A ‘new’ online ‘Home’ for Houseplants

Jo Howski from Home of Houseplants in Adelaide has found her niche selling rare indoor plants online to customers across Australia.

Jo Howski has been fascinated by plants her entire life, gardening with her mother and grandparents from an early age. Whilst her school friends had pop star posters on their bedroom walls, she displayed botanical illustrations. Despite her passion for plants, Jo ‘fell’ into law. Throughout her legal career, Jo remained an avid home gardener. She started growing rare indoor plants in her backyard glasshouse before selling them to fund her horticultural hobby.

Jo Howski from Home of Houseplants (Image: Jo Howski)

Jo Howski from Home of Houseplants (Image: Jo Howski)

Three years ago, Jo experienced changes in her work circumstances that caused her to reconsider whether to continue her career in law. Instead, she decided to grow her online plant business. ‘Selling online was where I was very comfortable because I was (already) a regular seller on eBay’ Jo says. It also gave Jo the flexibility she needed to look after her three young children. She now sells plants across multiple online platforms, including her own website www.homeofhouseplants.com.au eBay and Catch, and offers AfterPay and Zip Pay to customers.

Unique foliage

Jo specialises in rare and hard to find indoor plants with unique foliage and grows plants such as Aspidistra elatior ‘Milky Way’, Variegated Chain of Hearts Ceropegia woodii and Monstera deliciosa var. borsigiana. ‘It is always wrenching when I sell one of those off … every leaf is a masterpiece and no two leaves are the same and they are just exquisite,’ says Jo. She stocks Jewel Orchids when available. ‘These are beautiful velvet type, small orchids that are not grown for their flower, but grown for the foliage. My favourite is (Ludisia) discolor, which has a chocolate brown velvet leaf with pink candy stripes through it,’ says Jo.

 

Ludisia discolor var. dawsoniana in the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis (Image: Krzysztof Ziarnek, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Ludisia discolor var. dawsoniana in the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis (Image: Krzysztof Ziarnek, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

 

Packing plants

To get her plants to customers safely, Jo wraps their bare root balls in moist paper towel rather than sphagnum moss, which she considers a non-renewable resource and is prohibited on plants entering Western Australia. Another layer of aluminium foil keeps the moist towel in place, then more paper towel finished off with a layer of recycled bubble wrap ensures the plant fits snugly into its poster tube or reused florist box. Plants are Express Post-ed, for obvious reasons!

 

Tools of Jo’s trade: Even this online business cannot avoid real paperwork! (Image: Jo Howski)

Tools of Jo’s trade: Even this online business cannot avoid real paperwork! (Image: Jo Howski)

 

Plant Quarantine Concierge Service

To sell plants to customers in Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, Jo must meet strict biosecurity requirements. Western Australia’s biosecurity legislation the toughest, so complying with that State’s conditions makes her working life easier elsewhere. ‘Western Australia do not allow any plants to be sent into that State from Victoria, even if I chemically treat them, because they say current chemical treatment is ineffective against nematodes’ says Jo.

Jo also offers a unique ‘Plant Quarantine Concierge Service’ to customers who buy their plants from other sellers interstate. This service is a challenging process for plants. ‘They are being shipped twice. They are also having chemical treatment, which further stresses the plant. I do try to say, ‘Don’t expect an Instagram perfect plant to arrive’ Jo explains. With the plants Jo treats ranging in value from $500 up to $1,500, she needs to use her legal skills to manage customer expectations. Otherwise their precious Philodendron verrucosum may rot on the Hobart airport tarmac during winter or their begonias and peperomias turn to mush. True stories!

5a. Philodendron micans-min

Plants awaiting quarantine treatment: A) Philodendron micans (at rear of tray)

Plants awaiting quarantine treatment: B) A rare Yellow Variegated Borsigiana (Monstera deliciosa ‘Borsigiana Aurea Variegata’) has arrived needing some TLC whilst the Alocasia cuprea (rear) looks a little hardier

Plants awaiting quarantine treatment: B) A rare Yellow Variegated Borsigiana (Monstera deliciosa ‘Borsigiana Aurea Variegata’) has arrived needing some TLC whilst the Alocasia cuprea (rear) looks a little hardier

 

Other challenges

Running Home of Houseplants is not without its challenges. ‘Because of the niche I sell in, it is very fluid. I might get a small amount of stock that I have propagated or sourced from one of my growers interstate, but then dries up’ Jo explains. And despite popular misconception, online stores are not without their costs. ‘Instead of paying rent, I pay the equivalent for commercial rent in postage. My postage bill is two and a half thousand dollars a month ‘Jo says. Other costs associated with quarantining plants include annual renewal and audit fees, labour (time treating plants and filling out paperwork, e.g. applications, plant labelling), chemicals (insecticides, fungicides), and equipment (electronic scales, medical-grade syringes).

Jo’s husband, John Absolon, prepares for weekly plant quarantine treatment (Image: Jo Howski)

Jo’s husband, John Absolon, prepares for weekly plant quarantine treatment (Image: Jo Howski)

 

Find your niche …

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Jo has noticed a slight drop in requests for her plant concierge service.  However, she has had an influx of new customers and her online plant sales have increased accordingly. ‘I do attribute that to self-isolation and many wanting a new project they can attend to at home. Especially if it has arrived by mail, it gets delivered (straight) to their door ‘says Jo.

Jo loves her work. ‘It is like Christmas every day. I have a heap of parcels to unwrap and I see some spectacular plants.’ Jo also gets to meet some of this country’s best growers and collectors, sharing their stories on her Home of Houseplants podcast. Inspired by Paul Jarvis’ Company of One, Jo has no plans for expansion. ‘We have found what works for us … plant concierge and selling our own stock of rare and unusual plants. I think I have carved myself a bit of a niche and I do enjoy it’ Jo concludes.

Written by Gabrielle Stannus – IPA Board member

By | 2020-05-28T04:38:26+00:00 May 28th, 2020|