Ward chats about her plant business, love of nature and desire for a slower lifestyle
To say Stephanie Ward loves plants is an understatement.
“Plants have been such a savior for me; I spend every day with them, watering and pruning them ... I really don’t know what I would be doing right now, like in my free time, if I didn’t have plants,” Ward said.
Ward, 36, is the sole owner of Jungle Fever San Diego, a popular plant shop that she operates out of her house in Imperial Beach.
Despite Ward’s bustling plant business, she said many are surprised to learn that she does not have formal education or career background in horticulture. Instead, Ward’s love and knowledge of plants stems from her family.
Growing up in Rolando and Rancho Peñasquitos, Ward said her mother always raised her and her siblings around plants. Some of Ward’s family members studied horticulture or worked in the field, including her grandfather who was the lead landscaper at UCLA. Though “his love for plants definitely trickled down,” Ward never anticipated the interest would translate into a career.
Four years ago, Ward left her job as a flight attendant due to an injury and moved back to her hometown of San Diego, landing in North Park. When a group of her family members decided they wanted to buy a local plant shop in 2017, she decided to join.
Soon Ward was the co-owner of three plant stores in San Diego, including North Park Nursery and Eden San Diego. Though she loved being in the plant community, Ward soon grew tired of the long hours.
“I decided I wanted to slow down life a little bit. I was working constantly,” Ward said, adding that she wanted more day-to-day flexibility and freedom.
Last fall, Ward decided to walk away from the stores she ran with her family and start her own small plant business out of her “tiny, tiny house” in North Park. Unfortunately the 900-square foot home, which housed approximately 100 indoor plants, did not have a patio, balcony or any outdoor space.
As luck would have it, that November she and her husband landed a more spacious and lush home in Imperial Beach, which was previously owned by a landscaper of Paradise Point Resort.
“It was one of those meant-to-be moments,” Ward said.
Ward spent the next few months settling into her new home, securing her licensing and figuring out how to operate the business, which she named Jungle Fever San Diego.
“There are so many different meanings to those two words (Jungle Fever),” Ward said. “When I first thought of it, it made me think of the song. The song by Stevie Wonder is about a Black and white person falling in love despite it not being considered right. My father was Black and my mother is white and their love and passion saw them through all resistance and naysayers and haters and in a different way I hoped I could carry that spirit of beating to your own drum to follow your love, your passions, and dreams, on.”
“I also chose (the name) because it always made people either laugh or smile when I said it,” she continued.
COVID-19 hit a week before she planned to open Jungle Fever. Ward decided to continue the venture anyway and officially started selling on April 9.
“I really thought that was going to be a huge negative, but it’s been the complete opposite,” Ward said of opening her business during a pandemic.
Like bikes, water and toilet paper, Ward said that plants have surged in popularity due to quarantine. Many of her customers tell her they hope a plant will brighten their mood or inspire a new hobby while stuck at home.
Ward can relate. Though her plant obsession is year-round, Ward has found that leaning into her green thumb has been critical for her during quarantine, on and off the clock.
“Anything that can take your mind off of where the future is going, to me is a beautiful thing,” Ward said. “When I’m in my house (taking care of my plants), I’m not thinking about when is this (pandemic) is going to be over.”
“My husband thinks I’m out in the yard way too much but I told him (it’s necessary) during such a weird time,” she continued, laughing.
Ward converted her home’s outdoor driveway into Jungle Fever’s main shopping area. Due to high demand, her selection changes daily; inventory is constantly moving out of her shop and into new homes.
Every Thursday she visits local growers and wholesalers to restock, filling up the back of her Toyota Tacoma that she’s been driving since she was 16 years old. Ninety percent of Ward’s inventory is tropical house plants and 50 percent are air-purifying.
Customers can browse some of her plants on OfferUp — though she only posts a fifth of her offerings online since inventory goes so fast — and set up day-of or next-day appointments to pick up a specific plant listed online or look around the shop in person. All appointments are 15 minutes long and follow COVID-19 safety requirements.
Though handshakes and hugs will eventually replace social distancing and masks, her shop operations will remain relatively the same after the pandemic; home occupation laws limit the number of people on the property at once.
Plus, running Jungle Fever on an appointment system rather than operating as an open shop allows Ward the freedom and flexibility she was seeking as an independent business owner.
In addition to her desire to adopt a slower pace of life, Ward seeks to ensure her new shop makes plants accessible to everyone. Due to the growing gentrification in neighborhoods like North Park and University Heights, her former storefronts were often required to raise prices in response to rising rent.
“You end up leaving a lot of the local demographic out,” she said.
Since her at-home operation keeps costs down, Ward said she is committed to keeping prices low and running an honest business. When restocking her shop, she handpicks each plant and doesn’t buy anything she wouldn’t pay for herself.
“I genuinely believe that if you keep things honest, you’ll always be successful,” Ward said, adding that this approach has brought in a lot of business from return customers, referrals and social media shout-outs.
Perhaps due to Jungle Fever’s approachable and affordable business model, many of Ward’s customers are first-time plant owners. With every plant purchase she offers plant care tips, including her number one piece of advice: always check the soil to avoid overwatering.
She also recommends folks reach out to her if they are have trouble with their new plant so she can offer guidance and keep their new interest alive.
”I usually encourage new plant owners to ease into it,” she said. “I know Pinterest can really hype people up and they want to have this instant #urbanjungle ... (but) it’s kinda like working out. If you don’t run, run one mile, don’t run five — so you’ll look back and think ‘That was a positive experience and I’m gonna keep at it.’”