Written by John Williams
Richard DeGrandpre’s journey with indoor plants started as a simple hobby, growing bonsai and cacti, and making succulent gardens. He just loved doing it. As his interest progressed, he started taking them to markets, but no one wanted to buy them – not for a price that was anywhere near commercially viable, he says. “I was using vintage ceramic pots that cost upwards of $30 each – and that’s before you even start on the time it took to grow them. People liked them, they took pictures and shared them with friends, but I had very few sales.”
It wasn’t until one Christmas, five or six years ago, when he supplied some of his bonsais to a shop on Ponsonby Road that things really started to take off. They sold like hot cakes, he says. This was the proof Richard needed that a dedicated indoor plant store in Auckland could work. With this in mind, he bought an existing plant shop, Ponsonby Plants, at the other end of Ponsonby Road to Bioattic, next to what is now NOOD, remodelled it, and built up his stock of plants.
“I could see what was going to happen with the market, because of what was already going on in other parts of the world – urban stores that focused exclusively on indoor plants. It was definitely going to be a trend, so I thought, let’s set something up before anyone else does.”
Three-and-a-half years on, Richard says he’s finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with his new store, Monstera, situated among the boutique shops and eateries in the Brutalist concrete surroundings of the repurposed City Works Depot (CWD) on the fringe of Auckland’s CBD.
It’s an unusual space – half subterranean bunker, half greenhouse. Pointing up to the exposed concrete ceiling just above our heads, Richard explains that his shop sits directly under what were once giant hoppers filled with gravel and rocks. “I wanted to do it for years, but they didn’t want to rent it to me for some reason. Then, they built this greenhouse-looking structure onto it. I think originally the idea was for a bar, but that never went ahead. People think it was purpose-built for us, and we don’t correct them if they ask,” he says. Looking at it now, filled with indoor plants of every description, you get their point.
Although he still loves his bonsais and succulents – and they are given prominent real estate within his store – he says houseplants are now by far his market leader.
“Plant sales have gone up, several fold in five years,” he says. “Also what’s happened, and possibly more crucially, is that houseplant prices have seen exponential increase in inflation – more than any other commodity I can think of.” Certain species have gained in popularity more that others, and nurseries have latched onto this demand, brought about new varieties, and hiked their prices accordingly. That’s caused a huge inflation in some varieties, he says. “If you went to Kings [Plant Barn] a few years ago, you’d never see a houseplant selling for over $30, now some are selling for over a hundred.”
The recent scenarios on TradeMe, where certain plants have fetched many thousands of dollars, is a whole other ballgame, he says, predominantly caused by the fact that there are so few houseplants sold outside the Auckland region. “If you’re growing them here and the demand locally is for more than you can grow, there’s no motivation to ship them to Wellington or Christchurch, or even Hamilton and Tauranga.”
But what makes a plant so valuable?
“Half of it is fashion – the ‘in’ plant to have – but there’s also the rarity factor,” says Richard. “People come in with these dream lists of plants, and it’s all Ferraris and Lambourghinis. Often, every plant on their list is over a $1000, if you can even find them. They have no concept. If it’s rare and in demand, it’s going to be really expensive.”
“I had a guy write to me asking if we had a particular plant. We didn’t, so I asked my co-worker here, ‘how much would that cost?’. She said it would be around $2500, but before I could get back to him, he’d found a place on the internet where he could get it for $4500 – and bought it. Whereas you have a 30-year-old bonsai that has been cared for and watered for over 30 years going for a fraction of that price. It’s ridiculous, really. It’s all out of whack.”
On a more positive note, Richard says houseplants can really become a positive factor in people’s lives, but only if you maintain that regular day-to-day connection. “You need to have the right attitude from the outset. You should look over your plants every day – give them a little bit of attention and stay engaged with them, the way you would with a pet.”
For beginners, Richard recommends the following plants: “Monsteras are very easy – there are several varieties to choose from, and they don’t get bugs. The Philodendron Heartleaf, or Pothos, is fairly indestructible – they can handle low light and drying out. The same with Sansevieria, or ‘Mother-in-law’s Tongue’ – you can put them in the sun, or let them dry out, they just don’t care, and they don’t mind low light or direct light. And all the Dracaenas and Philodendron are easy, too.”
Once you get the hang of looking after your plants – ie, not killing them – you want to focus on pruning them back and staking them in ways that will help them grow into better-looking specimens.
“A nice, common plant is a lot better looking than an ugly, rare plant,” he says.
“Everything you can possibly know and do with plants is so simple, it’s almost ridiculous. Bonsais, however, are another thing altogether, and cacti and succulents can be a bit odd,” Richard says.
Common Questions Answered
Here are some of the most common questions Richard gets asked – and his answers.
How much water should I give my plants?
Ninety-nine percent of plants are killed by over-watering, not under-watering – because it’s so much easier to pour water over a plant than to judge whether it actually needs watering, so people just water them. So, it’s ‘better safe than sorry’, don’t water them too much.
When you water a plant it should be thoroughly watered. Don’t sprinkle it or spray it, give it a good soak, because once soil is dry and hardened, it’s like a hard sponge – water will just run through it and it will lose its ability to retain moisture. If possible, it’s best to water from the bottom. Let the plant sit in water overnight, but no longer. By then it will have taken the water it needs.
Do houseplants need fertilising?
Only fertilise a healthy plant if you want it to grow. The misunderstanding with fertiliser is that people think it will fix an unhealthy plant. It won’t. The only way to help an unhealthy plant is solving the problem with its roots – usually caused by under-watering or over-watering. Ask yourself – do you think you’ve over-watered your plant or under-watered it? It’s usually pretty obvious which of the two it is. Whichever one it is, quit doing it.
Plastic or ceramic pots?
You should keep your plants in plastic pots, then place in a ceramic cover pot – not planted directly in ceramic pots. A plant in a ceramic pot becomes a mystery plant, because you can’t judge whether it’s root-bound, or how wet it is. In a plastic pot, squeeze it at the bottom. If it flexes in, it’s not root-bound. Simple.
When it comes to re-potting, pots are like pizzas. A one-inch bigger pizza is twice as much pizza. So with pots, so follow the pizza rule, and don’t go more than one inch or so out from the existing pot; anything more will give you too much soil.
Is a sunny spot best?
Don’t expect a plant to survive in conditions that it was never meant to live in. Imagine a plant spending millions of years of evolution adapting to shady conditions, and then being put in a bay window in direct sunlight. Don’t try to persuade a plant to do something it can’t do and has never done. Research your plants, and cater to what they need. Google is your friend.
Is it best not to move them?
That’s a bit of a myth. Think about it. The nursery moves it, we move it, then the customer moves it. If it was that sensitive, it would be dead by the time you got it home.
Spraying leaves with water?
Unless you have water that has no minerals in it, spraying leaves is just going to leave mineral deposits. Spraying is good for ‘air’ plants – but try to use rainwater. And, no, you can’t water plants just by spraying them.
Can they live outside?
The simple answer is, no – not even for short periods of time. If plants have been grown in a nursery, then transferred to your home, they will have no tolerance to sun. It’s like taking your white-skinned baby out into the sun, says Richard. Don’t do it – they have no protection. They’ll burn. Plants hate the wind, too. The only reason to take them outside is to give them a good clean with the hose, or a good soak of water. But don’t leave them out in the direct sun – 30 minutes is too long.
Going on vacation?
Give your plants a good water the day before you go away, then shut them down by putting them in a cool, dark place, like a closet, in a tray with a little bit of water in the bottom. Put them all together and drape something over them to keep the moisture in. If there’s light, the plant is active, and when it’s active, it drinks water. So you want to shut down that process and give it a rest – like hibernation.