This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The August 2022 issue is out on newsstands now.
SINGAPORE - There are two types of plant people: Those who give a lot of love to their plants and those who cannot. Now, with borders open and more people heading overseas for their long-awaited holidays, the former have found themselves turning into the latter, and their plants are suffering.
That is where Daniel Michael, 30, comes in.
"My friends used to call me about their dead or dying plants, and it is mostly because they've just returned from their travels and their plants have not been receiving much care the entire time," says the Singapore-based Australian.
He is always happy to help and freely dispenses plant care advice. It is a "superpower" that has led to people calling him Plant Man Dan - a moniker he has embraced since 2013 when he joined Sustenir, one of Singapore's first urban farming start-ups.
"A lot of people used to make jokes about me and call me the plant man for fun. They're not entirely wrong, so I have learnt to embrace that identity," he says.
Even after leaving the company in 2015 to join GuavaPass, a fitness and wellness club aggregator which was later acquired by ClassPass at the start of 2019, the nickname stuck and the calls about plants kept coming.
Mr Michael says: "Hundreds of people still call or message me about growing plants in their home. At that time, I never thought about commercialising it at all. It was just something I was happy to share."
But the success of Sustenir, which he witnessed first-hand as the operations manager and head grower, made him realise that it was possible to turn his knowledge and passion into a business.
So, in September 2020, he left ClassPass, where he was the corporate sales manager for the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions, and in the thick of a global pandemic, decided to bring horticulture to the masses.
He founded home-based e-commerce outfit Sprout lab, which supplies entry-level plant enthusiasts with the tools they need to grow their own produce at home.
He tapped into people's growing interest in plants during the pandemic, led by the Monstera plant craze on social media.
"There was nothing much to do during the various lockdowns, so I think many of us were going through a spiritual awakening," he says.
"The interest in plants grew so exponentially that you couldn't scroll through your social media feed without seeing some sort of a house plant collection being shown."
Mr Michael's know-how on growing plants and edibles comes from a long line of traditional farmers on both sides of his family. Before immigrating to Australia, his paternal grandparents had their own farm in Cyprus, while his Laos-born mother grew up on one before moving to Melbourne.
It is no surprise then that Mr Michael spent much of his life surrounded by cattle and crops.
"My grandparents started their own small-scale farm in their backyard. And that is kind of like my roots - growing up in their home and going through the garden or picking fresh produce like strawberries, tomatoes, oranges and mangoes," he recalls.
"They also had massive fig trees in their backyard and I remember eating the most delicious food that was made from things we had on our farm. It was an amazing experience."
After studying general science at RMIT University in Melbourne, he became a banking consultant instead of going into farming or following in the footsteps of his father, a chef who owns a couple of restaurants in Australia.
Then, at age 21, a client of his, who managed a talent scouting agency, walked into his office and asked if he wanted to be a model.
"I thought about it for a while and figured it was a great opportunity, especially because at that time, I really wanted to travel. So, she took some snaps of me and within a week, I was entered into the Cosmopolitan Model Search competition."
The handsome young man clinched the male model title and scored a modelling contract with CalCarries Models in Hong Kong. In the next three years, with stints in Thailand and Singapore, Mr Michael graced the pages of magazines as well as advertisements.
While he no longer models full time, he still dabbles in commercial modelling once in a while.
He is quick to point out that he is not very fashion-savvy. Like his approach to life, he has a laid-back style and prefers comfortable clothes, though he can spruce up when the need arises.
"I am a super simple guy and my motto is to always go with the flow," he adds.
In fact, he admits that he did not really care much about fashion until a recent modelling job for home-grown menswear specialist The Shirt Bar piqued his interest.
"I learnt so much about fabric technology and how there are so many different types of cotton, for example. I used to have an allergic reaction when I wore certain types of clothes and had no idea what caused it. I finally found out through the gig that I was allergic to wool."
He also attributes his interest in fashion to his Hungarian wife of two years, Boglarka Hornyak, a model signed to Singapore's Now Model agency.
"She has extraordinary taste in fashion and is always game to experiment with different looks, while I'm always just in a T-shirt."
She did, however, convince him to get a hat. "We went to Hat of Cain (a home-grown label with a store in Joo Chiat) and I was trying out the hats. I did not buy any, but she bought one for me as a gift later. And honestly, I love wearing it. Maybe because it reminds me of being a farmer - just not in a straw hat, of course."
As for his plant business, what started as a small "warehouse" in a room in his house has grown into a business that occupies a 1,000 sq ft space in Pasir Panjang, where he invites people to start their own gardens through one of the company's popular hydroponic systems.
"The back part of the warehouse is where the operations is, while the front part is a more experiential space," he says. "We are setting up hydroponic systems for people to visualise how they can grow their own plants because I am a big believer of 'seeing is believing'."
Education, he adds, is very important when it comes to encouraging people to grow their own produce.
"I want to make sure people see what we have and understand what they are buying. Anybody can grow their own plants, and when 90 per cent of what we have in Singapore is imported, I don't see why we can't start growing our own. It is a survival skill."