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Houseplant scammers: For some people, money grows on trees

Interest in houseplants has exploded in recent years – and some green-fingered people have managed to turn their hobby into a lucrative side business.

I have browsed many, many houseplants. There was Lily the peace lily, which my roommates didn’t water when I got home for a month. There was Richard the cactus, who flew off my windowsill after I failed to close the window one stormy morning. There were Queen Victoria I, II and III, the maidenhair ferns. And then there were houseplants that fell victim to year-long leases – given to friends moving house, or simply thrown out in the street (I’m sorry, Queen Victoria IV).

For some unfortunate plant lovers like me, houseplants can be a complete drain on their finances. Replacing dead houseplants over $20 a pop from your local garden center isn’t the best decision for your wallet with the fifth (or sixth, or seventh, or eighth) dead fern. So, in a bid to get my houseplant fix on the cheap, I turned to the favorite resource of bargain hunters everywhere – Facebook Marketplace. After endless doomscrolling, mostly of overpriced monsteras and other huge but unaffordable mature plants, I noticed that another kind of listing kept popping up: vendors advertising the cutest little cuttings of various species for price as low as $5.

It turns out that for those who manage to keep their plants alive and thriving, houseplants can grow – pun intended – from a hobby into a full-fledged source of income.

“I’m not very enterprising, but I just thought, well, why not try to do [plants] a side hustle? said Mary Knowles. “I was already taking the cuttings anyway, so with very little extra effort I could start selling them online and earn some extra money.”

Knowles is a mother of two young children and currently works part-time in the marketing industry. She says she has always loved nature and gardening, and sees her plants as “a way to bring nature indoors”. Knowles says she has always collected houseplants, but did not take it seriously until about eight years ago when she returned from the UK to Aotearoa to install. Today, she describes herself as a “plantaholic” and says her friends and family encouraged her to start sharing cuttings with each other, which eventually led Knowles to sell cuttings online.

Marie Knowles with her precious Philodendron Congo which she grew from a “half-dead young plant” found in the trash for $5. (Photo: provided)

Nishu Sachdeva has a very similar story. She is also a mother of two young children and started collecting plants when she moved into her current home. A forensic biology technician by day, Sachdeva started swapping plants in the evenings, and now that she’s on maternity leave, she’s expanded her plant business to include bouquets of dried flowers.

“If you’re just at home and want some extra income, why not?” she says. “My day job doesn’t make a lot of money, so it’s nice to have that extra income…it makes you feel more productive. I have control over these revenues.

Sachdeva specializes in ‘indestructible’ plants, selling primarily to her community in South Auckland. She has different varieties of pothos, monsteras and philodendrons from which she will take a few cuttings, selling up to 60 young cuttings at a time at a price of 5 to 20 dollars per plant.

The income varies from week to week, says Sachdeva, but it’s an extra few thousand dollars a year, and she invests the money she earns from the business. “I feel like I’m doing it for my future,” she says.

Nishu Sachdeva with her young children and a monstera from her plant collection. (Photo: provided)

Kayden Odendaal, a 22-year-old plant enthusiast in the insurance industry, started out with just four plants, but over the years has grown his collection to around 100.”[The plants] took up a lot of space,” he laughs. “That was the main driver for me. And obviously being able to make money is a big thing.

Odendaal, Sachdeva and Knowles all mentioned the potential to make big money in the plant business. Difficult-to-grow plants and plants with rare traits fetched the most money, such as variegated monstera that sold for $5,000 on Trade Me in 2020.

“I want to get into more plants, like variegated plants,” says Sachdeva. “But then the company [might] change as soon as you buy a very expensive cutting. This is why it sticks to its “indestructible” species, where the market price tends to be more stable.

It’s “basic economics of supply and demand,” says Knowles, who notes that because some of these houseplants are easy to grow, rare varieties can start out at sky-high prices and then lose value as more people start spreading them. . That’s why she plans to propagate more hoyas, which have been grown and marketed within her family for three generations. They’re not the easiest plants to grow, Knowles admits, which means if she propagates them, she can “put in the same effort as me with common plants, but get a better yield.”

Part of Knowles’ plant collection, including a hoya (top). (Photo: provided)

But while there is potential for a good return on investment in the houseplant business, that’s not the main reason Odendaal, Sachdeva or Knowles give for their enthusiasm for indoor gardening.

Sachdeva has grown all of her own houseplants from cuttings, and she says that’s the most rewarding part. “They are just growing and they bring me so much joy. Every day I look at them and there are new leaves and new growth – it’s quite exciting. She admits that without plants, her house looks “very bland and empty”.

Odendaal feels the same. “That’s a lot of love and attention that you really have to give [the plants],” he says. What drew him to the hobby was “being really able to see something grow.” Odendaal has been working from home since September last year, which means he has had a lot more time to devote to his hobby. “My plants are my escape,” he says.

Kayden Odendaal with her collection of plants. (Photos: provided)

For Odendaal, selling plant cuttings is really about building a community around common interests. He started his own Instagram page for selling his plants, and says “it’s all about sharing knowledge with other plant enthusiasts”.

And it seems there are more plant lovers than ever. Knowles says she’s noticed the growth of the houseplant community since the pandemic began. “People feel isolated at home, away from the outside,” she says. “Bringing nature indoors [feels] like regaining some sort of normalcy. Houseplants are also “intrinsically domestic,” she notes, meaning people don’t have to go anywhere to partake in the hobby. She suspects the extra time spent at home has contributed to the increased interest in houseplants.

Part of Sachdeva’s personal plant collection. (Photo: provided)

For Knowles, her houseplants are also essential for her mental health. She suffers from anxiety and says that “putting your hands in the ground and physically connecting with nature is literally grounding yourself”.

“When I sell my plants, I feel like I’m sharing the love of plants,” she says. Her Facebook Marketplace listing touts “baby houseplants for sale,” which she says is exactly what people like her think of their plants. “They’re babies, because they’re something you can nurture.”

“It’s pretty egalitarian [hobby] too,” Knowles says. “It’s something that everyone can be involved in. There are beginners coming into [plants] also, which I find great. I wish there was more sharing of tips and advice.

Some of Sacdeva’s “indestructible” plants ready for sale. (Photo: provided)

So what are these enthusiasts’ top tips for growing your own houseplant collection?

Don’t overwatering your plants,” Sachdeva points out during our morning call. That afternoon, Knowles repeated the same advice with equal emphasis. I laugh before remembering the slow death of Celeste, my kalanchoe. Knowles reassures me it’s a common mistake. Maybe with a little more patience there is still hope for my own burgeoning plant collection.

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