Green thumb guidance: Cleveland's houseplant doctor is in at Ohio Tropics

Raffaele Di Lallo may work as a chemical engineer for a top specialty chemicals and coatings company, but his true passion is caring for tropical houseplants and sharing his knowledge. So, two years ago, the Clevelander starred Ohio Tropics—a daily blog focused on teaching readers how to grow and nurture their houseplants.

“I’ve been gardening my whole life,” says Di Lallo, who first took an interest in houseplants when he was in middle school. “My family is from Italy and I’m first-generation Italian-American. It’s in our blood to garden.”

Raffaele Di LalloHe further explains that his dad “smoked a lot, and houseplants can clean the air. So, I just kept buying more and more houseplants and just didn’t stop."

In less than two years since launching Ohio Tropics, Di Lallo has gained more than 90,000 Instagram followers (@ohiotropics) and expects to hit 100,000 followers by April. Ohio Tropics has been named on of the top 25 houseplant blogs by Feedspot and has readers in more than 100 countries.

Since Di Lallo's blog is a part-time job, he creates his daily posts in the evenings (after working a full day downtown) and on weekends.

But Di Lallo wasn’t quite ready to just rest on his laurels with his blog. He recently started a plant care consultation service, where clients can schedule a 15-minute paid consultation via Skype. Di Lallo does in-person consultations with clients who live in Northeast Ohio. Both the Skype and in-person consults costs $15 for the first 15 minutes, and a dollar per minute after that.

In his consultations, Di Lallo addresses any concerns, from the obvious questions to problems with disease. “One of the strangest questions I've been asked about the care of certain houseplants is ‘Can this plant go outside?’” Di Lallo recalls. “My response to that is [that] plants evolved outside. Indoor conditions are artificial conditions. Plants were not meant to be inside. The real question should be, ‘Can this plant grow inside?’ Because there are quite a few plants that are very challenging to grow in indoor conditions.”

Di Lallo says the in-person consultations are the best approach to getting comprehensive advice, so he can see where the plants are located in the house, how they are cared for, and whether the plants are infested with pests.

“I’m basically a houseplant doctor,” Di Lallo says, who has written Moth Orchid Mastery: The Novice's Guide to Mastering Moth Orchid Culture in Less Than 1 Hour. He is about to release his second book, Essential Houseplant Mastery: The Novice’s Guide to Growing & Propagating the 12 Easiest Houseplants.  

Di Lallo has recommendations for even the brownest of thumbs, such as beginner-friendly plants like Sansevieria (snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue) and Pothos (or Devil's Ivy). According to Di Lallo, the former "tolerates a lot of neglect and low light," while the latter is "tolerant of indoor conditions, including lower light conditions."

Raffaele Di Lallo’s house plants
Conversely, Di Lallo says ferns and gardenias can be particularly challenging—especially in Northeast Ohio’s climate. “A lot of people have problems with ferns because they need a lot of moisture, so they require a lot of attention,” he says. “Gardenia—that’s a really difficult one because they need a specific temperature, higher humidity, and pruning.”

And orchids—one of Di Lallo’s specialties—can thrive as houseplants in this climate when given the proper treatment. Di Lallo says that, contrary to popular belief, three ice cubes in the pot once a week is not necessarily the proper way to water the common moth orchid.

“Orchids are tropical, and when do you see a monkey walking around with a popsicle?” he quips. “You have to put in a little more work, and moth orchids don’t like to dry out completely. Take it to the sink and thoroughly drench it to water it. But that’s just one aspect. Proper light, watering, and fertilizer are all important.”

Mostly, Di Lallo just wants his clients to appreciate the benefits of houseplants. “I think that as humans, we need to be around plants,” he says. “We weren't meant to be indoors and cooped up for long periods of time in artificial environments. I find growing plants indoors—especially in our cold winter climate—very grounding. It takes us back to our roots of humanity. It soothes and calms us. It really is a mutually beneficial relationship. We nurture our plants, and they nurture us in more ways than we know.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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