‘There’s an emotional disconnect between end users and larger scale commercial producers’

Lady looking at plants during Plantcon International

‘The peak at the tail end of the pandemic has probably been reached, and there’s a much more stable period now. Fluctuations in the plant market are much slower and less volatile.’

FCI had a great one-to-one with plant enthusiast and plant convention organiser Kenny Kiet Nguyen from Houston. We asked him what makes plant pals tick, about key customer behaviours and how the professional houseplant industry should position itself so that homeowners and gardeners get the most from their new plants.

It sounds like a good problem to have. Demand for all kinds of plants – but particularly houseplants – was already rising worldwide before the coronavirus pandemic, with its lockdowns and stay-at-home policies sending demand to outstrip supply by a wide margin.

Now, the industry needs to take an honest moment to discover the underlying buyer motives that drive plant purchases and perhaps ask themselves if nurseries have become too greedy during the plant craze. What worked? What didn’t, and what can be done to ensure the professional plant sector holds on to the newbie customers?

Instead of assuming what these customers want, we reached out to Kenny Kiet Nguyen, a self-acclaimed plant aficionado and co-founder of PlantCon International, to find out first-hand what the new generation of plant lovers are after.

The inaugural PlantCon International event happened at the NRG Center in Houston between 19-20 May 2023. Nguyen explains that PlantCon aimed to unite plant enthusiasts worldwide for an immersive weekend experience, centralising the international plant community and facilitating connections between the hobby’s many (sometimes distant) worlds.

kenny kiet nguyen at plantcon international houston

White Heart Collective founder Kenny Nguyen grew up under the dark cloud of food and housing insecurity. He is dedicated to equipping minority entrepreneurs and business owners with the resources they need to confidently provide for themselves and their families. Kenny@withheart-co.org

FloraCulture International: As a member of the With Heart Collective, you are the driving force behind PlantCon International. Why PlantCon, and what can people find at PlantCon that they cannot find elsewhere?

Kenny Kiet Nguyen: “We want plant lovers to feel like they’re coming home when they come to PlantCon. Every attendee should feel like this is a special event and experience that was created just for them by people who understand them– because we’re plant people, too.

What makes PlantCon unique is our ‘cyclical reciprocity’ strategy that will allow us over the years to invest in growing an incredible, community-centric event that’s eventually completely free to the public. We want PlantCon to be so unforgettable, accessible, fun, and familiar that it becomes an annual pilgrimage for plant people.

This, in turn, creates immense marketing value for companies whose funding helps us kickstart the cycle: investing those funds into growing the resources we can provide for the community, drawing even more people out, which then creates even greater value for companies, which then allows us to provide more value for the community, which then brings out more people, and so on. Thus, creating a reciprocal cycle benefitting all parties as we grow every year.
Although this is only the first year of starting our PlantCon non-profit, we have a vision; and we’re determined.”

We all know how the pandemic fuelled a boom in home decoration, home gardening, and growing your own food, while the houseplant craze already began around 2017. And the USA is no different. Do you feel that houseplants have reached their peak popularity?

PlantCon is created by hobbyists, for hobbyists. The houseplant industry received a sizable injection from the pandemic for sure. The combination of stimulus money in the US and being stuck in quarantine led to a LOT of online plant shopping from home. An overwhelming amount of commerce took place in Facebook groups, where there was also the benefit of belonging to a community.

‘There was panic and speculation about the plant hobby dropping once normal life resumed, but I’m still surprised at how active it still is’

Fast forward to “back to work” or “back to normal”, and people are not relying on Facebook groups for social engagement and stimulation as much. There was panic and speculation about the plant hobby dropping once normal life resumed, but I’m still surprised at how active it still is. Large-scale nursery owners didn’t have to shut their doors by any means. Most growers who stopped selling were returning to in-person jobs.

This is all to say that we probably reached the peak at the tail end of the pandemic, and we’re in a much more stable period now. Fluctuations in the plant market are much slower and less volatile.”

What explains the Millennial generation’s long-lasting love affair for plants?

“The first time you see a new leaf on a plant that you’ve put lots of love and attention into, there is no feeling that compares to that. I think this feeling is why most of us fall in love with plants. It boosts your confidence, and you feel connected to nature and life. Each day is exciting because you get to watch that new leaf unfurl. The efforts of your labour are real, visible, and alive.”

But the pandemic and social media have led to unrealistic standards and massive quantities of consumption, am I right?

“The confidence that many built from successfully nurturing life felt insignificant when 50,000 other people were able to do the same (some better). Many felt the need to buy and own the hottest plants to feel visible and significant in the community, especially when this community was the only social interaction they had access to. Rarity was inflated by hordes of people seeking one plant that became famous from a social media post (this still happens but on a smaller scale).

As the smoke cleared, I think many people realised how unhealthy this aspect of the hobby and community was and how empty it left them. With life resuming, many were able to break away from those distortions and return to the simple joys that initially made them fall in love with gardening.
People I know who have ‘left the hobby’ still love plants. Usually, it just means they’re less active in seeking plants, keeping up with trends, and participating in online communities. But the habit has still stuck!

A positive artefact of the boom is that the sheer volume of participants in the hobby led to the generation of more resources and information on plant care than we would have had in the next 3-5 years. This catalysing effect means it’s easier than ever for new plant parents to take up the hobby, especially when events like PlantCon now exist.”

Logo for With Heart Collective

With Heart Collective is a non-profit event and production team focused on creating inclusive spaces and opportunities for small, minority-owned businesses and their customers. Their mission is to provide educational resources and support in areas such as tax compliance, branding, marketing and more while fostering connections and promoting diversity within the community.

PlantCon’s raison d’être is to “facilitate connections between the many (sometimes distant) worlds that exist within the hobby” can you elaborate?

“Well, you’d be surprised by the division that exists between houseplant people, orchid people, bonsai people, terrarium people, gardening people, and so on. Even though they’re all plants, their communities become very specific, which can severely limit accessibility to newcomers. It’s hard to participate in a community when you don’t understand a lot of what they’re talking about, so getting your foot in the door can be daunting.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s awesome that all of these ‘subgroups’ have such established communities. But their events tend to cater more to those with experience and expertise, leaving something to be desired by new and curious individuals.

At PlantCon, we want to make it easy and accessible for anybody to learn about anything they want by having trustworthy and qualified people to learn from. We want everyone to feel confident going into caring for new plant types, which encourages growth and overlap between all of these worlds.”

I appreciated your remarks about many distant worlds because this begs the question of how big the distance is between the end user/plant aficionado and the commercial plant growers.

“There’s an emotional disconnect between end users and larger-scale commercial producers. In the age of mass production and consumption, everyone is craving authenticity and personal connection. It’s important for consumers to see the personality and identity behind the brands they’re supporting—especially when many sell the same plants as one another.

The biggest sellers in the online houseplant communities are extremely visible and tap into trends because they directly participate as members of the communities they sell to. Large commercial growers don’t seem to have the same capacity to pivot onto trends. Part of that is because their distance from the community causes them to catch onto the trends more slowly. Also, implementation takes much more time in a larger/corporate operation.”

Can you give examples of misfits between what the professionals grow and what the end consumer requires?

“Although variegation in plants can be unstable, it hasn’t stopped varieties like Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’, ‘White Knight’, or ‘White Wizard’ from being mass produced in the US. This saturates the market, bringing prices down and making sought-after plants more accessible. That being said, I’m surprised that other variegated varieties that have also been considered rare for the past three years have not reached mass production yet, especially when some are voracious growers.

‘What’s going to be trendy is ethical and sustainable production. We’re tired of seeing forests ripped to shreds poaching rare species from their native habitat’

Variegated Monstera deliciosa has been hot for years, and in my experience, the Aurea variegated variety especially grows like a weed compared to their Albo and Thai Constellation cousins. So, why aren’t Aureas being mass-produced when the care is extremely similar to the regular Monstera deliciosa that flood shelves today?

Some people have waited years for prices to drop, so I know Philodendrons like Jose Buono, Ring of Fire, Paraiso Verde, and (fingers crossed) Caramel Marble would be a huge hit with those who don’t want to pay the current premium.”

How should the professional plant growing business position itself to better tap into the potential of the young generation of plant lovers?

“Everywhere people turn, someone is trying to make a buck off of them. Growing up in a world where our data is commodified and sold for billions of dollars annually for ad targeting is exhausting.

The young generation wants to stand behind a company that feels transparent, authentic, and connected.

There comes a point in a company’s growth when it has the opportunity to make a decision on how to use the platform it’s been given. It doesn’t feel good when people pour out their support for you and never see that money is going towards making the world a little less awful.

It’s a wonderful feeling to believe in a company and see them go on to use its platform to create a better world. It’s nice to be able to support something that you know is good while getting the things you were going to spend money on anyways—like plants.

Oviedo (FL)-based Gabriella Plants is a great example of creating a feeling of personal connection behind a brand. Even though they are a large commercial grower, the owner, Shane Maloy, is still active in plant communities on Facebook. He responds to the community and can be seen as a real person. He’s tuned in and shares his authentic appreciation for the support of the community.”

‘I implore plant influencers to use their platforms to break bad care myths, call out unrealistic portrayals, and help new plant owners understand that it’s not their fault that they’ve been fed bad plant care’

When buying and nurturing a plant at home, what are the top three major challenges you and other plant end consumers encounter? And how can professional business help overcome these obstacles?

“The absolute top problem is caring instructions. If you already know how to care for a plant or provide an ideal environment, it doesn’t matter how the plant comes to you. The pros know what macro and micronutrients to feed, have grow lights installed, and know what chemicals to use for pest control.

It would be great if companies enabled you to set your environmental parameters at any level of specificity, which could generate more accurate care instructions for you. (Humidity: Dry, Humid, or Normal OR Select exact %, Light: Low or High OR select the number of hours of direct/indirect light, Fertilizer: NPK level.)

Nowadays, better resources are available online, but many are still Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) articles just written for ad revenue. In this case, click-ability is more important, so making care sound super easy is better than giving detailed and nuanced care advice. Influencers can also write the kinds of “care hacks” that sound catchy and shareable without ever doing more research and without caring if they damage someone’s collection from bad advice. So, care information is top challenge number one, two, AND three.”

According to you, what is hot in plants, what is out, and what will be trendy in the next year?

“What’s hot now is any pandemic-famous plant becoming mass-produced and available for much cheaper. It creates a ton of buzz in communities when people have wanted a plant since the pandemic is released cheaply.

What is out is gimmicky plant care products that make bold claims with no scientific reasoning or evidence. People are becoming more confident in their knowledge and will call out bogus products. Tip: don’t use anything that says it’s providing your plant with vitamins…

What’s going to be trendy is ethical and sustainable production. We’re tired of seeing forests ripped to shreds poaching rare species from their native habitats. No grower has made a commitment towards carbon neutrality that I know of, but that’s a brand I would pick first.

Unfortunately, the market only really cares about price at the moment. If a plant is cheap, it doesn’t matter how sustainably it was grown. I don’t think that thought even crosses a buyer’s mind.

The only place people seem to show any significant care is about the farming of peat bogs and the CO2 emissions released in that process. An alternative that people frequently use is coco peat, touting its renewable and sustainable properties. But, if the costs of coco peat and peat moss weren’t so similar, I think people would opt for the cheaper option, regardless of sustainability.”

How do you perceive the role of plant influencers?

“I frankly despise the effect that social media can have on hobbies. On the other hand, some AWESOME people responsibly research the advice they give or are very upfront about their expertise on a subject.

Some make themselves authorities on a topic and often tell people things that they want to hear, like confirming dated myths or selling “care hacks” for clicks and likes. This is extremely harmful to plant parents who try these things and fail, then blame themselves.

Staged photos from social media are also insanely harmful because it creates false expectations about what is and is not possible. People will bring home a massive and mature plant originally grown in a greenhouse and make it seem like the plant was grown to maturity on their kitchen counter.

I implore plant influencers to use their platforms to break bad care myths, call out unrealistic portrayals, and help new plant owners understand that it’s not their fault that they’ve been fed bad plant care.”

Plant shoppers at Plantcon International, Houston

One highlight of the Houston plant convention was the 100-vendor plant market and exhibition, featuring both national and local growers, offering a wide array of rare and hard-to-find plants for enthusiasts to indulge and delight in.

Tell us about your view on the challenges and opportunities for the houseplant and garden plant consumer market.

“Some great opportunities are helping people streamline their plant care, taking out the guesswork and saving time. I personally have all of my plants in deep trays with a highly aerated substrate (all particles are larger than 1/8” in diameter) so that I can refill the trays without worrying about root rot. This allows me to go for longer without watering, but it also means anybody can water my plants for me and not be scared that they’ll kill them. It works so well for me and others who have tried my substrate that I started selling it and have sold over 2,000 gallons to date.

With so much superficial, outdated, and bad information out there, this creates a very easy opportunity to stand out. Being thorough and scientific about your product and how it works communicates that your brand values authenticity. It’s easy to make vague claims like “Never lose a plant to root rot again!” but it’s meaningful to explain scientifically how this is accomplished.

Challenges are gaining the trust of consumers and not having them roll their eyes at yet another plant or plant product producer trying to sell them a miracle in a pot, bottle or bag.”

What would you say is the decisive factor when a consumer buys a plant?

“For more seasoned plant hobbyists, current market value is the main factor. Many will search online “buy/sell/trade” communities to see what prices plants are selling for to ensure that they’re getting a good deal. Being one of the few people to own that specimen can also be a motivating factor. The last is whether the cost of the plant can be recuperated by propagating and selling cuttings. Nobody wants to buy a plant for $1,000 if it’s only going to sell for $100 by the time you’re able to take cuttings of it. For newer plant people, it’s just about what looks pretty in their space and would be happy with the environmental conditions that it would live in.”

Tell me about your background in the hobby plant market. How did that passion start, and what are your future plans in the plant market?

“My mom loved gardening when I was growing up. I would spend time outside while she watered her garden, pruned her plants, or picked peppers and Thai basil to cook dinner. I was fascinated with the flowers that the mimosa tree would grow each year and how fragrant the plumerias could be when they bloomed. Helping her care for her plants became more of a chore as I grew up. It wasn’t until I started architecture school that I found my love for plants.

It’s not related to plants, but I also love community building and naturally gravitate towards bringing people together. I started a minority architecture student organisation at my college. I was president for three years, winning Chapter of the Year for our work on uplifting minority students in the profession and creating inclusive spaces within the predominantly white, straight, and male-dominated profession. I was also the Vice President of my school’s Habitat for Humanity chapter during this time. I spent a few weekends each month building homes for low-income families to break generational poverty and housing insecurity.

Fast forward to the pandemic, when we all started doing school from home, I would sit and work for eight-hour stretches and get burned out. It wasn’t healthy. I hated bringing those same habits from the studio into my own personal space. With the pandemic in full swing, going to outdoor nurseries was my only safe activity. I’d go frequently when I needed a break and come home with tons of vegetables and herbs. We had adopted two rabbits then, so I started growing crops on my patio for my meals and the rabbits’.

It was incredible how many compliments I received from people walking by our balcony. I loved being outside and gardening, saying ‘Hi’ to my neighbours, and feeling connected to the world. Every time I started to feel overwhelmed, I would step out onto my balcony and admire the product of my love and labour.
I had a few houseplants at the time but never knew what they were. I joined a group on Reddit dedicated to plant identification (r/whatsthisplant). From there, I discovered a group called Take A Plant Leave A Plant which had an incredible and robust community of people who traded plants with one another. I learned about many different houseplants that way, received so many awesome cuttings, and made some relationships I still maintain today.

Someone in the group told me that there was a group on Facebook for plants in our area, so I looked it up and was sucked into the world of plants very quickly. I loved interacting with all of these people near me, but something was missing. I decided to start organising meetups outdoors so people could safely meet and have real social interaction. This perfectly aligns with my plant passion and my love for community-building, and it’s taken off into what you see today.”

‘It can feel almost insulting when a company alludes to allyship without any real substance. Commit to making the world a better place for minorities and underserved communities and follow through’

In the PlantCon press release, you stressed that White Heart Collective is a queer-led organisation. How should the professional industry better unlock the potential the LGBTIQ+ community has as a consumer group of plants?

“Back to my point about authenticity: show real, enduring, and visible allyship for the queer community. Even if you lose business because you upset bigots, homophobes, and transphobes for being an open ally, so much half-assed “allyship” exists in some obscure and unspoken form, and we can tell. It can feel almost insulting when a company alludes to allyship without any real substance. Commit to making the world better for minorities and underserved communities and follow through.

At the end of the day, every single company has a choice: stand for human rights or stand by while humans suffer.

You’ll be surprised by how many people are waiting for a queer-allied alternative to the companies that they shop from now.

Use your sales to be a better ally, don’t use your allyship to make better sales.”

This article was first published in FloraCulture International June 2023 edition.

↑ Back to top