Today we are speaking with Grey, a fellow plant lover, and entrepreneur. Grey turned his love for plants into a full-time job. He is the founder of Thiccly, a local business that designed the original GrowPole and retails plant care products inspired by nature, informed by science.
Grey’s love for plants started a couple of years back, thanks to his wife’s influence. Most of Grey’s plants are kept in a small plot in Upper Boon Keng.
How did you get into gardening?
When I was growing up, my father loved gardening. I’m the youngest of 4 kids, so I felt like I needed to “entertain” him and his hobby. Truth be told, he was very messy with his plants, so that actually put me off!
So while it was my dad who introduced me to gardening early in life, it was only in the last couple of years that it became a hobby, thanks to my wife. She started collecting plants during the COVID-19 lockdown.
I’ve always been very business-minded, so I told her, if you want to get into gardening as a hobby, we should look into selling propagated plants to cover the costs!! – which were at their peak during COVID-19.
In the end, and somewhat predictably, we got way too attached to our plants to sell any of them. My love for plants grew over time. It started as my wife’s hobby but is now something I love and have built my business on. 🙂
What do you enjoy about gardening?
Like any gardener, I love watching new leaves grow. I also love the variability in form, size, fenestration, and overall appearance of plants, all of which may change over time. That’s why Aroids [known for their natural variability] appeal to me so much!
Every time I see a new leaf unfurling, I wonder, how big will it get this time?
If it’s a variegated species, I wonder how the variegation will appear: as a half-moon, with a marbled pattern, or with clean lines? Or perhaps that individual leaf will not have variegation at all. You never know until it unfurls. 🙂
An example of unusual variegation is my beloved Philodendron Gloriosum. We didn’t know it was variegated, but as it grew, we spotted different shades of green on its leaves. We consulted our friends in the plant community, and they were equally intrigued, as variegation is usually yellow-based.
What is your plant care philosophy?
The first thing I do is to be mindful of the environment my plant is growing in. If you can provide an environment that mimics a plant’s natural habitat, they don’t need much additional care at all!
I learned this lesson the hard way. My wife and I first started growing plants in a small HDB [public housing flats in Singapore] in Telok Blangah. Our plants loved it there. But the flat was small and getting a bit too crowded, so we relocated the plants to a larger flat in Newton.
Sadly, they did not take well to the larger flat. The building is old and uninsulated, so temperatures fluctuated more than usual. It was a stable 27-30 degrees C (81-86 degrees F) for 3 months, but one hot day heated the flat up to 37 degrees (99 degrees F), turning 3 months of growth to crisp.
It was then that I realized that the plants reacting poorly [to the larger flat conditions] was not really about me – it was the environment that the plants were in. In certain situations, there are natural limits to how much of the environment you can control.
If the environment is not suitable for that specific type of plant, trying to grow them would be an uphill battle.
That’s why I like to observe what kinds of plants naturally thrive in similar environments. What are your neighbors growing? What plants do well in your local parks? These are the types of plants you could consider growing.
What is a plant care myth we should know about?
I think overwatering is a myth. It’s been pouring non-stop over the past couple of weeks, and we’ve been watering the plants in our plot every time we visit – every 2 days or so.
Think about it. If you can place a plant in a jar of water and it can grow, why would you worry about “overwatering” your plant?
The issue isn’t “overwatering”. The issue is creating an anaerobic condition that causes root rot.
When explaining this to people, I like to compare the myth of overwatering to a river flowing. When a river is flowing, the water is clean and clear. Compare this to a stagnant pool of water that forms after heavy rain. In the latter case, the water smells like rotten eggs.
In the same way, your plant needs aerobic conditions to thrive. Specifically, it needs continuous airflow to the roots. So the issue is not overwatering itself. It’s that stagnant water pools at the roots, cutting off its air supply.
So a soil mix that is airy and well-draining is important, as is having a container that is porous. Plants can also benefit from aerobic microbes that consume the nutrients that would otherwise be available to anaerobic microbes which cause rot.
How did you learn to care for plants?
Like everyone else, I started with research on the internet.
Much of the literature online, however, is written or created for audiences in USA and Canada. The climate there differs greatly from Singapore, which means the advice may not be applicable here.
After recognizing that, I looked on social media for help and made good friends in the local plant community. There’s something to be said about learning from those around you. The importance of advice given for local conditions cannot be understated.
I also read plant research literature and learned about plant care from first principles.
Of course, the other part of learning is experiential. I like going to local parks and observing what kinds of plants are growing. This gives you a clue as to what your local environment is naturally suited to. Aroids thrive in Singapore’s environment, so we are lucky!
Another thing I did was to buy a light meter and take readings of the light conditions where different plants seem to thrive naturally.
If you want to keep plants, buy locally. If you want to learn how to grow plants, buy imported. Imports are not acclimatized to local growing conditions, so you get instant feedback. You either get the conditions right, and they thrive, or they quickly decline. That way, you can quickly learn what’s working and what’s not.
Tell us about your plant collection!
Some of the first plants I grew were orchids. It didn’t occur to me that orchids are epiphytic [a plant that grows on top of another plant or object]. They do well in the hot sun and hardly need any soil media.
When I first started growing them, I brought them indoors and planted them in pots with moss like YouTubers from USA do. Without sufficient airflow, the consistently wet conditions led to rot, and they started to wither. It wasn’t until I realized they were epiphytic and let them grow directly on the growpoles with coconut husk substrate, which retains much less moisture, that they started to thrive.
I also tried my hand at carnivorous plants, but they are challenging to grow!!
These days I mostly grow Aroids like Monsteras, Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Alocasias.
My favorite plant in my collection is the Philodendron Florida Beauty. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as I resisted getting one for the longest time.
The reason I like it is that the variegation is stable. I grow it in my home, just outside the stairwell. It seems to tolerate direct sunlight despite being a variegated plant. It is an easygoing, beautiful plant.
Tell us about your Thiccly grow poles. How does this differ from other moss poles?
There are 2 main types of moss poles in the market. The first has a PVC pipe core with coconut coir on the outer layer. The problem with this type of pole is that the coconut coir cannot stay moist. Without moisture, the plant’s aerial roots don’t latch on.
The second type of grow pole is made from sphagnum moss with an outer layer of mesh, and held together by zip ties. These perform similarly to our product but aren’t as strong. Every zip tie is a stress point, which can buckle under pressure, especially as the plant gets bigger!
Our grow poles are structured to be sturdy, retain moisture well, and are environmentally friendly.
The monocoque design gives it strength over zip-tied designs by eliminating stress points. There is no need for alignment and cutting of zip ties – simplifying the process and eliminating unrecyclable plastic bits. Thiccly GrowPoles are made from recyclable PET or PP instead of non-recyclable PVC plastic. PVC plastic also releases chlorine gas when burnt or degraded, harming the environment.
How did your Thiccly grow bags come about?
Growing in bags is a well-known agricultural practice for crops like tomatoes. Our Thiccly grow bags are highly porous, similar to materials like terracotta. This helps create aerobic conditions for healthy roots.
This porous material also wicks away moisture and promotes evaporation, which increases the humidity levels around the plant. This feature is especially important if you live in dry climates, as most houseplants need high humidity to thrive.
Our second generation Thiccly grow bags also allow you to peel open the pot rather than have to lift the plant out of the pot, making repotting easier! An added bonus.
What’s on your plant wish list?
I don’t really have any specific plant on my wish list. Everyone says you must have a Philodendron Spiritus Sancti, but I can’t justify its price! [NB: Sanctis can cost around tens of thousands for a mature plant.]
Speaking of expensive plants, I paid $1,500 each for two Monstera Obliqua Peru cuttings during its peak from fellow collectors. It is believed that one is a clone collected in 1975 from Peru and was released to cultivation from Marie Selby Botanical Garden in early 2010s.
I still think the price was worth it! The heat wave turned them crispy, but I am nursing them back to health. 🙂
If you’re up for a challenge, I recommend trying the Queen Anthurium. In my view, they are harder to grow than Monstera Obliqua. They require very high humidity, and will promptly drop their leaves if the weather is too hot.
If you can grow them well, you know that you’re doing something right. And look at those long, dramatic leaves!
— Editor’s end note: Thanks for inviting me over to your grow plot, Grey! It was great to chat about plants and your Thiccly products.
Deborah is a plant enthusiast and founder of Gardening Collective.