There are two types of plant people: Those who give a lot of love to their plants, and those who can’t. Now, with travel restrictions mostly lifted, and more people heading out of the country for their long-awaited holidays, the former have found themselves turning into the latter—and their plants are suffering. That’s where Daniel Michael 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,” he shares.
The good news is that Michael is always happy to help and freely dispenses plant care advice. It is a superpower, so to speak, that has led to people calling him Plant Man Dan—a moniker he has embraced since 2013 when he first 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.”
And embrace it he has. 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 continued. He 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 saw 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, Michael left his role as ClassPass’s 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. Setting up shop at home, he founded Sprout lab, an e-commerce business that supplies entry-level plant enthusiasts with the tools they need to grow their own produce in the comfort of their own homes.
The opportunity, he expounds further, came from the public’s growing interest in plants, led by the Monstera plant craze on social media during the pandemic. “I mean, there was nothing much to do during the various lockdowns so I think many of us were going through a spiritual awakening. 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.
MIchael’s know-how on growing plants and edibles didn’t come out of nowhere. Born in Melbourne, Australia, the 30-year-old 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’s no surprise then that Michael spent much of his younger life surrounded by cattle and crops.
“My paternal 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,” Michael 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 a stint at RMIT University to study general science, Michael strove to forge his own path. He joined the finance industry as 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.
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Then, at age 21, a client of his, who owned a talent scouting agency, walked into his branch and asked if he wanted to be a model. “I thought about it for a while, and I 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.”
Needless to say, the handsome mixed race young man clinched the male model title and scored a modelling contract with CalCarries Models in Hong Kong. For the next three years, with stints in Thailand and Singapore (which he now calls home), Michael would grace the pages of magazines as well as advertisements.
While he no longer models full-time, he still does commercial modelling every once in a while. But he is quick to point out that he is not a very fashion-savvy person. Laidback in his approach to life and style in general, he prefers comfortable clothes but can spruce up when the need arises. “I am a super simple guy and my motto is to always go with the flow,” he says.
In fact, he admits that he did not really care much about fashion until a recent modelling job for homegrown company 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, Boglárka Hornyák, or Bee, a fashion model currently signed to Singapore’s Now Model agency, whom he married in 2020. “She has an 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 and I was trying out the hats. I did not buy it in the end but she bought it 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.”
Fashion aside, Michael is currently busy tending to his growing business. What started as a small “warehouse” in one of the rooms in his house is now a business that occupies a 1,000sqft space at Pasir Panjang, where he is excited to welcome people to experience starting 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 shares. “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, Michael adds, is very important when it comes to encouraging people to grow their own produce. “I want to make sure that people see what we have and understand what they are buying. Anybody can grow their own plants, and when 90 percent 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.”
Photographed by Natsuko Teruya
Styled by Gracia Phang