interview with a plant store owner
As I write, Brooklyn, NY has been covered in snow for weeks, but walking my dog one bitter February morning, I passed a gleaming oasis. This window display loaded with lush greenery appeared supernatural in contrast with the filthy snowbanks on the pavement in front of it. The name of the store - Tend - struck a chord with me. These days, the concept of tending seems to carry extra weight: medical professionals tending to our sick, essential workers tending to our needs, all of us tending to our loved ones and attempting to tend to ourselves.
In 2020, I found immeasurable solace tending gardens in Maine. This winter in New York, I’ve tried to direct that energy to my houseplants - and I’m not the only one. During lockdown, plant sales skyrocketed across the country. Some of us turned to horticulture as a way to pass the time, to beautify the homes we are spending more time in, or perhaps in an attempt to feel some degree of control over our immediate environment. For myself, gardening serves as a meditation on the life cycle: birth, growth, death, decay, repeat. But keeping houseplants can feel like a way of gaming that system. Inside our homes, plants are shielded from the changing seasons and seem potentially everlasting if tended well.
I reached out to Tend Greenpoint’s owner and founder, Joe Ferrari, partly for insight into the industry, and partly for some much-needed human contact. He graciously obliged and what follows is a summary of our interview. If you’re in the Greenpoint area, please check out this lovely store at 252 Franklin Street. If you’re not local, you can still browse their selection of planters and tools and learn plant care tips at tendgreenpoint.com
Joe Ferrari and Tend Greenpoint
Joe initially planned on becoming a math teacher, but after some student teaching, realized he felt trapped within the classroom environment. After graduating, he took work in the retail industry, moving into corporate operations, which eventually turned into e-commerce management. But he says, “I got back to that trapped place, where I was just in offices all day and I wasn’t interacting with people.”
For the last 13 years, Joe has lived in a Greenpoint apartment with outdoor space in the front and side. “That was where I would go at night when I came home from work. I’d go spend time in my garden and get back to things I used to do as a kid with my family Upstate.” In the winter, deprived of that touchstone, he decided to take classes from the NY Botanical Garden. A few evening classes after work grew into weekend courses and eventually a 5-week leave of absence from his job for a summer intensive in the Bronx. He realized this was something important that needed more of his focus.
In 2017, Joe took a leap and quit his corporate job. He was not inclined to start his own landscape design firm, and at 40-years-old was reticent to work as an employee for someone else. With his extensive experience in retail, opening a store was a natural fit for his skill set and personality. “The minute we opened the store, I realized: This is what I want. This works. I love seeing all of the neighborhood people and talking to them about their plants.” As of this April, Tend Greenpoint will have been open for 3 years (though Covid-19 forced closure for part of 2020).
When Joe first moved to Greenpoint 19 years ago, there was a dearth of plant suppliers within easy walking distance - a must for urbanites without cars - and he hoped Tend would become a gardening hub for the neighborhood. However, apartment dwellers without garden space continued to come in asking after houseplants. Reading the writing on the wall, Tend expanded its offerings from the outdoor plants and supplies filling their backyard, to indoor plants, which is now a primary focus, especially in winter.
The Houseplant Trend
When asked about overrated plants, Joe pointed to the proliferation of recent design imagery that uses (often fake) fiddle-leaf figs as props, sometimes in rooms with unrealistic growing conditions. This led to an uptick in consumer demand but misconceptions about proper care, resulting in some disappointment when the plants didn’t thrive. On one occasion, 3 people within a few minutes of each other came to him seeking fiddle-leaf rehab advice.
As for his favorites, Joe’s a big fan of Dracaena marginata. He bought a tiny one in 1997 that has lived with him ever since, and now reaches the ceiling. “The character of the plant comes out in your home,” as it grows in unique shapes, custom to the space it inhabits with you.
This speaks to the larger consideration of plants as living entities, not props. For Joe, asking “How can I keep my plant looking perfect?” is counter-intuitive. “There’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ when it comes to plants.” Plants in the wild have annual cycles and often experience damage. While houseplants have been removed from their natural environments they will also undergo periods when they’re less lush, no matter how well you care for them. The same philosophy applies to molds and pests. While not desirable, they are to be expected when dealing with living soil, and with patience, can be remediated. The bottom line: if you require an impeccable, sterile ornament for your home, living plants may not be for you.
So, that begs the question: why should people live with plants? Many have been sold on the idea that houseplants purify the air in our homes, which Joe correctly points out is a bit of a myth (you’d need about 10 plants per square foot to make a noticeable impact on standard indoor air quality). Rather, he believes “the sight of green, of something living, creates positive feelings in your brain. It gives you a mission, something to take care of, gives people a break throughout the day to focus on caring for this one thing. And just staying in touch with nature is important.”
History of Greenpoint
The Greenpoint peninsula, once the home of the Lenape people, was formerly covered by forests, meadows, and marshes. In the 1600’s it was colonized by Dutch settlers, and their farms and orchards transformed the land. The industrial revolution brought a boom of factories and housing that spread beyond Manhattan across Brooklyn. Joe says, “What was this lush marshland is completely paved from one corner to the next, spewing out toxic chemicals.” In fact, 2 blocks up is a superfund site, what remains of the NuHart plastics factory.
Tend’s mission to “green-up” the neighborhood began at the same time that the Greening Greenpoint initiative was planting trees along the streets of the neighborhood. This was funded in part by lawsuits against the entities responsible for the Newtown Creek oil spill. “Now that people have these tree pits in front of their homes, they’re starting to realize ‘Oh, there’s soil under the sidewalk!’” He likes to see people wake from their “plant-blindness,” and realize what an improvement greenery is to the feel of a neighborhood. “By having our space here, and encouraging people to consider the outdoors, I think we can hopefully get Greenpoint into a better spot.”
As we talked, it became clear that Joe is hyper-aware of his impact and very conscientious about minimizing it. He pointed to the plants sitting in plastic pots, most of which have added fertilizers in the soils that can leech from outdoor gardens into waterways. He also notes that most tropical plants are grown in southern climes and trucked across the country, adding to their carbon footprint.
Tend sources plants from two vendors on nearby Long Island, and tries to consolidate deliveries as much as possible. They also sell organic potting soil from a company that endeavors to use more eco-friendly packaging. Joe says Tend does not and will not ever ship plants, and only recently started offering a shoppable online store for its locally made pottery during the pandemic (plants are still pick-up only). Some of these vendors even walk over their inventory from their pottery studios!
To wrap up, I asked what advice he’d give to someone considering a career in the horticultural industry. “My advice is to experience as much as you can . . . working with plants, getting to know them.” It’s one thing to memorize their Latin names, but seeing them in person, learning how they work, and getting your hands dirty, will impart a deeper botanical knowledge that will serve you well.
Fake fiddle-leaf fig: https://poshpennies.com/best-faux-fiddle-leaf-fig-tree/
Early Greenpoint painting: https://www.thirteen.org/brooklyn/history/history2.html
Early Greenpoint etching: https://www.brooklynhistory.org/research-guides/agriculture/
Industrial Greenpoint photo: https://qns.com/2018/03/dirty-yet-important-history-newtown-creek-neighborhood-way/
All Tend photos sourced from Joe Ferrari/Tend Greenpoint website