Photo by Rob Ballard

Michael Lanier

Written by Isabella Castillo Category: Spotlight Issue: December 2017
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The floral wunderkind’s green thumb is on the pulse of the local plant scene.

With two successful homegrown businesses under his belt at age 24, Phoenix plant guru Michael Lanier is anything but a late bloomer. The Arizona native opened Downtown Phoenix’s only indoor plant shop, The Bosque, a tropical oasis in the Monorchid building full of pothos, tillandsias, succulents and exotic specimens in the summer of 2015, just as the nation’s obsession with house plants was blooming. In the wake of its growth, Lanier sprouted a new business, Pueblo, with a focus on larger plants at Pierce and 10th streets in February of this year. With loyal shop dog Bennie the boxer at his feet and a dozen tropical plants creeping up the surrounding walls, Lanier discusses how he used his green thumb to make plant shops flourish in the desert.

When did you fall in love with plants?
In first grade, we moved [from Mesa] to Queen Creek, and we lived on five acres near San Tan Mountain Regional Park… Whenever it would rain, it was really cool because our property was pure desert and everything would come to life for a few weeks, and I think that was an inspiration for me… [In] high school I started taking agriculture classes… School kind of helped me understand the inside of plants and how they function.

How many plants do you have in your home? Have you had any gardening casualties?
I live in this little 1929 bungalow [Downtown]. I think at one point there were about 170 plants in there. I thinned it down and got to about 90. And I thinned it out again and now I think it’s down to around 30 or 40, but the house is 700 square feet, so that’s still a lot… I try to basically sample everything that’s [in the shop]. It sucks to say as the person who runs the plant shop, but maybe one out of every 10 plants are just going to die. It’s just incredibly easy to kill a plant. Killing a plant is a huge part of learning.

What was it like starting The Bosque?
It was really wild. We had a Kickstarter and raised $3,000, which is far below what anyone should ever have to start a business… It began as [a] farmers’ market booth, and in the first month it made, like $1,200, and it never really made more than that each month. We found the space at Monorchid, and I talked to the landlord, and I got a tour, and he asked, “What’s your business plan?” And I said, “I don’t have one.” … I have no idea how it worked, but I just kept putting everything we made back into it, and we began expanding, and within three months, we doubled that store in size.

Did you keep your day job in the beginning?
No, [I] was totally all the way in, and it was horrific. It was really terrifying, but I live in a tiny house Downtown and the rent is like 1980s prices. So between me and two roommates, we made it work. I would buy myself a coffee every day, and that was my way of telling myself, “All right, this is working enough that I can afford to drink coffee.”

Has Pueblo had a successful first year?
Within about seven months, this store began outcompeting the other store. We have less sales on average, but people come in here more purposefully.

Where do you get the plants?
We have plants [indigenous to] every continent except for Antarctica. [Many of the plants come from] a ton of small islands, from probably 100 to 120 countries. To get the plants that we get, a lot of them come from [nurseries in] Florida or New York. We try to find as many small growers as possible.

What’s your best plant advice?
The plants we sell want to see the sky, not the sun… It’s much easier to drown a plant than it is to stress it without water, in the same way that people can roam the desert for seven days without water and survive even though it’s stressful and every part of you cramps and your eyes strain, but 30 seconds underwater and you’re done… Plants speak in their own language. You have to figure out how to listen to it.