The Green House

Lara Bui knows the power of plants — how their colours and shapes can lift a room, but also how they can lift spirits, which is one of the key reasons she came to launch her business, Cool Plants. 

Lara Bui knows the power of plants — how their colours and shapes can lift a room, but also how they can lift spirits, which is one of the key reasons she came to launch her business, Cool Plants. 

Lara Bui’s diverse Matua garden has many distinct areas for plant lovers to investigate, but looking out from her deck in early summer, it’s the huge flowering Australian Christmas tree that demands your attention. Alive with monarch butterflies dipping in and out of its leaves, it’s covered in white flowers that’ll imminently turn pink.

“It’s a wicked tree! The biodiversity is fantastic,” enthuses Lara. “It’s just full of bees, monarchs
and hoverflies — everyone from the neighbourhood gets a feed. Tūīs nest in it, kingfishers use it
as a toilet,” she laughs. (They find crabs dropped onto their table underneath the tree, as evidence
of this last point!)

Lara in her home garden

The garden — which is showcased each year in the Bay of Plenty Garden & Art Festival trail — is testament to her green thumbs, vision and hard work, and all the more special given it doubles as
a gallery for husband Isaac Weston’s copper artworks (see our story on Isaac at ourplacemagazine.co.nz).

“We’ve kind of got ‘rooms’ in the garden, which we created as we had budget,” Lara explains.
Areas include a tropical gazebo with bird of paradise, nikau, canna and calla lilies, and tractor
seat plant, framed by white wisteria above and lomandra tanika grass out front. There are raised organic garden beds, a self-seeding wild flower patch, a pizza oven Isaac and his dad made, and their bathroom looks out on a small Japanese garden. Fruit trees are interspersed throughout, think Valencia orange, lemon, loquat, guava, peach and apple. “We have tonnes of produce so we share
it around the neighbourhood,” says Lara.

But it’s her indoor greenery that we’ve come to talk about today, namely her lush plant studio that’s the HQ for her company, Cool Plants.

Lara’s path to launching the business was via the discovery of gardening as a therapeutic distraction. While dealing with rounds of unsuccessful IVF, she found the “active mindfulness” of gardening to be a type of therapy during a very tough time. She realised just how much she loved it and, fortuitously, had a knack for it.

Lara subsequently took a free horticulture course in Tauranga, did some work at a Pyes Pa tree nursery “hanging out with trees and plants”, and some landscaping for friends soon followed.
“From there, it was natural progression to indoor plants,” she explains.

A healthy looking Peperomia argyreia (watermelon peperomia).
In the background is a Sansevieria and Philodendron selloum (in the basket) — all easy-care plants.

“Indoor plants were on the cusp of becoming trendy and Cool Plants was literally a midnight decision — I jumped out of bed and wrote down the whole idea, including the name. And the next morning, everything just started happening for me…”You can visit Lara’s studio by appointment to peruse the selection of plants, planters, stands and accessories, or book a free-of-charge consultation to look
at options for your home or workplace.

You can bring photos of your space to discuss what would work, taking into account everything
from time commitment to light.

If you require more in-depth help with plant issues, Lara offers a paid consultation service where
she can act as a plant doctor, so you can share any woes about the state of your current specimens. Plus, Lara’s a big fan of teaching people how to propagate their plants, so you’re able to share the love with friends.

The plants Lara deals in are generally quite low maintenance — Cool Plants isn’t about highly expensive, rare varieties that’ll see $500 go up in smoke when you forget to water your plant for
a month. “Some people want something new and exciting, maybe like a Monstera Thai constellation, but if you’re new to plants, you want to build your confidence with easy-care options,” she says.

The quality of the plants is another bonus about buying from Cool Plants. “I buy from reputable nurseries, then hold the stock where possible to allow them to grow bigger,” explains Lara. “That way, I’m sure they are perfectly healthy, and bigger than you might get elsewhere for the same price.”

The best personal touch of all is that Lara sends you away with a plant care document, which
is updated every purchase — you’re even welcome to call Lara five years down the track to ask
her about an issue with your Cool Plant (brown tips!, soggy roots!), and she’ll be happy to play
agony aunt and offer her advice. “My biggest thing is educating people and getting them to feel good about their plants!”

Visit coolplants.co.nz for more info as well as Lara’s useful plant care videos, created in partnership with Tui garden products.

Staying Alive

Lara gives some handy tips to ensure your greenery lasts the distance.

Choosing the right plant for the right place is central to whether a plant lives or dies, limps along
or thrives. Things to consider before you buy are light, watering, time commitment and placement...

Watering Plants don’t operate on a “it’s Saturday, therefore I get watered” regime. Before watering, check the moisture levels by using your finger to get down deep in the soil or even better, use
a moisture meter. Don’t water if the soil is moist — overwatering kills plants 9 times out of 10, especially in the cooler months. Ensure your plant is never left standing in a pool of water as
this can result in root rot.

Lara gives all clients a personalised plant care document.

There are lots of moisture meters on the market, some you keep in your plant, and others where you push the probe into the plant to test the moisture level before watering. (This assumes you know how to care for that plant — some plants like to be bone dry before watering, such as a ZZ or Sansevieria (aka mother-in-law’s tounge or snake plant), others like to be kept a little moist. I always note this information in my plant care documents.

Position/light Nothing erodes confidence in plant parenting like a sunburned plant, so be sure to choose the right plant for your light conditions. There are options for direct sun (succulents, crotons) through to low light (Sansevieria, ZZ), with most preferring bright indirect/filtered light.

Feeding Most plants go into dormancy in winter and the key growing period is spring to summer. Feeding your plants promotes new growth and replaces nutrients, making them stronger and resistant to pests. Use a liquid plant food or a granular option, like Tui Enrich Indoor Plant Fertiliser, and be sure to follow the instructions.

Caring Take time to nurture your plants — remove dead or unhealthy leaves, and check for evidence of pests, or whether they need repotting, dusting or topping up with soil.  

Commitment Is watering your plants low on your to-do list? Plants like Sansieviera, ZZ and succulents are dry tolerant and less likely to curl up their toes from occasional neglect.

For those starting their plant parent journey, some easy-care options are Sansieviera, ZZ, Monstera deliciosa, Philodendron scandens, Spathiphyllum (peace lily) and Syngoniums.

Also consider what you’re trying to achieve in your space. Plants can soften a room or create a stunning focal point. Their shape and colour are important when styling our spaces.

Stunning large-leaved plants like Ficus lyrata, Streltizia (bird of paradise), Philodendron selloum and Monstera deliciosa offer a tropical appeal to interiors. Popular trailing options are Philodendron scandens, Aeschynanthus, Pothos (marble, golden, satin), and chain of hearts. Air cleansing stars include Dracaena, devil’s ivy, Spathiphyllum and Sansevieria. There’s a plant for all situations!

Story by Sarah Nicholson
Staying Alive plant tips by Lara Bui
Photography by Erin Cave