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Ched Markovic
Photograph: Delia Barth

Plant Whisperer Ched Markovic on how to embrace greenery in the urban jungle

The 71-year-old plant guru lists his cardinal rules for plant-keeping and shares details about celebrity encounters

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

“Somebody showed up in the shop looking for a very spectacular cactus and I found a very dramatic one that was like a sculpture,” recounts Ched Markovic while we’re standing amid what feels like a forest inside his shop, Noble Planta, in the heart of New York City’s NoMad neighborhood. “It was $475 and the couple decided they liked it and I sold it and my final note was ‘By the way, in case you happen to have a maid, he or she cannot water the cactus because they’d overwater it’,” he continues. “One person was here hanging around and he came to me dramatically and he said [that was] Hugh Jackman and his wife! After ten months, she showed up here and I asked her how is your cactus and she went like this: ‘Ah! She killed it!, [referring to the maid].”

The moral of the story as Markovic recalls it is that even the likes of superstar actor Hugh Jackman can’t keep a plant alive if refusing to follow the 71-year-old shop owner’s cardinal rules of plant-keeping. First off: always leave plants by a window because they “like the light,” explains the guru. “I usually say [to place them by a window] so that they can be delightful.” Itching to spruce up the entrance to your apartment when having guests over? Worry not, he says: just move the greenery to your preferred location for a few hours and then return it to its original spot after the guests depart.

Palpably adamant about providing his plants with a solid, healthy home, Markovic isn’t shy about steering people away from plant-keeping if considering them not up for the job. The character trait is clearly at odds with most larger shop owners’ incessant desire to constantly sell—a fact that sets Markovic apart in today’s world. “I’m not so happy about promoting plants in low lights,” he says with a smile on his face. “Some people sense that and they walk out.” Another option? Investing in silk (read: fake) plants instead, which he doesn’t carry in his shop.

It’s hard not to take Markovic’s orders seriously: over 40 years in the trade and owning a mom-and-pop shop in one of the most expensive areas in Manhattan, which he now manages with wife Aila, surely account for something. Moving to New York from Serbia in 1969 (“I left because we didn’t belong to the new system that started to rule the country, which was socialism and communism,” he says), Markovic started peddling plants and flowers with a friend on the West Side Highway. They followed up their highway-adjacent efforts in 1977 by opening a brick-and-mortar shop in the flower district and calling it Plant Connection. The two eventually split up and Markovic chose to focus solely on plants, noticing their longer lifespans and New Yorkers’ tangible interest in them: “Although there is some [greenery] on Park Avenue, in most parts of New York City, Manhattan especially, it’s a little bit cold,” he muses. “Plants come along to give a little freshness or to give a little positive enthusiasm for the people who are missing maybe the countries where they originally came from.”

Ched Markovic

Things, of course, have changed since the ‘70s. However, as most New Yorkers might wax poetic about the city’s heyday and blame decline in business on millennials’ lifestyles, Markovic takes the changes that have ruled his industry in stride, as facts needed to be dealt with, rather than reasons to constantly mourn and complain—a trait that seems to be common amongst immigrants seeking to conquer the American dream. “I used to come to open up the shop and there were two to three people waiting there for me to open,” he remembers. “That was some 40 years ago. Now, it’s less, because what I personally think is that the cellphones came in and, occupationally, people, even on the subway, are always texting or entertaining or playing games.” Lest you think he’s angry about the shifting world order, think again: he quickly shrugs, as if to say “what can I do about that anyway?,” and goes on saying that the business “is still active, it might just not be as active as it [used to be].”

He also has opinions about New York’s real estate boom. He mentions his new neighbor, a building owner responsible for the new massive structure across the street from Noble Planta. When said owner asked Markovic about his thoughts regarding the building, hoping to get positive feedback, the plant guru matter-of-factly called it a “pigeon house,” given its low ceilings. “But it’s opinion, you know,” he says calmly.

Falling back into a conversation about taking care of plants in New York City apartments, Markovic issues two additional directives: feel free to speak and play music to the plants. “I think it’s good to talk to the plants if you don’t have anybody to talk to,” he happily notes. “They are friendly, they keep secrets, they don’t talk back at you.” But, don’t forget: “They cannot ask you to give them water so you have to be informed by somebody like me about how to make all that happen in a positive way.”

As for the music: stay away from rap. Why? “Because the suggestions are a little bit aggressive and the plants don’t like that,” he says sternly. When asked about what genre to opt for instead, Markovic breaks out into a song that can’t possibly be reproduced on paper but is heavy on the “I love yous.” “Something harmonious, but nothing repetitious,” he explains. To further illustrate his point, he demonstrates “something repetitious” that’s a clear disturbance to mortal human ears, let alone plants. “Relax, man!,” he says to the rap-loving plant-owners of the universe. “I’m trying to give plants a break!”

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