At Rockridge shop Planterday, mental health, botany go together
By Lou Fancher
Matt Day recalls driving all over the Bay Area in search of a real, brick-and-mortar home for Planterday, which was then a popup plant shop that he operated from a used trailer he had retrofitted himself in 2019.
After selling the store’s unique products mostly online during the shutdown, Day and his partner, Yumi Look, were eager to finally establish permanence. Finding himself in Rockridge, he realized the location was perfect. Planterday opened its doors on College Avenue in July 2021.
“Rockridge is a friendly, welcoming community,” says Day. “There are a lot of other amazing small businesses here. Those two things combined drive foot traffic to the avenue. We love it when new people find us just by walking or driving by, so that shows us the location is working.”
When Day launched the enterprise in 2019, it had been one year since his mother’s death from cancer tipped his usual stability on its axis. Overwhelmingly bereaved, he left a high-level leadership position with a tech company and spent a year unemployed, eventually receiving mental health care for his mountainous grief.
Years before, when Day was age 10, his father committed suicide. With the loss of his mother, long-buried pain resurged and nearly swallowed him up.
“After my father committed suicide, my mother was in mental institutions for several years,” says Day. “I was bouncing around from home to home with my mother’s sisters. I went to 24 different schools between elementary school and college. Every school I went to, I was speaking to counselors. I couldn’t say the word ‘dad’ without tearing up.
“I remember when my uncle broke the news about my dad to me and my brother. I completely retreated. My brother was crying and asking why he would do that when he was the best dad in the world. When my mom died, it all came back. I was there when she took her last breath. I walked out of that hospital knowing I wouldn’t be the same.”
Day turned in part to a phrase learned from his mother, “help starts at home.” He adopted healing practices she had engaged in that link mental health and therapy to plants, nature and nurturing. Without insurance to cover mental health care, he scrambled to get help and spent up to $1,000 a month out-of-pocket, well aware that many people are unable to gather the same resources.
Day says “home” to him means community and that this belief that propels Planterday’s plant-driven mission to destigmatize and raise awareness about mental health. It’s a calling he says he feels profoundly, especially in communities of color in which the topic may be taboo or overlooked amid other concerns. A portion of Planterday proceeds goes to the local suicide prevention nonprofit, Crisis Support Services (CSS) of Alameda County.
“Our main community partnership is with them. It works because it ties me to the organization that offers services where Yumi and I grew up. Also, they offer school services, group healings and free phone and text crisis support for various communities. They take good care to be intentional about their services so they expand to help more folks around the Bay Area.”
Look says partnerships pursued in addition to the ongoing one with Alameda County CSS often involve local artists and small businesses owned by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Color) or LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
“We have prints, posters and stickers by Paola Lagunas, handcrafted locally produced watering cans, plants from Brown Girl Farms and others. The partners and partnership events are reflections of us, of ourselves.”
Upon opening the shop in 2021, Look stepped away from her full-time job as an elementary school teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. She does all the ordering and runs daily operations while Day has returned to full-time work at Headspace, part of Headspace Health, a mental health and well-being provider.
On his days off and in the evenings, Day manages behind-the-scenes duties such as billing, licensing and payroll for the three part-time employees recently added. He says Look brings order that is similar to a Montessori school to the store.
“Everything has a cubby and a label explaining what it is and how it’s best cared for. It’s high-level organization so when people come in and have questions, they can look at informational cards around the store,” he says.
If the questions are about mental health, a kiosk filled with pamphlets allows visitors to find answers and resources. Look says they are always eager to engage in conversation.
“We do more than just plant consultation, like when to water, what light is needed, how to propagate new plants or answers to ‘What’s wrong with this plant?’ Our philosophy is there’s no pressure to buy something. The main thing we want people to walk out with is something new they’ve learned. It gives us joy to share what we know.”
Planterday as it grows will continue to carry mostly locally sourced top-selling fittonias, split monsteras, pothos, polka dot and other plants and related gardening products. Then there are the uncommon “starter plants” that Day propagates at home and sells at cost for mere dollars, compared to market rates that might have a leaf cutting priced at $50 and a full-sized plant at $1,000.
“We don’t make money off of them, but I get to share my plants, and it’s more for spreading the joy.”
Having moved beyond the mobile pop-up phase, they sold the Planterday trailer after it collected dust for 10 months in his uncle’s Castro Valley driveway. Big, futuristic Planterday dreams, however, remain.
“We fantasize about having a larger campus, growing into a space with retail, a greenhouse nursery, room for counseling and therapy services and a community garden,” Look says. “This is an incubation mode that we hope will grow. Having a section for children, I have science books I’d like to set up for children to come in and learn by reading.”
Day’s dreams include hosting more small businesses to give them a leg up, offering after-hours events such as intimate grief dinner sessions, writer workshops, book readings, open mic nights and art installations. Top on his list? He says being able to leave his full-time job and be in the store to connect with customers on a daily basis is the ultimate goal.