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Gardening SOS? Here's who you can turn to

Responding to the needs of young and curious urban gardeners, a network of plant-care educators and businesses that support urban gardening is growing and thriving

Harish Chandra Joshi and his wife filming him for his Instagram and YouTube videos on their terrace garden.
Harish Chandra Joshi and his wife filming him for his Instagram and YouTube videos on their terrace garden. (Pradeep Gaur)

Standing between scores of potted marigolds, Harish Chandra Joshi, a lanky 54-year-old, holds one up. It is a bright orange genda, two flowers and a bud dancing as he moves them towards the camera. It seems a happy sight—until Joshi grabs a huge pair of garden scissors. In two swift snips, both flowers fall to the ground.

Agar hum isko aise hi rehne denge, toh ismefour-five hiflowers aayenge. Toh doston…jahan bhiflower aa rahein hai, usko kaat dijiye (If we let it be as it is, barely four-five will bloom. So friends...wherever flowers bloom, just cut it),” he says in the video posted to his Instagram account @rooftop_organics, which has 138,000 followers.

To the gardening greenhorn, this seems unnecessarily violent. But Joshi, a gazetted officer based in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad who spends time in his 106 sq. m organic home garden before work and during the weekends, is demonstrating a simple pruning process. The plant is cut so as to have it grow stronger and bushier, yielding more flowers. This Reel has been viewed over 12 million times.

A home gardener for over two decades, Joshi began noticing a worrying trend a few years ago on social media: amateur gardeners were crowding the internet with misinformation, making gardening seem complicated and inaccessible to those new to it. “I saw a video recently in which an influencer said gudhal (hibiscus) needs phosphorus. While in reality that will only spoil the soil and your plant will die in a few years,” he says, mildly irritated. “But so many people really want to know how to grow their plants well, so even such videos get millions of views. And when plants die after following such misinformation, people will only get disheartened and give up.”

This need to give useful and authentic advice is really at the heart of a growing ecosystem of home-gardening assistance in India. Influencers, online nurseries, as well as startups and companies for gardening-allied products and services, have all noticed a trend towards biophilia, a theory propounded by the biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984, which suggests that human beings have an “urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. To this end, all such players are consciously creating knowledge bases, taking up efforts to educate existing clients as well as the new and curious, and catering to the various needs of an urban Indian home gardener.

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There were little hints of biophilia beginning to pick up in urban millennials about 15 years ago. “Back then, there was a heavy trend towards urban farming where people wanted to grow their fruits and veggies on their balcony,” notes Shaan Lalwani, owner of the Mumbai-based Vriksha Nursery, about the time he took over his late father’s business in 2009.

Also Read: Why you should try gardening for your overall well-being

Until then, typically, the nursery’s demands from the average city home would be very basic—some tulsi (holy basil), a few mogra, champaor hibiscus to decorate a corner of the balcony or a patch of lawn. Then, “that massive four-five-year (urban terrace farming) trend phased out into this interest in succulents and other such compact plants that were extremely easy to take care of. Post that came this explosive interest in aroids—like philodendrons, alocasias, monsteras, and ZZ (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) plants,” Lalwani says. Currently, we are in the midst of a luxury plant trend, he says. “People want bonsai, dracaena draco (dragon tree), and also to have large trees indoors.” Lalwani anticipates and keeps abreast of such waves by monitoring design shows in Europe and the UK, so as to prepare his nursery appropriately.

The intervening years of the pandemic contributed sharply to the surge in biophilia. Being locked down meant people tried to bring home as much of the outdoors as they could. Lalwani says that at the peak of the pandemic, his nursery, which ships plants across the country, dealt with 120-160 orders per day, almost double that of a normal day.

The covid years also saw a huge shift in customer base for online nurseries like Ugaoo, which had started in 2015 with the urban Indian plant lover as their target audience. “During the pandemic, 80% of our customers were ‘plant beginners’, not those who already loved gardening,” notes Siddhant Bhalinge, CEO of Ugaoo, which ships across India. “We realised then that millennials and Gen Z were curious and they needed as much help as they could get,” he says, adding that the blog section of their e-commerce site, as well as videos and masterclasses on their social media accounts had helped this audience.

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Bhalinge also says that the barrier to entry in the plant business is low. This is evident in the case of Indore-based Aditya Gilke, 22, who started Amazon Park Nursery in 2018 with an initial investment of Rs. 20,000 from his brother, a lawyer. Uninterested in following him and his father into law, Gilke wanted to do something that would allow him to be in the “positive space of nature”.

He did not apply for college or look for jobs, instead focusing on understanding and tending to the plants in his nursery for 6-8 hours a day for months. Soon, having launched an Instagram account to market the nursery, he realised that people seemed to “need live support for their gardens”. So, the self-taught gardening entrepreneur decided to host webinars, and in 2022, started a closed Facebook group, the members of which he converted into a paying subscriber-base. This group, with 1,300 members, receives a structured six-week-long gardening curriculum—which includes learning about soil mixes, potting, manure, and plants and their seasons—on Google Classroom, a platform for online learning.

Also Read: How to design couture in a garden

His audience, that includes his Instagram account (@amazonparknursery with 81,800 followers, is between the ages of 25-55 and live in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Kolkata. “My content on social media was accessible and gave them quick tips, so people started trusting me,” Gilke says. “Pre-covid, too, local colleges used to call me in for sessions on gardening, plants and nature.” A lot of them want to do things the organic way “since it’s homegardening” , he notes, and have been consistently curious about decorative plants that have flowers with a heady scent.

A gardening workshop organised by Ugaoo.
A gardening workshop organised by Ugaoo. (Courtesy Ugaoo)

When he started out, his father expressed concern that there wasn’t much money in the field. But today, in addition to the offline nursery and the online gardening courses, Gilke has also set up Dreamaangan.com, an e-commerce platform for gardening-allied products like trowels, rakes and weeders, and different manure mixes. Depending on the month, Gilke says he makes about 80,000 to 1.2 lakh in profit, which in a town like Indore, is, he claims, at par with the salaries of schoolmates who were placed at corporate companies after doing their MBAs. “Currently, I feel like I am living a better life,” he says.

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This isn’t surprising given the overall market. Bhalinge notes that the lawn and gardening market in India can be divided into two sub-sectors, with home gardening coming to about $6 billion and corporate and public gardening, about $8 billion. Statista, the online data-gathering platform, too shows similar numbers for India, valuing the overall market at about $14.96 billion, with the sector projected to grow annually by 4.72% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) between 2024-2028. At Ugaoo, this year’s annualised revenue run-rate (ARR) stands at Rs. 120 crore, with the last financial year closing at 65.9 crore monthly run rate.

Lazy Gardener, an online platform that only sells gardening-allied products—like soil mixes, fertiliser sticks, decorative planters, tools and merchandise—will close this financial year with a 15x jump in revenue from the time of inception in December 2019. Vinayak Garg, the founder of Lazy Gardener and author of How To Raise A Plant Baby: A Beginner’s Guide To Happy Plants (2022), notes that they now have about 200,000 customers, and expects this number to grow by about 25% year on year.

A number of new entrants to the space—the likes of Nurturing Green and Kyari—keep their prices low, disrupting some of the hold that the bigger players have, and keeping the online nursery space interesting. Not all such players, however, are necessarily investing in really educating the curious customer or catering to niche needs. “My aim is to take the guesswork out of gardening,” says Garg, who, like Bhalinge has noticed that the post-covid interest from customers is in having gardening and plant care made easier when they are not always at home.

Also Read: The garden as a life-saver in bleak times

To further help such urban gardeners, both offline and online nurseries have also started tele-consultation services. Lalwani’s offline nursery, for instance, can be contacted by customers over WhatsApp and Instagram. “A client can send us an image of a plant that needs care, and we can tell them what’s going wrong and how they can rectify it,” he says, adding that home gardeners also send them photos of a space in their homes, to be guided on which plants could work in its conditions. Ugaoo, too, has a video consultation service platform called Dr. Green, for home gardening queries.

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This doesn’t mean, however, that all those interested in home gardens are also getting their hands dirty. Many who don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to do the work, but want the company of plants, hire the services of experts to set up and run their gardens.

Vinayak Garg of Lazy Gardener leading a gardening workshop over video during the lockdown
Vinayak Garg of Lazy Gardener leading a gardening workshop over video during the lockdown (Courtesy Lazy Gardener)

Lalwani has teams routinely setting up and servicing private landscaping projects through Mumbai. Ugaoo has about 40 people on their gardening service team across Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru, for post-sales services. Gilke’s Indore-based initiative, too, started off with an option to avail landscaping services along with any sales from the nursery.

In Bengaluru, Sora Garden Design, started in 2021 by Sora Tsukamoto, Suma Keloth and Purvy Jain, designs and develops lush tropical gardens for private homes as well as for restaurants and cafés. The trio met when working as conservationists at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a four-decade-old space that works to conserve rare and endangered plants of the Western Ghats in Kerala. One of their very first projects as a company was the speciality coffee brand Araku’s first restaurant, which opened in Mumbai in 2023.

Working with the principle that landscaping should move away from monocultures to be self-sustaining, they plant flowering perennials, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and trees in a harmonious mix infused with a slightly wild aesthetic. “These plants provide bursts of colour and also attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees, enhancing the garden’s ecological diversity,” says Tsukamoto. Having designed 25 gardens across Mumbai, Bengaluru and Coorg so far , he says gardening-design sensibility hasn’t yet fully developed in India. This, coupled with an increase in disposable incomes, has contributed to a demand for professional landscaping services for home gardens. Depending on project size, they have charged between Rs. 80,000 and Rs. 23 lakh. Since Sora Garden Design began, Tuskamoto says the company has seen a steady doubling of its revenue each year.

Also Read: Stories that rise out of gardens

Consultation and maintenance services are also useful for those with specific needs. Lalwani, for instance, is working on a completely soil-free home garden project for a client with severe asthma, using plants like the Vanda orchid, which require no growing medium. Many who get into gardening through rough phases in their personal lives, too, require special support. “There was this one lady who had lost both her parents,” Garg recalls about a participant in one of his masterclasses. “She wanted to nurture new life with their ashes—a bed of perennial flowers—and she was understandably quite emotionally attached to making sure she got it right.”

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This need to surround ourselves with nature sees no signs of diminishing. “Notice even shops, malls and restaurants have gone greener,” says Lalwani. “It’s really the only way to attract people to their spaces. It’s basic biophilia, and it only continues to get bigger.”

This is also a great time for the home gardening sector to create a new language for itself, says Garg. “For decades, we have been living on borrowed vocabulary either from botany or agriculture—we need to optimise the space for enjoyment and not for technical success or failure because the thing with (urban gardeners) is that their livelihood doesn’t depend on gardening (but their emotional well-being does),” he says, adding that “plant parenting has become an inherent need.”

Also Read: Why the future belongs to those with a ‘gardener mindset’

Bhalinge chimes in with a tongue-in-cheek remark: “I strongly believe that pets are the new kids and plants are the new pets.” But the idea that once you start gardening, —whether done first-hand or with lots of on-site help—the activity kicks off a lifelong relationship with plants and trees, is a sentiment that most share.

Just like with any relationship, Joshi has, despite decades of being at it, seen terrible days. He recalls how in December, confident that he had seven good adeniums growing, he gave in to a guest’s request and uprooted one of the plants so they could re-pot it in their own garden. A few weeks in, the six he was left with had died. “They were growing well until then, but when I pulled one out, I suppose the roots of the others were disturbed, too…” Usually candid with his followers about such failures, Joshi was disturbed for days. “I felt really bad, but that’s how you learn,” he says. He later realised that he had disturbed them during their resting time.

“Don’t go for quick-fixes when you garden,” Joshi says. “Plants take their time and have their seasons—in return for the joy they give you, all they need is for you to understand them.”

Also Read: A compendium of beautiful objects inspired by the garden aesthetic

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