Self-coined a “succulent killer turned crazy plant lady,” Maria Failla is learning the beginning steps of plant parenthood in public and on air. Her podcast Bloom & Grow Radio, in which she interviews plant experts to hear the ins and outs of plant parenthood (particularly indoor plants), has achieved great success since it began about a year ago. She’s experienced a huge change within herself as she’s become an active grower and gardener — a change for the better, she would seem to say.
We got to sit down and talk with Maria about her personal plant journey, her Bloom & Grow Radio podcast, why she feels growing is important, and the new and exciting partnership Gardenuity and Maria have formed.
When and how did you begin growing plants?
So I’m a professional musical theater performer — I’ve done the international tour of West Side Story where I understudied Maria, several national tours of shows, and regional productions. I’ve been living in New York City for over five years. I’d try to put a plant in every apartment I’ve had in New York, and I would kill it. Truly, I killed everything. So my like little tagline for myself is that I’m a succulent killer turned crazy plant lady.
I finally got the opportunity to move in my boyfriend, and when we moved in with each other, I really wanted to nest. I had never really nested before because I was so transient, but I really wanted to settle down. At the time, most of the stuff in our apartment was Billy’s stuff. So I was thinking, “How can I have my own little impact on this apartment? Maybe I’ll try plants one more time.” And so I did.
How did you overcome your ‘plant killer’ side?
My family comes from a lineage of farmers. And you know, my grandparents came straight off the boat from Italy, and we’d go visit them, and they’d have an entire greenhouse in their apartment and an incredible garden. As a kid, I didn’t appreciate it, didn’t understand it, and had no interest in learning from my grandma about it. My mom also has this incredible green thumb. We call my family house in Westchester, New York “Failla Farm” because, instead of landscaping, my mom basically turns the front yard into a full-blown farm. She grows cauliflower, tomatoes, sunflowers, beans, every herb you could ever need, peppers, eggplant — everything.
But it just skipped a year. The green thumb skipped a generation in me. So my mom agreed to help. We have a little southern facing balcony, and my mom set us up with a small herb garden there.
In the morning, I’d normally have my coffee, get on my phone, and immediately plug into the technical world around me. With this little balcony garden, I found myself perching with my herbs and having coffee. I would take a moment of meditation every morning and notice, “Wow the basil is flowering,” or “I can’t believe this plant grew this much in a week,” and generally get in tune with what my herbs needed. I was accessing these innate responses within me that I didn’t understand in my plant killer years.
How did you go from herb garden to indoor jungle?
I just noticed that I started to lean towards plants as a way to disconnect with my phone and reconnect with myself. I’d pluck a basil leaf off and smell it and it would remind me of being at home with my mom. Or I’d smell the tomato plants and it would remind me of my grandma’s house. I found myself slowly connecting with a part of myself that I didn’t really know existed.
Once the herbs started thriving, I was like, “Okay, we’ve got like three southern facing window sills, let’s put some jade in there.” Soon after that, I had three windowsill plants, and a couple weeks after that, I had ten, and then a couple weeks after that I had twenty, and then a couple weeks after that, I had forty. In three months, we went from zero to sixty — literally and figuratively. All of a sudden, we had 60 houseplants in our 500 square foot apartment.
At the same time, I was making my Broadway debut with Cats. I was fulfilling this amazing dream that I’d had my whole life — to sing on Broadway — and at the same time experiencing this whole new part of me and new passion waking up.
Eventually, Billy put me on a plant pause. So I’m not currently expanding my urban jungle anymore, because it’s enormous. I’d also hit my capacity for how many plants I could have in my apartment. It was time to dig in and really learn how I could be the best plant parent for the plants I do have.
So, how did your podcast Bloom & Grow Radio come about?
I’m a very avid podcast listener (I essentially live on the subway in New York City). I kept searching for houseplant specific podcasts because I have 500 square feet of indoor space and about 4 square feet of outdoor space, so I’m not really a gardener. A lot of the podcasts were old British women talking about their huge thousand square feet gardens or yards, and I didn’t connect with that. I wanted to know how to take care of my fiddle leaf fig. And so, it hit me one day: “Well, what if I just make a podcast about houseplants? What would that look like?” It was just a moment of the universe whispering in my ear.
I found myself slowly connecting with a part of myself that I didn’t really know existed.
And all of a sudden, everything lined up. I was brainstorming in my dressing room at Cats with my friends, and ‘Bloom & Grow Radio’ hit me. Before Cats, I was on the national tour of The Sound of Music. “Edelweiss” was one of my grandpa’s favorite songs — we would sing it with him growing up. Of course, the lyrics of “Edelweiss” are “Bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.”
So I said, “Ok, I’ll do ten episodes.” It’ll be fun. My mom and I’ll get some amazing experts who will teach me. And that’ll be it.
Lo and behold…I’m publishing my 34th episode of Bloom & Grow Radio next week and we have over 100,000 downloads of the show. Plus, I have the most incredible motivated amazing community of listeners who are just incredible people.
What can an audience member expect if they go listen to the Bloom & Grow Radio podcast?
The podcast itself is all different interviews with different plant experts. We have episodes that range from “How To Not Kill Your Succulent” to Episode 12, which is about understanding the science behind grow lights, to an episode about how to start your own plant shop, etc. The shows are really just about things I’m curious about as a novice plant parent. I just had my one year anniversary of owning plants, so I know that I still have a lot to learn.
So yeah, it kind of covers a wide variety and it’s opened up some really fun opportunities for me. More importantly, it’s connected the plant community. I also have an “Online Garden Club” which is basically my email list. When you join it, you get a password to this Facebook group that is intentionally a safe space for all my Bloom & Grow Radio listeners to ask questions. It’s a group of plant people lifting each other up, and it’s a no-negativity, no judgment allowed. Which is so beautiful.
Starting a podcast is a big deal! Has it just been a happy-go-lucky experience all the way through?
Totally, the podcast was an unexpected happy whirlwind — I mean, a year ago, I thought I killed plants. So, if you had told me that I would have a relatively successful podcast about houseplants, I would have laughed in your face. But, it’s been a LOT of work, and I mean…I have a degree in opera. I had no idea what I was doing.
It was one of those things where I couldn’t not do it, so I did it. It was something that needed to come out of me in the most divinely inspired, kind of random way. But it certainly wasn’t easy. So yes, I’ve spent hours of time googling and understanding an LLC and sponsorships and growing Instagram and doing all these things, but I don’t feel like it’s work. It’s an enormous time commitment, but it’s incredibly joyful.
How does this new podcast work with your performance career…or does it?
You know, I’m still performing, and I really do believe that my performing side and my plant lady side can walk next to each other. It has been fun to see how the two careers have molded to each other. As an actress, you have to be vulnerable all the time. On my podcast, I’m the most vulnerable I’ve ever been because I’m literally asking these amazing experts the simplest questions. But the beauty of that is that my inexperience with plants and my ability to be vulnerable has helped others. Initially, I was nervous, but it has actually been the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. Because I’ve been able to say, “Yeah, I don’t know this. And I’m going to stand here on my two feet and own that.”
I will say, with my Gardenuity herb kit, I love so much that you have this amazing response system on your website. There was one day that the tips of my chives were browning, and I didn’t understand why. So I could go on the Gardenuity website and ask how to fix it, and you guys responded to me within an hour with a solution.
What do your gardens look like?
So, the majority of my plants are indoors. And I have a balcony garden that has a bunch of herbs, and six tomato plants and a sunflower. It’s 1.5 feet deep by 4 feet long, so we’ve definitely used every square inch of it. And I also have a secret garden on my roof that my landlord doesn’t know about that I am experimenting growing lettuce on.
The more I grow my own food, the more I’m becoming motivated to educate people. Our generation is very disconnected from how our food is grown. We are just so used to showing up in the grocery store and getting what we need. But I think it’s important for us to reconnect with where our food comes from. There is definitely a component of the show where I’m trying to nudge these houseplant people to experiment with growing their own food. It’s not an entirely different experience, but it is unique from having only houseplants.
What do you think makes people so happy when they interact with plants and the process of growing?
You know, I’m very curious about this as well. I think there’s an innate, biological thing we experience with plants. For me, plants give us opportunities — especially millennials — to get off our phones for a minute. The act of checking your plant if it needs water and pruning your basil and just spending time with plants is spending time away from your cell phone and I think that’s really important in our community.
Number two, plants really do just make people happy. There’s something about being around them that just relaxes my nervous system. I can’t point it out, but I do feel like there’s this biological innate sense in humans that we’ve been around plants and plants have been part of our world for a long time. And living in cities, that part of you lies dormant. So when you bring plants back into your life, there’s this awakening.
Plants have kept me grounded with the lessons they’ve taught me.
Then…I would also say that plants are really good at teaching me life lessons. One of my biggest things I tell myself as a performer is, “Basil grows differently than mint grows differently than chives grow differently than thyme…” Everybody grows at their own rate and everybody grows differently. Even in two minutes with my plants, I really see them and remind myself of that. It’s a lovely way to start my day.
What else have you learned from plants?
Last year, Billy and I cared for this tomato plant for two months, it brought us so much closer together, we got so excited about all the tomatoes, and then it grew only one tomato. But we rallied. We still got so excited about this one tomato, and then one day the plant got knocked over and the tomato rotted immediately. And I definitely cried — real tears.
But at the same time…we realized that it wasn’t about the tomato. It was about learning to take care of our first plant together, it was about the dreaming and scheming together, it was really about the journey together. I tell myself that a lot: “Maria, it’s not the tomato, it’s the journey.” Life is about the daily experiences, it’s not about whatever money or whatever job or whatever house you do or don’t have.
So, we at Gardenuity are really excited about this new relationship we’ve formed! Can you talk about what this will look like for us?
So, Gardenuity is one of our inaugural sponsors of the show. I can’t remember how we got involved, but I remember learning about Gardenuity and thinking, “Wow this is a really cool idea,” — especially as a person who is very much not a gardening expert but is very much interested in growing food. So when it was time for inaugural sponsors, Gardenuity was a no-brainer.
Are you growing a Gardenuity garden?
I am currently growing the outdoor herb garden which I am loving so much. So I’m growing chives, thyme, oregano — my oregano is doing fabulously — and rosemary. We made the most amazing steak with the rosemary the other day.
Lastly, what’s your advice to new plant owners that might be wary or nervous to begin growing?
First off, listen to Bloom & Grow Radio because I’m just right there with ya — figuring it out.
Secondly, really understand your indoor surroundings and what you’re going to be bringing your plants into. I think that’s the number one thing that people get wrong. So, if you have southern facing windows on a tenth-floor apartment that has a ton of light, you’re going to be buying very different plants than if you’re in a first-floor apartment that only has filtered light. Understand your home’s environment and then choose your plant so you can set yourself up for a lot more success and happiness.
Because once people get plants and they start thriving, it’s only a matter of time until they get more plants. Because growing is the best feeling.