Talking Plants with Justin Hancock of Costa Farms

As House Plant Hobbyists we know what it’s like to shop for plants, swap plants, and work in our own gardens, but we were interested in hearing more about what it’s like to work with plants as a career. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Justin Hancock of Costa Farms, one of the largest growers in the world, and ask him all of our questions.

We found out that he’s has had houseplants for as long as he can remember, and has always known that he wanted to work with plants – although he doesn’t remember what his first plant was. His best guess is “probably something super easy and sharable like a pothos (Epipremnum) or spider plant (Chlorophytum).”

While he’s currently based in Miami, Florida with Costa – that’s USDA Zone 10b – he grew up in Zone 3 and spent ten years in Zone 5 as a garden editor at the Better Homes and Gardens magazine and website. It’s safe to say Justin has a wealth of experience to share, so read on if you want to know why your Exotic Angels plant was tagged as “beautiful home décor” or why it’s tough to find a Philodendron “Pink Princess.”

Since you work with plants professionally, could you tell us a little bit more about your experiences?

Because I’ve always known this is what I’ve wanted to do, every job I’ve had has been in the horticultural industry. In high school, I worked at a couple of local garden centers and a florist shop. In college, I had internships with a publisher in Minneapolis doing a gardening book and a botanical garden in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I found I loved the intersection of publishing and horticulture, so after college, I worked at a gardening magazine (Gardening How-To), then Better Homes and Gardens. Now I’m at Costa Farms, where I oversee the company website, social media, and consumer research projects.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned going from magazines to a wholesale grower is a sense of scale. It’s becoming second nature to me now, but when I first came to Costa Farms in 2013, it blew me away that having 10,000 plants of one variety is just getting a start - and that kind of quantity is too small to start shipping in a way that most home gardeners will be able to get the plant.

Can you explain a little more about the supply and demand for certain plants? It seems that in certain regions, big box stores will have so many of one type of plant, yet people from other regions won’t be able to find them at all!

Most big-box retailers use regional growers, instead of having one houseplant vendor for the entire country. But not all growers do all the same crops. And that’s where things get inconsistent. If Costa Farms grows a lot of certain varieties that our competitors don’t, for example, you’ll find a lot of these plants in regions we’re allowed to ship to—and you won’t find these plants at all in regions we don’t. The reverse happens—plants our competitors grow that will don’t will be available in their regions, but not ours. Happily, with more online retailers looking at selling plants, it’s making it easier to find varieties, even if a grower in your area doesn’t sell them.

I think people sometimes think of houseplants like a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but different growers have reasons for growing what they do and don’t. We get a lot of requests for Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’, for example, but it failed our R&D testing process. But it may fit within other growers’ standards.

Could you elaborate for us about the Pink Princess? It’s such a sought-after plant, how did it fail the testing process?

Both Philodendron Pink Princess and Tradescantia fluminensis Tricolor are plants we've tested because we know there's a lot of consumer appeal. And sadly, both failed our testing process. I'm not sure if this is too much detail for the group, but we've found they have too high a reversion rate – if we propagate 10,000 and only 8,000 keep their variegation, the sad truth is that we can't afford to grow them.

Can we buy Costa Farms plants directly from the company?

Unfortunately, not at the current time; we're wholesale only. However, we list some of our biggest retail partners here, including online retailers.

Who else in the hobby do you draw inspiration from? Any plant celebrities we should know about?

I greatly admire Costa Farms Plant Hunter Mike Rimland for getting to see and test all kinds of cool new things—including varieties not yet introduced to North American horticulture!

What tips or advice would you give to someone who is brand new to house plants?

If you’re just starting out, get a firm gauge on your home/office conditions before jumping in and buying a plant. If you don’t have the right conditions for it, just about any plant will be finicky and tough to grow. And if you have the right conditions for it, a plant will be a lot easier to grow and thrive. Start out with success by being realistic about what your growing conditions are and picking plants that match. After you have some good experience, then start pushing the envelope. And when you do push the envelope, don’t be discouraged if you fail.

I’ve killed more plants in my life than I should admit.

What is one thing that took you the longest to learn?

That I can’t be successful through sheer force of will. There are some plants that, no matter how badly I want them and how many times I try to grow them, I just won’t be successful with because I don’t provide the right conditions for them. 

What plant is your specialty, or holds a special place in your heart?

My biggest plant infatuation is Passiflora. I have more than 60 varieties growing in my yard right now and I’m on the hunt for any I don’t have. (If anyone has a good local source of cool Passiflora varieties that might ship me cuttings, let me know!) I love how many shapes, sizes, and colors they come in. Plus, from a science standpoint, there are so many incredible lessons in adaptability, from developing multiple cyanide compounds to try to defend themselves from caterpillars (which have learned to metabolize those compounds, causing the Passiflora to make other cyanide compounds), to false egg spots in their variegation that make butterflies think another butterfly has already laid eggs there, etc. They’re just such cool, amazing plants.

I’m also partial to variegated Ficus elastica, Aglaonema varieties, and I’m getting into some of the odd stuff in our Exotic Angel® Plants collection.

What tool or equipment is indispensable?

Outdoors, I have an old steak knife that’s my absolute go-to garden tool that I use for just about everything—pruning, weeding, attacking slugs, etc. Indoors, I don’t really have tools other than a watering can (which in my case is an old pitcher; nothing special). 

Why would you recommend this hobby to the general public?

There are far more reasons to grow houseplants than to not! There’s a wealth of scientific evidence that shows having houseplants can help reduce stress, improve indoor air quality, improve our memory and cognitive ability, reduce instances of headaches/sore throats, boost self-esteem, and other benefits. Plus, they’re attractive home décor, and when you think about it, they’re really inexpensive compared to a lot of other hobbies.

What is one place or exhibit any plant lover must make a point to see?

From an outdoor standpoint, it’s The High Line in New York City. It’s a well-planted and really innovative way to apply horticulture—not the kind of thing you expect to see in North America.

Where do you see the hobby moving in the future?

I’ve seen an interesting shift in houseplants over the last few years thanks largely, I believe, to Instagram. The social media platform has made it so easy to show off our plants! Where houseplants move in the future depends a lot on the next generation getting into plants now. If they stay engaged with plants, I think we’ll continue to see more new and interesting varieties coming available faster – I know some of the big growers are racing to be the first to bring some really cool new plants to the market. If folks don’t continue to engage, and houseplant love becomes a fad, I suspect we’ll see the hobby become a lot more niche again. I fear fewer big retailers will have a wide array of plants. Happily, we’re seeing more and more vendors feel comfortable selling plants online. Online shopping should be easier for cool plants a couple of years from now than it is now.

You must answer this question a lot, but we’ve got to ask about those Exotic Angel tags – why do so many just say “beautiful home décor” or “houseplant”?

The tags says “Beautiful Home Décor” because we’re trying to help the Exotic Angel® Plants brand appeal as much to non-plant buyers as they do houseplant enthusiasts. We think it’s important to grow the industry—if not, we’re going to see a decline in big retailers offering houseplants and take that space in their stores for items that don’t die, require maintenance, and have higher profit margins for them.

The reason we have generic tags is that there are a number of plants in our Exotic Angel® Plants collection that we’re not able to grow in large enough quantities to meet the minimum-order requirement from the tag manufacturer. So we’re unable to get variety-specific tags for these. But our retailers require we ship with tags—and thus, we ended up with these generic tags rather than stopping growing these plants (or stopping testing new varieties like ‘Cebu Blue’ pothos).

We also run into a few situations where a crop of plants will come ready early and/or a tag shipment is delayed at customs. Again, in this case, we don’t physically have variety-specific plant tags in hand to ship out. Because we can’t hold the plants (they’ll be overgrown and fail to meet the retailers’ quality requirements for fresh plants), we ship them with generic tags instead of trashing them.

Unfortunately, having generic tags on hand also means there’s the opportunity for human error—and sometimes one of our team members may grab the wrong tag. We don’t like to make mistakes and don’t want to make excuses, but when we’re shipping millions of plants each year, there are bound to be some instances of human error.

Are there any cool new plants we should be looking out for in the near future?

Costa Farms has negotiated exclusive North American rights to propagate Zamioculcas ‘Raven’—and that’s a new variety generating a lot of excitement with home gardeners. We also have a number of really beautiful and exciting new varieties of other genera that should be hitting stores in 2019/2020. There are a whole lot of other super-cool things in R&D, but I’m not allowed to talk about them yet.

 

Big thanks to Justin for taking the time to talk with us, and thank you to HPH member Steve Wilson for collaborating with us on this project! If you want to learn more about Costa Farms and Exotic Angel plants, you can head over to their web site, give them a shout @CostaFarms on Twitter, or sign up for their email newsletter! Justin also shows off his Passiflora on Instagram @justinwhancock, and if you hang around the House Plant Hobbyist Facebook group you may find Justin answering your Costa questions there from time to time.