PlantCatching: the Airbnb of Gardening

Getting into gardening can be expensive and time consuming for people who live in cities. PlantCatching is here to help. 

Nati Harnik/AP/File
Natalie Low carries a watering can at the Benson community garden in Omaha, Neb. on Thursday, May 29, 2014. PlantCatching is a new platform for urban gardeners to connect to one another. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

It’s not always easy to get into gardening, especially for people living in cities. The need for plants, seeds, tools or organic materials can become very costly or not easy to access. The goal of PlantCatching, an online collaborative platform, is to help gardeners connect and overcome some of the difficulties they face.

Food Tank interviewed Nicolas Cadilhac, founder of PlantCatching.

Food Tank (FT): How does the website work? How do urban gardeners connect to one another with PlantCatching?

PlantCatching (PC): First of all, it’s important to know that PlantCatching is not a social network based on users like Facebook. It is based on plants, on the offer. This facilitates the exchanges. At the origin I designed the website for ornamental horticulture lovers, who tend to be older, so I made it very simple:  the main page is amap where all the gifts are geo-localized. No need to create any account.

The website is based on the altruistic side of gardeners, who always like to share their passion and to avoid waste. The idea is to make spontaneous and selfless gifts.

There are three ways to connect with other gardeners.

If I have a plant that I don’t use, I just put it in front of my house. People get to know about it thanks to the website or directly from the street and they can just come and pick it up. This is the public mode.

There are two other modes:  private and semi-private.

In private mode, the user needs to contact the gardener who added his gift to the map. They then agree with each other as to when and where they will meet. In semi-private mode, the giver let his plant in his property. The common passer-by doesn't see it, but those who know about the gift - thanks to the website and who want to catch it- are welcome. This mode is more adapted to open societies like Canada, where one can easily access another’s property.

Those who start using the website regularly can also create a free account:  they access functionalities for managing donations and accessing proximity tools. An account is also required for making a request or adding an event.

FT: How many people have been using it so far?

PC: There are 2,000 people registered as members but if I add those who give without creating an account, it goes up 2,200.

From the launch in Spring 2012, 2,400 plants have been given. Since the beginning of May, I can count 280 active announcements.

FT: Which countries and which cities are the most popular? Why?

PC: It is most popular in Quebec, and Montréal is the first city. The reason is simple:  this is where I’m from, so it was easier to spread the word around me.

The next most popular countries are France and Belgium. PlantCatching being available in French surely helped developing the concept in French-speaking countries. In France I received last year the support of the Incredible Edible Network that is very active. In Belgium, PlantCatching is more used for the needs of gardeners.

In the United States and Australia, I had one-off announcements, but it didn’t last long. An article was released in the Los Angeles Times, it made the buzz all around California. But it’s hard to keep up the momentum without a network to rely on.

FT: Which items are the most given away or asked for on the platform?

PC: It varies a lot depending on the season, exactly like in a garden. Currently there are more seedlings. In January/February, seeds were more popular.

In France, a lot of announcements concern the harvest available in planters from the Incredible Edible initiatives. 

As for the requests they are extremely diversified. Since people write what they want, they can be very specific.

FT: How did PlantCatching start?  

PC: I had the idea in Summer 2011. I am a computer engineer and I had just started to work independently at home. I had time to garden but I had to buy all the plants, the tools… The idea rose from a personal need, I wanted to save money so I decided to create an alternative way to access gardening materials.

I developed the website with my own computer skills in Fall 2011, and in Spring 2012, it was officially launched.

It’s important to know that there is a real person behind the website. I’m passionate and ready to answer people’s questions. For some people a web-based platform seems too virtual but activities on the website very often lead to encounters and offline social interactions.

FT: What challenges have you encountered while developing and running PlantCatching?

PC: The main difficulty was to make the website known around me and to build a community around PlantCatching. People tend to wait for others to start. In 2012, I gave many leaflets, sent hundreds of emails, and gave countless phone calls to finally see some communities appreciate my tool. Press articles were also very helpful for that.

But then, the challenge is to keep up the momentum, to acquire some legitimacy among gardeners. And for that, you need a local network to back you up. As I said, it popped up in California thanks to the Los Angeles Times’ article, but without a community regularly supporting the tool it can vanish as fast as it comes.

Now it’s easier, people tend to spontaneously come to me. But I still keep travelling from time to time to promote PlantCatching.

The second challenge is to find a viable business model. I recently created the “Bamboo” paid accounts. Like bamboo sticks for some plants, these accounts are here to support PlantCatching. They are intended for professionals who want to feature their events on PlantCatching, benefitting from an already targeted and built community.

Finally, I also need to acquire some legitimacy regarding professionals like nursery gardeners for example. It’s not easy because I can be seen as a competitor. But down the line, it boosts the market. It allows more people to get into the world of gardening with the subsequent needs that come from caring about plants: compost, tools, other plants…

FT: Where do you see PlantCatching in the future?

PC: If we dream a little bit, I would see PlantCatching being the reference tool worldwide for sharing plants and gardening materials, and geo-localizing Incredible Edible planters. The AirBnB of gardening! PlantCatching would also become a common platform for professionals and gardeners. It doesn’t mean that there will be big and annoying commercial banners but the Bamboo accounts need to grow.

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