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[Weekender] Meet my green friends: Home gardening for healing, companionship

Referred to as ‘plant butlers,’ growing number of Koreans indulge gardening as therapeutic method in competitive society

June 22, 2024 - 16:01 By Lee Jung-joo
(Getty Images Bank)

Lee Won-young, a 26-year-old graduate school student, has recently added a new routine to her busy life -- taking care of a potted plant that she called “Chris.”

Chris sits by Lee’s desk in her room. Lee’s routine every Monday is to water her potted plant to make sure it survives another week.

Throughout the rest of the week, Lee spends time moving her plant in different locations around the house to make sure it gets enough sunlight and putting it under an LED light to boost its growth.

“My affection toward taking care of potted plants grew after receiving a ‘sprout kit’ from a friend for my birthday two years ago,” she said. A sprout kit is a set of seedlings that are sold in South Korea for those who wish to get the full gardening experience -- from covering them with new soil and moving them into new pots and to watching the plants grow from a small seed into a fully grown plant.

“It was exciting to watch something so small become something much bigger, and I found myself looking forward to how much it’d grow as time passed,” mentioned Lee.

In addition to Chris the potted plant and her sprout kit, Lee has recently added another potted plant to her plant family -- a snake plant that she named “Steve.”

Lee Won-young's potted plant, which she named Chris, sits on top of Lee's desk. (Courtesy of Lee Won-young)

Lee is just one of the many Koreans who have shown a keen interest in home gardening.

According to a 2023 survey conducted by Trend Monitor, 58 percent of respondents aged between 19 and 59 answered that they took up home gardening, an increase from 49 percent in the 2017 survey.

Koreans’ interest in home gardening peaked around 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this interest didn’t wane, even after the pandemic and isn’t expected to, either.

According to a study conducted by the Korea Invention Promotion Association, the value of the Korean indoor farming market was recorded at 500 billion won ($362 million) in 2023, a significant increase from 121.6 billion won in 2021. By 2026, the association anticipates the market to grow up to 1.75 trillion won by 2026, with a growth rate of 75 percent.

Gardening as therapy

Another significant trend is that a growing number of young Koreans in their 20s and 30s began to show interest in home gardening.

According to a 2023 survey released by Daehak Naeil, up to 56 percent of 900 individuals in their 20s and 30s answered that they grew plants at home.

Referring to themselves as “plant butlers” and their plants as “pet plants,” these young Koreans enjoy home gardening as another hobby for home decorating purposes, self-therapy and to feel a sense of accomplishment and joy.

Oh Ji-hyeon grows a basil plant at a balcony of her home, along with succulents. (Courtesy of Oh Ji-hyeon)

Oh Ji-hyeon, a 27-year-old preschool teacher, told The Korea Herald that her plants give her “a positive start to her day.”

“The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is watering my plants,” said Oh. “I find it soothing to look at the plants that have grown overnight. Since plants are a living species, the process of it growing and changing as I take care of them gives me a great sense of accomplishment and boosts my self-esteem.”

Oh, who currently grows basil plants and cherry tomatoes at home, said proudly that she has grown more than nine plants over the last few years, including sunflowers, marigolds, wild beans and chili peppers.

Lee said that growing plants feels like “a form of meditation.”

“I find that the entire process of taking care of my plants' well-being and watching them grow is extremely rewarding and soothing,” mentioned Lee. “It’s a nice change of pace from my fast-paced, hectic life, and helps me relax to see them grow at their own pace.”

Lee Won-young repots her plant. Repotting is one of Lee's favorite gardening activities, as she can do it without much thinking. (Courtesy of Lee Won-young)

As for the reason why more young Koreans begin to seek home gardening as a new hobby, professor Kwak Keum-joo from Seoul National University’s Department of Psychology mentioned Korea’s competitive society.

“Young Koreans constantly search for a therapeutic, ‘healing’ element that can help them set aside Korea’s competitive society,” Kwak said. “The home gardening craze can be seen as a search for happiness, enjoyment, and a way to destress."

Professor Kwak added that gardening has positive effects on mental well-being, as it can help gardeners “feel a sense of stability, happiness, and accomplishment.”

“There is always a great sense of accomplishment and happiness that is accompanied by one growing or building something of their own and reaping the rewards or outcomes from such efforts, and the same is applied to gardening,” added Kwak.

Gardening classes, clinics

Several local governments and businesses have introduced services catered toward home gardeners as well as gardening classes.

One such service includes plant clinics operated by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, which offer care services and free consultations with plant experts to heal sick plants. Some sick plants may be treated on the consultation day, while some could be taken in for a maximum period of three months if needed.

There are currently five such clinics in operation at Seocho-gu, Jongno-gu, Dongdaemun-gu, Eunpyeong-gu and Yangcheon-gu.

The entrance to a "plant clinic," or a care center for home plants, at Seocho-gu, central Seoul (Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Up to 20 plant clinics are also operating in Daegu, in partnership with flower shops around the city. The clinics offer free repotting services and one-day consultation and treatment services for sick plants.

In addition to its plant clinic services, the Seoul Metropolitan Government also introduced “After Work Gardening Classes,” which will commence every Thursday until Nov. 14 for a fee of 10,000 won per person. During the classes, participants will learn about the basics behind gardening while planting plants and flowers featured in famous films.

While the city government's summer semester classes have no available slots, it will commence its fall semester classes after August.

Park Geon, a gardener, conducts gardening classes at a cafe in Seoul as part of the Seoul Metropolitan Government's "After Work Gardening Classes" program. (Lee Jung-joo/The Korea Herald)

Separate from local governments, a private-run plant kindergarten is also in operation in Mapo-gu, western Seoul. After picking up abandoned house plants from the street or in run-down homes, the kindergarten sets up a flea market with plants ready to take home. Potential owners can only take the plants home after taking part in a two-week lesson that teaches them how to grow them successfully.

Artificial intelligence-based applications for plant aficionados are also available for use on the application market. “Groo” is a popular app among gardeners as the AI service provides a diagnosis for sick plants upon a photo of it is uploaded on the app. It also provides care tips on how to grow and care for the plant.