Welcome to a jungle paradise in Rockdale.
This is not what is expected on approach. A 1930s home in the heart of a high-rise urban neighborhood. But dive a little further down the hall, and you’ll find lush tropical vegetation.
The contrast couldn’t be more different. A fast-paced exterior, alongside eight-foot plants crawling up the walls, thriving in the artificial lighting. Windows are replaced with about 11 types of smartphone-controlled hydroponic systems.
This is an experiment in living room flora in its raw form, designed by hybrid plant enthusiasts Alicia Qian and Nigel Rannard.
The couple are full-time “breeders”, specializing in all living things of the Aroid family – velvet anthuriums, philodendrons and monsteras. Inside their homes, thousands of them have taken over most of their living space.
About two years ago, they started Wild About Plants, where they provide seeds and plants, much like a “farm to people” project. This hobby-turned-business has grown into a growing fan base, with over 15,000 green thumb enthusiasts following their journey.
What’s most unusual is the arena dedicated to their sprouted hits. There’s a pollen-freezer “sperm bank,” quietly waiting for prime time.
The 24-hour presence at the factory required special attention. A typical 70-hour week involves lovingly and meticulously caring for individual seeds.
The couple’s first intrigues in plant life began when they were children. They strangely share mirrored moments of influence.
“I was fascinated by my grandparents’ gardening books,” Rannard said. “After doing rope access work, building reminders for skyscraper maintenance, I wanted to get into vertical gardens.”
Inspired by the creativity of vertical gardens in Singapore, he learned the basics of horticulture, and during rehabilitation after an injury, a passion was born.
Ms. Qian, who studied science at university, remembers watching her grandmother bring her garden to life.
“I come from a village in a developing country where everything, the water from the wells, was an engineering marvel,” she said. “My grandmother grew bulbs to make daffodils. I was fascinated. Soil was very hard to come by in Asia. A garden in China was extremely rare, but they worked hard to get one.”
From there, a literal seed was planted. Once on Australian soil, Ms. Qian began growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and perfume plants. Like her partner, she found herself confined to her home for months after undergoing foot surgery in 2017.
“That was my preview of the lockdown a few years before it happened,” she said. “That’s where I discovered mail-order factories.”
Cultivating has become the daily grind, and down the rabbit hole of curiosity they have fallen. But this flourishing project has expanded into a rather forward-thinking crossbreeding of species, much like with dogs, but there are more bud batches than bark.
We are exploring uncharted territory. I feel like we’re fostering a living legacy.
Ms. Qian compares the process to watching a pregnancy develop. But in this case, a human embryo is a handcrafted seed. “These are our baby plants,” she said. “When crossing species, it can be disappointing when the seed is not viable, but that’s nature taking its course.”
“It encourages patience,” Mr. Rannard said. “But it’s also very calming to have greenery.”
A big part of their business is collecting data from their factories. They learn from their buyers, they said. According to them, the biggest challenge is to compete with the “mass cloning” of companies, but they want to put down roots in a new type of vegetable future.
“It’s like a big science experiment. We’re designing plants for future generations,” Ms Qian said. “What we’re doing is so new. This kind of territory hasn’t been documented, it’s not part of any program. We’re exploring uncharted territory. I feel like we’re fostering a living legacy. I hope some hybrids will become living heirlooms.”
Encouraging education, especially among children, is a permanent objective.
“In a small way, we are helping people find that spark,” Ms. Qian said. “It’s like a wonderland of discovery, a bit of daily wonder, observing the language of a plant, what it wants and how it reacts. I constantly marvel at their resilience and evolution. The ability to nurture something is so uplifting. It’s an innate love of nature but also an artistic outlet.”
The couple was recently filmed for Gardening Australia on ABC, which is set to air for National Science Week in August.