Start-up: Green is the new black

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 9, 2017 - October 15, 2017.

McGuire (seated) and Sara of Urban Garden are on a mission to convert the younger generation of homeowners into indoor gardeners

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Gone are the dreary days of apartment dwellers living with nary a plant in sight. Today, many are creating their own botanical havens indoors, thanks to the evolution in interior décor that seems to have replaced artfully arranged fresh-cut flowers with the rustic allure of flourishing leafy tendrils.

Having spotted the trend early, Kerstin McGuire and Sara Dalina of Urban Garden PLT are on a mission to allay any fears related to plant care and to convert the younger generation of homeowners into indoor gardeners.

Why? Apart from anecdotal evidence that suggests that gardening is therapeutic and visually pleasing, the “plantrepreneurs” — McGuire and Sara — point to the obvious: plants are good for your health as they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

“Everyone loves the sight of green plants but many are afraid that caring for them might take up too much of their time. Or that they would need to have green fingers to keep the plants alive,” says McGuire.

This got the two thinking. McGuire, who was a marketing executive with All-Asian Satellite Television and Radio Operator (Astro), leveraged her own failures as a novice plant hobbyist, while Sara brought her experience of running Mesra Alam Sekitar Sdn Bhd and volunteering at Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA), a non-governmental body fighting to preserve natural forests, to the table. Together, they set up daun.com.my.

The duo sells and delivers houseplants via their website, which Sara says is the first of its kind in the country. They basically provide houseplants that are suitable for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced-level plant hobbyists, complete with detailed care guidelines and information on hazards.

Gardening used to be thought of as a hobby for the older generation but ever since daun.com.my got off the ground, demand from the younger generation of customers has been insatiable, says Sara.

“It is a business model that didn’t require much financial investment on our part. I knew how to create and develop the website, and Kerstin could write. All we had to do was fork out some money to buy the domain and some plants,” she adds.

The green renaissance, as The Telegraph calls it, is more than a passing trend, says McGuire. She herself got into gardening because of her previous hectic lifestyle.

She reveals that she had never cared for plants before leaving her desk job. “I wanted to work with something that had to do with nature, so I called it quits and tried my hand at growing plants in my apartment … it was around the same time that I was introduced to Sara, who is familiar with plant care.”

At one point, the duo, who are also housemates, kept 600 potted plants in a 900 sq ft apartment. “It was just crazy,” exclaims McGuire.

The revival of interest in horticulture has its roots in a study published in 1989 by the US federal agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It found that, in a laboratory situation, plants can actually absorb volatile organic carbons — such as benzene, toluene, octane and trichloroethylene — from the air.

Two decades later, in 2009, New Delhi-based Kamal Meattle — an environmental activist and CEO of Paharpur Business Centre, a company that rents out clean-air office space to other companies — gave a TED Talk about how air-purifying plants were instrumental in converting an office building in one of the smoggiest cities in the world into the cleanest building in India. The video has since garnered over three million views.

“We started this firstly because nurseries don’t carry the kind of information customers need to know. For example, if you’re a pet owner, they don’t tell you which plants are toxic to cats or dogs,” says Sara.

“We have been running this website for about a year now and I find that a lot people want to have plants but they just need the right kind of information before making decisions about which plants to get and how to care for them. For example, we tell them how frequently the plants need to be fertilised and whether it is safe for their family or pets. These are just the basic things that we noticed.

“Ever since we started daun.com.my, we have supplied over 1,000 potted plants and we have about 300 customers, who are mostly frequent buyers. We have had customers who buy more than 12 plants per transaction, and these include both individuals and offices.”

Apart from tips on feeding, pruning and inspecting the plants, they also try to educate their customers on the complex theories of light and air.

“Our customers don’t know the difference and the maintenance needed for low-light and bright-light plants. We engage with them and ask if they live in high-rise buildings and which direction their units face, so that we can better assess the kind of plants they would be able to care for.

“We take pains to explain which plants need low light and which need bright light. From there, you will know that placement is important. Also, how often you need to water the plants. Usually, it is once a week but most people believe the myth that plants need to be watered every day. If you have a lot of time to tend the plants, we recommend trying herbs because herbs are difficult to care for and need to be looked after every day,” says Sara.

Some of the most popular on the website are air plants, succulents, the Monstera (cheese) series, Dracaena Fragrans, Ficus elastica (the rubber plant), Dracaena Marginata and Chamaedorea seifrizii (the reed palm).

“We get different plants from different nurseries, because not all carry the kind of plants that we want. We select easy plants because we know that the people in our target market are beginners. We make sure there are no difficult plants because we don’t want them to be disappointed. They need time to get to know gardening and plant care first and only then can we go on to more difficult plants.

“If you noticed, we have no flowers on the website, except for the peace lily plant — a member of the Araceae family of flowering plants — which is relatively easy to care for,” says Sara.

Once they receive the plants, the duo tends to them at their workspace for a period of time to ensure that they match their requirements and continue to thrive once they are purchased off the site and delivered.

“Once we had identified all the easy plants, we looked for suppliers who carried them regularly. Some plants are seasonal, such as the peperomia, jade plant and peace lilies. Once they run out, it will be awhile before we are able to restock them. If it is the rainy season, the stock isn’t as good. If that happens, we just call our customers and ask them if they still want the plant of their choice immediately or if they would like to wait for the next batch. Most customers prefer to wait because they depend on us to choose beautiful, disease-free and healthy plants.

“We also repot the plants by transferring them from their original growing pots to ceramic or cement pots. Most people don’t even know how to start caring for plants and the chances are slim that they know about soil. If we were to send them plants that they need to repot, they would need to make sure they have the right type of soil, fertiliser and whatnot,” says McGuire.

They are even particular about the nurseries. “We make sure that we only buy from those [with plants] that are shaded because the demand is for indoor plants. So for indoor plants, we never buy from suppliers who grow them under the sun because when we send them to our customers, the plants would suffer a shock and most probably die within a week.

“We do a lot of research on our side, to make sure that there is minimal risk by the time it reaches the customers,” says Sara.

In their early days, McGuire and Sara delivered the plants themselves as Pos Malaysia, which subscribes to the Postal Services Act 2012, prohibits the delivery of live plants. However, they have since tied up with a start-up logistics company, which now manages their delivery services.

Although the duo are not keen on setting up a brick-and-mortar business, those who prefer to have a feel of the plants before making a purchase have the option of buying Urban Garden’s plants that are displayed at Skinny Dip Café in Kepong. Customers also have the option of saving on the delivery charges by opting to pick up their orders from the café.

Apart from live plants, Urban Garden also sells ceramic pots, care kits and plant stands. Novice gardeners are also encouraged to get moisture sensors to avoid over-watering their plants.

“If the customer is someone who is busy, we recommend getting plants that need little care. That’s why we started selling moisture sensors because the main plant killer is over-watering, not under-watering.

“The sensor will detect the moisture level. Sometimes, there are so many plants that you may not know when to water which, so this eliminates guesswork and the plants live longer.

“Truth be told, green fingers are not about luck but about taking the time to understand that all living things need love and care … once you understand that, you are ready to care for plants,” says McGuire.