Living with Plants

A Conversation with Dominika Dratwa of Verde Plant Design

By Jessica Antony  –  August 15th, 2019

Dominika Dratwa is the Creative Director and owner of Verde Plant Design – with locations in Winnipeg and Vancouver – where she not only curates the greenery sold in her store, but also educates people on how best to incorporate plants into their homes. Her path toward opening Verde was perhaps not always straightforward, but looking back seems inevitable, given her love of nature and background as an artist. We spoke with Dominika about her journey, as well as the connection between plants and increased mental health and creativity, and how to use plants in the design of your home.

Jessica Antony:
Can you tell us a little about how you got started?

Dominika Dratwa:
I have a degree in fine arts and I was actually a painter, professionally, for quite a long time. I was living in Berlin and did an artist residency there for six months. I did a lot of self-portraits and my paintings were very dark, very emotionally charged. I eventually decided that I didn’t want to paint anymore. Things were going really well – I received several grants from the Manitoba Arts Council and Winnipeg Arts Council and had shows at Katherine Mulherin Gallery in Toronto – but I felt really disconnected from the clients who purchased my work and I wanted to do something that was more meaningful, but I didn’t know what that was yet.

JA:
So, after your residency in Berlin you came back to Winnipeg?

DD:
Yeah, I came back to Winnipeg and in 2009 I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts. I had a couple of different jobs for the government and it was in February 2014 that I started making terrariums as a self-care, creative thing to connect with nature in the dead of winter, which was really depressing.

JA:
Winters in Winnipeg can be rough. Did you make these terrariums just for yourself?

DD:
Yes, for myself and to connect with nature. I grew up with plants, both my grandma and my mom had plants, and I’ve just always been a real lover of nature. But I’m also a homebody and I really think that your home should be your sanctuary and a place where you feel very comfortable. That’s not just my opinion; there are studies that show that nature makes you feel more comfortable, more relaxed, and healthier. So, I started making these terrariums. I made too many of them and I had to start doing something with them – my children told me that I had to start getting rid of them or selling them. So, I did just that: I made a Facebook page where I sold my terrariums – really elaborate worlds that I landscaped.

JA:
That’s great. So, how did your terrariums transition into Verde Plant Design?

DD:
I did some shorter pop-ups, and one longer, three-month pop-up right before Christmas in 2014. An opportunity came up for a space on Main Street [in Winnipeg] and I had always wanted a store – I’ve always loved interior design and I thought I’d like to try it out – so we opened up the store in October 2015. It was amazing, the response from the city and everyone else.

JA:
Can you tell me more about that first store location?

DD:
We did workshops right off the bat because I like to facilitate a place for creativity where people can learn and do it on their own – I think that’s a lot more meaningful, when you can do something on your own. So, teaching people about plants was really nice for us. Then we moved on to our current location, which is on Graham Avenue [in Winnipeg]. We’re so blessed to have this space. The Women’s Health Clinic is our landlord and they’re really great – it’s a really women-empowered building. I run the business with my daughter, Zoe, who’s been with us since she was out of high school. Our business focuses more on educating people and helping people choose the right plants for their space rather than just selling them whichever plants they think look good.

JA:
Okay, so can you talk about the difference between someone visiting you or simply going to a garden centre?

DD:
There are lots of great places to buy plants, but the thing that’s really different and unique about Verde is the passion that all of our staff have for plants and the knowledge that we have – we do training with [staff] and encourage constant learning about plants. I think a lot of people will buy something and bring it home and then it dies and they get discouraged, so we try to help people. When a customer comes into our store, we ask them what kind of light conditions they have, because that’s the number one most important thing when you’re considering getting plants. Where is it going to be in your home? What kind of light does it get? Which window will it be by – is it east-facing, north-facing – different plants have different requirements. We really like to take time with a person and engage with them and also ask them about their lifestyle. If they travel for work, we aren’t going to give them a plant that needs watering once a week. Do they have kids? Do they have pets? We really try to help our clients get the best plants for their space and set them up for success.

JA:
Do you see mostly design-oriented customers, or do you get a mix of people?

DD:
We get all kinds. We have a lot of first-timers and that is one of our most exciting accomplishments – to have so many first-timers who bought their first plants from us that have turned into clients that we’ve had for years. But we also certainly have people who are collectors who come to us for specialty plants that we get in from time to time.

JA:
Can you talk a bit more about the workshops that you run? Why do you think it’s important to host them and what kinds of things do you teach people?

DD:
We did workshops right from the beginning – actually our first workshop was Mother’s Day 2015, before we even had a shop front. I think it’s important in this day and age where you’re bombarded with so many products to make something on your own and to find a little creativity. We have a lot of participants who swear they aren’t creative, and we always say that we’ll get the creativity out of you, you’ll see! At the end everyone leaves with a finished product and that feels really good, just to make something. We make things as children but when we’re adults and we have regular jobs that are not in the art realm we forget how rewarding it is to create something. I really wanted to offer that with my business because I loved art school and I just love working with my hands no matter what it is. You’re also learning, and learning is heightened when you’re using your hands and more of your senses.

JA:
Right, so it sounds like it’s multifaceted, you take away a knowledge of plants, you’re making something for yourself, and you’re reintroducing yourself to that notion of creating something on your own as opposed to just going out and buying it off of a shelf.

DD:
Exactly.

JA:
So, who usually attends your workshops?

DD:
Oh, all kinds. We’ve been seeing a few more men over the last year, still about 85% are women. I guess our age group is between probably 25-45, but it depends on the workshop. For Mother’s Day of course we have some women who are in their 50s who come with their daughters. For Christmas it’s really fun because we do wreath making, we’ve been doing that for years, and that one is great because it’s usually three generations that come to it.

JA:
That sounds like a lot of fun. What is your approach to integrating plants into the design of someone’s space? How do you use plants in the design of a room, for example?

DD:
The number one thing we really emphasize to customers or in a consultation is that you should always start with fewer plants because they are living things and they require care. We always tell people to wait a month or two and see how you’re feeling and how the plants are doing and then we can add more if you want.

We look at the light first and then any empty area – most people have their furniture already in place. We look at shelving if you don’t have a lot of room. I’m living in Vancouver now, so I’ve downgraded from an 1800-square-foot house to a 700-square-foot condo, so we encourage clusters of plants [in small spaces]. On a shelf like some of the shelving units at EQ3 I would recommend two or three plants, depending on the size, scattered in between your books, stereo equipment, or collectibles as little accents. A small cluster or terrarium works well on your coffee table or your dining table.

Floor plants are also really great, but we always say to use one floor plant in a room as a feature. Scale is really important so if you have a giant great room with 20-foot ceilings and large windows, you should definitely do at least a 14” potted plant, which runs at least six or seven feet tall.

For customers who have pets or small children we also recommend vertical wall planters. Vertical planting is where it’s at – dogs stay away and children don’t pick at it, so lots of clients have those in their spaces because watering is only required every four weeks for some of them and six for others, which takes the guesswork out. Hanging plants are also really good – a lot of people don’t think about putting a hook into their ceiling but that can make a really dramatic statement and gives a pop of green, which is nice.

JA:
So, what would you say the benefit is of incorporating plants into your home?

DD:
I’ve been into places with no plants and the change that incorporating even one plant into a room makes, it’s an energetic change. You just feel different. A lot of studies have been done on the benefits of being around plants and there’s this concept called biophilia, which is the idea that we have an inherent desire and need to be around green and nature. So, bringing nature indoors, especially when you live in Canada, is so important. Plants in offices have been shown to increase employee productivity with staff taking fewer sick days and feeling more relaxed. There’s also a deeper level of taking care of something and watching it grow. For a lot of our clients it’s extremely rewarding when they can see leaves unfolding – they know that it’s because of them and because they’ve learned how to take care of plants. It’s a beautiful thing.

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