Photos courtesy Shayla Owodunni
When Lakeville native Shayla Owodunni was younger, she wasn’t known as a plant person—but her parents were. “Their Birds of Paradise were their pride and joy,” she laughs. “We had a winter move once, and my mom literally had tears in her eyes—one of the plants had the worst shock and didn’t survive. I remember thinking, ‘It’s just a plant!’” Fast forward about 18 years later to October 2019, when Owodunni was choosing a new Minneapolis condo. She walked in, and while her brother was pointing out all the features in the place, she fell in love with the fiddle-leaf fig and made sure it was written into the purchase agreement. (The realtor was a bit taken aback and asked, “You don’t want the grill?” Owodunni wanted both.)
Now the condo features more than 80 plants indoors and out, and Owodunni is sharing her plant expertise, design inspiration, styling tips, and more through plant styling services and a new blog called The Plant Penthouse, launched June 21. Owodunni is an accountant by education (she actually moved back to Minneapolis in part because she founded a consulting business), but she has put in the time, research, and trial-and-error to stand with the best in the plant business. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s not afraid to imbue personality into her aesthetic—something she encourages others to do as well.
“Normally with a penthouse, you think of something really high-end,” Owodunni says. “I looked up the ‘penthouse’ definition, and it’s actually any unit with a different layout or ample outdoor space or just incredible views. … We all have the possibility to cultivate a penthouse experience.”
An Urban Jungle
Owodunni got into plants when she lived in Seattle for about a year and a half. While the west coast didn’t have Minnesota’s cold, which she loved, living downtown diminished a lot of the greenery she was used to. Also, since plants are very apartment-friendly decorations, she thought why not add some throughout her home? Although she didn’t have nearly as many plants as she does in Minneapolis now, her personal Instagram followers would see her plants in her photos and reach out asking about plant care.
Still, there’s a difference between having house plants and the verdant utopia that she has created with the Plant Penthouse.
It all happened because she didn’t have anything else to put in her apartment. A flood in the storage unit she was using to transition ruined all of the furniture—the sofa, the bedding, the dining table, everything. As she worked on finding more furniture, she started buying a plant here and there to keep the original fiddle-leaf company. “As I started to add more greenery, it just resonated with me, with the love I have for travel—I spent time last year in Thailand and Singapore, and that was when I was most at rest. I wanted to be able to bring my own oasis into my space so that every time I opened the door, I felt like I was on vacation.”
Whether you’re a plant parent of two or 50, Owodunni hopes that the Plant Penthouse will be there to inspire and to support. Make sure to check out her blog, but here are some tips to get you started:
1) Have realistic expectations.
While Owodunni loves tropical plants, she knows that her apartment climate is different than that of Thailand and Singapore. “You can’t expect perfection. It’s just giving plants the best chance for survival,” she says. So don’t beat yourself up too much if some plants don’t survive. (Also, for all you people who can’t keep succulents alive? Owodunni also has issues with them. Her favorite starter plants are ones from the pothos family because they have more tolerance to low light, give great indicators whether they need more or less water, and are easy to propagate.)
2) Learn about lighting for plants.
To discover what somewhat vague terms like “bright, indirect light” or “low light” mean in real life, one of Owodunni’s tricks is reading about where the plants are from originally. For instance, she says, the reason the tropical plant monstera has slits in its leaves is so plants underneath it can get light, too. That means it’s probably in a place where the light shines first and foremost on it.
“One of my biggest inspirations is Hilton Carter,” Owodunni says. “I took a plant propagation class from him, and at one point he brought up that as new plant parents, we see popular plants or ones we want to put in our homes, but we have to look at our space first and then find plants for our space.”
3) Examine what you’re buying.
“If I’m on a budget, Home Depot or Walmart, with the caveat that obviously [the plants] aren’t in a greenhouse where they have dedicated caretakers,” Owodunni says. For high-quality care and specialty plants, she goes to shops like Mother Co. and Tonkadale. Still, the budget spots have a “grab bag” feel for Owodunni: If she’s lucky, they’ll randomly have plants like Birds of Paradise, palms, or a String of Pearls at bargain prices. Wherever you get your plants, make sure to examine them for symptoms such as yellowing or browning leaves, insects, or unhealthy roots (roots should be white or cream in color).
4) Watch your water.
If you’re like Owodunni and have a heavy hand when you water, keep the plastic pot that the plant comes in at the store and place it in a slightly larger planter with a clear water tray inside the bottom. That way you not only know when to stop watering, but you can keep the plant styled with your decor.