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Plant guru Hilton Carter on plant care, good light, and how growing things will change your life.
Few people have the same kind of expertise and unassailable joie de vivre about living with plants as Hilton Carter. Over the past five years, as a plant stylist, gardening expert, and beloved greenery guru, Carter has amassed a huge following as a kind of “plantfluencer,” due in no small part to the gorgeous aesthetics of his Instagram account. His curated feed has redefined the notion of plant goals by showcasing over 200 plants that are clearly thriving within his one-bedroom Baltimore apartment. Carter has parlayed his reputation as a green-friendly interior stylist into a series of lush coffee table books, media appearances, and lucrative brand collaborations. His books illustrate how even the simplest space can be turned into a leafy, verdant sanctuary. The plant accessories that Carter designs are austere — glass and wood vessels made for the propagation and veneration of more growth. Though he might be seen as the ultimate plant whisperer, Carter is humble about his work: “All you need is light and water.”
Instead of asking yourself what type of plant you want, look at your space and think about what kind of light that spot gets.
For someone accustomed to fielding all manner of plant-care questions, Carter is quick to disabuse people of the notion that there is a hidden secret to keeping plants alive, or that these living things exist only to serve as decoration. Instead, his advice for greening up your life leans toward the pragmatic and, surprisingly, the philosophical. Amid packing up his famously Instagrammed Baltimore apartment right before moving to a larger house, Carter took a moment to chat plant propagation while giving his own beloved collection a moment in the sun. “It sounds crazy even saying it,” he laughs, “I just brought all the plants outside and gave them a bath, wiped off all of their leaves, cleaned their pots and containers, sprayed them, and it felt so nice. So now one of my favorite things to do is just to take them out, the ones that I can take out, and let them just hang. It’s almost like when you take the dog to the dog park and you just let them off the leash; that's kind of how I feel with the plants. They finally get to be outside, enjoying the sun, feeling the breeze on their leaves, having their foliage shaken, strengthening their base. It sounds great, right?”
Whether you’re looking to simply brighten up your space or are hoping to turn your apartment into a life-sized terrarium, Hilton offers some sage advice about how to make things grow, and what it means to share your space with other living things.
FIND YOUR LIGHT
“First things first. There are things to think about when you decide to buy a plant. It isn’t just a free-for-all where you just like a plant because of its shape or color, [or] whatever it is that makes you love the plant. More importantly, it’s all about what type of light you have in your home and where you think you’d like that plant to go. Instead of asking yourself what type of plant you want, first look at your space and think about what kind of light that spot gets. That should determine what kind of plants you want to bring into your home. Think about what can thrive in the light you have available. Start there. Figure out the exposure. Is there bright, indirect light? Is there low light? Is there direct sun?”
“It can't just be about what you think will look good, or something you saw on somebody’s Instagram. Talking to the people who work in plant shops is the most important thing that anybody who brings plants into their home can do. Because the people that work at those plant shops have already spent so much time with those plants; they understand what type of care those plants will need. They can tell you what kind of plants can survive in the light that you have. Ask questions.”
“That was my initiation into first buying plants. I just wanted something that was large, beautiful, with tropical foliage, and would also look nice next to my bed. I saw a plant that was a fiddle leaf, and I went for it, not knowing all the difficulties I would have later. It's obviously through those trials and tribulations that I actually became better at caring for my plants, but that isn't the case for a lot of people.”
What’s an oft-repeated scenario? “It’s a cool-looking plant, it has a hashtag, I've seen it in this or in that person's Instagram. I want it for myself; I’m going to get it regardless of what type of light I have. You buy it. The plant just needs light and water, right? So here's some water. You say, I'm going to water you every day! And then the plant ends up dead, right? So this thing you bought, which you thought might bring some excitement to your space, that might make you happy, ends up dying. That really isn’t what you signed up for. You have to learn from that and try again. Think more carefully about what kind of plant you have and also think about the type of person you are. Some plants need more care than others, so you have to commit to that.”
FIND YOUR RHYTHM
“Plant care, for me, is basically a daily process because I have so many plants in my home that require a daily look over. I have a lot of ferns. Before the pandemic, I did not bring home most ferns because I was never really home much to care for them, but they needed that daily care. But I bought more ferns this year than pretty much any other plants because I was always at home. So for me, it’s wake up, make coffee, and check on those plants that need lots of attention. It becomes a part of your daily ritual.”
THE KINDEST CUT
“A lot of the products I’ve designed are sort of made for starting new plants from cuttings. Vining plants are generally the easiest plants to propagate. I like philodendrons. They grow really fast, they produce roots much faster once in the water, and because so many of them can tolerate different amounts of light, they are a great starter plant for propagating. For a novice, propagating is great because it kind of teaches you how to understand the plant better. When you're growing a plant from a cutting, you're going through all the motions, right? You're watching it and waiting for roots to develop. It's an excitement in your stomach when you're seeing a little root start to form, that starts to grow longer. You are watching it. You are putting fresh water in the vessel. Then, when the roots are long enough, you get the experience of seeing it potted, which involves learning about transitioning the plant into the soil and choosing the right pot. You are engaged in this entire cycle, which improves your understanding of how to care for the plant better. At this point, you are invested in this plant’s well-being. It's something you started from just a cutting. You’ve gone through all the emotions of care. You’ve been with it from the beginning. You want to see it continue to live and thrive.”
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
“People ask, ‘Can I have too many plants?’ The answer is yes. Some might say I have too many plants. The more the merrier doesn’t always work out. It’s not a competition to see who can have the most plants in their home. I know that people see pictures of my plants and my home and they want to capture that same feeling, they want to re-create that kind of environment in their own home. But I remind people that it’s a process. It isn’t a competition to see who can have the most plants in their apartment. The person who is putting in the right amount of time and providing the right amount of care for their plants is the person I want to hang out with. That’s the kind of space I want to be in. As long as you have the time, you have light, you can have as many plants as you want, right?”
LET YOUR PLANTS TEACH YOU
“I didn't decide to be someone who loved plants. I didn’t get into caring for plants because I thought it would make me better. I didn’t get into it because I thought it would make me a better husband, or a better son, or a better person, a better friend...but it has. Before I got into growing and caring for plants, I was very rushed. Everything had to be done right away. I was, in a lot of ways, a much more selfish person. I never paid attention to the small details. I wasn’t thoughtful in my relationships. I never let what was being said to me really penetrate my brain. I wasn’t a good listener. Before I got into the process of tending plants, I had never meditated. Eventually, I came to see my plant care as a kind of meditation.
This work has caused me to sit back and be more in the moment, more relaxed, more calm. It made me more excited about life itself because I could see things unfurling. I could see things developing because of my care, because of paying attention to the little details. And the more I did this kind of work, the more I became more aware of that. I grew better at understanding the idea that the energy you put into something is equal to the energy you get back. Those are all lessons I learned through plant care.
I never thought about how different the air in my home is versus my neighbor’s apartment because of all my plants. I don’t know. But I do feel the effects of my plants daily. I feel a bit more calm and happy, more creative. I feel more open and accessible to those around me. I think I’m a better, happier person because I share my space with these other living things that are dependent on my care. It connects us to this part of ourselves that wants and needs to nurture something. And for those of us who live in cities, there is something to be said for bringing the outside in. Having a plant reminds you of how much the outside world, some little bit of nature, can do for the human brain and the human heart.”
Add Hilton Carter’s latest books to your library and coffee table.
“Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants” (2019)
“Wild Interiors: Beautiful Plants in Beautiful Spaces” (2020)
“Wild Creations: Inspiring Projects to Create Plus Plant Care Tips & Styling Ideas for Your Own Wild Interior” (2021)
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Eleanor Taylor is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Hastings, UK. Her projects range from illustrating picture books and designing book covers to working on tight deadlines for clients like the New York Times and the New Yorker.
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