"You can see this look of awe," says the model and budding holistic maven, who hosts high-vibe events at her (ah-mazing) walk-up, which is bursting with plant life. They're growing out of huge planters on the floor, hanging from the ceiling, thriving in stunning vertical gardens that cover the walls—and popping out of nearly every inch of the industrial-style space, from the bathroom sink to the kitchen pantry.
"I think there's something on a very cellular level that happens when we commune with nature—it's so calming," she says. "The way people react, it's like there’s this knowing, this familiarity, like meeting a person for the first time who you’re strangely familiar with."
At a recent gathering she hosted, where sound bath guru Sara Auster offered up a group healing session and Splendid Spoon founder Nicole Centero dished out yummy soup samples, conversation kept veering back to the greenery.
Why? Oakes has a theory.
"I think most of us who are millennials have an issue where we don't feel rooted. There are so many major aspects of our lives that are not conducive to having a 14-foot plant in our house," she says.
"Many of us are going from job to job, on month-to-month leases, bouncing around in relationships. There's a real wonderment at rootedness," she adds. "I can't tell you how many people say, 'This reminds me of my grandma's house.'"
So, how did Oakes get so comfortable having (multiple) 14-foot plants and countless tinier ones? She studied science at Cornell University (majoring in natural resources, with a minor in entomology), but her green thumb was inherited from her parents—and to this day she and her dad work on "living art pieces" using plants every time he visits.
"Right underneath my bedroom when I was growing up, there were lilacs. In the summer the wind would hit, and the smell of lilacs would float through my room. I loved it, and I made everything in my room purple, from wallpaper to bedding. Even my lamps were purple," she says.
After 11 years in her current space (and not much more room for her indoor garden to grow), she's hoping to get a plot of land for a community garden in her neighborhood.
"A plant to me—more than a dog or cat, because you can move them easily when you get a new place—is rootedness. That deeper appreciation of what you feel when you come into the home," she says.
How to create your own urban oasis? Read on for Oakes' tips—and some serious green inspo.
1. Pick plants that can thrive in your home
"For a first plant, the key is not to say which plant you want, but [rather to] understand the lighting and conditions you have in the house first. Most people will point to a plant and say, 'I want that one!' without considering the environment for them," she says.
The main things to consider are the light and humidity in your space. In the Northeast, for example, it can get pretty dry, so Oakes suggests getting a humidifier or putting a pebble basin underneath your plants with water, to create humidity around the plant.
And when you go plant shopping, make sure you're armed with information about the amount of light in your home and the direction it's coming from (for instance, if you want to grow herbs but don't have south-facing windows, you're probably out of luck, Oakes says). That way, the pros at the nursery can help you make a good match.
2. Be realistic about your time commitment
Just as in dating, compatibility is key. Some plants are clingier (sorry, couldn't resist) than others.
"Know whether you’re going to be attentive or not. I think most people don’t want to be that attentive; they don't want to be beholden to a creature, whether it's a dog or a plant," she says. For your first bit of greenery, Oakes suggests getting your confidence up with something easy, before you move on to your second.
3. Planters do matter
All those stylish planters? Yes, they actually serve a purpose. Remember to transfer each plant to a pot that's breathable (as opposed to the plastic container from the store, which doesn't let air in). Oakes says look for terra cotta or ceramic, and your new green BFF will thank you.
4. Get one of these starter plants
There's a reason why you're seeing those giant fiddle-leaf figs everywhere: they're hard to kill, Oakes says.
Other hearty plants that are great for beginners? Oakes recommends ZZ plants (short for Zamioculcas zamiifolia) and snake plants (Sansevieria)—which are both somewhat large floor plants like fiddle-leaf figs—and hanging plants like philodendrons and pothos plants (AKA devil's ivy).
"Another good one, though it can be expensive, is aglaonema. It can get leggy, meaning it loses its leaves on the bottom and grows up like stalks, but the growth structure is very beautiful," she says.
Keep scrolling for more photos of Oakes' plant palace.
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