In 2018, I suddenly found myself with a strong desire to acquire more plants. Armed with a list of recommendations from a plant-savvy colleague, I went to Home Depot and dipped my toes into the world of greenery. Many months later, my New York City apartment is now home to nearly 30 plants of different types and sizes. Coming home is like stepping into my own personal zen space, a haven from the cold, concrete world outside.
I’m not alone. In the last few years, demand for indoor plants among city dwellers has soared, according to some retailers—especially among millennials. The National Gardening Survey found that of the 6 million people who started gardening in 2016, 80% of them were aged 18 to 34. Refinery29 has even declared that “plant ladies are the new cat ladies.”
Why all the hoopla around plants, which have been around, well, forever?
“I believe plants and nature are the antidote to the stress we feel from being so connected to screens,” says Rebecca Bullene, the founder of Greenery NYC, which creates plant installations for companies, sells plants to New Yorkers online, and just opened a retail store in Brooklyn. “We all know how good it feels to take a walk in the woods or lay in the sun in a meadow. We grew up on planet Earth and we’re so disconnected to it.”
But it’s not just screens. The anxiety of life in 2019, especially for young people who are likely living in cities and saddled by debt, can be a lot to shoulder. “They call us Generation Stress for a reason,” says Eliza Blank, the founder of The Sill, which has been selling plants online since 2012 and recently opened its third retail store. “We position plants and our brand as the break in all this. It’s the antidote to this unfortunate thing that our entire generation suffers from: anxiety. And plants really can be part of the cure.”
The Sill’s tagline, “Plants Make People Happy,” frames plants as a form of self-care and wellness. Indeed, studies have shown that keeping plants in indoor spaces can improve air quality and increase productivity. Being close to nature can also reduce stress, boost immunity, and can even help patients recover from injury more quickly.
Demand for houseplants is booming–growers report they can’t keep up–and so is the number of direct-to-consumer startups, like The Sill, that are selling plants to a digitally native generation (and even major tech companies looking for a green boost in their offices). These plant companies are a far cry from conventional suburban nurseries. Instead, they’re using many of the techniques that have helped companies like Casper, Away, and Glossier grow into retail powerhouses: convenience, branding, and experiential retail.
The race to become the Amazon of plants
Startups like The Sill sell a lot of the same kinds of plants that nurseries do. But the selection is usually curated around low-maintenance plants for indoor spaces, and additions like pots, packaging, and shipping are crucial aspects of their business.
In The Sill’s “easy for beginners” tab, a small pothos plant in a pot will cost you $44, while an unpotted snake plant costs $16. Other startups sell the same type of potted pothos plant for around $35. Plants are a commodity, so, in theory, they should be around the same price. Where houseplant startups can really mark up their prices is on extras, like pots. Some design their own in-house, some ship from China, and others buy local or wholesale terra cotta pots and then paint them to add value.
To create a successful plant startup in the Amazon age means convenience shipping is a must. Many digital plant companies only deliver locally, but indoor plant company Bloomscape, which launched in March 2018, delivers a full range of plants of all sizes anywhere in the United States using a proprietary method that founder Justin Mast developed himself. It can handle shipping anything from a small pothos to a giant 6-foot palm tree. Mast’s method includes a soil treatment that helps maintain plants’ root structure during shipping and patented packaging that securely holds the plant in place.
That’s been crucial for the company’s growth–the venture-backed startup, which raised a $1.7 million seed round last year, has grown 50% month-over-month since its launch.
A major problem these startups face are people who may be interested in buying a plant–but don’t know how to take care of it–so many also focus on educating customers. Bloomscape, Greenery NYC, and The Sill all have sections of their websites dedicated to care instructions. New York-based plant startup Horti, which sells house plant subscriptions, sends customers’ first shipment in pieces so that they have to learn how to re-pot a plant themselves.
“Instead of walking into a store and buying a plant that’s potted, repotting plants yourself creates a better connection to the plants,” says Puneet Sabharwal, Horti’s CEO and cofounder. The company also sells a propagation kit that includes a plant and multiple glass vials designed to help you get started making new plants from your existing ones.
Sabharwal, who owns more than 70 plants, started Horti in 2017 with cofounder Bryana Sortino, who cares for more than 100 plants. Their goal? “We want you to be a successful plant parent,” Sabharwal says. Soon, Horti plans to launch an app that will include care instructions as well as an AR tool that will assess the light in your apartment and show you areas that have the right amount of light for a particular plant.
“Plants are the vehicle for the brand that we deliver”
However, making plant parenting easier isn’t enough to stand out in the crowded plant startup space. Blank, CEO of The Sill, says that when she started the company back in 2012, offering to ship plants to people was enough of a value proposition. But today, it’s table stakes.
Instead, Blank has focused on creating a plant brand, one that appeals to consumers’ desire for all the wonderful things that plants can bring–health and environmental benefits, plus relief from the modern anxiety afflicting millennials. In essence, The Sill is a wellness brand. Blank even says, “Plants are the vehicle for the brand that we deliver.”
Instagram has been a big part of creating this ethos. Blank says that as people began to share images of their spaces online, many people began to want to transform their own spaces into “a center of wellness, calm, and beauty.”
“Plants became a part of that dialogue,” Blank says. “You began seeing this on Pinterest, Instagram. Demand was being generated by these platforms and companies.”
As a result, social media has become an integral part of the company’s strategy as it has grown from shipping around 30 plants a month to tens of thousands. Today, The Sill has 427,000 Instagram followers, making it a legitimate plant influencer (yes, that’s a thing). The company’s feed is filled with dreamy images of indoor plants and their immediate surroundings–and few of them actually depict products The Sill sells. “It’s not a sales pitch. It’s more of a celebration of plants or the feeling and idea of what plants provide people,” Blank says.
The strategy has worked. According to the company, Instagram remains one of The Sill’s strongest sales channels, though most of its growth has been organic. (The Sill only started running paid ads on Instagram in 2017, including the ads that now bombard me nearly every week.)
The company also sells other products on its website: pins, T-shirts, and tote bags that read “Plants make people happy,” inspired by the merch that other direct-to-consumer brands sell.
“We could just focus on plants, and every new product launch could be a potted plant, but our customer has other things that are important to her and if we want her to express her love for plants, it shouldn’t just have to happen with the product itself,” Blank says. “[The swag] are quick little bites of the brand that also express how our customers feel. It’s exactly how this generation knows how to express themselves.”
Reinventing the nursery
Many of these startups are now moving into physical retail–just like other direct-to-consumer startups that are now trying to make brick-and-mortar shopping more experiential and community-driven (even if they’re really just buying stuff).
Last week, I went to visit Greenery NYC’s store Greenery Unlimited in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The space looks nothing like the nurseries I used to visit with my parents when I was growing up. It’s clean, well-lit, and with a clear emphasis on indoor plants. The bright space had plants hanging from the walls, plants all over the floor, and even plants growing out of the furniture. Smiling staff offered to answer any questions as I wandered around, brushing my fingers against different types of leaves and wondering why mine don’t look nearly as good as these do.
For Greenery NYC, this store is something of a showroom–a place to show off some of the technology the company has developed through its botanic design business. Bullene says she’s worked with almost every major New York company on greening up their offices, including Google, the New York Times, and Etsy. For instance, a large tree grows out of a planter-cum-bench; once the 40-gallon tank inside is empty, a red light automatically goes off, indicating that it needs a refill. The bench is meant as a proof of concept for future department store clients who want to grow trees inside their stores without killing them.
“The way we’ve differentiated is we’ve focused on putting the right plant in the right place, and creating a microenvironment for the plant to prosper,” says Adam Besheer, who runs Greenery NYC with Bullene. “We don’t want them to look good for a few months so you can take some Instagram photos with them.”
Greenery’s space is also clearly designed for taking Instagram-worthy photos. There’s a lounge area with a table and chairs that invite you to sit among the plants and soak up their green goodness. Besheer says that they designed the store to give consumers the same feeling as going on a hike outside the city. “That’s why we’re calling it a biophilic design store,” he says.
Similar to Greenery NYC, Horti also plans to open up a retail space in the next few months–and like Greenery Unlimited, the idea is to create an experience that’s more than just a transaction. “It’s more of an experimental playground where you come and experience what it feels like to have a lot of plants,” Sabharwal says.
After all, plants are a supremely physical product. For Mast of Bloomscape, it’s this physicality that is so appealing to a generation that spends vast amounts of time in front of screens. That’s in part why many of these startups don’t focus on using fancy grow systems that plug into the wall and aim to keep plants alive with no effort on your part. “When our customers are buying plants, they’re not looking for another appliance or another digital interface,” Mast says. “I think they’re interested in the opposite of that–something slower, less digital.”
That desire for physical experience and interaction led The Sill, which has two stores in New York and opened another one in West Hollywood last week, to begin hosting events and weekly planting workshops in all of the stores starting in 2017. As of this writing, every workshop in New York was sold out.
In Los Angeles, Blank hopes to make The Sill’s store a destination. “Even just the idea of going to The Sill as an activity with your friends is more of an L.A. thing,” Blank says. “The farmers’ market in L.A. is a destination–we want The Sill to be similar.”
Back in Brooklyn, I browsed the plants at Greenery Unlimited for nearly 30 minutes, trying to resist the temptation to add yet another to my burgeoning collection. But after much deliberation, I couldn’t help myself. The thought of having yet another plant baby to call my own was too enticing.
“It’s the same thing as having pets,” Sabharwal says. “The act of nurturing that adds so much value into your life.”