‘I Left My Career in the City to Open a Plant Shop—and I’ve Never Been Happier’

March 2022 data from the Census Bureau shows that hundreds of thousands of Americans saw the pandemic as their moment to break away from big-city living. A former media professional shares his journey from what he calls "mental health rock bottom" to smaller-town life with more green...and greater meaning.

By Pat Sandora-Nastyn, as told to Kristine Gasbarre, senior editor for The Healthy

I brought home my first houseplant over a decade ago. It was a tall snake plant in a very large, heavy pot. I picked it out from a garden center a few blocks away from my and my fiancé’s little apartment in New York City. I named it “Planty”—a reference to a 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon decided that successfully caring for a plant was the sign of a healthy, functioning adult. My early career had actually started inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Naming my plant with a lighthearted homage to all the transitions of early adulthood felt significant to me.

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Plants and more plants

plant shop filled with many plantsCourtesy Pat Sandora-Nastyn

Planty was quickly joined by more plants that I would buy during my lunch breaks at the digital startup where I worked at the time. It became a ritual: I’d pop over to a plant shop in Chinatown and would almost always pick up a new friend for my desk. Soon my workspace was covered in small, potted plants. My coworkers would politely poke fun at my flourishing collection…but every so often, one of them would show interest in coming along with me to the shop. There, I’d get to watch them smile and feel the same sense of calm I felt each time I visited. I never considered myself a “plant person,” but I guess it was a title that was unsuspectingly growing on me.

Months later—now married and with an apartment full of plants—my husband Billy and I decided that it was time for us to leave the Big Apple for another adventure. Our search for “What’s next?” took us across the state in Buffalo, NY. We bought our first home and continued on with our careers in media and graphic design. Billy and I had agreed that eventually, we would like to entertain the idea of starting our own business. But for the moment, we decided to wait for a sign from the universe, some kind of nudge forward, before making any moves.

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The seed had been planted

Eventually, Billy decided it was time for a break from his job in non-profit healthcare. That’s when our small business seed was officially planted. On social media, we saw that our affinity for bringing greenery into our home was something more and more people shared. With our combined passion and experience for plants, we decided opening a houseplant shop was the way to go.

We started off small, doing regular pop-ups at a local café and connecting with other plant people on social media. We did this together for nearly a year while I continued working my job as an account supervisor at an advertising agency.

But we found that our business grew rapidly. In September 2019, Billy was able to leave his job so we could open our first brick and mortar shop, which we called Daddy’s Plants, where I’d join him to help out on the weekends.

Then, less than six months after Daddy’s opened, the world entered into the pandemic. As people spent significantly more time in their homes, inside our shop Billy and I were noticing how many found solace in sprucing up their dwellings—often with indoor plants. Plants are bright and vibrant; they demonstrated health and stillness in a time when many of us needed to see evidence of both.

And not only did plants seem to make our customers’ homes look and feel better, it seemed that engaging with something living and natural was helping the people who came into our store in a deeper, fundamental way. This realization didn’t occur to me until I reached my own mental health rock bottom.

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Plants showed me the importance of being happy

man on another mans shoulders next to a large potted treeCourtesy Pat Sandora-Nastyn

During the week, the hours I continued to spend plugged into my home computer on Zoom meetings with clients and colleagues was eroding my sense of self in a way that I still can’t quite explain (although I’m sure many people can relate). Everyone I interacted with was stressed. Everyone was exhausted. Everyone seemed to be holding onto their composure by a thread while bickering about things like project timelines, contracts, and deliverables. It was growing normal for me to feel so overwhelmed with negativity that the only thing I could do to lower my anxiety was to go into the backyard and lie face-down in the grass—literally grounding myself to calm my body and mind. In those desperate weekday moments, it was my only recourse.

The weekends provided the balance I craved. That’s when I helped our customers pick out plants, answered their care questions, and swapped plant-parent stories of successes and failures. It was on one of those mundane afternoons when I experienced a moment of sheer clarity: I realized that I was spending five days a week feeling anxious and unsettled by every ping and email notification…compared to the other two days in the shop, when I felt peaceful, connected, and surrounded by positive energy. To oversimplify, the people in the computer were frowns, and the people in the shop were smiles. When Monday arrived, I gave my notice at work to become a full-time plant person and work with Billy in our shop all week.

I am by no means a religious or spiritual person, but I’m not being silly when I share that it’s nothing short of divine when I’m caring for my plants or listening to a stranger excitedly describe the new leaf their plant is growing.

Nature is a powerful force, and sometimes just bringing a small piece of it—like a houseplant—into our home can be transformative. Since we’ve opened our plant shop, I’ve learned that plant care is a beautiful way to facilitate healing and catalog growth—both on a plant, and within ourselves.

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Kristine Gasbarre
Krissy is the senior editor leading content for TheHealthy.com and “The Healthy” section of Reader’s Digest magazine. For two decades she has worked in digital media, books, and magazines and is a #1 New York Times and internationally bestselling ghostwriter. Her work has been featured in Reader’s Digest, People, the New York Times, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Sirius/XM Oprah Radio, and more. With degrees in psychology and cultural media studies, she assisted with a clinical research project at the Cleveland Clinic and is a certified group fitness instructor, the owner of two irresistible rescued dogs, and the partner of a physician leader in healthcare quality who is also a stage IV lymphoma survivor.