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Are all those houseplants people got during COVID still alive?

Sabri Ben-Achour Jun 22, 2021
Heard on:
Houseplants got a lot of love during pandemic restrictions. Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

Are all those houseplants people got during COVID still alive?

Sabri Ben-Achour Jun 22, 2021
Heard on:
Houseplants got a lot of love during pandemic restrictions. Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

Plants began to grow on land around 500 million years ago. Last year, they reached Laura Huang’s apartment.  

“I started buying plants on Etsy and Facebook groups, and there was a local nursery I wanted to support,” she said. 

Huang lives in Oakland, California, where shelter-in-place orders started in March. 

“I didn’t go outside for the first three months of the pandemic, and I was inside a studio apartment,” she said, so the idea was to bring nature indoors, one plant at a time. “I would say we have over 100 now.” 

Huang even started importing plants (the best deals were from Ecuador), with a mind to maybe start selling them. Then there were the supplies: “Grow lights and heating pads, humidity containers. The big thing was I wanted to buy predatory mites.” The predatory mites were to control some insect pests. Huang’s boyfriend vetoed that. 

“He didn’t want to bring more bugs into the apartment.”

Huang estimates she’s spent around $1,000 total on plants and related supplies. Plant moms and dads like her across the United States spent $8.5 billion more on gardening-related items in 2020 than they did in 2019, an increase of 18.7%, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Sonja Detrinidad, who owns Partly Sunny Projects, an online succulent and air plant store, watched the plant craze of 2020 from her garage

“I went from maybe doing an acceptable 30-40 orders per month to June of 2020, where I did 1,200 orders,” she recalled. “It was just me and my husband working out of the garage till 2 a.m. fulfilling orders. … When the pandemic started, I thought, ‘This is it. This is the end. Who’s gonna want to buy a plant?’ The answer is everybody wanted to buy a plant!”

Detrinidad’s TikTok channel has more than 360,000 followers now. 

“I got a lot of people that commented about how the plants were helping them with their depression, their anxiety, working through their sad days.” 

It is an open question whether this level of national plant obsession will persist as the pandemic recedes. For one, not all thumbs are green.

Kevin Broccoli began his pandemic botanical journey in Johnston, Rhode Island.

“Shortly into the pandemic, I decided to buy this make-your-own-herb-garden situation, which was nine plants,” he said.

He killed all of them. Every. Last. One. 

“I mean, I have the pots, the pots are still here. There’s just nothing in them at the moment. I think it’s a really good metaphor for the pandemic in general, ’cause, you know, beginning of the pandemic nothing [was] going on. I have nothing to do but take care of these plants. They were looking great, but then things got busy, worked picked up and I started seeing, one by one, them just dropping off slowly.” 

This is, indeed, what happens to plant sales during recessions and recoveries. They do well, and then they don’t.  

“We normally see increases in sales any time there’s any sort of economic downturn,” said Charlie Hall, an economist and professor of horticultural science at Texas A&M. 

“You know, when the recession is over, the downturn is over, and people start making that switch to durable goods purchases again — buy more cars and refrigerators and furniture and so forth — that’s when we really take it on the chin,” he said.

But Hall said this recession is looking different so far. People have started buying non-plant stuff, but they’re also still buying more plants. 

“So far this year, I’ve talked to a number of growers, and their sales are up double digits,” he said.

Detrinidad, with Partly Sunny Projects, points out that many people will continue to work from home and want to spruce up their surroundings.

“I believe there are some mass murders happening in the plant community now, but I also think people are very determined to make it work.”

It’s important for people to learn that plants are not simply props that will remain as pristine as they were the day you bought them, said Darryl Cheng, author of “The New Plant Parent.” He also runs the Instagram account @houseplantjournal (he gained 100,000 followers over the course of the pandemic). 

“You can enjoy having plants around and not make it all about keeping things perfect,” he said, and the occasional dead or yellow leaf is part of the process and shouldn’t discourage people.

“If people are only interested in plants as decor or objects of fascination or curiosity, then once they realize that they need care or that they will not grow in a magazine picture-perfect way all the time — if their interest in the hobby is only hinging on the aesthetics of the plant — then it’ll drop off once a lot of people realize the plant ‘doesn’t stay nice as long as I like it’ or ‘I always kill plants, so I don’t do it anymore.’”

But once people begin to learn the biological needs of plants and understand that the aesthetics of a plant may change, “you develop a real connection, even if the plant doesn’t look as nice as the nursery, but the fact you have this companion aspect will allow you to be happy.”

Businesses like Cheng’s and Detrinidad’s have emphasized the education element, offering tips or seminars, in part to help people sustain their interest in plants. Facebook groups on plant care around particular species have proliferated. 

For now, interest is alive even if everyone’s plants all aren’t. Gardening-related sales so far in 2021 are up 30% from last year

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