Interview the Gardener: Rye Slevin

Interview the Gardener: Rye Slevin

We're incredibly fortunate to have an awesome team of plant-loving people here at Cornell Farm, and we want you to have the chance to know them like we do. That's why, every so often, we sit down for a one-on-one conversation with one of our team members that we post to our blog. In today's "Interview the Gardener" segment, we're excited to share our recent conversation with Rye Slevin, who joined our Houseplants team around this time last year. Rye is a self-described philodendron lover, and we recently had the opportunity to sit down with them to pick their brain about the houseplant hobby and all that's going on with their plants at home. Check out what they had to say in the interview below.

You work with in our Houseplant Greenhouse, and people likely recognize you from our workshops and videos, but we don't know about your gardening situation at home! Is it safe to assume that you mostly grow houseplants? What’s your setup like?

Yeah, I mostly grow houseplants! Sometimes I grow a few herbs and stuff in the kitchen, but I'm mostly an indoor gardener because I don't have a ton of outside space right now. I definitely describe my plant situation at home as chaotic and eclectic — there's a lot less rhyme or reason than people might expect. There's plants all over the place!

A lot of people can probably identify with that sentiment! Is it safe to assume that you live in an apartment, then? Are you growing plants up against your windows or have you expanded your territory with grow lights?

I'm lucky to have two south facing windows in my apartment, so most of my plants are on racks up against the windows, but I do a little bit of both! I've got grow lights scattered all over the apartment, so everything is kind of spread around. I've got plants on top of shelves — really anywhere I can keep a plant alive, you will find something there.

We were speaking a little bit before our conversation today, and you mentioned that some of your plants might move outside for the summer. Are they coming in now? Have they already come in?

I find that my cactus and palms and stuff like that love to be outside during the summer — and lots of things that bloom, too. So usually in late May or early June, I start acclimating those plants to go outside. It's about a week-long process of putting them out for a few hours, then bringing them back inside until they've hardened off a bit. You do have to be really diligent about checking for pests during that transition. And you also have to water a lot more when they're outside and keep an eye on everything to make sure that nothing is getting too much direct sun, but the light, heat, and humidity can really help some plants.

At this point, I've brought most of my plants back inside for the season, but I have one lone survivor outside who will be out until closer to the frost — my yucca cane — because he can take it. I find that it really helps some plants, especially if I'm trying to get my cactus to bloom or really put on a lot of height and growth.

So now that you have that task behind you, is there anything happening in your collection that you're particularly excited about right now or that you're looking forward to?

Moving into the wintertime, I'm really excited to expand my prop boxes. I have some clear Tupperware totes that are just lined with moist sphagnum moss and a bunch of my cuttings to root out. Now that we're moving out of the growing season, most of my large plants are slowing down on producing leaves, so I'm really excited to focus more on propagation. I have a marbled Epipremnum that just put out a new leaf, which is really exciting. And all of my water propagation tubes are full, so everything's getting potted up. And as I switch all of those over to soil, I get to fill those tubes back up with new babies to share with friends.

It's funny. I feel like you usually see these really long, giant pothos plants, and then people come into my house and I have this one strand on mine. I've had it for like six years, but I never let it grow very long because I always want to cut it and give it to people. It's my friendship plant.

It's so cool how plants can bring people together like that! Is that what got you into the hobby? Or how did you start with houseplants? How long have you been into them?

Oh goodness, I guess I'm coming up on seven or eight years from when I first started really getting into the hobby. I've kind of had plants around me all my life, but I think the first time I really started to get into them was my sophomore year of high school. My family was hosting an exchange student, and she bought me some little cacti for Christmas. I absolutely refused to let them die, so I started taking horticulture classes, and from there it's just expanded over the years.

I also made a friend my senior year who was also really into house plants who introduced me to the aroid world, and that really opened my eyes to plants outside of succulents. It was so cool to see some of the larger specimens in stores, and I really wanted be able to grow them. So, I have!

Very cool! So that actually dovetails really nicely into the next question: What do you find most rewarding about growing plants or are working with them?

I enjoy so much about it, but I think a lot of times just seeing people realize that they can, in fact, grow plants and that their plants actually want to live is really rewarding.

As a huge history nerd, I also absolutely love delving into the history of plants and everything. But from a practical aspect, having plants that get taller than you or basically turning your house into a jungle is so fun. You turn around and then — bam — your monstera is touching the ceiling. I've had mine at home for maybe four or five years, and I refuse to cut her down, even though I probably should. I just love to her grow so huge!

You mentioned that you're interested in the history of plants. Are there any particularly cool stories you've enjoyed learning about?

I think the way that we've sort of taken specific plants and decided that they are going to be houseplants is just really interesting in general. There's no particular reason that the tropical plants we have are the ones that we've picked to grow indoors. It's sort of an accident of history, you know? It's just fascinating to watch people build this relationship with nature in a lot more intimate of a way, and watch how long it's been this societal focus, and kind of shift around between different demographics. In the late 1800s, you had Pteridomania — this obsession with ferns — and orchid delirium that swept through Western Europe, particularly among women. And keeping houseplants came to be viewed as a very feminine hobby, which directly juxtaposes farming as this very masculine thing. And that gives way to this image of a mom growing houseplants in the 1970s, and now it's shifted to young people across all sorts of demographics. It's really awesome to just kind of watch that ebb and flow and watch which houseplants are popular with different people at different times.

Speaking of, have you been bitten by the collector bug? Is there a specific group of plants that you're really into?

Not particularly, I find myself fascinated by all kinds of plants. But I do think that the crosses between a bunch of different aroids — so your philodendrons and anthuriums and such — are really cool. I like seeing the hybrids people create.

Do you have a favorite aroid, then, or another plant?

I feel like that changes depending on the day, but a stable top pick of mine has always been Monstera adansonii. I absolutely adore them and I think they are just so gorgeous and versatile. I also really like variegated peace lilies, but I can't own one because they are really toxic to cats, so if anybody wants to keep one on my behalf, please do!

It's hard to pick a favorite. And in general, I try to keep an open mind with plants. If somebody gives me a good reason to like a plant, I will usually end up liking it. Even though I started with succulents, I had kind of cooled on them because they were so popular and everything. But a coworker here helped me see a new perspective, and since then, I've come to really appreciate them again.

There are some things that get a bad rap for being common, but there's something to be said for a plant that's hard to kill!

Exactly! I'm not a huge fan of ZZ plants, but I helped somebody repot their six or seven-year-old ZZ the other day. It was almost as tall as I am, and it got me thinking: Wow, you know, maybe I just haven't liked the juvenile form.

Also, I think every plant collector needs to have some plants that do well regardless of the situation. It's a good confidence boost! And they're something that, even if you forget to water your plants, at least a few of them still look good.

That's awesome! In that vein, is there any amazing plant advice you've been given that you would like pass along — anything you wish you had known when you were just starting out?

Yeah! I actually have two. So, number one is: If you think your plant might not need water, it probably doesn't. Overwatering is the number one killer of plants, and it's way easier for something to bounce back from drying out a little bit than from root rot, so err on the side of underwatering as you're figuring things out.

And with that, my second piece of advice is to know where your plant is from! Before bringing a plant home, research it like you would a dog breed, you know? You wouldn't bring home a husky without knowing anything about them and expect everything to be fine, so why do that with a plant? Really examining the environment that a plant comes from is going to drastically improve your ability to care for it, because you can do your best to mimic that environment.

So if you have a ZZ plant that comes from high desert regions of eastern Africa, you're obviously not going to want to water it a ton, and it's going to need to be in bright light, but it's also going to have a lot more cold tolerance because of the way nighttime temperatures drop in the desert. And that's very different from an air plant that grows as an epiphyte in its native tropical range. If it lives in the tip-top of tropical trees, that should clue you in a bit as you think of the mist that moves through the rainforest in the morning, the sporadic downpours that it gets, and the fact that it's going to want a lot of light.

Those are both great pieces of advice! Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

To anybody reading this that thinks they don't have a green thumb, that simply isn't true! All the information you need to keep your plants alive is absolutely out there, and I have complete faith in your ability to succeed. Even if you've killed a thousand plants before, you might just not have found the right one for you. So keep trying. You've got this!

What a lovely note to end on! Thank you so much, Rye.

Thank you! Go plants!