Interview

Finger your plants

Christan Summers & Ivan Martinez, Tula

Finger your plants

Plants are alive. These are the words painted across a forest-green truck in New York City. From a distance, it looks like your average food truck, catering to hungry city-folk on the go. But Tulita, as the truck is affectionately called, caters to a different kind of hunger: The desire of being closer to nature. However, few know how to really handle plants and make it work. That’s where Tula comes in. Owners Christan and Ivan, both veterans of the advertising world, have refocused their creativity on plant education by combining design with their extensive knowledge of plant care. The couple drive around the city on the weekends, introducing New Yorkers to the task of proper plant care.

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Were plants and flowers always a big part of your life?

CHRISTAN: I fell in love with them when I was really young. I grew up on a farm, my mother was always growing gardens and taking care of weird animals. And I’d go to Martha’s Vineyard with my aunt to sell flowers at the farmer’s market. She was a very important person to me, so when she passed away far too early in life, I wanted to keep her legacy going and decided to one day start a flower shop. Flowers and plants were always my safe place, my sanctuary, so when I realised how unhappy I was in my job and how much comfort I felt being surrounded by green, I knew that’s the direction I should be going in.

IVAN: I grew up in Miami, surrounded by beautiful foliage, and crane flowers. But it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I realised I took all of that for granted. I started collecting plants here and there, met Christan and it became like a hobby for us.

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 Tell us about how you started Tula.

IVAN: The original idea for Tula was a greenhouse café, a place for people to come and relax surrounded by our plants. But looking at other plant shops, no one was taking the time to really educate people about their plant purchases. We had to really think about our goals then: what’s our philosophy? What’s important to us? It’s that plants are alive, they grow wild. If you’re going to have plants, it’s almost like having a pet. It’s going to grow, it might die, it might get sick or get better; that’s part of being a plant. You don’t put it on a table and then get angry when it dies. It’s alive. That’s our philosophy.

How does plant education fit into the ‘Plants are Alive’ philosophy?

CHRISTAN: It seems so obvious, but it’s not. We really take the time to teach people about the living habit of plants. You want a fiddle leaf fig? Does your apartment have north-facing light? Then no, you should rethink investing in a fiddle leaf fig! As it will have trouble surviving. We don’t even sell one ’cause it’s so hard to take care of properly. But it’s more than that. If your plants are dying, leaves are crinkling up, then how healthy is your home environment? We don’t want to tell people they’re unhealthy, but if your plants can’t survive it might be a good idea to re-asses your living conditions. When you live in an urban environment like New York, it’s so easy to forget what it’s like to have your feet on the ground, the simple ways of taking care of yourself and care for another living object. When you bring something living inside, it changes your habits.

IVAN: Eighty percent of the time, the question is, “Do you have a plant that can survive low light conditions? Why are my plants dying?” Well, if your plant doesn’t have enough humidity to survive, do you? Should you maybe get a humidifier? You’ll be happier, and your plant will be happier.

If someone comes in and wants to buy a plant that you don’t think will do well in their home, would you sell it to them?

IVAN: No. We don’t shy away from telling someone to rethink their plant purchase. If someone comes in for a banana plant but we don’t think it’s the right purchase for them, we’ll offer other plants that would work well for their living condition. It creates an understanding of what’s possible in your environment. There’s this plant lifestyle now, they’ve become an awesome accessory which is great, but it can become this thing that people want but don’t understand the consequences of. You’re not going to buy a dog and think. hey this looks cool, but how do I feed this thing? What do I do with this? That’s the plants are alive philosophy: you’re buying a living thing, and we want to help you understand how to take care of it.

‘Finger your plants’ is one of our sayings. Once you explain that, people really think, okay, I have to get more intimate with my plant because it’s alive.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to a first-time plant owner?

CHRISTAN: We have so many people come on to the truck and say, “Tell me how to water my plants”. My answer is, “I can’t tell you how to water your plants”. That’s the perfect example of the Tula philosophy: I don’t know what your environment is like, how much light you have, how often you turn on your air conditioner. The only way for you to tell how much water your plant needs is to stick your finger into the soil. ‘Finger your plants’ is one of our sayings. Once you explain that, people really think, okay, I understand, I have to get more intimate with my plant because it’s alive, it’s not an object.

We really want to challenge the idea of what a plant shop is

Another huge part of Tula is combining plants and design. Why is that?

IVAN: There’s a very specific style that’s happening for plants in homes, very clean and dry. It’s not really about the plants but about the plants as a design aesthetic. There was a gap there – you can work with design and still keep the integrity of horticulture.

CHRISTAN: Tula is plants and design. The truck is a part of that, it puts plants into a different context for people. They need a moment to understand that it’s a truck selling plants, and then you see them thinking hm, do I need a plant? I could have a plant. Which one could I have? It’s a very different shopping experience than with clothing or food. And we want to keep expanding that lifestyle aspect of Tula. We already work with a different potter every season to make the planters: Jordan Colon made the hand-thrown terracotta planters that make up the Naked Collection. We have all these pattern ideas for home décor items, Ivan has some amazing furniture ideas that would incorporate plants. The truck is great, but we also want to explore the store side of things.

IVAN: It wouldn’t be your average plant store; we really want to challenge the idea of what a plant shop is. We could host nights, like speakeasy nights, have dinners there, roundtable sessions, find new ways to build a lifestyle and educate people that don’t involve a how-to workshop. We want to introduce you to a world of plants in a completely novel way.

Let it Grow