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Houseplants have never been more popular and the number of outlets for indoor plants has never been more diverse. Traditional sources for houseplant collectors, such as garden centres and DIY stores are now facing stiff competition from online sources, such as foli8.
Where can you buy houseplants?
Most people currently buy their houseplants from physical locations. Garden centres, supermarkets and DIY stores are the most common, although several boutique-style plant outlets are popping up in the trendier areas of large towns and cities.
It is certainly a nice experience to see and touch live plants, and you will often find some really interesting plants (particularly in specialist outlets). In fact, if you are looking for very particular types of plant to add to a collection (such as unusual orchids, carnivorous plants or cacti, for example), then specialist nurseries (or their exhibits at shows) are the very best places to visit - but you will have to make a special trip.
Image: specialist carnivorous plant nursery exhibiting at RHS Chelsea Flower Show (Kenneth Freeman)
As well as physical shops, there are now several online outlets for houseplants. Each has its own special character and unique selling point, so it is worth checking some of them out to see which gives you the quality of service you want.
Why physical outlets are not always the best option
My local garden centre is excellent - its reputation means that it attracts customers from several miles around. It is one of the largest in the area and has a huge range of garden plants, many of which are grown on their own nursery. It also has a pretty good selection of houseplants - or at least it does now. 18 months ago, it had hardly any.
Whilst there is now a decent amount of space dedicated to houseplants, it is true to say that the range is quite limited - a few very popular species that are always there, and an ever changing small selection of others. Quality is variable, especially for those plants that have been hanging around for a while, and prices can be quite high.
DIY stores and supermarkets have similar issues. It has to be said that the quality and range of houseplants at some DIY stores has improved dramatically over the last few months, and they are sometimes even displayed with a little more imagination than was typical before. However, choosing plants from such outlets can be a bit hit-and-miss and there is no guarantee that the plants you are looking for can be found.
image: where are the plants? (from DIY store pexels-tiger-lily-4484078)
One place where you might find more inspiration are stores that specialise in creating a home decorative style as well as stocking commodities. A certain Swedish furniture store is very good at displaying complementary items to demonstrate different looks for interior spaces, and it is quite easy to find a reasonable (if changing) range of plants and decorative pots.
This is a contentious topic. It is certainly true that many garden centres and other outlets can offer very good plants. However, plants are perishable goods and if they are not sold, they can decline in condition. This is certainly the case in supermarkets and DIY stores where often there aren’t the resources or specialist expertise to keep the plants in tip-top form. If you have particularly green fingers, you might find a bargain in the reduced price section which you can coax back to life, but it is a bit of a gamble.
Image: specialist plant shop where you will probably get good plants and good advice (plant shop pexels-daria-shevtsova-880463)
You should also bear in mind that a lot of plants grown for the retail market have been grown with an emphasis on lush foliage - often at the expense of good root development. This makes the plants superficially very attractive, but at the cost of longevity (and if the plant dies, it is quite likely that the purchaser will blame their own lack of expertise rather than the quality of the plant).
One of the issues faced by garden centres is the lack of specialist houseplant expertise. Compared with the tremendous knowledge of staff responsible for the vast selection of garden plants, houseplants are seen as being a bit of a fringe activity - almost as if indoor plants are not regarded as ‘proper’ gardening.
It is always reassuring to have expert advice on hand when making a purchase, but few retail outlets have the resources for a dedicated houseplant expert.
Nurseries dedicated to the production and sale of specialist plants, however, are a goldmine of information. Such places are owned and run by genuine enthusiasts who are very generous with their time and expertise, and their skills may well have been recognised by judges at top flower shows - you might see some Chelsea medals on display.
The online alternative
Why would buying plants unseen from an online outlet be a better option?
There are many reasons, and they fall under the same broad headings as above.
In my professional career as an interior landscaper, I have had the privilege of visiting specialist indoor plant growers in Europe, North America and even further afield. The range of plants grown on a commercial scale for interior landscapers and the retail market is astonishing. At the moment, one European commercial plant trading site is showing approximately 25,000 distinct lines of plants for sale from almost 5,000 individual suppliers. The supply chain of indoor plants is incredibly complex and involves large networks of growers, brokers, auctions and logistics companies.
Some online retailers, such as foli8, are also commercial interior landscapers, so they have access to a wide range of plants that are grown to interior landscape quality, and which they can buy in bulk quantities. Because companies like foli8 have strong relationships with the supply chain, they are able to obtain a wide range of plant types and are able to ensure that, for most species, they are readily available.
Currently, foli8 offers over 80 lines and more are being added. You would be hard pressed to find any garden centre or DIY store able to offer such a wide range. Not only that, but foli8 also offers a huge range of decorative pots as well, including several styles that you are very unlikely to find at any traditional retail outlet.
Quality and consistency
Unlike garden centres, DIY stores or supermarkets, online houseplant retailers are specialists. They are able to source top-quality plants, inspect them carefully by a specialist, prepare them expertly for sale and ensure that only the best are sent out. As a specialist retailer the reputations of firms, like foli8, depend entirely on the quality of products and the quality of customer service - a few bad online reviews can be devastating.
By having the purchasing power to source plants from the whole supply chain, we are also able to maintain a consistent quality standard. Furthermore, companies like foli8 are able to get their stocks from suppliers very frequently, so the plants we sell are always very fresh, and our warehousing facilities are actual purpose-built professional greenhouses.
One area where online retailers really do shine is the quality of the expertise behind the service provided. Here at foli8, we are backed by well over a hundred years of combined experience and expertise in indoor plants and we take great pride in ensuring that the advice we give alongside our plants is second to none.
Furthermore, our plants are selected, quality checked, prepared and packed by skilled horticulturists with many years of experience, and who take tremendous personal pride in the quality of their work.
Our aim is not only to be the leading online houseplant supplier, but also a source of top-quality plant advice, plant buying guides and information.
Last, but not least, is the level of customer service provided by online plant retailers. In these days of instant reviews and comments on social media, any online retailer that delivers poor service is going to take an instant hit on their reputation that can take a long time to repair.
There is also a lot of personal investment too: foli8 is a family business, not a faceless corporation, and the same is true of many other online plant retailers - the people behind the business have a lot to lose if customer service is not a top priority.
Image: excellent customer service delivered by a real person - Emily
Online houseplant sellers, such as foli8, invest a lot of time and effort in ensuring that we deliver what is promised as well as offering help and advice as quickly as possible. What’s more is that we can guarantee that the person at the end of an online enquiry is a real person, not a chatbot.
Value for money
It is certainly true that many retailers sell houseplants at an attractively low price. If you are lucky, you will find a great bargain that will provide pleasure for many years. Several of my own plants were bought from garden centres and DIY stores, and two of them are now almost 20 years old and have survived multiple house moves (but I know exactly what I’m looking for and how to look after them, so that does give me a bit of an advantage). However, I have also been unlucky and a lot of plants obtained from supermarkets and other large retail outlets have been rather disappointing.
Garden centres and other bricks-and-mortar stores have huge overheads. That often means that plants sold for a similar price as an online retailer are just not as good.
The trouble with retail houseplants is that they have become a cheap commodity. This devalues the perception of the mass market product considerably. If you buy a foli8 plant, you are buying a premium product. For the price of a family takeaway meal, you can buy a plant that will provide pleasure for years and years, whether you buy it for yourself, or as a gift for plant-lovers.
By Kenneth Freeman