The Plant Whisperer

George Rembao finds his roots, becomes ‘plant’s best friend’ and medic to all things green

Halfway through a load of laundry and my second cup of coffee, I noticed a man in a corner of the Ultramat Laundromat facing a potted fern. He rubbed his fingers slowly over the leaves of a deep-green plant with palm-like leaves and when finished with one leaf, he moved onto the next. One by one, he moved from plant to plant, specifically touching each leaf with his hands. As he reached up to touch the taller plants’ leaves, a series of faded tattoos stretch out from beneath the sleeves of his T-shirt.

I looked around and noticed that more than 30 thriving, green potted plants decorate the dusty laundromat. All I could think about was the slow death I’m inflicting on the lone plant I keep in my apartment. “If this man is the plant caretaker here,” I thought, “then he must know what he’s doing.”

So, I gathered up the courage to ask him about his strange plant care technique.

“My technique is all based on common sense,” he tells me, handing over his business card: “George Rembao, Serious Green Plant Care, plant massage therapist.”  And then he went on to mist a purple and green succulent on the windowsill next to my table.

“Trial and error is really what I base this on, noticing what works and what doesn’t,” Rembao went on. “There are people that come in here that know all about plants, but they can’t get them to do what I’m doing. They’re trying to figure out what it is I do that’s different, and I say, ‘Putting my hand on and stimulating the leaves is one thing.’”

It turns out, I am not the first Ultramat customer to ask about Rembao’s unusual plant massage technique. I soon discovered that I’ve stumbled upon a man that several inquisitive laundry-doers have come to call the “plant whisperer.”


Serious Green Seminars

Rembao has not owned or driven a car in 15 years.

“Here in Santa Cruz all you need is a good bicycle, and that’s what I attribute that to,” he says. “That’s why my brother came up with my business name, Serious Green—because I don’t drive a car.”

Rembao adds that he is, by default, an organic gardener because he never uses chemicals.

 ““I know I don’t look or seem like the kind of person who takes care of plants because I’m kinda aggro looking, and I can be pretty macho—my friends were surprised when they found me in here taking care of all these,” he adds, gesturing to the room full of plants. Soon, he’s massaging a large standing plant with leaves shaped like spades.

“This guy is my favorite,” he says, and explains that the plant is from a trimming he took from a much smaller, droopy plant that hangs from the ceiling near a skylight.

He says his massage technique evolved out of common sense, pointing out that if you spray dust on dirt it will make mud. That was actually the logic behind first putting his hands on the plants. And once he did that, he began to realize that he could “feel underneath the leaf; feel stuff that isn’t supposed to be there.” He says he can spend up to an hour on just one leaf sometimes, just spacing out.

“These guys actually answer me back when I massage them,” he adds. “This one honestly perks up, you can see it. After awhile your eye catches it. And that makes it more gratifying, knowing you’re doing it right.”

One of his methods includes adding a dab of aloe vera or vitamin E  lotion to his hands. It must do the trick because Rembao says people constantly come up to him to ask for plant advice. Locals even often drop off their dying plants for a week at the laundromat where Rembao works, hoping he can revive them.

In fact, Paul Coty, owner of the Ultramat, became so impressed with Rembao’s plant care success, as well as his charisma with inquisitive laundromat customers, that he recently encouraged him to begin “Plant Care Clinics.”

“George is a pleasant individual to have around, he’s interesting, he adds to the character of this store, and it’s a great place for him to display his art,” says Coty, gesturing to Rembao’s “favorite” plant, which is tied upright so that its fronds splay out like a fan. “I thought it would be interesting for people to come in here and talk about their plants, or bring in their plants for the plant day spa. People notice the plants all the time, and I post plants on my Facebook page for the Ultramat and get comments on that.”

Rembao’s Plant Care Clinics will take place inside of the laundromat beginning Saturday, Mar. 24 and Rembao is asking for a $5 donation, but says he’s very flexible when it comes to pricing.

The Plant Care Clinic fliers read, “If you have a leafy plant (or plants) that you love that are not growing to their potential, or just look sick and tired, let the Plant Massage Therapist teach you how to bring your loved ones to their full beauty and health …”

Rembao encourages locals with struggling leafy indoor plants to bring them to the clinic for specified advice and says he sees each browning plant as a positive challenge. In fact, in the two years he has worked on plants in the Ultramat, the plants have become a personal escape from negative aspects of Rembao’s life.

“Sometimes the only positive thing in my life has been these guys, so I have a tendency of hanging around them more than I probably should,” he says with a smile. “When I had these plants at my home, I would do this dusting thing once a month, but in here I have to do it once a week. If you look around, all these leaves have literally been touched by these hands at least twice a month.”

He points to what must be hundreds of leaves that spring from plants all over the shop.


Local Plant Love

Rembao is 60 years old, and of muscular build. He grew up in a Mexican family in Downtown Santa Cruz, near Louden Nelson Community Center and enjoyed being near San Francisco during the ’60s.

“It saved me. … I was growing up to be a crazy street kid, you know, but growing up here in Santa Cruz really helped me,” he says.

As a lifelong local, he’s worn many hats. He worked as a bartender at Tampico Mexican restaurant, trained in the art of African Dance on the streets of downtown, lived in a sailboat in the Santa Cruz Harbor, and worked as one of the youngest football coaches in Santa Cruz High School history.

“I started coaching when I was 18 years old. It was the ’60s and I had hair down to my shoulders,” he says, recalling that one of the nicest memories he had happened five years ago.

“This man came up to me and he goes, ‘I know you don’t recognize me, but you were my football coach in high school,” says Rembao. “And he goes, ‘The best thing in the world is to hear my son telling his friends that he’s getting taught football by the same guy that taught his father.’ The coaching stuff is all-volunteer, as far as I’m concerned. You can’t put a dollar value on that kind of thing.”

Following his many different Santa Cruz jobs, Rembao trained in carpentry, which became his primary career. He focused on hardscapes—anything that’s not a plant when you’re landscaping—and worked on many restaurants around town. After the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, he worked on several rebuilding projects. But recently, as the economic downturn took its toll on the carpentry industry, it also took its toll on Rembao.  

“I’m a carpenter, but I haven’t had any [jobs] in a couple of years, and this thing’s staring me in the face—and I actually enjoy doing it,” he says in reference to plant care. “So, it’s all evolving and I’m going to get into plant care seriously if I can make this work.”

Rembao’s original interest in indoor plant care was a hobby, which sprang up from the rubble of his dead relationships.

“I actually started to get into plants as a way to get back at ex-girlfriends,” he laughs. “All my exes left me was their dying plants, so I decided to get back at them by bringing the plants back to life.”

Ninety percent of the plants inside of the Ultramat now belong to Rembao, and used to live at his house. When Rembao, but longtime Ultramat customer, had to leave his apartment, he struck a deal with Coty.

“George has been a customer here for a long time, probably longer than I’ve been here, which is 12 years,” he says.  “When he had this problem living situation, he asked to bring some of his plants in. We had a reasonable selection of plants but they were marginally cared for, and this is a very dusty environment, so I told George, ‘Look, you gotta take care of them, you can see the care ours get, which is minimal.’”

Coty says Rembao agreed, and took the bargain a step further.

“He brought these plants in, began to care for all the plants in the store, and it’s fair to say they’ve thrived under his care,” says Coty.


The Technique

Rembao’s technique involves a series of common-sense-based tips that wouldn’t necessarily occur to the average plant-owner.

Tip number one: More water is not the answer to browning leaves.

“For some reason people think, ‘When the leaves turn brown, water it,’” he says. “But that is not the case whatsoever.” He sticks the length of his pointer finger into the soil of a nearby plant. “Use your good old finger, see if the soil is dry,” he advises.

Tip number two :It’s OK to remove dead leaves.

Rembao points to a series of small trees and large ferns that sit atop the washing machines in the middle of the room.

“I’ll get up on top of those washing machines if I see some dead leaves, and pull them out,” he says. “I don’t tolerate dead leaves. Again it’s just common sense to me that the plant is using up energy trying to revive this dead part, which will never happen. So what I figure is you eliminate the dead part and it will essentially put that energy back into making green leaves.”

Tip number three: Watch how your plant reacts to sunlight.

“It’s not like I want to get really personal with people, but where they have the plant in their house can be an issue,” he says. “I had one girl who came here, and eventually I went to her house, and where she had the plant was frying the plant. It was like putting it in a microwave.”

Rembao says to watch your indoor plants each day and notice whether they are leaning toward or away from the sun.

“If a plant is sitting by a window with sunlight, and the leaves are leaning into the sunlight, twirl it once a day,” he advises. “It wants to be there because it’s going toward the sun, and parts of it are getting more sun than others.”

Conversely, if the plant is leaning away from the sun, move it to a darker environment.

“It’s hard for a person to walk past a plant every day and do this,” he says as he rotates a potted plant about an inch to the left. “To me it’s just a natural thing because I’m looking at the plants and I’m going, ‘Oh, it wants to do that.’”

The last step, should the above tips fail to help, is to change out the plant’s soil.

“More often than not, the problem really lies with bad soil,” he explains.

Rembao adds that he is not a trained expert, so he is always open to tips from plant experts, and other successful plant caretakers in town.

“George is fun to listen to and talk to,” Coty adds. “He just kind of quietly does his thing … and the plants just look great.”

Plant Care Clinics will take place at Ultramat every Saturday, beginning Mar. 24. For more information contact George Rembao at 278-2871.

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