LOS ANGELES — Shopping for houseplants now can be like playing the lottery: There’s no guarantee you will be rewarded with the jackpot. As houseplant sales have skyrocketed and more plant stores have opened, the demand for plants has become increasingly competitive for small businesses.
“I love that there are so many people who love plants,” said Potted co-owner Annette Gutierrez. “But the demand is astronomical right now, and there isn’t enough supply.” She added that the Suez Canal blockage resulted in a shortage of garden supplies.
As more people get vaccinated and return to shopping in person, expectations might not always match reality, particularly when demand is high and supply is low. Another thing retailers say is in short supply? Good manners.
The majority of customers are lovely, shop owners say, but some customers might not realize how hard they make it for shop owners to do their jobs (and stay in business).
Because loving plants is also about growth, we asked L.A. plant shops about their biggest pet peeves (mostly to make sure we weren’t guilty of making those mistakes!). Here are some shopping tips, along with helpful advice on houseplant etiquette:
The expectation: I can’t wait to buy a tall Ficus Audrey like the one I saw on Instagram.
The reality: Plants need time to grow. If you’re a new hobbyist, you may have the urge to go big but the current demand for houseplants means they don’t have time to grow (or if they do, they will be expensive). “A lot of people want a 10-foot tall fiddle-leaf fig,” said Gutierrez. “Or a Ficus Audrey — they take a long time to grow.” Shawna Christian, co-owner of Tansy, encourages her customers to start with easy-to-care-for plants. “It may not be the most exotic-looking plant, but most people need to get their ‘sea legs’ first and their confidence up before purchasing all those stunning plants they see on Instagram,” she said.
Tip: Start with a 4-inch pot and be patient. Enjoy the opportunity to watch your plants grow and acclimate to your home.
Expectation: Small businesses will be happy to share their plant sources with me.
Reality: Wholesalers, which have been swamped with aggressive buyers because of the unprecedented demand for houseplants, are the lifeblood of small businesses. There are even stories of people fighting over flats of plants in Los Angeles.
“I love the L.A. community and we all share with each other,” said Felix Navarro of the Juicy Leaf. “But we don’t want to share our distributors. A lot of them took us years to find. I used to pay to go to shows to find new distributors. Why would we tell customers ‘Here’s where I get my stuff?'”
Tip: Don’t ask store owners where they purchase their plants. It threatens their livelihood.
Expectation: I should be able to buy plants for rock-bottom prices, like at the big box store.
Plants cost less at big-box stores, but they also rate less in quality. Don’t expect your neighborhood plant shop to sell plants for the same price as a big-box store. You’re paying for quality and the expertise and level of service you receive at a small business.
Tip: Shop around. But don’t begrudge plant shopkeepers their prices.
Expectation: I think I’ll bring my bug-infested plant to the store for a diagnosis.
Reality: Most stores are happy to offer a diagnosis, but be considerate about infecting other plants in the store or nursery. If your plant is sick, Navarro recommends cutting a small section of the diseased plant and placing it in a plastic bag. Even better, take a photo.
Tip: Never bring a plant with pests into a store or nursery. If you must bring it in, ask for a consult at the curb.
Expectation: I can take advantage of my plant shop’s generous return policy.
Reality: One store owner who asked not to be identified said customers often return dead plants with soil drenched with water. “When we tell them it’s because of overwatering, they say, ‘But I haven’t watered it!'”
Tip: Don’t abuse a plant shopkeeper’s desire to make the customer happy. It ruins things for the rest of us.
Expectation: That rare Raven ZZ plant is going to look great in my apartment.
Reality: Some of the trendy and rare plants you see on Instagram, such as the Raven ZZ and sterling silver Scindapsus, are slow growers and difficult to find. The Raven ZZ is not even available in California, and when you go to purchase the plant online, you will see that shipping is restricted when you enter “California.” Monstera deliciosa var. borsigiana albo-variegata, another popular but rare plant, is another slow grower, and expensive. It sold at Leaf and Spine last year for $275.
Tip: Find out if the rare plant is available before you set your sights on it.
Expectation: I can’t wait to ask the plant staff questions, even though I didn’t buy my plants here.
Reality: Asking questions is OK, but assess the staff’s workload. “We get calls from all over the country,” said Navarro. “People will come in and ask us questions about plants that they bought somewhere else, and we are good about answering those questions. We take the time to help people. But if you’re going to ask questions, bring photos. People will say ‘My plant is dying and it has green leaves and it has stripes.’ Save everyone time and bring photos.”
Danae Horst, author of “Houseplants for All,” said she gets hundreds of plant questions a month on her Folia Collective Instagram from people who live all over the world and that as they have gotten busier it has been hard to keep up.
Tip: If you aren’t planning on purchasing something, be mindful of how much time you take from plant shop employees who need to help others, especially if they have limited entrance due to COVID-19 protocols.
Expectation: Hey kids! Dogs! Let’s go hit the plant store!
Reality: It’s a good idea to keep an eye on pets and kids at the plant store because some houseplants are toxic. Navarro said he allows pets in his Glassell Park store because he views them as an extension of the family. But that kind of respect is not always reciprocated. “People literally let their pets chew on driftwood,” he said before adding that “a dog peed on my succulents while the customer watched. He asked me ‘What do you want me to do?'” Many common indoor houseplants, including pothos and dieffenbachia, contain calcium oxalate crystals that can cause mouth pain and stomach upset in children and pets. While some store owners keep those plants up high, it’s still a good idea to keep kids and pets at close range. There are also areas where staff work with knives and scissors and pots, not to mention sharp cactus and stacks of ceramic planters. This can be a liability for store owners. You can view our list of safe houseplants for kids and pets here.
Tip: It’s a good idea to keep pets and children away from poisonous houseplants and under a watchful eye.
Expectation: If I tag you on Instagram, can I get that bird of paradise for free?
Reality: Generally speaking, Navarro said, “Celebrities never repost.” So even if you are an influencer and promise to tag a plant shop on Instagram, it’s not OK to ask for free stuff. Even with the current demand for houseplants, stores get requests for discounts and complaints that houseplants are too expensive. “This is the worst time to be asking small businesses for discounts,” Navarro said. “People should be sensitive about this. It’s disheartening when you are busting your booty and people ask you for discounts.”
Tip: It doesn’t matter how many followers you have, don’t ask for freebies from a small business.
Expectation: See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.
Reality: Look but don’t touch, especially during COVID-19. As stores reopen for in-person shopping, many have implemented strict cleaning protocols. If you go inside a store and touch everything, they will have to clean up after you. Additionally, studies have shown that some plants don’t like to be touched, due in part to the oils on your fingers.
Tip: Unless you are buying it, don’t touch plants.
Expectation: My new fiddle-leaf fig is going to love its new home!
Reality: Plants are living things and aren’t perfect. A tear in a leaf or one leaf that’s yellowing doesn’t mean a plant is unhealthy. “Most houseplants are grown far away and endure the stress of traveling in trucks across the country before shops receive them; some damage from the journey is to be expected,” explained Horst. “Plants are grown in ideal environments with perfect light and a steady stream of fertilizer before they end up in plant shops and nurseries. As they settle into a shop or your home, they will change as they adapt to a new environment.”
Tip: Some leaf loss, yellowing or change in shape is normal.