These UAE residents have turned their homes into 'urban jungles'

These UAE residents have turned their homes into urban jungles

Has social media led to a b(l)oom in the greenest trend yet?


Janice Rodrigues

Published: Fri 23 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 23 Aug 2019, 2:00 AM

The number of plants in the Chua-Idland household run in three digits. Between 180-200, to be more precise. As we take a tour around their lush two-bedroom Dubai apartment, which has been transformed into an indoor garden, we are able to get up close and personal with their 'green family'. Some of the plants have names too - their Monstera Deliciosa is named Shrek while their Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree is lovingly called Fido.

It's an awe-inspiring collection, one that people would (naturally) assume took a decade in the making. They would be wrong, though - like an increasing number of people around the world, Anita Chua's fascination for plants grew just a few years ago, thanks, in part, to the succulent craze that took over the Internet.
"About three years ago, I started seeing a lot of plant pictures on Pinterest and Instagram," says Anita, a self-confessed 'plant mum' and management consultant in Dubai. "I decided to get a few but, at that point, didn't know that succulents didn't need a lot of water. I ended up overwatering and killing many. The thing about succulents is that they are very easy to maintain. So, I gradually started acquiring plants that needed more care and attention."

A few decades ago, succulents were simply plants that thrived in arid, desert environments. Today, they are one of the hottest trends on social media. The hashtag #succulove has acquired over 1.5 million posts on Instagram, while accounts like @urbanjungleblog and @thejungalow have racked up an incredible following by sharing indoor gardening photos, tips and tricks. The draw to succulents is only natural - not only do they require very little maintenance for indoor gardeners, they're also pretty (aka Instagrammable). The perfect potted plant, perhaps?

With plants increasingly creeping into our social media feeds, it's only natural to get curious about all things green. In the US, the 2016 National Gardening Report found that of the six million Americans who have taken up gardening, five million are in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Moreover, 37 per cent of millennials grow herbs and plants indoors, as opposed to 28 per cent of baby boomers. It's official - millennials are bringing gardening back.

Of course, you don't have to be a millennial to be a plant parent. Nor do you need a huge outdoor garden. As Anita and her husband, Atle Idland, rightly proved, an apartment is more than enough.
"A lot of people think that having an indoor garden requires a lot of maintenance, but it's actually the opposite," says Anita, who hails from Malaysia. "In fact, with Dubai weather, direct sunlight (in outdoor gardens) can be bad for the plants. As long as they are getting light - that is, not placed in a dark corner - it's okay. I have a plant app that reminds me to water them but I don't follow it too strictly. Sometimes, the best way to find out what your plant needs is through observation."
Unlike a lot of social media trends out there, indoor plants have no downside. As Ben Gonzales from Interiors Landscape Company Planters Group puts it, "Plants are great oxygenators of the world. They clear our homes of nasty toxins and fill it with oxygen. So, if you want better air quality for you and your family, add more plants to your home."

PLANET GREEN: Anita Chua and Atle Idland's two-bedroom apartment (above), which has 180-200 plants
Are there any downsides to having indoor gardens? Pests, perhaps? "Firstly, not all insects are pests. Some pollinators are crucial around the world for propagating agriculture. However, the key advice we would give anyone when concerned about a pest problem is to ensure you call a trained, licensed and regulated company to deal with it," he adds.

Studies have shown that having plants can also improve productivity and concentration. For Anita, there were other benefits of having a home garden. "Gardening has taught me a lot," she says. "It taught me patience. It taught me to be more observant. And watering plants can be a meditative experience. After a while, you begin to treat them like people - some are low-maintenance; some are finicky."

It started with social media and came a full circle. Last year, Anita decided to set up an Instagram account (@urbanjungledubai) to capture her gardening journey. Realising that a lot of people get plants without having any idea about how to care for them, she also set up in order to encourage more people to 'bring the outdoors indoors' and 'guide plant parents, step by step'.

"It's my mission to educate people on caring for plants," says Anita. "Sometimes, people buy them just because they are trendy and end up killing them because they don't have proper instructions. At the end of the day, we need to remember that they are living creatures, and should be treated as such."
UAE-based Harly Sabater recalls growing up in the Philippines in a household that loves plants. So, within a few days of landing in Abu Dhabi, it was only natural that he went out and picked up a cherry tomato plant. That was ten years ago. Today, the expat, who works in a hospital as a trainer, has around 215 plants in a one-bedroom apartment in Abu Dhabi. However, much like Anita, it's only in the last two to three years that he got serious about gardening. Did social media have a part to play, perhaps?

"I think it could have," muses Harly. "A few years ago, when you scrolled through Instagram, you'd see pictures of food, travel, experiences. But, recently, plant-based posts and photos have been doing very well. People are getting more aware about the environment and wellness. I think this is all tied up with gardening."
FLORA LOVE: Harly Sabater has around 215 plants in his one-bedroom apartment
When researching plant care, Harly noticed that a lot of online advice was based on Western climate, therefore, wrong for this region. "For example, if I looked up a specific plant, someone from the US would say you had to water it twice a week - but they aren't taking into account the climate here and, therefore, we could easily end up killing it," he explains.

It was through trial and error that he learnt that the best way to keep a plant alive is to look up where it is originally from and mimic those surroundings. Today, not only is his house blooming, he also has some rare 'collector's items', such as the pilea peperomioides or Chinese money plant ('a popular Instagram plant'), lithops (also known as flowing stones for their unique looks), and Alocasia baginda (also known as Silver Dragon Scale). He has a wish-list of about 40-50 more plants he wants to add to his flourishing collection, and even plays classical music to his plants sometimes as "studies show they help them grow better".

In order to share his experiences - and give advice on growing plants in Middle Eastern climate - Harly started the Instagram account @desertplantguy. Today, Harly is a part of the UAE's active online plant community. On Facebook, The Dubai Gardening Group has over 3K members whereas the Abu Dhabi Gardening Group has 1.4K members.

"The Internet and social media has changed the way we get information," says Harly. "These groups have anything from 20-40 posts a day on advice related to plants. Sometimes, people ask questions or need help with problems. And it helps us all connect. About two months ago, we had our first plant swap - a bunch of us from the online group met up at one member's villa, ate food, shared stories and swapped a plant. It's a great way to learn about a new plant, and share what you have."
Jipson Jerodson always loved all things green. The expat, who is from Pakistan but lived his whole life in the UAE, was working as a manager in a transportation company when someone gave him the idea to start an online plant customisation company. After a few successful events, Jipson decided to take the plunge and quit his regular job - and Stems & Leaves (My Green Dubai) was formed three years ago.

The company, which creates 'live art' for events and workshops, found business slow in its first year, but things have only picked up since. Jipson credits this to the fact that a number of corporates are also jumping on to the plant trend. "Just a few years ago, companies would give gifts like sweets at events. Today, they want to give succulents or terrariums (a sealable container with plants within)," says Jipson. "Everyone is becoming more conscious about things like climate change, greenery, and how they are contributing to the environment. Because of this, most people or companies would rather give green gifts."
AS YOU LIKE IT: Jipsom Jerodson's company provides online customisation for plants
Jipson has also noted an increase in demand for courses or classes related to plants. His company has been hired a number of time to teach employees or students about everything from kokedama (the Japanese art of creating an ornamental moss ball) to converting kitchen waste into compost. Sometimes, these courses are aimed towards those as young as 13-18, who, Jipson says, are just as enthusiastic as adults.

"I know that most kids are all about the video games but it's important to nurture these interests early," says Jipson. "I have a daughter and I make sure she helps me with potting and gets her hands dirty. It's what connects us to nature. The world is not like it used to be 50 years ago; we are putting a lot of pressure on planet Earth. This is one way to appreciate nature and see the benefits of having plants. It's why I encourage everyone to bring at least one plant into their home."
Sometimes, all you need for a greener tomorrow is to plant the idea today.

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