Everything Evanston: Leaf, Laugh, Love

Shveta Shah and Janya Sundar

The new Plant Shop Evanston opened up in downtown Evanston in July. Seth Wallen, the general manager, and Johnathan Thomas Smith, a carnivorous plant and orchids expert, talk about how the shop opened, how they became plant experts and what their favorite experiences at the shop have been so far. Through their work, they teach customers about plants and the importance of conservation. 

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: I have well over 100 orchid species. Carnivorous plants, probably even more. Individual plants, the number is really high, but as far as just different species, I don’t know, I probably have hundreds of carnivorous species. 


JANYA SUNDAR: That was Johnathan Thomas Smith, an employee of Plant Shop Evanston.

SHVETA SHAH: Opening a business during COVID-19 isn’t easy, but this new plant store on Sherman and Grove in downtown Evanston is putting down roots.

JANYA SUNDAR: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Janya Sundar. 

SHVETA SHAH: And I’m Shveta Shah. This is Everything Evanston.


JANYA SUNDAR: Seth Wallen, the general manager at Plant Shop Evanston, has been a part of the business since it opened this past July. 

SETH WALLEN: The backstory on the plant shop is we are co-owned by Backlot Coffee and Plant Shop Chicago. This space was a Backlot. The owners felt like they needed to do a change but wanted to stay in the neighborhood. And we thought, well, we have these beautiful windows, we all love plants. Let’s just partner up with them and expand their vision while keeping in Backlot’s vision of hospitality and being with the community and all of that kind of stuff. 

JANYA SUNDAR: Seth found that the desire for house plants has expanded tremendously during the pandemic.

SETH WALLEN: I think the houseplant trend really started right before the pandemic. Instagram had a huge impact on that and then the pandemic added fuel to the fire. I think people being cooped up at home, also just the world being kind of nuts. I think people wanted to have something to do at home to center themselves, to kind of take control of their space and not have, like, cabin fever, you know? Reconnecting with nature within your own space and taking control of that is such a healthy way to do that and a really beautiful way to do that. 

SHVETA SHAH: As for how Seth actually got into plants, he said that his friends had a huge impact.

SETH WALLEN: I think my first one was — a friend gave me an orchid that I kept alive. I wouldn’t even say she was thriving; she just didn’t die and I was like, “Interesting. That was fun.” And just got a bunch of plants. And I kept them alive, and I was like, “Oh, okay, here we go. I like this a lot.” 

JANYA SUNDAR: Similarly, Johnathan, who said he is the resident plant expert of the shop, discovered a passion for plants after buying a Venus flytrap and watching videos to learn how to take care of it. 

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: I just remember the first day finding those videos, staying up to, like, almost midnight just watching videos on how they cultivate them and how they survive in their habitat and how they’ve adapted to live in these places where a lot of plants don’t thrive and how they have to find their own fertilizer by getting insects instead of soil where it’s usually nutrient-rich. Most plants, however, come from a place where water washes it away so there’s no nutrients, and it’s really hard for plants to survive, so they learned to eat insects. So, it’s a really cool adaptation in the plant world and just really unique. 

SHVETA SHAH: While succulents and pre-potted plants are very popular, Johnathan also supplies the shop with orchids and carnivorous plants that he grows himself. 

JANYA SUNDAR: While Seth said one of the most tedious parts of the job is plant maintenance and pest control, both Seth and Johnathan’s favorite part of the job is helping customers choose their plants. 

SETH WALLEN: Especially when there’s kind of aesthetic decisions involved like, “Here’s a picture of my dining room. This is the light. What will look good in there?” and we figure that out. That to me is so much fun. I love that stuff.

SHVETA SHAH: Seth said he is eager to recommend plants for first-time plant owners and said that one of his goals is to make sure that no one feels intimidated coming into the shop.

SETH WALLEN: I actually really love when people come in and say, “I don’t know a single thing about plants, but I really want one.” 

SETH WALLEN: I would say the most common ones that I recommend are going to be sansevierias or snake plants. They’re commonly known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. ZZ plants are really simple to take care of, really easy. Both of those can handle all sorts of light.

JANYA SUNDAR: Johnathan recommends pinguiculas to first-time plant owners who want a carnivorous plant. 

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: I think pinguiculas are the easiest. They adapt to lower light, they don’t need direct light, and also, they want to dry all the way out in between waterings, so it makes them really easy to plant. Plus, their main prey spectra is gnats, so if you have fungus gnats in your house, I have tons of pinguiculas and, of course, I have a lot of wet plants within moss and stuff, so you’d think I would have a lot of gnats but they eat them all, and I don’t have to fertilize because of it. 

SHVETA SHAH: Gretchen Praeger, a Plant Shop Evanston customer, said she has been buying many plants during the pandemic, and this is her first time at the shop. 

GRETCHEN PRAEGER: I have driven by a few times, and it always catches my eye, and a specific plant caught my eye and I went in to get it and left with a bunch more … I got an orchid unlike one I’ve ever seen, and some succulents for my kitchen.  

SHVETA SHAH: Seth said a particular favorite memory of his at the shop was when a child came in and was interested in buying a carnivorous plant. 

SETH WALLEN: Every now and then we get some kids in the shop, and when there are small children that are really jazzed about plants, that to me, makes me want to cry because it wasn’t my hobby when I was a kid. And I just think what a healthy hobby to have, and also with the state of the climate, the way the world is going, I think getting those wheels turning now that way, the future generation can start thinking about conservation and climate change. I think that is massive.

JANYA SUNDAR: Johnathan enjoys helping people with plants in hopes it will inspire them to start a conversation about conservation. 

[nat sound of johnathan talking to customer]

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: I just love helping people be successful with plants. I think it’s important for people to grow plants and try to respect nature and see the world that’s around because, again, we are a part of this ecosystem. We need plants, we need this. We have less than 1% of our natural prairies in Illinois. They’re literally right now trying to destroy the Bell Bowl Prairie. 


SHVETA SHAH: Due to increased e-commerce during the pandemic, the Chicago Rockford International Airport plans to expand. The expansion would destroy the Bell Bowl Prairie just southwest of the airport.

JANYA SUNDAR: This expansion has drastic implications for the ecosystem, as many valuable species live in the Bell Bowl Prairie. However, recent discovery of the rusty patched bumblebee, a federally endangered species, has currently halted expansion until Nov. 1. 

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: It’s going to destroy one of the last beautiful, big prairies that we have with an endangered species, the rusty patched bumblebee, as well as who knows how many other amazing prairie plants that are out there. Prairie plants are extremely important to the biodiversity and identity of the state, and we have so little left. It’s very important for our ecosystem and very important for our drinking water. These things all tie in when you destroy that. We’re literally shooting ourselves in the foot.

SHVETA SHAH: According to Johnathan, the next generation is critical to bringing about a positive change to the environment.

JOHNATHAN THOMAS SMITH: One of the things that really inspires me is, I want to get that spark in someone that I had when I found these plants, and hopefully that this will snowball into them hearing about conservation, maybe them going out and trying to cultivate these plants and do seminars on conservation and how we can help and stuff like that. So, that’s one of my biggest inspirations, and I love when I can turn kids on to plants, because when you start them early, who knows what they can turn out. They can be a climate scientist and that would be amazing.


JANYA SUNDAR: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Janya Sundar.

 SHVETA SHAH: And I’m Shveta Shah. Thank you for listening to another episode of Everything Evanston. This episode was reported and produced by Janya Sundar and myself. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @shvetashah17 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jansunnn 

Related Stories: 

Backlot Coffee to close coffee service at Sherman Ave. location, open plant shop in its place

Evanston Host Plant Initiative works to save endangered bee species

Umbelino: Embrace plant-based foods for a more sustainable NU