From kids to plants: Giving up $6,000 monthly salary to run a nursery

  • Leaving a stable, well-paying and respectable job for a passion may make you feel silly because you may not be earning as much.
  • Two Singaporeans decided to do just that for their love of plants.
  • TheHomeGround sits down with wife Avie Mercado to learn about her struggles, her journey in pursuing the passion of plants.
  • [This article was first published on the author’s Medium page here]
Heintjie Santos and Avie Mercado, founders of Plants Ate My Money. (Photo courtesy of Victoria-Marie Er)
Heintjie Santos and Avie Mercado, founders of Plants Ate My Money. (Photo courtesy of Victoria-Marie Er)

According to the old adage: Finding a job you love means you will never work a day in your life. Perhaps that is what Ms Avie Mercado discovered when she resigned to chase her dream.

Ms Mercado was part of a team of fresh, young and driven people who had been tasked with a nebulous mission: Innovate. They gamely took on the title, “Workplace Innovators”, and spent the last two years experimenting, building, and facilitating professional development on a digital platform they built from scratch. She was a leader in a few projects, and drew high praises from management for her creativity, positive attitude and role in building what was deemed a wonderful workplace culture.

Yet in August 2021, Ms Mercado threw in the towel.

Her announcement came during an uncertain time – the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic. Many companies had started retrenching workers in the thousands yet she was leaving not for some great payoff but to go after something that she is passionate about  — plants. Her colleagues were dumbfounded.

She was leaving a wonderful workplace, a stable job and a comfortable pay to run a nursery. Why would anyone do that?

Why money cannot always satisfy

While The Great Resignation is not new, in pragmatic Singapore where money drives most of our economy, personal and professional decisions, coupled with the fact that she was doing something she loves, it was intriguing why Ms Mercado made that choice. She was not being wined or dined to go into a new venture that boasts a more attractive pay. Rather, her business idea seemed particularly risky — can she really make a living selling plants?

Evidently, both Ms Mercado and her husband Heintjie Santos believe so. They even named their nursery “Plants Ate My Money” — a reflection of what happened when they decided to buy plants to decorate their home. Located at Lim Chu Kang, the nursery has plants that include different types of philodendron, monstera and Peruvian tropical plants.

“I just wanted more,” Ms Mercado says.

“Even when I was studying to become a teacher, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to leave. When I became an educator in the classroom, I loved it, but I still wanted to leave. And finally, when I came to our workplace, it really gave me the space to think, what do I really want from life? You know, it’s hard to leave when the company gives us attractive monetary incentives when we stay in the job for the next five to seven years. The money is nice, but it was no longer enough,” she says.

Checking on her baby philodendron gloriosum and gently turning over to the underside of an exquisite zebra-lined leaf, she says, “You know, it was just time to put myself first, for real this time”.

Redefining what it means to be ”fully alive”

It was not a hidden secret that educators in Singapore and all over the world, have always put their students before themselves, even before fulfilling their own basic needs such as answering nature’s call, having a meal, or getting a proper night’s sleep. In fact, a new focus on teachers’ mental health was highlighted last year, as droves of teachers reportedly feel burnout. Teachers were not the only ones who were sensing that there was more to life than work and money.

TheHomeGround Asia recently reported that nurses felt the same way too. Many of them left to pursue other jobs, even though they never fell out of love with their first vocation.

Ms Mercados words “it was just time to put myself first, for real, this time” struck a chord. It is never easy to simply take care of oneself, “especially when the system lacks support structures”. “The job was great, but it was not just about taking care of our basic needs. You know how we do different pieces of work well but they just don’t challenge us? I wanted more for my life, for the work that I do”, Ms Mercado says.

Ms Mercado says she is not simply looking at surviving life. She wanted to befully alive”, and invested in the work that she does, even if it meant losing a comfortable, steady in-flow of cash.

When selling plants is more than just business

A dazzling feature of philodendrons at Plants Ate My Money. (Photo by Victoria-Marie Er)

According to Ms Mercado, this business isn’t just a “business”. ”We became support systems for our customers — companions in their journey of life,” she says.

“These are very dark times for people. Many Singaporeans started to grow plants as a result of the pandemic. None of us could travel, we couldn’t see family, and so this was one way to cope,” she says.

Explaining further, Ms Mercado says, The plants become symbols of their mental state. They were in dark times, painful times, great emotional struggles, especially when we had the circuit breaker. We couldn’t just do a transaction. We could see the pain in their eyes. And so, we always did follow-ups after the sale. In sharing about the plants, they also shared about the struggles in their lives. We became their support system, and we journeyed with them through the depths of their depression. That’s where I find meaning,” she says.

Both Ms Mercado and Mr Santos do not just take their work as a money-making enterprise. On the contrary to the name of their nursery, it is their enterprise of love, community support, and nurturing and caring not just for nature, but also for the community. 

To live, and not just survive

Avie posing with the favourite part of the nursery. (Photo by Victoria-Marie Er)

“It was a decision that I made that has given me the most peace, one that I’ve not experienced in life. I know this is for us, we are meant to do this at this time,” she says.

The couple admits that initially, they would be working even longer hours than at their previous jobs, especially when they did not have the machinery to help with packing or preparing garden supplies. They recall staying up the whole night during the 11.11 Shopee sale last year which resulted in an unexpectedly huge amount of sales. Now the long hours are not the ones that they dread. Perhaps this is a much welcomed silent revolution on how work, identity and money have been defined as the most important things in life. Indeed, there is more to life than the daily dragging of feet to just survive another day.  

Look for Avie Mercado and Heintjie Santos at Plants Ate My Money, located at Lim Chu Kang Lane 3A Singapore 719843.

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