This is the latest in a series we call Plant PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have any suggestions for PPL to include in our series, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.
Chantal Aida Gordon never imagined she’d be a plant person.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astrophysicist,” says Gordon, 38, co-founder of the Horticult and co-author of “How to Window Box: Small-Space Plants to Grow Indoors or Out.” Sadly, physics classes got the best of her and she decided to become a writer.
After studying journalism and psychology at New York University, the Maryland native worked as an editorial assistant at Vogue before settling in a rundown rental in La Jolla. “I thought I’d missed my chance to be a scientist,” she says.
Here at L.A. Times Plants, we love “plantfluencers” — people whose Instagram feeds and stories are abundantly verdant. We’ve launched a new series, PLANT PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world, such as the voice behind @LatinxWithPlants, Andi Xoch of Boyle Heights.
During a trip to New York in 2006, however, she realized she could still “think like a scientist” when she was “bit by the gardening bug” while doing research for a coming-of-age novel.
“I volunteered at a community garden in East Harlem, and it made me want to be more involved with plants,” she says.
Her newfound obsession with plants would ultimately inspire the Horticult, the gardening and lifestyle site she co-founded with Ryan Benoit at the urging of their friends, years before millennials became obsessed with plants.
“We did it for fun, but when we sent out our launch email in 2013, we were surprised and excited to learn that our friends were secret plant lovers,” she says. “So many people in our generation were curious about plants and loved them and wanted more plants in their lives. They just needed some recommendations and guidance.”
Inexperienced and fueled by what they didn’t know, the couple chronicled the transformation of their 1,800-square-foot La Jolla backyard along with deep dives into plant species and garden tours with a distinctly Southern California point of view.
While blogging and working at an advertising agency, Gordon educated herself through hands-on experience, research — Jane Perrone’s “On the Ledge” podcast is a favorite — and interviews with plant experts, bringing her readers along with her as she discovered the plant world.
Coming from a fashion background, Gordon says she was surprised by the positive response to their “dirt, design and culture” blog.
“In the fashion world, exclusivity is a positive,” she says. “But the plant community is more like, ‘Everyone is welcome here!’”
Two years after building the Horticult brand, the couple realized they wanted fundamentally different things in life and would be better off as friends. Just as they were getting ready to write a book together, they divorced and Gordon moved to a small apartment in Los Angeles.
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“Starting my own garden was emotionally chaotic,” she says. “I killed a lot of plants on my northwest-facing balcony, but having my own place was therapeutic.”
Here in Los Angeles, we’re lucky to find sky-high camellias growing alongside figs and roses and lemons, and that’s exactly what she encountered when she moved to an Atwater Village triplex in 2017.
She transformed the garden outside her apartment, bracketing a tiny patio, and in the process gained self-confidence in who she is as a plant person.
“It was thrilling to really figure out who I am as a gardener on my own,” she says. “It was exciting and full of surprises with some self-doubt mixed in. I realized my style is a little more romantic and relaxed and a little more thrown together, whereas La Jolla was sleek and organized with a lot of layers of plants.”
During the pandemic, the 600-square-foot apartment she shares with her boyfriend and their two dogs became “too familiar,” and the patio garden became her refuge. “I became aware of how therapeutic plants are,” she says. “Plants take you out of your head. Having even a modest outdoor space was like a pressure valve.”
Today, potted plants by the dozens line the walls and shelves of the patio. As she points out an unusual begonia suspended from a podocarpus tree and a rare carnivorous dewy pine plant (Drosophyllum lusitanicum) filled with mosquitoes or she ruminates on exotic bat flowers and coveted ‘Thai Constellation’ monsteras, it’s an inspiration to home gardeners everywhere that Gordon says she once knew nothing about plants.
Like the plants that line her patio, she has blossomed into a veteran gardener and weathered difficult life changes, including divorce and the COVID-19 pandemic. She has become the scientist she dreamed of becoming as a child. “This is my second chance,” she says with a smile.
And although she does not blog as much as she once did — she and Benoit continue to work together on the Horticult but spend more time on Instagram these days — she is working on a plant-related project she can’t yet share while working as a copywriter at a tech company.
In a recent Q&A, Gordon discussed what it’s like to start over in a new garden, shared some of her favorite drought-tolerant plants for Los Angeles and explained why she identifies with epiphyllums.
A big part of your identity must have been defined by the La Jolla garden. Was it hard for you to start over?
The La Jolla yard was a significant part of my history. But I wanted to come back to Los Angeles because I had lived here and missed my close friends and the diversity and culture here. Even though I have to have a smaller yard here, it’s still worth it to live in a neighborhood that reflects who I am.
What’s the status of the Horticult today?
While we have slowed down as far as blogging goes, we have a huge wealth of evergreen content on the site from how to make cocktails with herbs to how to create an outdoor movie theater. Ryan is working on his Skypots vertical gardening solution and, even though we are divorced, we are friends and business partners.
Obviously, there’s a lot of plant content out there, but I, and we at the Horticult want to keep holding fast to the science. So no TikTok hacks about drenching your plants in hydrogen peroxide. Instead, you’ll get a little myth-busting from us and some hopefully riveting deep dives into species which might be an introduction to your next favorite plant. The big thing I want is this: for people to discover the plants they’re most simpatico with. It might not be a trendy plant — but who cares as long as it’s hydrated, thriving in your care and meanwhile you love that little weirdo right back?
On the design side of things, we also want to show how you can create a habitat for your plant that’s attractive to you but is also what your plant needs. After all, when you’re drawn to the place where your plants are, you’re going to be more inclined to take care of them. A lot of the joy in gardening comes from putting your personality into your space.
As a writer, do you have any favorite garden scribes?
I have been learning a lot about the history of Black people cultivating plants from my friend Abra Lee, who has the most incredible Instagram account called Conquer the Soil. She’s a horticulturist and writer, and her Instagram is full of incredible stories about the lives of Black plantsmen and plantswomen going back centuries. I get my life every time she posts about the Black horticulturists, gardeners, farmers and florists that history has tried to erase.
I think Jamaica Kincaid’s book “My Garden” was underrated, so I love that more people are paying attention to her right now.
Is it gratifying to see underrepresented people recognized more?
I wouldn’t say gratifying — more overdue. Long overdue. It shouldn’t take Black people being murdered by the cops for this recognition to happen. Recognition is important, but it needs to come with reparations. That sense of equity and reparations should have been happening for centuries. It’s important that it’s happening now. I hope it keeps going.
It depends on the time of year but overall my favorite is my epiphyllums, a type of jungle cactus. It is an amazing contradiction in terms in that it creates huge flowers that bloom at night. Having parents from Trinidad, I relate and identify with a tropical plant that is also a cactus because I feel like I am a tropical person who is living in the West. My one plant tattoo is a cousin of epiphyllums: Disocactus phyllanthoides. I love how sculptural these plants are and how vigorously they grow without a ton of water. I have the flower tattooed on my inner forearm.
Given the severity of the drought in California, can you recommend some good drought-tolerant plants for Los Angeles?
— Opuntia santarita (watch out for those nearly invisible but sharp-as-hell glochids).
— Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ (a succulent that looks like a black rose except that the real flowers are a shocking cone of tiny yellow flowers that bloom in late winter).
— Aeonium ‘Sunburst,’ an irresistible variegated succulent.
— African milk bush (Euphorbia grantii), an underrated euphorbia tree with purple and green foliage; it grows fast, and its splotch game is on point. You can’t totally neglect it though; it does get thirsty.
— And then those hanging-basket lovelies like string-of-pearls, burro’s tail, string-of-dolphins and Crassula perforata.
— I love all the kalanchoes I see in my neighborhood, with their pink bell-shaped blooms, like Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi.
— Of course our native salvias like hummingbird sage, whose name checks out because the hummingbirds love it!
— As far as tabletop curiosities go, I love Euphorbia obesa and Astrophytums.
I’ve been trying to get more into “dry shade” plants and have heard good things about miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), which is an edible ground cover that’s also really cool-looking.
My fiddle-leaf fig was dying a painful death. Until I learned how to process my grief.
Tell us about your new garden.
When I found this place, I walked in and fell in love with the outside space, even though it is halfway between a patio and a yard. The camellias were starting to flower and there were four two-story-tall camellia trees with fluffy amazing flowers that take us through fall and winter. I have a tall Meyer lemon tree — it’s so great in our hot toddies in the winter — and they smell out of this world. We have black mission figs coming in and I want to buy a ‘Panache’ tiger striped fig. There’s a huge podocarpus that gives us a lot of shade. Underneath it, I brought in my favorites, my epiphyllums, hoyas, dragonfruit, a lot of tillandsias, an African milk bush that I got from a neighbor. Atwater is so inspiring for people who love plants because people do interesting things with their yards. Three years ago I got permission to paint the cement block retaining wall that surrounds the patio. After a lot of trips to Jill’s Paint, I finally landed on a light shade of aqua that reminds me of the Caribbean. It makes me so happy to see the light aqua flashing through the plants. It’s like being in a pool.
What is the most common plant question people ask you?
“What plant should I get?” I ask them in return: “What direction does your window face?” “How much light do you have?” You need to become an expert on how the sunlight enters your space before you start thinking about plants. That’s why I am obsessed with the compass app that comes with my iPhone. One of the hardest things for people is to find something they love that works with what they have going on at home. It can be hard to give up your tropical plant dreams, but people need to understand where their plants come from. If it grows in the nooks of trees and likes a little bit of circulation, then you’re not going to put it in a glass orb. When you see how monsteras and philodendrons grow in the wild, you can see how they love to be supported.
Are you an indoor or outdoor plant person?
Definitely outdoors. I have seven plants in the house. I tried bringing a bird of paradise into the living room, and a few months later it was covered in scale. I took it outside to rehab and it never came back inside. It was happier outside.