I met Lotte Reinhoudt and Siméon de Bruijn on a sunny Thursday morning. In the middle of the pandemic, these two Epidemiology Msc students founded the Plantenasiel. Their initiative gives plants a second chance: you can donate plants, exchange plants, or buy plants for a small fee. The initiative has been running for two months and keeps on growing. After my own uplifting experience at the Plantenasiel a few weeks ago, I wanted to find out what hides behind their success. Why do people all over Maastricht keep coming back to this green jungle?
"It was out of control!"
Whilst listening to Lotte and Siméon’s latest plant news, I can immediately understand their deep passion for the initiative. “Look at this [unusual plant name]. Unbelievable! It has grown so fast.” To me it all sounds like Gibberish, to them it is everyday talk. Their enthusiasm, nonetheless, is understood by any listener. So how was the Plantenasiel born out of their passion for plants? Lotte explains that, due to the Coronavirus, they have much more free time on their hands, leading to an explosion of plants in their homes. “As it was out of control, I decided to put some plants for €0.50 on the pavement. Within two hours everything was gone!” Lotte realized people’s interest and decided to pursue the initiative. “I was surprised by the number of people that showed up. That is how the idea of the Plantenasiel was born. In the second week all the other members joined and then it just kept growing.” While the initiative was born out of one simple act, the current mission is to stimulate a passion for plants and nature, while enhancing the feeling of community within Maastricht.
"This community is absolutely fantastic!"
A few weeks ago I experienced this feeling of community myself. Whilst waiting in line, I found myself in the middle of chats about plants with those waiting with me. Lotte and Siméon have recognized this community growth within their returning customers. ‘The regulars’ include people who showed up straight from the beginning and have brought friends with them ever since. By now, many of their regulars know each other. “There were these two women saying ‘I have seen you here before!’. It is fun to see these interactions. They bring a smile onto my face”, Siméon shares. Lotte also experienced an increased community feeling with her neighbors. “When I see them in the streets, they always ask about the Plantenasiel. I am kind of involved now in the neighborhood activities.” According to Siméon, they need the community. “This community is based on trust because people can leave their plants outside if we are not open. People look after this community. So nothing is taken without us knowing. It is great. This community is absolutely fantastic.”
"It's not about the money..."
The founders agreed from the start that it should be a social good initiative rather than commercial. While customers pay for plants, the fee is limited to one or two euros. The profit is just enough to cover the costs, like soil and savings for rent. Lotte affirms that all board members and volunteers work completely voluntarily. “We get the enjoyment of plants and the compliments of all the people, but it is not about money.” I asked them if this was the intention from the start. “Yes, all of us thought that it should never be a business. It is also the first thing we say to people who want to join. It is all voluntary.” “We can offer lunch” Siméon jokingly adds. I asked where this strong ‘moral’ attitude comes from, and Siméon says “It is much more fun to do something for society without having to add the benefit from it for yourself. We are two MSc students. We will end up with a good job to sustain a living. Not everything should be about making money…”
“… Sometimes it is just good and fun to have a local community come together in a nice way. That gives more joy than any money would ever give me.”
Lotte adds: “In the end of the day working here, you feel like a saint. Everyone is like ‘oh this is such a nice initiative.’ It makes you feel good.” I smile, the answers remind me of the previous blog I wrote about why volunteers experience greater happiness
"The fun translates to the people who come here!"
Why is the initiative so successful? I asked Lotte and Siméon if the initial motive: social good, could be a reason why. Siméon responds. “We are having a lot of fun and that rubs off on people. I remember, one time, we had music on and we were dancing while preparing the plants. And then people in the line joined. The fun translates to the people who come here.” Lotte adds “If it were a business, it would work differently. We have beautiful plants, but it is never that you come here saying ‘I am looking for this”. “It is a different concept: You come here because it is fun and the atmosphere is nice.” According to Siméon it is not only the atmosphere, but about finding the hidden gem which brings people joy. Lotte seamlessly adds “It is like thrift shopping, you know.” As a thrift-store lover, I can definitely relate. I asked them how they pulled off the success during COVID-19 in which small businesses are struggling. Lotte thinks the success might be partially because of Corona, saying “People have more time to do this. Who would even like to wait in line for a plant? That is something we have gained from this corona time. People are more chill.” She continues, “People have more time to be busy with the plants. You just watch your plant all day:is it growing already?” I nod, agreeing. Even though I am not a plant person, I too have experienced a sudden increase in love and interest for my plants.
"She got it from her ex-boyfriend..."
Sustainability has become prominent in many aspects of our lives, and the Plantenasiel aims to contribute to the movement. Lotte explains that “Plants can be ill and people don’t know how to take care of them. Then it is a waste to throw it away. Here, we can try to revive them.” Simon adds “Sometimes it is critical and we put them in the infirmary, the hospital ward. We take care of them and then put them back for people to adopt them.” I wondered for what other reasons people donate their plants, hoping to hear a great story; I got many. Siméon told me “A couple from Colombia donated all their plants because they went back home. They brought in some lovely exotic plants, even we were like ‘I don’t know what this is’.” Lotte shares another touching story “We had this girl who had this lovely orchid but she got it from her ex-boyfriend. So she wanted to get rid of it.” The Plantenasiel is truly open to any plant with any story.
Collaborations With Local Organizations
The Plantenasiel also works with local businesses such as Wonderwoud. “They gave us a gift card that could be won by a customer. That is a more commercial route”, Lotte explains. Siméon says that they have a lot of people coming in from local organizations. “They ask us: Can we hang our information up here?” Other social organizations ask the Plantenasiel to work together on projects. In the long term, the Plantenasiel aims to collaborate with more social organizations. Many ideas are shared, such as working together with primary schools to give every child a free plant and helping people to practice their Dutch. Lotte explains that enlarging their board is key to this development, as tasks will need to be divided..
"We had 20 applications within 2 days..."
So how did they find their board members and volunteers? Lotte shares “We were the first two. Then there was this guy, Chris, who applied on a Facebook post. Then, Michelle with a lot of ideas. Then Femke in the same way. They all had so many nice ideas.” The board of only five people became quickly insufficient for the rapidly expanding initiative. They needed more hands with a passion for plants. “We put up posters for volunteers and we had 20 applications within 2 days.” The Plantenasiel now has 10 volunteers, from students to adults with jobs. Lotte shares “It’s all kinds of people with a passion for plants. We also have someone who is recovering from a burn-out.” Simeon adds, “We have some people that try to ease their way back into it. They ask if they can do some work here, we respond ‘Sure, we can accommodate that’. This is volunteer work. If people can step back into society through this, that is great.”
The Volunteering Experience
I got to meet one of the volunteers: Aafke, a medicine student recovering from a burn-out. Aafke became super enthusiastic about the Plantenasiel as it combined her passions for plants and sustainability. “When I first got here, I asked Lotte if she needed help. She said ‘leave me your name and number.’ That is how it started.” So how has her volunteering experience been so far? “I feel comfortable around here, also with the community. I can set my borders. If my energy runs out, that is alright.” She appreciates all the customers and people who work at the Plantenasiel. “It is a good vibe.” I ask her if the work at the Plantenasiel is satisfying. She nods. “Because I do not have a lot of energy, I want to do things that give something back, energy wise. I come home tired from volunteering but also super happy.” Through this experience, she also learned to use her plants as a meditative practice at home. “Sometimes I do not have energy to do something that costs a lot of focus. It is meditating to put on some music and sit on the floor in my tiny garden and work on the plants.” When I asked her if she recommends volunteering to other students, she responded with a ‘yes’, along with a piece of advice. “Some students feel that they need to volunteer for their resume, but please do not let that be your only motivation. That can be draining…”
“…Find something that you are interested in and that aligns with your values.”
"The main thing for us was just starting..."
As a final question, I asked Lotte and Siméon what advice they have for students who are interested in setting up their own social initiative. Lotte responds “As students we learn to be cognitive, to think about things. The main thing for us was just starting it. We started with a blanket outside and now we are doing this.” Siméon adds: “We had a proof of concept. Showing that it worked on a small scale.” According to Lotte, a combination of luck and positivity is important. “It leads back to the spreading of positivity. We got this space for free, the whole thing. We give the positivity and we get back the positivity.” As a final note Siméon tells me that hard work is a necessity. “Try to engage with your audience. Lotte is very active on Facebook to answer people’s questions. So for this success, you also need to put in the effort. But you will see, eventually it will come back to you. Because if you are enthusiastic about it, they are too.”
After spending my morning at the Plantenasiel, I discovered that their success is rooted in passion, community and positivity. While I hop on my bike to go home, I smile from ear to ear with a new (old) plant from the Plantenasiel, promising myself that ‘this one will stay alive’.
Any plants you would like to donate or interested in the Plantenasiel? You can find them here: