Houseplant Enthusiasts with Darryl Cheng of @Houseplantjournal
For our second installment of Houseplant Enthusiasts, we're joined by Darryl Cheng. If you can connect to the internet and have even a passing interest in houseplants, Darryl needs no introduction. But I'll do it anyways. Darryl runs one of the most well-known, houseplant-focused Instagram accounts @houseplantjournal. With over 500,000 followers, there's a good chance you've either liked a post of his or seen one a friend of yours liked - and for good reason. Darryl, as you'll learn in the following interview is an opinionated guy when it comes to plants and plant care. His posts are typically educational and take a different approach to a lot of the content you see online. While he appreciates the aesthetic quality of houseplants, he clearly bristles at the idea that it is the only quality for which they should be appreciated. Darryl is also the author of a book called "The New Plant Parent", which I highly recommend. In it he breaks plant care down to some basic concepts, that should provide us all with a framework by which to determine how to care for our plants.
That's enough about Darryl. Let's hear from the man himself. The following interview has been edited for brevity and ease of consumption, but it is still quite long. If you prefer to listen, you can hear the audio interview in full here.
Eli: So Darryl, tell me about yourself. Where do you live? How did you get into plants?
Darryl: My name is Darryl and I'm from Toronto, Canada. As far as how it all got started, a few years ago I was living with my parents and one day my mom said, "Hey help me decorate the house with some houseplants." And so I said, OK, and she also added, but you need to figure out how to take care of them because she said that she was bad with plants and you know, to me that was kind of confusing because she taught me how to do outdoor gardening. We did stuff together out in the garden and so I was like, “Why would indoor plants be any different?”
So I bought a bunch of plants and then I went on Google and tried to look up the plant care advice and you know, I'm sure that both of us being more technical people, you could understand that when you read something that's too vague you're actually like, “Wait, but what exactly does indirect light bright indirect light mean?”
The plant collection at Darryl's parents' house that started it all...
I had this question running in my head and also obviously all other sorts of questions, so that's how I just started Houseplant Journal. It was just a Journal blog for my house plants. It started on Tumblr, then moved to Instagram. I also happen to like photography so I dabbled with time lapse videos taking pictures of you know flowers opening or leaves growing. Fortunately for me some of those went pretty viral and big news corporations picked them up and started showing them to people.
And that was I guess you could say, like a big break kind of thing, right?
But then also what I liked to do was write about how to take care of plants, but not just writing about it with the same old bright indirect light water weekly. I wrote it more precisely and more explicitly to say, like what do I actually do, right? So anyway, this caught the attention of a literary agent.
She said, “Hey, I think you can write a really good book about how to take care of plants and so that’s what we did. We put together a proposal and then about two years later the book came out. This was back in March 2019. And the book is called “The New Plant Parent.”
It's a book about general plant care, and I think one of the reasons why I wanted to call it the new plant parent is not just because it’s for people who are new to plants, but also because it represents a new way of thinking about plants. Not so décor-focused, you know? It's thinking more about how plants are just fascinating to witness how they grow.
Eli: So this all kind of came from, you know, working with your mom, realizing that there wasn't really that much great technical pragmatic advice. The underlying kind of knowledge, and so you just kind of self taught over a period of time. That's awesome.
Darryl: Yeah, I want to just quickly touch on that point because there's, you know, really only two facets that I think make all houseplant care slightly mysterious, and the two things are number one: We're not being technical enough about specifically, light. Because if you know how plants work, light dictates the growth potential of the plant and then your watering, fertilizing, repotting, all that stuff only realizes that potential. So what I'm trying to say here is anybody who you think out there has really beautiful plants, probably just has extremely large windows.
Darryl: At then, the second thing is, how much you can accept that a plant is still growing, even if it doesn't look perfect. I wrote it in another quote on Instagram. I said, “You know the wise and experienced plant parent is not the one who never loses a leaf. It is the one who knows how much leaf loss is acceptable and that the plant is still growing.”
Which is to say that for me, you see some of my very nice plants that are growing with me for a long time. I can tell you that those plants have gone through many cycles of losing, like constantly losing leaves. Like the staghorn Fern right here. Every single leaf that you see on it right now. It was not there when I first bought it. When I first bought it, it had a totally different set of leaves. And every every couple months it just drops one of those leaves and then they die off, right? And so, rather than panic about it and then think that I need to change something, I'm like, “No, this is how it's supposed to grow.” And that's why I'm happy with it.
But what I see most from people is, they see one yellow leaf and then they're like, “Oh my gosh, what I'm doing wrong?” And then they think, “Oh the plant is, like quote, unquote, dying.” When they think it’s dying then they want to correct it. But now combine that with the first item that I said which is that they're not technical enough with light. Then it's like I said, the best your plant can do is based on the best possible light it has. If you put a plant 10 feet from a window, it doesn't matter how you water, it doesn't matter what special terra cotta pot you got. It doesn't matter what moisture meter you used. It's just dying. The plant is not working.
Sorry, I went into a rant there because this is just like. Just think about this. The words that are coming out of my mouth are coming from a person who has literally seen thousands and thousands of questions that are like, “What's wrong with my plant?”
And I say to them, “show me where you put the plant.” It's always 10 feet from the window. No chance people, no chance.
Eli: I mean it's a constant cycle of regeneration, right? You're going to have some change. They go through their process. They do their photosynthesis. They contribute to the overall life of the plant, and then they phase out and then a new stalk comes. A new stem. A new leaf. And the cycle repeats.
Darryl: Take a walk in the forest. Take a walk in a jungle or in a conservatory and you'll see dead leaves all over the ground. That's how it goes. Indoors, just because you see dead leaves, you're not used to it or something. That doesn't mean that it's not supposed to happen.
Eli: Alright, so let me let me keep on moving us forward here. Tell me a little bit about your collection. Obviously we can see a lot of interesting, different, you know, diverse stuff in the background of just this one screen. But what's your collection look like? How many plants do you roughly think you have? Do you trend toward any particular family or species or?
Darryl: Yeah, I think well in terms of how many are honestly never counted. But basically you can say any window space there's a plant there. And anywhere there's a plant where there's no window, there's a grow light on top of it. So yes, I probably have at least 50 to 100 I'm sure of individual pots.
I trend towards what you would call the classical houseplant, so Aroids, Monstera, Philodendron, Pothos. I do have a small collection of little, tiny succulents I was talking to you about using the Plantfolio for repotting. They feel almost like little jewels, you know, because it's so interesting the way they look and they're sitting under a grow light.
I've recently started getting into these more, let's call them higher maintenance Aroids like some Anthurium, some other types of Philodendrons and I have them inside an IKEA cabinet. When you seal up the cabinet, in fact, there's no humidifier. There is humidity naturally in there when you seal it well. It’s between 60 and 70% and it's just from when you moisten the sphagnum moss in there.
When you moisten everything in there and then you seal them in then the humidity stays really high. So another thing we talked about just as sort of a little aside is that I have no humidifiers. I never mist any of my plants. My ambient humidity right now is 32% in this room. But then in the cabinet it's 70%. I still don't have any humidifiers, it's just from sealing up the cabinet very well and those plants in there are nice and happy. As for all the plants I have out here, it's not the humidity that makes them that makes them nice. It's the light that makes them nice. They grow strong and the leaves come out to their fullest shape because of the light.
Eli: I mean, there's gotta be some upper and lower bounds to that though, right? You said 32%. So if it was any lower than that? I often hear people with the theory that if you've got some crispy edges or browning edges, it may be a result of lack of humidity. Are you saying BS or are you saying up to a point?
Darryl: You know, I'm glad you brought it up as wanting me to be more precise about it. So number one, we are dealing with thousands of different plants, right? So it's hard to just pinpoint, this or that plant. We're also dealing with, I would say millions of people's individual tolerances for visual imperfections. You know what I mean?
Like here, look at this Ctenanthe burle-marxii. So you know if you're looking at it from back here, you say it's pretty nice, right? But then if I bring it up close and show you underneath there's some brown tips every now and then and then dead leaves here and there, right? It's sitting in this room, 32% humidity, and I've had this plant for three years.
I guess what I'm saying is, it's almost like confirmation bias where if you find brown tips, then you want to believe that raising the humidity can prevent it. And that’s because we want to be able to correct and control things. My thing is, I don't even want to say that because I don't want to perpetuate this idea that you know the goal of owning plants is to have perfect leaves.
Eli: Yeah, I mean, I hear I hear what you're saying. I understand the philosophical perspective of where you're coming from. That said, a lot of people are looking at plants as interior decoration, and you know they're trying to get that instagrammable prop.
Darryl: I'm really, really glad we are debating this philosophically because this is exactly it. It's almost as if when people have listened to my advice, they're not understanding that it's coming from a philosophically different place. So when they say to me, “how do I prevent brown tips?”
My first answer is usually “you can't prevent it. It will eventually happen.” Because I'm telling you from experience. Back over there I have a peace lily that I’ve had for eight years. It constantly has Brown tips. It constantly has yellow leaves. I just keep cutting it back and then it keeps growing.
It's like saying I'm going through my human life right now. Oh, I'm constantly, you know, getting cuts and scrapes and bruises. I'm constantly getting sick. But like you know, maybe once a year I get a cold or something. Can I go through life like without ever experiencing these things like sure you can say somebody could. But honestly, you can’t
Eli: You’d have to be bubble boy.
Darryl: Exactly, and so people are treating plants that way. And I'm telling them that they're not going to enjoy having their plants around. In fact, I recently gave you access to the course. The course is called The Essentials of Houseplant Enjoyment. It's not called Best Practices for Commercial Production of Plants. I know how to do that too, but I'm not going to say that that's what you should try and do.
Eli: Interesting, I mean I like what you're saying. I think though you know the disconnect comes from this constant need of, particularly with Instagram – and this is actually kind of an interesting segue into one of my other questions. I'll try to bridge the gap here, I may do kind of a clunky job of it, but. I mean ultimately when you're doing the whole influencer thing. People want to see pretty pictures right? Instagram is a very aspirational type of marketing. “I want that. I want to be that. I want to look like that.” I certainly see it in the plant care stuff. Some folks like yourself and others that I've noticed, you know, do a nice job of kind of saying, “Hey, here's the real side of it. It's not just the perfect plants, it's other things too.
So I am interested to hear as a successful influencer in the houseplant space. What’s that journey been like? How do you think about your position in the houseplant influencer space? What's your unique take on everything? And that's a multi-pronged difficult question. So feel free to unpack it.
Darryl: Yeah, yeah, I think. There have been, I would say ups and downs where there's times where I I feel, well, firstly I can be perfectly honest with you and say that, you know insecurity scales up infinitely. I could fall into a trap of thinking like. “Um? Only 2000 likes? That's very low for me.” You know what I mean? Five years ago when I started I was like, “Oh! 30! Yeah!” So it's like I'm telling you that that insecurity can scale no matter how big you are, and so it's a challenge to keep that from getting at you.
The bigger you are, or the bigger that people see you, those ideas can get at your head a lot easier. So it's really important to just try and focus on what I consider the things that will - you know how we talked about content - add value to someone else.
So you have to think about that for yourself too in terms of what you would do, the things that you engage with, right? Like the activities that add value to yourself and that are valuable for you. In terms of what I was doing, you know, putting together my book proposal, you know writing, writing blog posts, for example, editing YouTube videos, making the course. When I made it right like that, that took a lot of effort and if I didn't try and squash the little thing nagging, saying, oh, you should you know, figure out an Instagram post that gets you a lot of likes. I'm just saying that those ideas creep into everyone's head and it's a challenge to keep them down and keep those voices quieter and then try and find the things and identify the things that really do add value.
Eli: So let me ask you kind of another meta question, right? So houseplants seem to be kind of having a moment over the last several years. And I think that's partly just due to, you know, social media. You could probably say that about almost any industry, just being more exposure.
Darryl: You said it exactly right, which was the way that Instagram is an aspirational platform. Beauty, travel, food. All of these things have been well established on Instagram and I think the reason why houseplants in particular fits that mold well is because in the past when would you see someone else’s houseplants? Only if you go to their house.
Now we have the ability to share our private collection with the world. And people are realizing wow, these collections are wonderful. The moment I see a particular person's shelf. I know it's that person’s shelf. And then it's like you feel like you know them. You feel like you visit them. Funny story is that you know when we all used to travel. Hopefully soon we can but when I did travel I would make it a point to try to visit some followers that I follow too. So I have seen some of these collections that I wouldn’t even consider like iconic collections but I've seen them in person and it's something that’s really kind of unique. It’s not a tourism thing, but you know, it's this need to connect with people in real life, in person.
Eli: So where do you think this space is heading right? I mean granted we are in the midst of a pandemic, so I'm sure it kind of throws everything up in the air a little bit, but what do you think is happening with house plants? Where do you think people are going with this whole thing?
Darryl: You know, I think it's interesting that we say where is it going. Because when I look at the past, I can say that I’ve seen where it is gone. Which is, you know, in the 50s and 60s and 70s houseplants were like a default part of your interior décor. But then where did we get these ideas of oh no, I killed the plant. Don't overwater! All of these ideas came from back then and again back to the whole light thing is anybody back then who they thought was a green thumb? It was probably just because they had extremely large windows and enough time to remember to water the plants.
Darryl: And then anybody with smaller windows or who believed the lie of “thrives in low light.” They would then be disappointed with their plants and so this gradual disappointment sentiment just permeated through every single person who ever tried to have a houseplant, which is the reason why the first impression people get today around houseplants is: I'm afraid to kill it.
Where do you think that comes from? It’s because the instructions back then just didn't really teach them anything. Then in the 1990s, when interior decor trends changed and said that they wanted minimal and no plants or whatever, then what happened in houseplants? Nobody bought anymore indoor plants.
I talk about this thing called the ABC of houseplant appreciation, that's aesthetics, biology, and companionship. It looks nice. Biology is, plants are fascinating. Then C is companionship. Which is, could they have sentimental value?
They can, you know. Because if you took plants that I have had for a long time, if you just replace them with the same plant I'd be like, “Hey, that's not my plant right away.”
Today I hope that the plant hobby continues beyond the point where in any interior decor trends, if they change that, there will still be people who are just interested in plants, regardless of whether they're trendy or not. That's the hope. I think that with social media that will be the case. There will always be people who are fascinated with plants using those two other facets of biology and companionship.
To me, a window with no plant in it , doesn't look right.
Eli: Right, but I mean we're in a moment where all kinds of businesses have popped up going direct to consumer: The Sill, Bloomscape, and then other incumbents that have been around for a long time like Costa Farms and others. There's a real surge right now. Do you think it's going to stick around?
Darryl: Would you say that gardening ever had a surge or decline like a major surge or decline just talking about outdoor gardening?
Eli: I know just by looking at some reported market data around the last couple of years that there has been a relative surge in the gardening sector broadly compared to the years prior. I don't know how much of that is attributed to indoor house plants. But I know that there is a surge. The media has picked up on this as well and are running stories about average household spending on gardening, which has increased 30 to 50% in certain areas. And this was even prior to COVID. So I think we are in some kind of a surge at the moment I don't know about historically. [Source 1 | Source 2]
Darryl: I would say the degree that house plants will endure is going to be a function of how much people see it as a hobby versus how much people see it as a decor thing. If people really are just into it because they like the look of it and they just want to have you know a leafy corner or something like that, then if it's a dark corner when the plant eventually dies, they might be discouraged about it and then they give up on it.
But if they ask me and I tell them your plant has no chance back there and I told him to put it by the window and they do so. And then I also say, by the way, you should expect leaf turnover because these don't last forever. Then it's like now in their mind their expectation has been changed about what the plant is supposed to do. So if and then they'll grow to love that plant regardless of whether it looks magazine perfect.
That Staghorn fern is legit
Eli: I gotcha all right. So let's transition. You've written a book and you've designed an online course. Can you tell me a little bit about what a reader or student could expect to gather by going through them?
Darryl: Sure, so the book I would say, think about it like if you had a good friend who is experienced with plants putting everything they knew, not just distilling stuff they find on Pinterest but like really telling you what's going on with how to take care of plants and how to have a long-term hobby and enjoyment with them. That's what's in the book.
As far as I've seen, my book is one of the only houseplant books that shows the progression of some plants. It says this is what the plant looks like three months later, three years later. This is what it looks like, and the purpose of that is to show that, again, is sort of an aspirational thing. You could have a long-term relationship with some plants. There's even two or three that I showed how they declined and then threw them out after.
It’s meant to be an honest account of what's going on and talking about. You'll get pests every now and then. It's not a big deal. You should deal with it, obviously, but it's like you don't need to feel bad about it.
That’s the book. Just outlining all the core fundamentals of plant care in a way that at least is technically more satisfying for technical minds. I had so many people comment and say like. After reading the book, everything makes sense with plants.
Then the online course is not just a read aloud version of the book. It's seeing all these things again, like having that friend telling you their experience with plants. But then it's like have you ever tried to learn how to play guitar?
Darryl: So yeah, you know there are some people who try to play guitar. They learn how to play one song. But then they can't play anything else, whereas somebody else may take guitar lessons. They learn the fundamentals and then they have the core skills to then play any song.
My approach to plant care is to teach you the fundamentals. You know the dynamics of light and water and all these things work how those things work from a fundamental perspective.
So then you can go and read any plant care advice and have it make sense for you, because the problem that I'm seeing is that people are reading plant-specific advice and thinking that those are rules to ensure that this plant is perfect forever.
Those are suggestions about what you should do, but then in those suggestions there's some codified language like bright indirect light. But what exactly does that mean?
And then, those instructions are not meant to say: Guarantee the perfection of the plant.
It's just to guarantee the longest possible life. Understanding that there still will be leaf turnover there still will be browning tips every now and then. And when you talk about long term plant ownership you have to know and be comfortable with things like propagation, because sometimes you're gonna have to sort of reset the whole plant because it's just going to grow too gangly or something. Propagating is the only way to get new life out of it. That's actually one of the magical things about science.
Eli: So now I'm anxious to ask you if you have any specific plant care tips? Because I feel like that's almost counter to your entire philosophy here.
Darryl: No, no, it's actually funny we can think about this even from the Intersection of content creation OK right? Which is that I could easily have like 500 different pieces of content by taking 500 different plants and saying here's how to care for this plant. Here's how to care for that plant. It's all the same. Sorry. It's not the same, like exactly the same, but I mean, I don't see plant care as being specific different instructions for every plant.
I see it all as just tiny tweaks and variations on the same few concepts. The way that I think about things is shooting myself in the foot for content creation because I end up saying the same thing over and over again because I want people to realize that there's not much difference.
I can take care of any plants you give as long as I can find the name on Google. I just kind of glance over some of the care instructions. Then I know exactly what to do with it. The point is, for me, I measure light, but if you don't want to measure life then you know the best possible thing that you can do for the plant is to put it right in front of whatever biggest possible window you have. That's because we all live in caves.
So first, put the plants as closely to windows as possible. The second thing relates to the Sun, which is because we know the sun moves across the Sky. If the sun comes into the direct line of sight with that plant for longer than two or three hours, then you should block it with a white sheer curtain.
The instructions that I just said deals with any plant where they say they want bright indirect light.
Because that's the one that needs the most explaining. You see, if I said to you: “Cactus. Give it as much sun as possible.” Then you don't need to think about it. You just put it in front of the window. But bright indirect light people are fixated on this word. They think oh, so does that mean the point is to avoid direct sun altogether?
No. The point is, I call it, “give it the widest view of the Sky.” Really this is because I use a light meter and walk up to the window. It's 400 foot candles. You take 2 steps back and it's 2. I'm just constantly trying to figure out a different way to tell people that their plants need to be right in front of the window, and that is step one.
I'll give you the second thing, which is about watering. Do you want to know how to water any plant?
Darryl: There's only three different what I call watering strategies. The first type is - given that the plant is getting adequate light, then you water the soil when the soil is completely dry. So Cactus, snake plant, ZZ plant, any succulents. The way that you water the plant is when you check that the soil is completely dry, then you drench the soil nice and thoroughly and then put it back where it's going to be.
The second type is water when the soil is partially dried. So if you want to talk about like a dryness percentage, you know the succulent is going to be when it's 100% dry. Then the partial dryness is anywhere 40 to 70%. Drive somewhere in the middle and the way you assess this is you either poke around with a chopstick and feel it, or you just lift the pot and you should know what the weight of fully wet is versus fully dry soil. It's pretty easy to feel it.
Three. Three is keep the soil evenly moist. So the perfect example is maidenhair Fern. You lift the pot when it's fully watered, it's heavy, then one or two days later if the pot is getting towards 2/3 of the weight, it's time to water it again.
So what I'm saying is the approach to watering any plant is less confusing if you take it as just constantly observing the soil and using that as your cue to say OK, Now it's time to water or no, I'll wait till later.
That's why you look around me and you think like, how do I keep track of watering. There's nothing to keep track of. I just look at the soil and make the assessment. Now go and read any plant care advice and I'll tell you, bad care advice will say water it at a specific frequency like every 10 days every seven days whatever.
Now the only reason why that's bad is because most people don't realize what they're saying is given this light level the soil will reach whatever dryness that is appropriate in this number of days.
Eli: Ok, let’s talk about tools Clearly light is the top priority for you. Any types of tools you recommend light-related or otherwise?
Darryl: A standard light meter is one of my favorite tools, because when I look at the number, it's basically telling me what is the growth potential of this spot. And so when I take it and I go and measure it somewhere I'm literally feeling that the plant is going to be nice and productive right here. When you use a light meter, you're getting down to the nitty gritty and knowing how well that plant is going to do.
But the second tool that I like to use is a chopstick, and earlier I talked about probing the soil. Some people talk about using a finger, but I feel like the finger is too intrusive into soil and it only gets my hands dirty. So chopsticks are a good tool to use to assess soil dryness.
Eli: Any final thoughts?
Darryl: I think, If we look at our indoor space more like it's an indoor garden, then we become gardeners who understand that we are working alongside nature. We're not supposed to look at it as if we are controlling these things and making them adhere to perfection. If we can understand this, then we can accept that visual imperfection is not “wrong.”
It was a lot of fun speaking with Darryl for this interview. Clearly he's got some strong opinions on plant care, which is exactly why I was excited to talk to him. I cannot recommend his book The New Plant Parent or his online course The Essentials of Houseplant Enjoyment enough. I consider myself someone who is still "getting into plants" and I learned a lot that I have applied directly to my own approach from both.