Growing a Green Thumb

Whether you’re a veteran vegetable gardener or a serial house plant killer trying to change your ways, plant coach Nick Cutsumpas, A14, has a simple piece of advice: Listen
Nick Cutsumpas, A14, shares tips on caring for houseplants. Video: Jenna Schad, with special thanks to Nick Cutsumpas
April 23, 2021

Share

For most of his life, Nick Cutsumpas, A14, didn’t think much about nature.

“I couldn’t care less. I believed in climate change, but I didn’t do anything about it,” said Cutsumpas, who graduated from Tufts with a degree in psychology and entrepreneurship, and now runs a bicoastal plant coaching business as Farmer Nick from his home in Los Angeles. 

But when Cutsumpas took a job in New York City after graduation and moved home to Westchester County, his mother told him if he was going to live there rent-free, he had to contribute to the house by starting a garden.

“She said, ‘you played baseball at Tufts, you were a physical trainer, you care about your food and nutrition—it only makes sense that you’d want to start growing things.’ I said, sure, I’ll throw a couple tomatoes in the ground,” Cutsumpas recalled. “From the moment my first tomato came out, I was hooked.”

From tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchinis, Cutsumpas branched out to sweet potatoes, sunflowers, heirloom peppers, and eggplant, and his garden began to creep across the backyard. Soon Cutsumpas was bringing vegetables to the office and giving them to colleagues at IBM.

He dismantled the garden three years later when he moved to his own place in New York City, but soon discovered he missed having green things in his life. That was when he started picking up houseplants. “I bought not one, not two, but 88 houseplants,” Cutsumpas said. 

His girlfriend at the time suggested posting about the plants on Instagram. “I said, no one’s going to care about plants,” he said. Still, Cutsumpas decided it might be fun to share his new hobby. He slowly accumulated followers, answering their questions about botanical housemates. “Three years later, people were asking for plant advice every single day,” he said. (For tips on caring for plants, see "Farmer Nick's Tips" below.)

Seeing an opportunity to parlay his passion into a paying side hustle, Cutsumpas dubbed himself Farmer Nick and began offering his services as a plant coach. He visited clients’ homes to scope out conditions for greenery, recommended which plants to start with, potted and installed them, and taught clients how to care for them.

Before long, business was booming. “I’d go to the flower district at 5:30 in the morning to buy plants, then go to work, and after work I’d install plants at clients’ places. It was becoming too much,” Cutsumpas recalled. And his work was attracting notice—in 2019, the new Netflix show The Big Flower Fight invited him to compete with fellow plant professionals to build the most striking garden sculptures.

Cutsumpas asked his boss for a two-week leave of absence. “They said I had to choose between doing the show and staying here [at this job],” Cutsumpas said. “So, I quit.” It made for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner conversation, he said. “My parents asked, how are you going to make money doing this? Are you feeling OK?” Nick Cutsumpas and some of his many plants. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Cutsumpas

But by the time Cutsumpas left New York City for LA, his Instagram had become a steady source of funding, and he had 75 plant coaching clients. Today he advises new and veteran plant owners in both cities, helping them with house plants, vegetable gardens, and balcony and patio landscapes.

“It wasn’t about the money. It was about betting on myself and doing what I hoped would have the most impact,” he said of the decision to make the leap to “plantrepreneurship.” “I believed in what I was doing, and I figured the money would come eventually.”

Benefits of Plants

Today, Cutsumpas is the owner of 125 house plants, including a bird of paradise, a begonia maculata, a dracena, and a philodendron pink princess, a species some would consider rare (“which usually doesn’t mean rare, just in high demand,” Cutsumpas clarified).Nick Cutsumpas and his girlfriend, Alana Williams, with a bird of paradise, monstera, and dracena. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Cutsumpas

Bringing plants into our lives shouldn’t be seen as adopting something new, but returning to something that’s already in our nature, according to Cutsumpas. “Humans have lived in a natural environment for 99.99 percent of their existence. Only for the last percent did they say, let’s forget all that nature stuff and go live in concrete boxes—that’s the best thing for us,” he said. “To be less stressed, we need to be around nature more. That’s what’s missing in our world today.”

Interacting with plants can slow you down in a world that’s increasingly fast-paced, he said. “I’m a very high-energy person. I’m moving 24/7 and I love doing a lot of things,” he said. “Plants are the opposite. You can plant all you want, but you have no choice but to wait for them to grow. You’ve got to trust in the process and have faith there’s going to be something there tomorrow.”

In addition, plants can have therapeutic effects: “I can’t tell you how many clients I see who bring plants into their lives, and it brings them happiness, helps them deal with grief, and is cathartic for them.”

The benefits increase with fruit and vegetable plants, said Cutsumpas. “So much of our food is half dead by the time we eat it. People don’t know what a fresh tomato should taste like, or how flavorful lettuce is,” he said. “Nothing’s going to change a client’s attitude toward food farming and nature faster than trying something off the vine.”

Cutsumpas enjoys throwing edible elements into his clients’ installations to whet their appetites for gardening. String beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes are the most common. “Many clients say, forget the landscaping plants, let’s just do edibles—which is really exciting to me,” he said. “Are you going to feed yourself in a small space by gardening? Probably not. But just having herbs and lettuce that you can cut and constantly come back to, or fresh basil on your windowsill—any bit helps.”

Stewarding Plants and the Planet

Caring for plants often starts people down a path toward environmental awareness. Cutsumpas experienced this himself as he started spending more and more time in the garden at his parents’ house. 

“All of a sudden it started clicking. If this is the thing I care about the most, and my other behaviors hurt this, that doesn’t make sense with who I want to be,” he said. “I immediately started changing those behaviors, including becoming low-waste and plant-based.”

He became strictly vegan, stopped buying anything plastic, and started to reuse everything and thrift all his clothes. He continues those practices today, but makes sure to be more accepting and less extreme when communicating with people who have a different approach. “I’ve transitioned to a more flexible mindset,” he said. “I use myself as a case study when I say plants are stepping stones.”

Cutsumpas hopes to serve as a model for others. “I want to show people alternatives that are very much achievable with very small steps and help guide them in that direction,” he said.

Through his business, Cutsumpas teaches people to incorporate sustainable and regenerative practices and tries to influence eco-friendly behavior wherever he can. He encourages clients to reuse rather than throw away the plastic containers that their plants come in; to start a compost pile if they’re gardening; and if they have a significant area of land, to grow cover crops in the off season instead of using fertilizer. “Cover crops naturally regenerate the soil and pump nutrients back into it,” he said.

Cutsumpas said he always wants to be learning something new. In addition to experimenting with hydroponics, he’s volunteering for a master gardener in LA who’s introducing him to more regenerative-focused techniques, and shadowing edible food forest landscapers who are turning front yards into foodscapes and finding new, uncommon places to grow in.

Ultimately, he hopes to influence others to follow the same path that has brought him so much benefit. “If someone sees a houseplant on Instagram and likes how it looks and starts reevaluating their relationship with nature, then I’ve done my job,” he said.A philodendron pink princess. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Cutsumpas

A Green Path Forward 

Budding entrepreneurs are often inspired to follow in Cutsumpas’s footsteps, and he gives them honest advice. “If you’re trying to be a full-time plant coach consultant paying New York City rent, it’s hard financially to make it work,” he said. “I had to put in the time and really build it up, and it was tough. Unless you have clients every single day, it might not be worth it to start.”

But he also believes anyone can become a plant whisperer. “I’ve got good natural plant instincts that are helpful, but anyone is capable of reaching that level with a little practice,” he said. “No one is necessarily born with a green thumb—it comes down to how willing you are to observe and listen to what the plants are telling you.”

Cutsumpas is now filming for another TV show, which is expected to air next year, and working on a book. He’s continuing to educate himself, aiming one day to become a consultant for farms, community gardens, and even botanical gardens, and to help connect plant-related startups to investors using his old business connections. “It’s like the mycelium under the soil connecting root systems and distributing resources,” he said. “If I can be that kind of connector in the plant space, I think I’d be very satisfied.”

But in the meantime, Cutsumpas continues to tend to his clients, his plants, and his own small corner of the planet. Despite the many things he does, he described his mission in simple terms:

“I’m just trying to grow as many delicious things as possible and make the earth greener one plant at a time.”

Farmer Nick's Tips on Caring for Plants

1. Make a greenprint. 

Analyze the light, temperature, and humidity, assessing the effects of details such as vents and reflected light. This will help create what Cutsumpas calls a “greenprint,” or map of where plants can go. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is not doing research on their home before bringing plants in,” he said.  

2. Pick easy but interesting plants.

For clients just beginning their journey, Cutsumpas usually recommends a low-maintenance three-plant starter pack: a snake plant, which thrives in low light and only needs watering once a month; a bird of paradise, whose big, luscious green leaves make an immediate statement; and a      monstera, which grows a bit wilder than the others and requires a trellis, but whose leaves feature fascinating patterns of breaks called fenestrations.

3. Get to know your plants.

Cutsumpas still remembers how worried he was when he noticed blossoms falling off some of his first zucchini plants. “I’ve waged countless wars against chipmunks, and I wondered if an animal was wrecking my garden,” he said. “But then I noticed only the flowers that weren’t producing fruits were falling off. I realized there had to be another reason inherent to the plant.”

Cutsumpas guessed that the male flowers, once they served their purpose of fertilizing the female ones, naturally die off. He looked it up, and he was right. “I wouldn’t have had that experience if I hadn’t been observing and interacting with it,” he said.

For those choosing their own indoor vegetation, Cutsumpas advises to not search for and order plants online, but to visit nurseries, observe and touch the plants, and spend time learning their personalities.

“You don’t understand a plant, be it indoors or outdoors, until you’ve actually worked with it,” he said. “Only when you’ve seen how it grows, and noticed intricate, subtle things about its life cycle, do you feel confident about that plant.”

4. Listen to your plants.

Once you know your plant and are sure it can thrive in the conditions in your home, it’s important to keep watching and engaging with it—but also not to go overboard.

“Overwatering is the most common thing I see. People think plants are like children, and they’re constantly worrying, making adjustments, tending to them, and making sure they don’t harm themselves,” Cutsumpas said. “But plants have been around a long time. They know how to do it. 

When it comes to plant care, scheduled routines can be your worst enemy. For example, if it’s sunny all week, a plant on the sill of a south-facing window may dry out by Friday and need to be watered—but if it’s cloudy, the soil will still be moist. That’s why instead of simply watering his plants on the same day every week, Cutsumpas checks every day to see what care his plants require. It takes him an hour because he has so many plants, but for most people, this would probably just take a few minutes. “I truly believe in this idea of mindful neglect,” he said. “Listening to and observing what your plant needs at that time often leads to less work in the long run.”

5. Don’t expect perfection.

Cutsumpas often gives simple tutorials on proper watering technique as well as fertilizing, pruning, and propagating. But his most common piece of advice on caring for house plants is to manage expectations. For example, people often worry if a plant gets a yellow leaf and think that something imperfect must mean something wrong. But losing old leaves is a normal part of a plant’s life cycle, he said.

“Some clients expect things to happen immediately, or for plants to be perfect all the time. It’s just not true to what nature is,” Cutsumpas said. “They’re nature, not furniture.” 

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.