Chances are, you’ve spent some of the pandemic either caring for your houseplants or gazing longingly at the lush foliage filling your feed on Instagram. Interest in plants has skyrocketed in the last year with people stuck at home looking for ways to spruce up their homes.
Northeast Ohioan Raffaele Di Lallo has seen this trend firsthand while running Ohio Tropics, his plant care company where he teaches newbies and experts alike how to keep their plants alive on his blog, e-books, Youtube channel, and hugely popular Instagram account (where he has 160K followers!). He even does “plant doctor” house-calls (when there isn’t a pandemic).
The Buckeye Flame dished the dirt with Di Lallo about his plants and how houseplants can help you get through the last throes of a socially-distant winter.
How did you get started taking care of plants and how did that turn into Ohio Tropics?
I was born in the United States, but my family comes from Italy. As part of an Italian immigrant family, we do a lot of gardening. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been in the garden and growing things. Once I got into grade school, maybe early high school, I started growing a lot of houseplants because I had read somewhere that houseplants could clean your air and my dad smoked a lot. That’s when the obsession started with houseplants and I’ve never lost track of that.
As far as Ohio Tropics goes, it started about four years ago. One of my friends called me and she said, ‘You have all this gardening knowledge, I think you should start a blog.’ The very next day I actually started it. I called it Ohio Tropics because the initial focus of my blog was how to garden in cold weather regions with a tropical flair, because I like to grow bananas and hibiscus and elephant ears and very tropical plants. It’s not apparent that you’re in Ohio when you look at my garden. I pretty quickly switched over to houseplants because that’s my true path. Ever since then, it’s been almost exclusively houseplant care on my blog.
Can a green thumb be taught?
Absolutely. I mean, no one is born with a green thumb, right? The only thing is that you have to also have patience, which is hard for a lot of people, but it comes with trial and error, it comes with failing, it comes by reading, it comes from talking to other people, and just diving right into it. So absolutely it can be learned, but it takes a little bit of time and patience.
How many houseplants do you have?
My husband actually counted the other day. He counted 193 but he said he was gonna do a recount. It’s quite a bit, and he counted all the air plants as one, so that number is larger. But it’s constantly changing. I’m always propagating or getting things from my friends or combining things. It’s always dynamic.
What are your favorite types of houseplants?
I’ve always been intrigued by orchids. I have several different kinds. I really love Hoyas. They’re really easy to grow and there’s so many different kinds. I have one that I’ve had for probably 16 or 17 years in the same pot (they like to be pot-bound). There’s a lot of different varieties with different size foliage and different colors and they bloom. So I really like that plant genus.
Pink princess philodendron is an amazing one. I actually propagated some that I have under grow lights in my basement. That’s a gorgeous plant that a lot of people can’t find.
How can houseplants help LGBTQ+ folks cope during the pandemic?
Obviously the pandemic has not been easy and I’ve heard of and chatted with so many people that have started to grow plants during the pandemic because everybody’s home and it’s a perfect time to start growing house plants.
There’s something really to be said about taking care of a living thing, whether it’s a pet or a plant. I think the more time goes on, the more people get disconnected from nature. And I think that’s very damaging for us as humans. I mean, we’re not meant to be living far away from nature. We have indoor environments that are very artificial. We’re not meant to live that way. So by taking care of plants, it gives me a good sense of appreciation for nature.
And it relieves a lot of stress. It’s almost meditative to take care of your plants, to water your plants, to re-pot them, to observe them, to propagate them for friends and family. I think it’s a very healing hobby that everybody can have. And I think that really comes into play, especially now during the pandemic, when so many of us are struggling.