How youthful plant lovers are shaking up staid old horticultural ways

Photograph: Karen Jack/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Karen Jack/Getty Images

It’s amazing, for me at least, to think that I have been working in horticulture for the best part of two decades. For almost all that time there has been real concern about how to get new audiences, and in particular younger people, into the art. I have often been invited to sit on industry boards to brainstorm new approaches and asked to consult on huge campaigns, all of which have simply insisted on churning out more of the same. So it is exciting to see young people are now doing it for themselves – in radically different ways, essentially creating what I think can only be described as a parallel horticultural universe.

In the past five years there has been an absolute explosion in the interest in plants among younger generations. With the hashtag #plantsofinstagram racking up almost 13,000 posts, more than six times that of #avocadotoast, and some houseplant retailers reporting a 500% spike in interest over the past year or so, this is the radical transformation we have desperately needed.

New wave: lilac orchid. Photograph: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian New wave: lilac orchid. Photograph: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

But when you meet them, these new horticulturists don’t read gardening magazines, watch gardening television shows or even shop in garden centres. They often come from backgrounds like tropical fish or exotic pet keeping, or the geeky science of lighting or hydroponic tech. Or they have a passion for interior design, or simply a fascination with collecting rare things. But what they have in common is that almost all have got into plants through totally novel routes. To me, what is so fascinating about this is how it creates a palette of plants, new techniques and an aesthetic which are all wildly different to the staid horticultural norms I grew up with and which have remained largely unchanged for decades. And it seems to exist in an alternate gardening reality.

They have really built their own gardening media on YouTube and Instagram that is far more dynamic, experimental and accessible than traditional garden media, which in my experience is notoriously risk adverse, repetitive and open only to people of a very fixed social and ethnic demographic.

They have even started their own nurseries online, like the achingly cool Grow Tropicals, Spicesotic Plants and Ugly Plantling, sold on internet auction sites and at fairs with more ironic beards and arm tattoos than you might see at craft beer festivals.

At a recent packed-out event, I asked the audience of young plant geeks, some decades younger than me – for my own curiosity – how many of them were actually trained horticulturists. Only two hands went up and both had been kicked out of horticultural college for allegedly collecting too many plants and for having unusual pets in their student dorms.

No wonder things are changing, and thank goodness it’s for the better!

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

How youthful plant lovers are shaking up staid old horticultural ways