With the holidays coming up, allow me to share what I consider to be one of the best holiday gifts you can give someone: a house plant! If the last few years have taught us anything, is that the small additions to a home can make a big impact on your quality of life. A little succulent on your desk or a pothos hanging from you window can go a long way helping uplift the vibe and ambiance of your home. And that’s not just me spewing old wives’ tales – there’s actual science to back this up!
As a big advocate of supporting local businesses, one of my go-to places for the last year has been this cute plant store in Jefferson Park called Sunnyside Plants. That’s why when I had the chance to have a little interview with owner Ann Vo – I jumped at the opportunity! Sitting down with this amazing owner, I had the chance to discuss her company’s start and connection to Jefferson Park, why every home should have house plants, and some recommendations for those who can’t seem to keep a plant alive for longer than a couple weeks!
Steven: So how did Sunnyside come to be exactly?
Ann: This essentially happened by accident. I left a corporate job in April 2019, a few years before that I dove into the houseplant hobby. By the start of 2020, I had amassed over 250 houseplants. And then COVID hit. Marie Kondo was a big thing on Netflix I started purging my house. Wondering, do I really need four bookbags? Probably not, so I started posting on Facebook marketplace.
Two-hundred and fifty plants take up a lot of space. I still wanted all of the varieties I had, but maybe I don’t need eight-inch pots. I’m still gonna be happy if I had three pots. I started splitting up my plants and posting them on the Facebook marketplace. Out of the 30 various items that I have listed, my plants always sold first. I was like, “Oh, that was easy and fun!” I thought that was going to be listed for like a week, but it’s gone in three hours. So I found more things to split and was still purchasing plants. I’m completely addicted to plants – I was traveling an hour, hour and a half to go to different nurseries.
Plants were a hobby that kept growing and before I knew it three or four Facebook posts on marketplace became 12 became 15. on one Saturday I realized I can’t go anywhere because I have 12 people meeting at the house where I was doing porch pickups. That turned into yard sales and people started asking how often I was going to be doing it. There were people six feet apart outside of my block, socially distancing, to buy plants off my front porch, a. One rule was one household on the porch at a time wasn’t very efficient. So I started looking for a spot that I could rent out.
I found an empty space and rented it out. I posted on a Wednesday for Saturday and I said, “Hey guys, instead of doing the weekend porch pop up on Saturday we’re going to do it somewhere else.” Then on Saturday I had 300 people come through.
A few pop-ups later, and late in the summer, I decided I wanted to continue through the winter since ‘this covid thing’ is not going away.
Steven: Holy moly! That’s certainly a good premiere. How did you end up in Jefferson Park?
Ann: I’ve been in Jefferson Park for about 17 years. It’s safe, it’s close to these expressways and it’s quiet. So, since I was always complaining that there’s nothing to do here, I decided I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is. If I want to start a brick and mortar, I’ve got to invest in my neighborhood. I want this area to do more so I never even considered anywhere else.
Steven: Would you say you developed a green thumb later in life? How exactly did that start?
Ann: My parents always had plants around. I’m a child of refugee parents so growing up they were always growing herbs and veggies. Partially because availability, the things that they knew back in the old country was not available here. They were always gardening, then got into ornamentals a little. My very first apartment, I remember getting the beds, the couches, and all the furniture and still feeling like there was something missing. It took a couple months to realize what it was, and everything is just stark clean lines and there’s no nature. There was no greenery in there. I knew I needed some plants. That was a very reasonable 8 to 10. Then when we moved into our house the same thing, we had more rooms and more space, which meant more plants. We also got into outdoor landscaping with our first home, we love being outside, we love spending time in our yard. But once October hits everything just goes gray in Chicago. We’re waiting until essentially May in Chicago before we can garden again. During those months, were sitting there thinking about the green grass and trees and plants and flowers. We started bringing in more plants indoors because the wait was just way too long.
Steven: Why would you say it’s important for people to have plants in their home?
Ann: I’ll start with debunking the idea that house plants are going to improve your air. That is based off a NASA study from maybe the 70s. But there are studies to show that people do respond really well to having plants around. There’s something called biophilic design in the commercial space . people are trying to bring in more green walls into workspaces because it’s shown to reduce stress. people who are into gardening find it very relaxing to get away from technology or your mind I find that it’s good for our mental health and emotional health.
I think that people who are into plants are naturally nurturing. also optimistic. I think it forces you to be optimistic because you don’t buy a plant thinking, hey, this is going to die in two weeks. You’re thinking, hey, I’m gonna take care of this plant and I want to see it grow. t’s really exciting see , hey, that new leaf is unfurling.
Steven: Do you name your plants?
Ann: We started to, but when we got to 250 I was like how many names can I think of, because I always wanted to make it clever. How many Oscar De La Hoya (Hoya is the name of a plant family) can I have.
Steven: One of the things I like about the store is when we feel like something is wrong with a plant, we’re able to bring them in for your expert opinion. What would you say the most common mistake that you see people make with their plants?
Ann: I would say the most common mistake is people essentially over-loving their plants or watering it too much/often. In nature, there’s very few places where it’s raining every single day, or even three times a week year-round. Your plants need a break, they do need oxygen. I think that’s the most common thing. That or too little light.
Steven: For an absolute beginner coming in wanting to get their feet wet, what would you recommend?
Ann: Provided that they don’t have pets, more specifically cats, dogs for the most part tend to ignore them. There’s something called a snake plant, pothos, or a ZZ plant. Those plants are very forgiving. Those plants you can water once a month or couple weeks and for the most part they don’t require bright light.
Steven: There are a lot of apartments here in the city that actually don’t get a lot of light, what would you recommend?
Ann: Those three plant families are great. It’s important to keep in mind the kind light you have. Most people don’t know what kind of light they have and that’s what I had to learn. I was making the mistake of putting plants in too little light. Here in Chicago we have a lot of courtyard buildings or buildings that are closer together. every west facing window is not going to be created equal. If you’ve got this massive skyrise next to you and that won’t necessarily give you the same kind of light.
Knowing what plants to put in what lighting and understanding what lighting is in your home is really important. I typically ask a series of questions when someone comes in – what direction does the windows face? What’s outside of your building? Is there a massive tree there?
Steven: You mentioned pet friendly plants – was there anything that you recommend for pet owners?
Ann: There’s a family called Peperomia and there’s over 1000 plants and hoyas which are sun-loving plants. Very easygoing, established plants that can be watered once a month. Then there’s a bunch of smaller plants like the nerve plants or polka dot plants. I have a little section of plants that are pet friendly. I think a lot of time it just depends on the behavior of the cat
Steven: As we move into 2023, where do you see Sunnyside going?
Ann: I am I’m hoping to be more established and grow in this neighborhood. When I started in the storefront, I was more of a destination for plant lovers. I’m seeing a little bit more of the casual walker buy come in for gifts and things like that. I’m hoping to expand on that customer base and find out what else this neighborhood wants. I started bringing in more gift items, especially for the holidays.
I want to continue to connect to the community and find what northwest side is lacking. What can I bring in? I have this beautiful space. What do we need here? We can only have so many plants in our home, and I certainly test those limits.
Sunnyside Plants is located at 4800 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60630.