Talk dirty to me! Paul Thompson tells us why millennials are having a hot and heavy love affair with plants.
Are plants the millennials’ answer to the puppy? They’re something to care for — to tend and raise and watch grow. But they don’t die if you leave them alone for a week in P Town. They won’t rip up the furniture if you go back to Brooklyn with that Tinder date instead of taking them out to pee. You never have to worry about your landlord’s rigorously policed “no pets” policy. Or vet bills!!
Blame it on the increasing number of people who are delaying starting a family (even a dog baby is a commitment, guys!) or a more general wellness trend (matcha tea and crystals, anyone?). Whatever the reason, green-thumbed Americans spent a record $52.3 bn on garden paraphernalia last year, a quarter of which is attributed to 18 to 34-year-olds, whose spending on plants has grown faster than any other age group since 2014.
Paul Thompson’s obsession started simply enough: with a single, easy-to-care for Pothos plant when he first moved to New York. “It’s called a Golden Pothos, they’re very common, and they grow really easily.”
It was just Paul and Pothos for the longest time. Then he moved apartment and got a little more space, so a few more plants moved in. “That kind of started my passion for it,” he says. “I got more and more and then, when I moved to Hell’s Kitchen, I was like, ‘Oh, I have more space and better lighting,’ so I’ve just been growing it since then.”
Succulents and cacti line the window sills. There are some splendid ficus plants on stands. A magnificent orbifolia. A beautiful, dark-leafed ZZ Raven. Whale Fin Sansevieria. And at the center of this urban jungle, a Monstera adansonii he calls Sonya Blade (after the Mortal Kombat character).
They all have personalities. “This little guy here …” he says, referring to one plant. “She’s kind of over here hanging out .…” he says of another. There’s an Alocasia named Poly, Diana, the Bird of Paradise, Frank, the fickle Fiddle Leaf Fig.
“They really do have very interesting qualities and personalities and needs. They’re not furniture. Yes, they’re decorative, but they’re living things. So you need to treat them as such.”
And while those babies are gleaming with health, he admits it’s been a journey.
“I mean, I definitely killed some plants,” he admits, “and some were more finicky than others. So it’s a learning experience. And for some it’s a bigger learning curve than others. But I think it’s an enjoyable learning curve, because when you see them do well and develop, it’s so rewarding.”
And, along the way, he’s met a community of other plant parents online to share knowledge and heartbreak and swap babies.
“There’s all the hustle and bustle out there, living in the concrete jungle,” he says, by way of explanation. “When I can surround myself with plants, I get a little bit of an oasis. And for a lot of people, especially millennials, this is their way of getting back to nature.
“There’s such an amazing diversity of plants out there, and they’re so resilient and so interesting in terms of how they develop, how they grow, how they react. It’s really fun to see them mature and see them grow. I don’t know what I’m going to do when some of these get really big.”
For a first-time plant parent, he advises first understanding the light in your apartment. “There are definitely some plants, like the ZZ plant, that are low-light tolerant. So they can do really well in dark corners or indirect light.
“The snake plant – Mother-In-Law’s Tongue – that’s really good because it’s native to Africa, so is used to really dry soil. So if you’re someone who travels a lot or just happens to forget to water them, they’re fine. They almost thrive on neglect.”
If you’re determined to keep cacti, you’re going to want maximum direct sunlight. But then, he says, you can kind of leave them alone.
Other tips? A little horticultural charcoal helps keep the pests away. Cinnamon is a great natural fungicide. And don’t over-water. “Don’t assume that, just because the top soil is dry, that the rest of it isn’t,” says Paul. “That’s why you should stick your finger into the soil about an inch or two. If it’s wet and it sticks, don’t water it. But if it’s really dry then it’s a good time.
“During the summer, every week is good for most things. As it gets colder, maybe a week and a half to two weeks.”
And don’t forget the drainage. “As long as there’s drainage,” he says, “you can’t really hurt the plant too much.”
Feed them. Water them. Drain them. They’re not so different from puppies after all.
Plant shopping with Paul
Daniela’s Flower Shop, Broadway – 150th/151st St
“They have really good prices, pretty good variety, and they’ll deliver. They’ll also re-pot your plants for free.”
The Flower District, W28th St – 6th/7th Ave
“There are lots of different shops — I’ve bought some pretty good stuff there.”
This story originally appeared in Issue 60 of W42ST Magazine in December 2019.