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Interview Interiors

Plant hunting in NYC


Words by Suzanna Knight

Photos by David Brandon Geeting

New York City seems like the kind of place where you can go get anything, anywhere, at any time of day. But when it comes to easily accessible plant stores, the city still has a long way to go. Eliza Blank first noticed this issue when she moved to the city for university, and decided to do something about it. A few years later, The Sill has turned into a successful plant business with a large, international online following. We talked to the The Sill team about setting up a plant business and sharing plant knowledge.

Can you tell us a bit about how everything started?

The Sill came to me as a very informal, loose idea when I was graduating college. I grew up around a lot of green space in Massachusetts, so when I moved to New York it was quite an adjustment to find the only greenery around was at Central Park. Having felt that void in my life as a newbie to New York made me want to fill my home with houseplants to compensate for the loss of nature in my life. But it wasn’t an easy task to find good houseplants in the city. The concept for starting a plant company, without it being what it is today, started there. I sat on the idea for five or six years, and when I moved back to New York after some time in Boston, the idea still felt special and unique to me. That’s when I decided to get started.

What’s it like setting up a plant business in a city like New York?

We started as a small e-commerce business, mostly because it was the least expensive way to start. It allowed us to get the business off the ground and start testing fairly easily and quickly. The idea really resonated with New Yorkers, and we were able to expand the business with client services, like greening offices and retail spaces, and then moved into having an actual storefront and national shipping. The challenges are still endless though. We work with a very challenging product from a logistical and a marketing standpoint:  a plant is very difficult to ship, and a lot of our customers have very little baseline knowledge of plants.. But we’ve learned so much over the past five years, and we’ve been able to tackle those challenges one at a time.

Since you also sell plants online, you don’t always have one on one contact with your customers. How do you make sure they still get enough information and knowledge to take care of their plants?

We try to share information online as much as we can. About a year ago we hired an in-house plant scientist, Christopher Satch, who’s on the emails and online channels every day to provide information. He also teaches a free class on Skillshare on how to take care of your plants. Of course we provide care instructions with the purchase, and we want our employees to learn as much as possible in order to not be just a retailer, but also be a place that people come to for knowledge. When we do our Instagram live videos, we meet people we can’t even ship to, but who do come to us for advice. We had someone write in on one of the live videos from Iran recently, for example. We literally can’t sell them a plant for lots of reasons, one of them being our governments won’t allow it. But we can provide them with knowledge and hopefully someday they’ll pass it forward. We want to help people engage with plants, whether that’s with our physical product or not. That’s where our commitment to knowledge comes in: we want people to incorporate plants into their lives and will go out of our way to do that with anyone, whether they’re a customer or not.

It seems a lot of people are in need of that sort of knowledge, as plants have become really popular the last few years. How do you think you can make sure greenery isn’t just a passing trend?

We were just talking about that the other day. Plants have been around for a little over a billion years, so even though it’s trendy now, they’re not going to go away because they’ll always be around. There are institutions in place to preserve that, like botanical gardens, started at a time when plants were even more popular than they are now. At some point the French government even had a prize, something that would be worth millions of dollars today, that would just go to the best plant scientist of the year. Someone would go to the jungle on the other side of the world and come back to a hero’s parade, meet the king or queen to talk about their plants, which would then go into an official greenhouse. Plant popularity is nowhere near that level of enthusiasm yet today!

What are your future ambitions for The Sill?

We want to improve our online customer experience, ship out even faster than we already do. We would love to open up stores and locations across the country, that would help loads with cutting down on shipping times. And people need plants everywhere!