For many people — particularly city dwellers whose homes afford minimal light and space — the thought of keeping a single plant alive can be daunting. Yet one Williamsburg resident has cultivated a veritable indoor jungle that includes close to 700 plants, spanning 400 species, inside her 1,200-square-foot apartment.
Meet Summer Rayne Oakes, an environmental scientist, model, author and entomologist whose urban oasis will inspire your green thumb. With plants everywhere — a living wall in the bedroom, an edible garden growing inside a closet — Oakes’ abode has been dubbed “the hanging gardens of Brooklyn” by a friend.
“If I see a blank wall in my house, I get a little anxious, and I want to cover it in some form of plant life,” Oakes says. “I’m always adding and experimenting with new species and cultivars of plants. Right now, I’m really into Rhipsalis and Epiphyllum, which are tropical epiphytic cacti that you’d typically see in the understories of the rainforest — very much unlike the iconic cacti of desert landscapes.”
The Makings of a Metropolitan Greenhouse
With so much foliage inside her four walls, it’s hard to believe Oakes’ journey to country living inside a big-city apartment began with single fiddle-leaf fig tree.
After putting down roots in Williamsburg, this native of northeast Pennsylvania found herself longing for the bucolic beauty of her former home. When her roommate moved out, Oakes saw an opportunity to restore warmth and life to her lair by installing a colorful — though quiet — flatmate. Oakes was awed by the energy and positive vibe generated just by a four-foot ficus, and her passion for planting blossomed.
In the 13 years she’s lived in her apartment, her collection has grown to include standard potted houseplants and even farmers-market staples like sweet potatoes, bananas, and pineapples. With a name (yes, it’s her real one) so rooted in the natural world, it’s perhaps no wonder the 33-year-old author of “SugarDetoxMe” has wholeheartedly embraced such earthly pleasures. But still, one wonders how these copious and ever-growing tenants have been welcomed by her landlord?
“I never met my original landlord, so I built the indoor landscape to my heart’s content,” Oakes says. “When the building was sold and my new landlord came by, I’d like to say that I think he was impressed. In fact, my landlord’s architect had inquired down the line if I would consult on another green roof build-out they were planning.”
The Secret to Indoor Gardening
That architect isn’t the only one who’s sought Oakes’ gardening guidance. Budding botanists of all abilities want to know her secrets, and she’s more than happy to share them.
Her website Homestead Brooklyn and corresponding YouTube channel offer insights on such crafty endeavors as making a woodland terrarium and building a mason-jar garden. Recognizing that others may want to emulate her indoor jungle, Oakes created a Houseplant Masterclass, an online course that aims to demystify plant care. Students will learn how to have a better relationship with their plants and get guidance on creating a verdant indoor wonderland. For city slickers who’d like to follow in her footsteps, Oakes mentioned some crucial considerations.
“Firstly, know what type of lighting you have in your space, what direction your windows face, and if they are tinted, double-paned, have any obstructions — like trees or scaffolding — that would block light,” she says. “Light is the largest limiting factor for plants, considering they need light to make food, and knowing the details above will allow you to know what plants are best suited for your home.
“I’m particularly fond of Peperomia, which are diminutive plants that are easy to care for. I find them perfect for apartments, since they do not take up much space and they come in such a variety of looks,” she added.
Another obvious factor is time investment. Maintaining her lush surroundings is truly a labor of love. Oakes notes that she spends roughly 30 minutes per day, six days a week, tending her garden, and designates Sundays as her official “Plant Day,” during which she may dedicate anywhere from one to six hours caring for her indoor forest.
Naturally, one wonders how this delicate ecosystem impacts Oakes’ water bill. Though the master gardener can’t share an exact amount, as it’s built into her rent, sustainability remains at the forefront of her mind. Through the use of “water hacks” that include hydro spikes and humidity mats, her plants receive the moisture they need to thrive without any of it going to waste.
As for that intricate and enviable living wall, Oakes outlined her DIY sub-irrigation system on her web series “Plant One on Me.”’ Thanks to LED lighting, five-inch gutters, and a cleverly-rigged hose, the greens stay hydrated without squandering any precious natural resources.
Finding a willing and able caretaker for this herbaceous homestead would seem like no small feat, but Oakes is fortunate to have capable plant-sitters nearby for those occasions when she travels. “I have the benefit of being close to plant shops, so I typically bring in some of my friends who work or had worked at Crest True Hardware and Garden Center in Williamsburg,” she says.
Sowing the Seeds for an Edible Harvest
Oakes wanted to continue expanding her garden, but had no plans to move — so the only option left was to take it outside. “I moved most of my edibles outdoors last year, when I was accepted into my community garden,” she says. “Growing plants indoors and being able to be involved in a community garden in the neighborhood has really enhanced my quality of life in the city. It helps reconnect me to nature, and has made me realize what I was missing all along.”
Hey, why not like StreetEasy on Facebook and follow @streeteasy on Instagram?