Updated date:

Make Houseplant Propagation Your Pandemic Side Hustle (Part 1 of 4): To Swap or to Sell?

Author:

CS lives in an house that's being slowly converted into a rainforest by his rapidly-propagating plant collection.

UPDATE: This article started as a single piece, but the topic is simply too large to handle in one sitting. I'm in the process of splitting this into four sub-articles (links coming as they become available!):

Part 1: To Swap or to Sell? (focuses on the general overview and deciding which path is right for you) (YOU ARE HERE)

Part 2: What To Propagate, and How To Do It (some of the best plants to focus on propagating for maximum benefit and minimal effort)

Part 3: Valuing Your Propagated Houseplants (focuses on finding a fair trade expectation or asking price for your propagated plants)

Part 4: Where To Sell Or Swap Your Propagated Houseplants (how and where to find out about swaps and sell your plants in the Era of COVID)

Propagating your houseplants is easier (and more profitable) than you think!

Propagating your houseplants is easier (and more profitable) than you think!

Cuttings Into Commodities

I've never liked pruning plants, no matter how well I understand the necessity. Throwing away perfectly good cuttings seems like such a waste, particularly for something like succulents, which would be essentially fine if I just dropped them on any old dirt pile. As a result, I tend to cultivate what we could generously call a "freely growing" aesthetic with my houseplants, and my apartment tends to look more like an Indiana Jones-esque rainforest ruin each day.

In contrast other "pet-like" options, plants are endlessly divisible, and can be easily propagated to generate infinite numbers of clones or offspring from a single parent plant. While taking a cutting from, say, your cat is strongly discouraged and unlikely to grow into a new cat if planted, your houseplants want to be trimmed to give them space to grow, and those trimmings can easily be turned into little clones.

Depending on your personal needs, you can use this demand and propagation ability to (A) Get more plants, or (B) Get money (probably to get more plants...). A new horticultural subculture has sprung up around this demand, and it's now easier to informally swap or sell plants with fellow plant people.

Whether you're looking for a side hustle while you're quarantining at home, you're looking for the most cost-effective way to diversify your houseplant collection, or your houseplants just need a COVID haircut (like the rest of us), then houseplant propagation could be just the outlet you're looking for.

All you need to do is figure out which path to take, and where to start...

Pitcher plants are increasingly in-demand, and can be absurdly easy to divide and propagate. Use this to your advantage as a bargaining chip or a side hustle.

Pitcher plants are increasingly in-demand, and can be absurdly easy to divide and propagate. Use this to your advantage as a bargaining chip or a side hustle.

Succulents are everywhere for a reason; they're about as simple as it gets to propagate, and are the bread-and-butter of plant swappers and sellers

Succulents are everywhere for a reason; they're about as simple as it gets to propagate, and are the bread-and-butter of plant swappers and sellers

The Debate

If you have propagated plants (I'll refer to them as "propagates" throughout these articles) on hand, the fundamental choice of trade vs. sell can be tough.

On one hand, swapping plants is fun, social, and is about the cheapest possible way to bring fresh diversity into your houseplant collection. On the other, a little spare cash is never a bad thing, and a boom in houseplant culture during pandemic times offers a timely side hustle for struggling plant owners.

To help you decide, here's a very quick Pro/Con breakdown of swapping vs selling.

Plant Swapping

The Basic Idea: Meet up with other plant lovers, bring propagates of your plants, exchange them for different species. Rules, size and level of organization vary from an informal gathering of a few neighbors to hundreds of participants.

PROS:

-By far the most cost-effective way to add new species to your houseplant collection.

-Pre-COVID, this is also a fantastic way to meet and make Plant Buddies, exchange tips and tricks, and just generally connect with similarly-interested people. I really miss this aspect, and as soon as it's safe, I'll be going to as many as I can to reconnect with the community.

-A lot of them raise money for awesome causes.

CONS:

-Pretty much a nonstarter during the pandemic, at least in the form of a large indoor gathering of people.

-Most people go there looking for rare, exciting new plants; however, the vast majority of "swappers" are common succulents and houseplants (spider plants, snake plants, and Chinese money plants as far as the eye can see!).

-If you're not good at evaluating plant health, it's easy to swap for a plant that isn't going to survive, though it looks good enough during the swap. I don't mean to suggest that people at swaps are out to scam you (though they do exist), but there's a lot of variation in how well cuttings and propagates have been prepared for the stressful journey.

-For houseplants in particular, safe, outdoor, "Socially-Distanced Swapping" isn't a great option in the winter in colder climates, given the potential for cold shock to the plants and unpleasantness to humans.

Plant Selling

The Basic Idea: You propagate your plants, advertise them to the world for what you feel is a fair price, anyone interested contacts you, and buys your plants.

PROS:

-Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Craigslist, Venmo, and Paypal, this option is as easy as it has ever been. "Gig culture" has laid the infrastructure, and taking advantage of it takes a few clicks.

-Much more pandemic-friendly, as there are a lot of ways to make the exchange contact-free and/or COVID-19 safe.

-If you're approaching your home's capacity for plants, this option allows you to fund your hobby while clearing the space.

-Who doesn't like making a little cash with their hobby?

CONS:

-If you happen to live on the turf of a so-called "Plantfluencer", be prepared for a little (or a lot) of competition. Unless you've got something interesting that they don't or are selling a lot more cheaply, a well-established plant seller in your area can basically nullify your efforts.

-There is often some haggling, which some people loathe. North American culture is generally less predisposed to barter, but if you dread the offer-counteroffer dance, stick to swapping.

-Finding an appropriate price point can be confusing, where both sides feel like they're getting a good deal.

-Though the greater risk is on the part of the buyer, flaking is common. Asking for a 50% deposit in the ad can ensure that both sides follow through on a sale.

-Common species are very likely not worth the effort, in terms of Return On Investment (unless you have the space to propagate and sell in bulk).

Formal Plant Swaps like this one may be on hold during the pandemic, but there are still a lot of safe ways to trade plants

Formal Plant Swaps like this one may be on hold during the pandemic, but there are still a lot of safe ways to trade plants

Swap or Sell? Crunch the numbers with this decision chart

1. Of the total space in your home you want to use for plants, how much is available?

IF LESS THAN 75% --------------> Go to question 2

IF MORE THAN 75% -----------------------> Sell!

Here's Why: Space tends to be THE limiting factor, and propagation is going to eat up some space. If you've got a full house, clearing out a bit of space in exchange for cash is probably the best place to start.

2. Can you commonly find this species you own in grocery stores/hardware stores/non-specialty plant stores?

IF "YES, ALWAYS/SOMETIMES" --------------> Go to question 3

IF "NO, RARELY OR NEVER" --------------> Sell!

Here's Why: This one is certainly up to individual discretion, but pretty standard supply/demand. If you have more common houseplants, you won't get nearly as much per plant as you will with rare or unusual plants. A better move therefore is likely to try to trade bulk for rarity in a trade (think like trading baseball cards). Conversely, if you have a rare plant that you can easily propagate, it should be your "Golden Goose"; devote a good chunk of propagation space to rare plants that command a premium (like a rare orchid, air plant, carnivorous plant, succulent, vine, etc.).

Plant Propagation As Decor

3. How long does this species take to grow to a mature size from seed?

IF LESS THAN 1 YR --------------> Go to question 4

IF MORE THAN 1 YR --------------> Sell!

Here's Why: A lot of propagation methods are basically shortcuts to getting an adult-sized plant (a clone, really), and species that mature quickly from seed are less likely to command a high price. If your species is a slow grower, vegetative propagates such as cuttings are far more valuable for the time savings they represent, so take advantage and sell when possible. If your species is rare but grows quickly from seeds, selling them makes the most sense if you have the space to raise them until they're mature-sized to maximize value.

4. Does your plant need to be trimmed/pruned anyway?

IF "YES" --------------> Swap! Or sell propagated cuttings for cheap.

IF "NO" --------------> Wait until it does...

Here's Why: If you've made it this far into the questions, you've got a fair bit of space, you've got a pretty common species, and it grows fast. This set of characteristics describes a lot of common houseplants, and therefore not likely species that are worth the time and effort investment to sell. The final consideration, therefore, is if you're about to generate a bunch of viable propagates anyway. If your plant needs to be pruned or divided, then you might as well use the space to propagate as many as you feel like dealing with to give you some bargaining chips for swapping. Most of my propagation results from a situation like this. Don't underestimate the power of selling propagates for $1-2 though! That cutting you're about to toss could mean the world to a budding Plant Parent with nothing to trade yet.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.