Smile Politely

Planted owners put down roots in C-U’s houseplant scene

If you were bitten by the houseplant bug during the pandemic, you’re far from alone. Forced to stay home during the biggest public health crisis in a century, many of us turned to the beautifying, calming effects of plants. Online and brick-and-mortar plant shops popped up, prices briefly went crazy, and soon, many of our living rooms became indoor jungles. 

Although we’re no longer isolating in our homes, the houseplant trend isn’t going away. Case in point: Champaign just welcomed its third dedicated houseplant shop, Orchid & Vine, along with Plant Mode and Plantify. And when Plantify’s owners Long Luu and Giang Pham relocated to Seattle in August, the shop wasn’t shuttered. Instead, two women stepped in to ensure Champaign-Urbana had plenty of planty options.

Hanging baskets of green leafy plants are lined up along wooden rods attached to a white wall. Photo by Lauren Quinn.

Photo by Lauren Quinn.

If you’re a fan of the airy Downtown Champaign space, be grateful Kristyn McReaken flicked through Plantify’s Instagram stories one day this past spring. 

“Long (Luu) posted an Instagram story saying they were relocating and looking for interested buyers. It was one story, and I just happened to see it,” McReaken says. “I screenshotted it, sent it to Riley, and was like, ‘Do you want to own a plant store?’”

Riley Ramirez, McReaken’s former nanny, was living in Chicago at the time.

“After I got my degree, I was just kind of waiting for what was next in this transitional phase. Then Kristyn approached me with this opportunity, and the rest is history. I relocated and decided to plant some roots, literally and metaphorically, in Champaign.”

McReaken and Ramirez officially took over the shop just last week, renaming the business Planted. They may be new to the biz, but they’re enthusiastic about bringing people together around plants.

The interior of a plant store. There are larger green plants in planters on the floor and on tables. Along the wall are light wooden shelves with rows of different styles of smaller planters. A few people are shopping. Photo by Lauren Quinn.

Photo by Lauren Quinn.

Smile Politely: Can you talk about who you’re catering to at Planted? 

Kristyn McReaken: We’ve talked about that we represent different customer bases. I think we probably have three: that true plant expert who’s looking for something really unique to add to their collection. Then I’m the kind who can’t say no to a pretty plant when I walk in, or I’m looking for the minimalist planters we carry that you can’t find at any other store. And then Riley is more on the plant newbie side.

Riley Ramirez: I love houseplants, but they were a little bit daunting at first, especially if you don’t have a green thumb. 

McReaken: We’ve had a lot of students that want a starter plant. They want maybe one plant at first, just to bring some green into their dorm spaces. I love that students are doing that today because I don’t feel like that was the case back when I was a student. It wasn’t cool to have plants.

SP: What do you recommend for people who are newer to plants or have specific care requirements? 

Ramirez: My go-to is the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). That was my first starter plant. And since then, he’s grown beautifully and continues to thrive. And so that’s my recommendation, just because they need love, but they’re relatively low maintenance compared to some of the other plants that we carry here.

McReaken: And the snakes of course. We’ve got some spider plants in right now, so we’re recommending those too. So those are kind of the main three, ’cause a lot of people don’t have great, bright light, especially in the dorm spaces. I get a lot of people wanting cacti and succulents, too, and I think those are great, but I just caution them don’t overwater. And make sure you have enough light.

A green and white leafed plant in a black, gold, and white round planter sits on a light wooden table. In the background are wooden shelves that hold multiple colors and shapes of planters. Photo by Lauren Quinn.

Photo by Lauren Quinn.

SP: Any changes to the space or items you’re carrying at Planted?

McReaken: I would say at this time, no. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We loved shopping here when it was Plantify. We love the look and feel of the store. We love the selection. We want to explore some different unique planty gifts. We’ve already got a selection, but different things like that, especially heading into the holiday season. But right now we’re just looking at what we’re doing right already, and then we’ll make changes from there.

Ramirez: I think our biggest change is being closed on Mondays.

McReaken: Yeah, we’re going to start being closed on Mondays. It’s a little slower that day and that gives us a day off. We’re going to for it.

SP: Where does your inventory come from? What’s it like to go plant shopping on that scale?

Ramirez: We actually work with three wholesale retailers out in the Chicago suburbs. We went for the first time together last week. It’s not the process I anticipated. I thought it was going to be more of a garden center type thing. But you walk in and it’s insane. I mean, tiny 4-inch pots, huge trees. We just kind of walked around and looked at what spoke to us and checked for pests, making sure we’re getting the best quality plants we can when we’re shopping. 

McReaken: Some of the wholesalers are indoors in warehouses. It’s crazy. You walk in and stuff is in boxes, there’s no natural light. They can do that because they’re turning inventory over so quickly, but not what we could have pictured.

Ramirez: When we receive the plants, we unbox everything and check for pests again, more thoroughly this time. Then we go through the whole labeling process, water anything that needs it, and then slowly bring them out onto the floor. 

McReaken: It’s a lot of work, but we are so grateful Long’s employees are all still with us.

SP: Tell me about your own collections.

McReaken: Most of mine are my husband’s grandma’s plants. We were visiting when she was nearing the end of her life, and she said I’m giving you some of these. And my husband’s rolling his eyes like we do not need more plants. And she just ripped them apart. She was ripping apart snakes, and a piece of her spider. I was like, ‘Oh, you can just do that?’ That was kind of my moment. I was like, ‘Oh, I can propagate. I can save this one. Let’s cut the top off because something’s going on with it.’ None of them are fancy, but they’re sentimental to me. The other really special one I have is just a pothos, but it was given to me in the hospital by my best friend when I had my first son. I love it and now I hand down babies from it to other friends.

Ramirez: I’ve also gotten a baby plant from Kristyn, third generation snake plant in my house. I love it, but my favorite is my fiddle leaf fig.

SP: What are your plans to engage with the local plant community?

McReaken: We have a lot of ideas. We’ve thought about doing an evening out, right? Come out and learn about plants for beginners and come away with your potted plant. Maybe bringing in wine or whatever, kind of a fun little ladies or couples night out. We close at six, so we can easily do something fun at night.

Ramirez: We’re excited to keep building on what Long (of Plantify) had already built. And I want to establish relationships with our customers, as well. It’s not just about you coming in and buying a plant. You know, let’s know each other’s names. Let’s chat during the checkout process. It’s important to build those relationships on more than a superficial level.

16 E. Washington St.
Tu-Sa 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Kristyn McReaken (left) and Riley Ramirez. Top photo by Lauren Quinn.

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