A green revolution is afoot. As we become more urban, a yearning to include nature in our lives is growing ever stronger and the plant industry is pivoting toward the greening of our homes.
Everyone from growers of potted fig trees to nurseries catering to a craze for cactuses in Japan is prospering from a global trend that’s here to stay. Designers too are increasingly working with this living and breathing commodity in their practices. Green creativity is flourishing, from updating the classic plant pot to suit modern interiors to breathing some fresh life into dull corporate environments with smart shrubbery. Across these pages we pay tribute to the green-thumbed businesses that have turned the humble houseplant into a design icon.
The Sill, USA
Best for potted plants
Drive west from Manhattan for about 40 minutes and you’ll reach the New Jersey township of Maplewood. It’s an inconspicuous slice of real America, full of tree-lined streets and timber-clad homes. But it’s also here – deep within the recesses of a hangar thick with succulents, ferns and ficus shrubs – that a small but growing potted-plant revolution is taking place.
The Sill has come a long way since it was founded by Eliza Blank in 2012. Originally operating out of a Chinatown walk-up, the company subsequently migrated to Jersey City before ending up in its current digs, a storage facility replete with 50 types of plants, many of them easy-to-maintain offerings for frenetic New Yorkers. “Plants are having a moment, for sure,” says Blank as she eyes some miniature succulents hanging by the windows.
Her plant-selling business started small but has blossomed into a company with a burgeoning e-commerce site and a bricks-and-mortar shop in Chinatown, open since 2014. There are now 20 staff on its books, two of them based in LA.
The core of The Sill’s business comes from its collaborations with offices, helping to spruce up their open-plan spaces. Staff take their work extremely seriously, as the homemade humidifier and sensors dangling from the hangar’s ceiling reveal. Buyers also get the services of Chris Satch, a plant pathologist who offers a “hotline” for concerned potted-plant parents.
Goto Saboten, Kasugai, Japan
Best for cactuses
Mention Momoyamacho to a Japanese horticulturist and they’ll know you’re talking about one thing: cactuses. In this area of the city of Kasugai they’ve been growing them since the Taisho era. The cactus farms have weathered the war and a devastating typhoon in 1959 but they’re still here, renowned for their expertise and for growing cactuses from seed.
Hiromitsu Goto took over his family business, Goto Saboten (saboten means cactus in Japanese), in 2016. His father started the farm in 1976 but his grandfather was also a cactus man and did what many in the area used to do: farm and grow cactuses on the side. Today Goto Saboten sells thousands of cactuses of more than 100 varieties.
“Usually when you see rare cactuses they’ve been imported from overseas; in Momoyamacho we grow them from seed – it means they are healthier and virus-free,” says Goto. The Momoyamacho cactus growers all have their own speciality. Goto – who works alongside his wife and his mother – nurtures cactuses from the 12-month stage and then ships them out to shops and wholesalers.
Business is on the up these days thanks to a spike in interest in exotic plants, now a staple of fashion magazines and zakka (lifestyle) shops. Day trippers come to buy plants and take snaps. “We’re seeing more visitors,” says Goto. “And we’re noticing that people are looking for something different these days: rarity and high quality.”
As Goto walks along the rows of cactuses – all on rolling tables designed by his father – he points out some of the most popular varieties such as the pole-shaped Lophocereus, hairy Espostoa and the curious-looking Euphorbia. Goto also makes small arrangements in glass vases that can be sold in design and interior shops. He tries to keep both the horticultural and design clients happy: the serious plant hobbyists and the interior designers who think more about how a plant will look in a room.
Although the current boom is in full swing, Goto is thinking about the future. “Many of the people involved in the business are in their seventies,” he says. “But if at least a few of the young people who are becoming interested move into cactus growing full-time, we might just have a few more farmers.”
Euganea Vasi was started in 1961 as just one of the many small kilns in the northeastern region of Veneto. Today it stands as an Italian icon in the world of commercial terracotta pot-making. The brand remains relevant by both producing well-made, classically designed products and introducing newer items to suit modern homes and market trends.
“With smaller and smaller balconies people are bringing plants indoors,” says Giulia Bottazzo, who runs the family operation with sister Cristina, brother Nicola and father Lorenzo.
Euganea Vasi has introduced new colours, finishes and shapes over the years. Today its 60 pot types travel as far as the US and Australia, with some 10 millions pots made each year. While the Bottazzos have stayed flexible to weather industry trends – such as the influx of cheap plastic pots that flooded the market in the 2000s – it’s the traditional truncated cone pot that stands at the business’s heart.
“It’s the same shape that’s been made for centuries,” says Giulia. “It’s beautiful to see what we make work for all generations. The terracotta vase will always be with us.”
Fachjan, The Netherlands
Best for tropical plants
For urban dwellers the world over the go-to tropical houseplant that endures through the seasons is the sansevieria. Fachjan, in the Netherlands, is Europe’s largest commercial grower of this lush number, which is also sometimes known as “mother-in-law’s tongue” for its toughness and as “snake plant” for its sinuous leaves. While this family-owned company nurtures and sells 1,200 types of tropical plants from greenhouses covering some eight football pitches’ worth of space, it’s the sansevieria that forms its core sales.
“People don’t have to water it a lot and with couples tending to both work these days, and move around more, this plant has become a popular option,” says co-owner Paul Janssen, who runs the operation with brother Fred and father Kees.
Fachjan got off the ground as the humble houseplant’s popularity spiked. The business transitioned from flower-growing into a tropical-flora specialist in 1985. “We saw a gap in the market and went for it,” says Paul, noting that revenue has increased fivefold in the past 14 years. “It’s been a significant growth story since we started selling potted plants.”
This has been a particularly buoyant year for the brand, which is feeling a boost from a European trend to turn homes and offices into jungle-like spaces. Fiddle-leaf figs and philodendron are popular this year, says Paul, but the Janssens say that being able to stay ahead of the curve in predicting consumer demand only comes with experience.
“We can’t always get it right but we sell everything we import,” says Fred, who has just returned from Central America where he was bargaining over both plant prices and quality with farmers. Some potted plants imported into Fachjan’s lush nursery from Asia, Australia and the Americas can be maintained for just a few weeks (others can last up to a few years) before they are sold on to distributors and individual buyers. Ikea, for example, chooses two lines of its sansevieria offering from Fachjan at a current order rate of 10,000 plants a week.
Paul remains optimistic about Fachjan’s continued growth, noting that people are now more adventurous with their house-plant selection. “If all the people who wanted to have houseplants were a little less hesitant about buying them I think there wouldn’t be enough on the market to meet the demand,” he says. “People are becoming better educated about plants and learning that maintaining and nurturing them isn’t as hard as they might think.”
In late 2016 Brooklyn’s Christan Summers and Ivan Martinez left careers in creative direction and advertising to build their retail business Tula. Their point of difference is mobility: the plant shop is set inside a forest-green 1987 Chevrolet box truck called Tulita. “If you are going to start a business why not create the environment that you really want?” says Summers.
The pair sell their plants at weekend markets, typically running out not long after midday. Weekdays are spent in the studio potting plants and developing products, or on buying trips to greenhouses and nurseries. As Monocle visits they’ve just returned with a full stock: there’s the rubber-leafed ficus, the fiddle-leaf fig and a single bird of paradise plant, the only one that met their high standards today.
Martinez and Summers have artfully applied their design talents to Tulita, which sports the text “Plants are alive” across its front. The tagline is a nod to a core part of their business: not just to sell beautiful plants and pottery but to educate their customers about what can live in their spaces.
Three more we like
White walls show off artfully arranged terracotta pots, tiny cactuses and terrariums, while houseplants hang from
the ceiling. A hub for urbanites, it demonstrates what is possible even in the smallest space.
Doubters told Prick owner Gynelle Leon her idea was too niche when she quit flower-arranging to launch a cactus-and-succulent specialist retailer. But her gamble has paid off: collectors now flock from far and wide to her selection of weird and wonderful treasures.
This botanical design studio and retailer is leading the green revolution down under. Popular plants are available to buy from an industrial space in Melbourne’s Collingwood. Owners Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler also educate customers. “Plant maintenance is a hugely important consideration when bringing greenery into the home,” says Lawler.