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    The Botanical Boys co-founder on London businesses waking up to the importance of plants, running terrarium workshops, and what offices might look like in the future

    What inspired you to found Botanical Boys?

    Botanical Boys essentially grew out of a hobby. When my partner and I moved into a basement flat several years ago, we’d never had a garden before. The garden was overgrown but had a lot of potential and we brought it back to life. It gave us the opportunity to learn about gardening and I started to enjoy it. We joined the National Garden Scheme, where you open up your garden, people come, drink tea, eat cake then wander around your garden. It was a terrifying prospect, but it was an amazing opportunity to learn.

    The inspiration for Botanical Boys also came from Africa, especially South Africa, where my partner is from. The flora and fauna are stunning there and, when we were on holiday, we went to a few cafés which had teacups with plants growing in them. I thought it would be a lovely thing to do as a hobby. Through a lot of experimentation and research we put some together.

    I decided to bring plants inside the house by building small terrariums. We were playing with succulents, cactuses, colourful sands and people seemed to be quite interested. We then decided to join Airbnb, when they invited us to start their Experience platform, so we put together a programme to teach our passion for micro-gardens to others.

    At what point did you realise that you could focus on Botanical Boys full time?

    I was a project manager in the City, which was fairly enjoyable but starting to become a bit of a chore. I was doing Botanical Boys workshops on Thursday evenings and weekends and I realised it was getting popular.

    There was a natural moment when, one morning, I decided to quit my job. It did come with about 12 months of practise, which allowed me to see whether I could financially, mentally and sensibly move away from what was a safe job. I also had a lot of support from my partner, which was helpful. It was a big decision, but it felt right.

    What stage is Botanical Boys at today?

    We’re about four years into working with Botanical Boys as a brand. We’ve since moved into several other areas of the business, including researching and importing African objects handmade from nature itself, like furniture made from raffia palms. That side of the business was born from our travels across Africa. We now have a couple of shops, a few contracts and some wonderful little side projects, but, in essence, we are still all about connecting people to nature.

    Can you tell me a bit about the workshops that you run both for individuals and for corporate companies?

    The workshops started when Botanical Boys was still a hobby. We would do workshops at product launches and for some big brands who loved to bring their staff together over a fun activity. We started to build up a following, and we developed a corporate package. We’ve worked with big companies such as Facebook but also smaller ones based in the City, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf or the Docklands.

    All our classes start with an introduction to terrariums and their history, going back to when they were called Wardian cases. Named after their inventor, Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a medical doctor and naturalist, these protective glass plant cases were used to grow and transport plants all over the world in the early 19th century.

    Then we lead you on to a practical session, a step-by-step approach to building your own microworld in a closed container. At the end, participants take the terrarium home with aftercare advice.

    With lockdown we had to adapt and, like most companies, we were able to go online. It took a lot of hard work and research, but COVID-19 pushed us to think laterally. Never in a million years had we thought we’d be able to teach people in Scotland or Europe, let alone anywhere else in the world: the pandemic allowed us to connect with people outside of London.

    Can you tell us how Botanical Boys has expanded beyond the workshops?

    In August 2019 we opened our first shop at King’s Cross, followed by another in 2020. One is focused on plants and terrariums, the other on the homeware we source from Africa.

    More recently, this has led to another project with The Wardian residential development in Canary Wharf. One of the team from The Wardian came into one of our existing stores and said that it would be wonderful if we could have a store with them. The development has these communal life-size Wardian cases – exotic gardens enclosed in glass – for residents to spend time in, and I felt that, since we teach the history of Nathaniel Ward during our classes, there was an amazing connection. We’re now fast approaching the move-in date of the store and we’ve also started looking after all of the gardens surrounding the buildings. That has really allowed us to get Botanical Boys out to the residents across all the premises and hopefully, going forward, we’re looking to teach people, provide plant advice, run workshops and do free events, as well as doing the maintenance. It’s a really exciting relationship.

    Why is it so important to bring nature into our living and work spaces? What are the benefits?

    It’s really important to have nature in any shape or form, even if it’s just a terrarium. A lot of plants filter the air and there have been a lot of studies showing that plants do ease the mind. They soften our interiors: when people have very shiny, clean-lined interiors, plants have an aesthetic impact from a biophilic design point of view.

    Whether it be in a courtyard, on a balcony or on a coffee table, it’s also important to have plants to teach the next generation about nature: without plants, we simply can’t live.

    There seems to be an awakening around urban living incorporating nature. What do you think has ignited this movement?

    COVID-19 has taught us a nine-to-five routine can actually be hugely detrimental to mental health. I think it has allowed corporate CEOs to have a think about the way we treat our employees. If companies are going to force people back into the workplace, they’ve got to make it more homely. Bosses are waking up to it and I think we’re going to see a big change in the way people work in the future.

    Personally speaking, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be in an office nine-to-five. Of course, there are times when you have to be, but I think I’d like to see a shift in society so that people can spend more time at home with their families, with their gardens. There needs to be balance.

    From your own experience, to what extent are businesses waking up to the importance and benefits of incorporating nature and greenery into their everyday environments?

    I can give you a good example. A client approached us during the second lockdown: in planning for the return of their staff, they wanted to make the office space more welcoming, to make it feel softer and friendlier. By the time we had finished, we had had a huge impact on the aesthetics of the office. We put cactus gardens in the middle of the workstations and I gave them lots of low, low-maintenance, but high-impact, high-coloured plants.

    What can we expect to see more of?

    Wall gardens are becoming more and more popular. Vertical gardening is one way of bringing biophilic design into the workspace. It helps to break up workspaces, it provides privacy and noise reduction between desks. There are lovely things you can do with plants in an office environment which have practical benefits, as well as health benefits.

    What are some easy ways for people and businesses to bring nature into indoor environments (urban ones in particular)? 

    Start slow, do a little bit at a time. Don’t go full on because, if you do, you’ll set yourself up for disappointment. Once you’ve done your research, then you can become a bit more adventurous.

    Often, when I speak to corporate clients, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. They just want a green space. It has to be researched well: you have to figure out what is going to work for each lighting zone; you’ve got temperature differences in office buildings; you’ve got floors that are drier than others because of air conditioning. And, sadly, some plants will suffer. Not all companies understand that properly.

    What do you enjoy most about your job?

    I like the challenge of new project requests. I love putting new plants into new spaces. Teaching is obviously our foundation and I still love it: I love seeing people smile at the end of a workshop. The stores have also been so much of our personal journey, finding these objects from Africa and allowing people to discover them here.

    Do you have a favourite green space in London?

    We started our hobby near London Fields, which is a beautiful park. It has lovely people, lots of dog walkers, lots of nice stores, cafés and a sort of urban community connection to it. When London Fields was my local park, I got a lot of inspiration from sitting in it, as well as from my garden.

    Darren Henderson co-founded Botanical Boys with his partner in 2016. Botanical Boys aims to reconnect people to nature through its terrarium workshops, physical stores and online shop, and a new project with residential property developer EcoWorld Ballymore at The Wardian, Canary Wharf;

    A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange.