Robert Jeffery is passionate about all aspects of plants and plant care, but especially nurturing their root systems—a fitting metaphor for his upcoming work with Breaking Ground, a nonprofit which provides affordable housing and support services for vulnerable New Yorkers. Planter Rob, as he’s known by his many friends, followers, and fellow plant community, has teamed up with Breaking Ground’s newest Brooklyn residence, Edwin’s Place. The goal of this collaboration is to use plants to support local residents recovering from housing insecurity: Specifically, he hopes that plants will help establish relationships between these residents and that his initiative will help grow a community of plant-loving people who advocate for affordable housing.
Here, we speak with the Williamsburg-based plantrepreneur about his background, diversity and representation in the plant community, and the role of plant parents in advocating for the homeless.
When did you first become interested in plants and nature, and can you trace your interest to any specific plants or experiences?
I remember, when I was a child, my mother had a living room full of plants that we could just not touch. And at the time—I’m a curious Aquarius—she told us not to go in the living room, so of course, I went into the living room to get my hands in it! That kind of sparked my interest. But, I never had the opportunity to have my own space for my own plants, until high school—when I moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Michigan. I moved closer to my great grandmother, who had a garden in her yard. At the time I was of age to actually help care for a garden, and that’s where my nurturing for plants came from. She had cucumbers, tomatoes, shishito peppers, carrots, onions, collard greens.
I got my first plant in college as a freshman. It was the pothos that everyone goes to as the first plant! I was known from that day forward as the plant guy in my dorm room because I would take clippings of my plant and disperse it with my bros on my floor. Now, here I am in my apartment studio in New York City and I have tons of plants!
Which aspects of plant care would you say are the most interesting and exciting to you?
My favorite part of caring for a plant is actually doing repotting. I enjoy being able to see what’s happening (pantomimes digging around a planter). Again, I’m curious, I’m an Aquarius, and I want to see what’s happening underneath the soil inside the pot. So I love when it’s time to repot and I get to take the plant out and look at the roots and see how healthy they are. Then I get to find the perfect mixture and the pot to place it back in.
I also enjoy talking to people that have a purpose for their plants, because for me, it’s never just about the plants, either. I love when I cross like-minded people that don’t just want plants; they want to accomplish something with the plants. Talking to individuals that have a purpose for the plants, if that makes sense.
Do you remember when fighting racial inequity first became important to you, or experiences that inspired this aspect of your career? When did you see the link with plant care?
So I’ve always been an individual—I guess just being born in Birmingham, Alabama, and having the civil-rights movement take place down there, and kind of not being able to not understand what’s happening or not know that racial inequality is taking place. For example, I remember my parents sitting me and my siblings down as children and telling us at the time, in their words, that we were moving to Michigan to have better opportunities. At the time, I saw that as a vacation, like we were going away for a bit and were going to enjoy it. But as I matured and got older and can look back at that, what my parents were really saying is that, we’re moving you out of this low-income Black neighborhood where you have no opportunities, so you can have a better life for us. And they moved us into a predominantly white neighborhood. My father was able to obtain a better-paying job, and me being an Aquarius, I joined every single after-school program I possibly could.
It was a life-changing move for me because I did have the opportunities that were going to keep me off of the streets, that were going to keep me away from drugs, keep me away from gangs, and that was what my parents wanted to accomplish. But at the time I don’t think they had the vocabulary to say that, or maybe that was just too harsh to tell a child that we’re moving so you can have better opportunities because they’re not here.
As I started sharing my passion for plants online, I noticed that there were racial inequalities there as well. The marketing for plant companies didn’t include people that looked like me, or people that looked like my mother, or my sister, or like any of the people that I know would enjoy plants.
Tell us about what led up to your shop, or anything more you wanted to share on the mission and the plants and workshops you offer.
I started doing different markets and different pop-ups, and one of my favorite markets that I did was the Brooklyn Museum pop-up market that is literally a market on the street right in front of the Brooklyn Museum. There’s all different types of vendors, but I was the first plant vendor they had, and I like to say that because it means I’m doing something different. My tagline “Let’s chat plants and racism” was displayed and I don’t care who you were, how old you were, what type of person you were, if you saw that sign, it sparked your interest. It made people want to go, “Hm—what do you mean by that?” “Let’s chat plants and racism” can be triggering, right? I would get individuals that would see it and they would say, “OK, so what’s the racism part?” And then we would chat about inequalities or something that’s happening in the world right now. At that time it was focused a lot on George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other things that were taking place, and so people were really engaged with the racism aspect of it. I have to take on the bad, the good, or whatever comes with that to move the conversation forward which is my ideal goal.That wakes me up, that gets me going—I’m not following the path of any other people. I’m actually paving my own way. And so with that, my tagline is, “Let’s chat plants and racism.”
When I did the Brooklyn Museum markets, I met tons of people, including Linden, the shop owner of Crown Heights Café. Linden loved my business—he loved our conversation we had at the market, he loved my plant set-up, and he wanted to start selling plants out of his café. We linked up, and I did a six-month pop-up partnership with him, and that went really well. I met lots of clients. I’m actually going to be moving the shop to—I have another client that wants to do a pop-up with me at the Columbus Circle station in the city, so I will be selling plants out of there hopefully starting in February. Her name is Marie Jean-Baptiste, she’s a florist at Columbus Circle, and she reached out to me to help her start selling plants. So I’m looking forward to that partnership next month, as well.
Tell us about your work with Breaking Ground’s Edwin’s Place: what you hope to accomplish with this collaboration and how it started. How do you see plants as being beneficial to people in between homes, or facing housing insecurity?
Recently, since my business is plants, I try to think—how can I use my business to benefit others? And last summer I went to L.A., and I went to San Diego, I’ve been to D.C., I’ve been to Chicago. These places, these major cities, all have areas that are known as “Tent City.” They have areas where there are a huge number of individuals experiencing housing insecurities, just living together, and it’s kind of normalized. It’s kind of like, “This is their spot, avoid that area, don’t go to that area,” and it’s almost in every major city. And for me, that just can’t be acceptable.
I came across Edwin’s Place because here in Williamsburg, I’ve noticed a few vehicles they actually use to pick up those that are experiencing homelessness and get them inside. I did more research going through their website and I was also able to find out about them through Open New York, which is a housing advocacy group that is really doing the work, sharing different politicians, sharing different policies, getting people to actively get involved in local elections. That’s something that I want to be a part of, and I reached out to Breaking Ground [the nonprofit development group that owns Edwin’s Place] as a proposal. As someone that has experienced homelessness myself—I remember when I first finished college, I had no plan. I was the first-generation college student. There was no money or job lined up for me after school. I experienced having to sleep on different friends’ couches and having to make ends meet by—I would donate plasma twice a week to kind of make ends meet, to be able to pay rent and for food.
I feel like for me, my plant journey took off when I had my own space to bring in plants and to care for, and that was really therapeutic for me. I want to be able to give those residents at Edwin’s Place that same feeling. I want them to be able to feel empowered by the plants; I want them to be able to feel that they’ve accomplished something amazing. And I want them to feel like they are a part of a community that sees them and hears them, instead of feeling like they are just being thrown out to the side. The plant community in itself is so nurturing, so caring;—nine times out of ten, if you’re a plant person, you are just a great human being. I want the residents at Edwin’s Place to feel that and be embraced by that. And I’m really grateful that we have the resources to do that.
For me, this looks successful if I have a community of houseplant advocates also advocating for affordable housing. Affordable housing is not a one-time thing; it’s not like we can just—you can’t cure it, you know what I mean? It’s a process; it’s systemic, and that is also why I want to be sure that this is a program that can continue to grow. For example, Edwin’s Place is one place of many places that Breaking Ground holds permanent residents, and I want to be sure that even if you are not in New York City, or even if you are not in the tri-state area, you feel like you are part of a community that is advocating for affordable housing. We all can do our part to advocate for affordable housing.
Long-term, five years from now, I would love to have a welcome-plants program that advocates for affordable housing and is able to gift those who were experiencing homelessness indoor plants. But with that—that means we have to advocate for affordable housing so that the government is actually building [it], so that we can actually get people inside the affordable housing, so that we can actually reward them with the feeling of being in the plant community. So the first step on the largest scale is to advocate for affordable housing in your local elections, get involved on your street, wherever you are, wherever you live—get involved.
Photos courtesy of Robert Jeffery.