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Albany Park

Is March Crushing Your Soul? Albany Park’s Plant Shop Is A Spring Break For Your Eyes

"There’s people that just come in here and walk around, hang out and say they needed some plant therapy. That’s A-OK with us," said 29-year-old Ozzy Gamez, co-owner of Plant Shop.

Juan Quezada and Ozzy Gamez, owners of the Plant Shop.
Patty Wetli/ Block Club Chicago
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ALBANY PARK — We know, we know: It’s Chicago and March is supposed to come in like a miserably cold lion.

That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to complain about the relentlessly blah landscape we’ve been staring at since November.

Some folks are so sick of winter, they’ve resorted to self-medicating with plants — no, not that plant.

“There’s people that just come in here and walk around, hang out and say they needed some plant therapy. That’s A-OK with us,” said Ozzy Gamez, co-owner of Plant Shop, 4601 N. Elston Ave., which specializes in houseplants.

From the street, the shop presents like any other ordinary storefront. But stepping inside feels like that moment Dorothy lands in Oz — the world jolts from black-and-white to technicolor brilliance.

Every square foot is abloom with succulents, tropicals and cacti in more varieties than seem possible. The overall effect is of a fantastical desert-rainforest, sprung not from nature but the fertile imaginations of Gamez, 29, and co-owner Juan Quezada, 26.

“I think our main goal is just to create an experience for people, because that’s kind of how it was for me when I went plant shopping. It was always an experience for me, it was always very therapeutic and calming,” Gamez said. “We wanted someone to walk into here and feel like they walked into something that isn’t their every day.”

Credit: Patty Wetli/ Block Club Chicago
A selection of plants at The Plant Shop, 4601 N. Elston Ave.

And yeah, Gamez and Quezada know they themselves are something of a curiosity — a couple of young guys spreading the gospel of houseplants — yet here they are anyway.

Quezada studied botany and horticulture at Schurz High School, but his fascination with plants goes back to when he was a little kid, trying to germinate seeds in a napkin, like he’d seen on the PBS show “Zoom.”

“I used to have plants all the time, but I wasn’t very good with them, because I didn’t understand them. I just liked having them. I would always kill my plants, but I liked them,” Quezada said. “Just the idea of taking care of something and seeing it, you know, it’s pleasing.”

Gamez, a Lane Tech grad, began to appreciate plants when he and Quezada were roommates, but the real turning point for him came when he rescued a slew of succulents from death by Dumpster.

Searching for information on how to care for the cast-offs, Gamez fell down the best kind of internet wormhole.

“I realized how deep you can get into that, and how every plant needs something different. I discovered this whole community and huge way of life,” he said. “And after that I was kind of obsessed.”

At the same time, Quezada finally managed to keep a plant — a gift from Gamez, as it so happened — alive.

“I just kind of figured out what I was supposed to do. And I did a lot more research,” Quezada said. “From there, it just kind of sparked.”

That’s how a hobby blossomed into a business.

Ozzy Gamez grew up in a small village in Belize — no electricity and no running water — and “Star Wars” passed him by. He got hooked on the films as an adult and uses action figures from the movies to create tableaus at Plant Shop.

Let There Be Light

The Plant Shop opened a year ago along a stretch of Elston not exactly teeming with foot traffic — but that wasn’t the guys’ primary concern.

The diagonal street and massive front window provide killer light from the east, south and west.

“That’s a huge reason why we’re here,” Gamez said. “We’ve thought about … trying to find other places, but it’s hard to beat the light here.”

Business has actually been brisker than the two had anticipated. Over the holidays, they were pleasantly surprised by the number of people purchasing plants as gifts. Another common thread has been people popping in and saying, “I just need some green in my life,” Quezada said.

The shop’s social media reach has pulled in customers from as far away as Indiana and Michigan, a phenomenon Gamez attributes to a general lack of plant stores versus seasonal garden centers and nurseries.

He and Quezada purposely focused on indoor houseplants that could be grown year-round because personal experience indicated there was an untapped market.

“We’re not homeowners, a lot of our friends aren’t homeowners. So people that we know don’t necessarily do outdoor gardening,” Gamez explained. “We narrowed it down that way.”

Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago
It’s a Spring Break for the eyes.

To Midwesterners’ eyes, the shop’s unusual offerings are also part of the appeal. In fact, many of the plants are native to Quezada’s home country of Mexico and Gamez’s Belize. (Quezada moved to Chicago when he was four or five; Gamez arrived in 2001.)

“Belize is a little paradise. Tons of plants that we get in here that are considered exotic and rare are just kind of growing there on the side of the road,” Gamez said.

Though both men have their personal favorites, when it comes to making recommendations, they take great care to suggest plants best suited to each individual customer.

They’ll ask how much care a person wants to provide — daily or occasional — how much sunlight is available in the plant’s future home, and whether the customer has successfully grown plants in the past, or not.

“We get a lot of ‘I always kill my plants, what can I not kill?’” Quezada said. “We can point you to the right one.”

Growing Tips From the Pros

Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago
Working with cacti is a risky business. Ozzy Gamez and Juan Quezada say they get pricked daily. This fishhook cactus is especially tricky — brush it one way, no problem; brush it the other and you’re stuck.

Speaking of which, we asked Gamez and Quezada to name the most common mistakes people make that can lead to a plant’s death.

Quezada, a former plant serial killer himself, immediately identified over-watering, which he chalked up to a tendency to over-nurture or over-love.

“Most plants don’t want to be watered every day,” he said.

Low quality soil is another problem — like feeding a plant a poor diet — as is unnecessary repotting, which stresses a plant’s roots, Gamez said.

Light is the final, and perhaps most important, piece of the puzzle, with some plants requiring full sun and others preferring shade, he said.

“Someone’s always here to walk you through all that,” said Gamez.

Plant Shop also offers classes, including an upcoming workshop on terrariums.

Here’s why you can trust these two to steer you right: Quezada estimates that he has 65 to 70 plants in his Logan Square apartment (chosen, naturally, for its light). At last count, Gamez, who lives near the shop, had 175 individually potted plants.

“If I had to water them all on the same day for whatever reason, it would probably take me all day and I still wouldn’t be done,” Gamez said.

Snake plants — spiky plants — come in a wide variety of variegated foliage.

Quezada’s favorite: Sansevieria — aka snake plant, aka mother-in-law’s tongue, aka viper’s bowstring — native to tropical West Africa. “They ended up being my favorite because they’re extremely hardy, they have cool foliage, and they have a pretty cool name. They’re super low maintenance and I can keep them alive.”

The pale, tree-like variety of euphorbia called dragon bones, white ghost or ghost cactus is Gamez’ favorite. It looks like a cactus but is actually a succulent.

Gamez’ favorites: Members of the euphorbia family — which encompasses more than 2,000 varieties, including poinsettias — are his go-tos. He also leans toward drought-tolerant plants like succulents and cacti. (Keep in mind those 175 plants in his care.)

For an “unkillable” plant, Gamez and Quezada recommend the “ZZ” (scientific name Zamioculcas zamiifolia).

“They look almost fake — glossy and rubbery. They’re kind of like plants that you neglect and they thrive. It’s a plant you can literally go a month without watering and they’ll be fine,” Gamez said.

“I think that breaks down that misconception that plants only need to grow is water,” he said. “Then after you realize that, I think it’s easier to get into other plants.”

Looking for a plant “pet”? Quezada says to try a fern. “Ferns don’t like to dry out, so I usually recommend those if you want to be watering very constant and care for something.”

The unkillable ZZ.

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