least as many more.
There was no Internet back then, so exchanges took a while!
As time went on, I began to realize that some people were creating personal plant businesses, catering to the needs of all these passionate gardeners. They were placing ads in plant society publications selling plants, cuttings and seeds by mail. “I could do that!”, I thought. And I set out to create my own plant nursery … in my basement apartment.
Yes, I didn’t have a greenhouse or even a spare bedroom to start plants in. I set up fluorescent light gardens (LED lights were not yet known to home gardeners) in any and all spaces I could, mostly all along the hallway of the apartment I shared with my wife and our new baby.
You’d be amazed at how much plant material you can produce under lights in a basement apartment. When I tell people I used to have over 600 houseplants, they don’t believe me. But I really did have that number and indeed many more than that during my “nursery years”!
I grew foliage plants of all sorts (begonias, peperomias, pileas, ficus, etc.), flowering plants (African violets, miniature sinningias, episcias, flowering maples, etc.), succulents (haworthias, echeverias, sedums, rhipsalises, etc.) and … whatever else grew quickly enough that I thought I might be able to produce more and turn a profit. No orchids (too slow), no desert cacti (ditto), nothing dangerous for cats or curious toddlers. And I filled all that space rapidly. I was a real whizz at producing new plants.
Lots of Plants, No Buyers!
As great as I was at producing plants, I was terrible at selling them.
First, I failed to specialize. You really need to become known for a certain group of plants if you want to create a good reputation in the field. And I was all over the map. I sold “light garden plants” essentially: plants that did well under fluorescent lights. And most people wouldn’t have known what a light garden was if one came up and bit them!
Plus, I was on the wrong side of a major border. Yes, I lived in Canada and most potential clients lived in the US. Therefore, I couldn’t ship plants without an unbelievable amount of paperwork … plus extra costs, to which you have to add delays and other complications. That in itself was enough to kill my business. But I didn’t yet know that.
So, I mostly tried to sell locally.
With a breast-feeding baby and a rather dubious spouse—and almost certainly an angry landlord if ever I did try turning our apartment into a store! —, I couldn’t just open up our 2-bedroom apartment to walk-in sales. So, I tried going to a big flea market, on Sundays only, one of those where anyone can rent a table.
Well, I did sell plants that way … also discovered that I was a poor plant salesperson.
I was horrified by potential buyers who clearly didn’t have the aptitude to maintain the plants I offered. After all, they weren’t all easy peasy! I’d grill the buyer on what they knew about plant care (usually: nothing!). And honestly, I tried to dissuade some of them from buying. (I should have brought in a selection of pet rocks: I’d have had no qualms about selling those, even to raw beginners!)
Also, I wrote pamphlet after pamphlet on how to grow this or that plant and made sure buyers took one. But I could tell they were buying the plant on a whim or as a gift and the pamphlet would soon end up on the bottom of someone’s bird cage. I was not cut out for that kind of sales!
One thing I was able to sell without too much hesitation, though, were terrariums. Pretty much any plant, other than desert cacti and other succulents (they can’t take the humidity), will grow in a terrarium (read Easy Care Terrariums). And you can safely give one to a beginner and just say, “Keep it out of full sun and only water every few months, when the soil is nearly dry.” However, finding inexpensive containers for terrariums was complicated, at least once I had gone through the flea market and bought everything potentially useable there.
But terrariums alone weren’t going to be enough to keep me afloat.
From Flea Market to Public Market
After a few months of trying this, it became clear that selling plants and terrariums in a flea market was not going to lead to much of a career and I stopped going. It did land me a weekend job selling nursery-grown plants at a houseplant booth in a public market, though. We received the plants directly from Florida and Ontario: I just loved opening the boxes and unwrapping the contents!
In the public market, I was better able to assuage my guilt about selling plants to people likely incapable of growing them. That’s because I hadn’t grown those plants myself, from cuttings or seed, so had no personal collection to them.
Silly, isn’t it, but, even after 40 years of writing about plants, I still have moral qualms about leaving plants to suffer in the hands of people who don’t know how to care for them! You’d think I would have gotten over that long ago!
If You Can, Sell; If You Can’t, Write!
It turned out I was much better at teaching people about growing plants through my writing and lecturing than at selling plants to them. As a result, those pamphlets grew into something more sustainable. First magazine articles, then books. I ended up writing 65 books and who knows how many thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines, plus gave lectures, hosted radio and TV shows, led garden tours, etc. That turned out to be where my future lay.
And I expanded beyond houseplants and was soon writing about … anything that grows. That began first with bouts of balcony gardening and community gardening, and later coinciding with my buying a home in suburbia where I really did have lots of space for experimenting with plants of all categories!
Yes, I’m still just as unable to specialize to this day. But when you produce a home gardening blog, the ability of being able to cover a wide range of subjects finally becomes an advantage rather than a hindrance.
Selling Plants Online: It Might Be Just Your Niche!
OK, so I failed as a home houseplant nurseryman in the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t succeed today. Thanks to modern social media’s ability to help sell things online, running a home nursery is so much easier than before. No more waiting months to publish an ad and weeks for orders to reach you. You could sit down at your laptop and compose an ad for Etsy, Shopify or similar before midnight, then publish it and be sending out orders the next day!
You can sell plants, rooted cuttings, cuttings, seeds, etc. Whatever works for you, because there are clients for all the above. And mailing can be as simple as dropping a crassula cutting into a small box and mailing it! Here’s an article on the subject offered by Shopify: The Ultimate Guide to Selling Plants Online.
So, long live this current Houseplant Craze! May it put a houseplant on every desk and windowsill!