Talking Shop: High Swan Dive

Does the thought of working somewhere with no natural light or greenery make you shudder? Us too. For Jesse Neale and Sophie Toupein of High Swan Dive in Newcastle, owning the lushest little plant shop in town means this is a thing of the past. We chat to the pair about nightmare-inducing plant maintenance, how to fill the dark and uninviting corners of your home, Japan’s tiny gardens amidst urban chaos and being a fearless plant owner.

TPH: Why did you start High Swan Dive?
It just kind of happened. Sophie and I finished art school in 2010, and after traveling around Europe with the loose possibility of us staying there we found ourselves back in Newcastle. Neither of us was from here originally, but the place allowed us a kind of freedom to do whatever we wanted without too much risk.

Initially we just wanted to open a space that gave us a reason to connect with creatives around the world.

We were pretty lucky with our timing as it was just prior to the huge boom in popularity of artist made things. We reached out to a bunch of ceramicists and artists – Leah Jackson in Melbourne, Helen Levi and Josephine Heilpern of Recreation Center in Brooklyn, Emilie Halpern in L.A and William Edmonds in the U.K – as well as a bunch of small art book publishers, textile artists and fashion designers. And we actually heard back.

It was a really exciting time, we just kind of stumbled in on the beginnings of all these artists’ careers, it’s been such a privilege to see them grow in popularity and artistically over the years. That was the first incarnation of High Swan Dive, a tiny 12-metre squared shop, in the middle of nowhere Newcastle, filled with some of the most interesting and exciting young artists from around the world.

The plant thing started about six months after opening. Sophie attended a meeting of the local Cacti and Succulent Society, a loose collection of enthusiasts that were selling parts of their vast collections, and picked up a couple of plants. That was the start of our collection.

We became fascinated by the unique sculptural qualities of cacti and started road tripping almost every weekend, searching out small growers all over the state. It was getting out of control so we needed to find a reason to keep feeding our addiction.

We built a small wooden bench at the shop and every Tuesday a new assortment of twenty or thirty plants would arrive, each one selected for its unique character (and because we already had one at home). There was a kind of natural progression from Cacti to Rhipsalis to Hoyas and Aroids. Eventually we outgrew our tiny shop and our focus had begun to change, so we opened our second space – an indoor plant shop – at the end of 2015.

TPH: What does a typical day working at High Swan Dive involve for you?
First of all, a lot of cleaning. Keeping plants looking great does require effort, and when you’re responsible for 200-300 it can become a big job. The secret for us is keeping on top of it, spending about half an hour or so every morning just removing old, dead leaves and checking for signs of sickness, as well as moving plants.

It’s amazing how chaotic it can get if careful attention isn’t paid to the arrangement.

Sometimes after selling one plant we will have to reorganise another twenty to keep the place looking right. We usually do a big restock on Tuesday morning, and I regularly have nightmares about the three hours of rearranging that awaits me. But after all the hard work is done it’s worth it. The next biggest job is convincing people that they are capable of keeping a plant alive.

Sophie: Before anything shop-related though, we walk the dog! We have Mayo a seven-year-old greyhound. He’s like an alarm clock, at 6am every morning he wakes us up. We get up begrudgingly, but to be honest it is really nice walking round the misty park at this time of year.

TPH: What do you look for when you source products for High Swan Dive?
We try really hard not to be defined by trends. We really just want to support people and things that we believe in. We’re always on the look out for people making unique and interesting stuff. This goes for producers of objects and plants alike.

You can really sense the difference between something that has been produced with care and love, and something that has been mass produced.

It might sound like crazy business practice, but I would much rather that someone went home with something from us that will still be around in twenty years, not replaced in the next six months.

TPH: What are the three products from High Swan Dive you’d like to have at home?
Emilie Halpern Ceramics
We have been in love with Emilie’s work from the moment we first laid eyes on it. We have an odd collection of tumblers at home (usually leftovers from a larger group or shipping casualties) that we use everyday. it is honestly one of the greatest joys to drink out of something so special.

Mr. Kitly x Decor Self Watering Pot
These need no introduction. They’re easily one of our most popular products. These pots are the best cure for someone with a black thumb. They’re so affordable and the perfect home for so many indoor plant varieties.

Giant Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii ‘Sensation’)
It took us a long time to get over our stereotypical bias against peace lilies. We resisted them for so long, writing them off as shopping mall décor, until we found these. Giant Peace Lily gets large broad elegant leaves almost up to a metre in length and can cop some serious abuse. People often buy plants from us to fill unused gaps in their homes, usually the darkest and least inviting spaces you can imagine. Sometimes we are able to convince them that the metre-long cascading string of pearls or twenty year old cacti they’re eyeing off won’t be happy there, but these quiet beauties will be (most of the time)!

TPH: What are you fascinated by at the moment?
We just got back from our first trip to Japan. One of the biggest pleasures was walking around gardens there that were several hundred years old.

Centuries of dedication had gone in to these places that had slowly grown whilst the world outside their walls changed so rapidly. They were protected first as sacred places and are now protected as places of immense cultural pride.

We kept seeing these tiny gardens amongst the urban chaos. It was amazing to see such depth and beauty in these spaces despite the restrictions of size. Too often places of stillness are undervalued, they don’t function, the simply exist, although they can’t exist by themselves, they require the intention and dedication of someone. For us, High Swan Dive is a continually evolving idea, I hope that we have the opportunity to incorporate some of these ideas in the future.

TPH: Do you have any special plants in your life? If so, tell us a bit about them.
One of my dearest plants is an elephant ear in an old cement pot we have in the garden. It must be close to 30 years old, I remember it as a child and inherited it from my mum 10 years ago. It constantly dies back and prefers being absolutely bogged in.

TPH: Do you describe yourself as a gardener? Why?
Self-taught gardener. In most of my spare time you’ll find me potting about in our garden at home. Despite being renters, we’ve always made the time to create a garden wherever we’ve lived, both indoors and out. People think we’re crazy for putting so much time into something we don’t own, but we enjoy it. It’s a stress reliever and it’s satisfying, creating a little landscape.

I don’t know if we really identified ourselves as gardeners until we started meeting other gardeners – the people growing for the shop. We found we had so much in common with them.

TPH: What was the last thing you cooked?
We just got back from Japan, so naturally we’ve been cooking a lot of Japanese. Lots of small dishes of yummy things, pickles, miso soup, sake. We’ve finally found a good use for all the artist made ceramics we’ve accumulated over the years – they’re perfect for holding all the side dishes! Our biggest cooking challenge will be recreating the ramen we had in Tokyo, so good.

TPH: How does being surrounded by plants all day affect your mood?
Being surrounded by plants all day at the shop is something we try not to take for granted. I often think back to past jobs I’ve had, working in places with no natural light and no greenery and I shudder. There is definitely a sense of calm I get from being here. A lot of our regular customers say the same thing, they often come into the shop just to stand amongst the plants and they feel better for it.

TPH: Your top tip for black thumbs on how to be a fearless (indoor) plant owner?
There are two basic needs you have to be conscious of – light and water. What most plants really want is a nice warm and bright spot, where they can soak up energy all day. Imagine the room isn’t inside but is shaded, like under a tree.

If you aren’t having much luck with plants, try something ‘hardy’ like Devils Ivy, Philodendron or Spathiphyllum.

These all grow under the shade of trees in the rainforest. Choose a spot and stick with it, for now. Try to think how much light over the course of the day it gets, are there any points where it gets direct sun, is this morning, noon or afternoon? Ideally, you want a spot where it might get a bit of direct sun during the morning or afternoon, but the intense midday and afternoon sun is filtered. These ‘hardy’ indoor plants usually have big broad leaves that are efficient at collecting light in shady spots, that’s why they’re good indoors.

Now think about the ground in the rainforest, it’s mainly dead leaves and sticks, it’s a bit damp but not soaking wet, it drains too easily to retain lots of water.

Devils Ivy, Philodendron, and Spathiphyllum can, for the most part, tolerate drying out a bit. Make sure your plant can drain in between waterings, and check the soil before you top it up, if its still damp at the top just leave it, there is plenty of water there for the plant to keep drinking. There can be a lot of trial and error with indoor gardening, don’t beat yourself up over losses…

High Swan Dive is located at 178 King Street, Newcastle, 2300 NSW. They’re open Tuesday to Friday 10-5pm and Saturday 11-3pm.

All images by Justin Aaron, supplied by High Swan Dive.