FAIRBANKS — Craig Buchanan has lots of high-profile clients: Noel Wien Library, the Surgery Center, Denali State Bank and Mt. McKinley Bank, just to name a few.
His products and services are equally distinctive: Ficus trees, spider plants, orchids, cacti, African violets, Dracaenas, persimmons and more. Through his company, Small Horizons, Buchanan leases and maintains indoor potted plants.
Trees, shrubs, ferns and more range from tall and lanky to short and bushy. Lush green leaves freshen up interiors even in the dead of winter. Buchanan rattles off Latin names and descriptive phrases while carefully examining his plants.
“It’s basically renting them a piece of art. All they have to do is appreciate it, and I do everything else,” he explained.
Small Horizons only caters to other businesses (nothing residential) and Buchanan estimates he has at least 500 plants stationed throughout Fairbanks.
In the 1970s, before starting a business, Buchanan was involved with growing plants at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, so they had new, fresh species, instead of just dry samples.
In 1982 he started a family, and decided it was time to become his own boss. Some of his plants are almost as old as the business.
The offerings are practical as well. “I realized one of the things people need here is air movement, oxygen revitalization,” he said.
At one point, Buchanan had six employees and 47 clients. But his biggest cost is labor, and it got to the point where maintaining the scale of a large operation was more work than it was worth. Buchanan’s since scaled back to just himself and an associate, Susan Rawlings. Now the duo provides plants to 17 clients spread among roughly 30 locations.
“It takes a lot of hours per plant. Monthly, weekly, daily,” he said, adding that Small Horizons makes a point to check each plant weekly.
Originally, Buchanan had greenhouses and nurseries for propagation, but his operation has reached a level where he simply relies on businesses indoor space to maintain his collection.
Additionally, if a company contracts for 10 plants, Buchanan will give them a few extras for free, giving him the ability to rotate plants with other clients and fine-tune each space. “Indoor landscaping,” Buchanan calls it.
The hardest part about running a plant-leasing business in sub-arctic Fairbanks is — not surprisingly — not killing the product. Many indoor plants hail from tropical regions, where warmth and light are available year-round.
To accommodate the northern conditions, Buchanan utilizes a lot of plants that, in their natural habitats, would belong to underbrush canopies, and wouldn’t get very much light naturally.
“What we refer to as the ‘bread-and-butters’ of the business. Limited light, limited nutrition. Limited, limited, limited,” he said.
After acclimation and hardening, some of his plants can survive without any natural light.
Some bread-and-butter houseplants belong to the dracaena family, such as the tall and stalky dracaena cornus (named for its resemblance to corn plants), visible in the Surgery Center waiting room.
But it’s not just low light and low temperatures that can kill a valuable plant — small children also have a tendency cause extensive damage.
Buchanan recalled an incident when he visited a business to check on some plants, and walked in to find a child climbing on a yucca tree more than 6 feet in the air. This was despite multiple signs asking parents not to let children climb the plants.
The child’s mom, according to Buchanan, was too absorbed in her phone to notice, even when the tree snapped in half, sending the kid tumbling.
She didn’t pay attention until Buchanan handed her a bill for $700. He never intended to charge her, but simply wanted to make a point. He cut back the tree and it’s still growing strong, if not a bit shorter.
And when he’s not working hard to protect his collection from low light and youthful energy, he’s dealing with the third big complication: theft.
Buchanan said people steal everything from flower blooms to whole plants, and “people always steal the best one in the house.”
Luckily, cuttings from mature plants provide the ability to replenish his supply, and Buchanan is happy to offer cuttings to businesses and admirers of his plants.
Spend a few minutes talking with Buchanan, and his breadth of diagnostic plant knowledge is quickly evident. He easily recounts ideal soils, fertilizers, lighting, durability and overall ideal conditions specific to each subspecies.
He notes that some of his previous employees have attempted to recreate his business model, but they all underestimated the amount of effort required and folded. Not that he would mind a rival business, “Competition is the best thing in the world for you. You shine if you’re good.”
Buchanan has a degree in wildlife management, which he said is relatable to renting plants.
“My business is maintenance. If I studied moose, I’d have to understand the whole ecology of the system in order to live with that organism,” he explained.
Buchanan said Small Horizons also intersects with his work as a sculptor, in that both activities grow and create what wasn’t there before.
According to Buchanan, leasing plants is advantageous for the business and the customer. He handles all maintenance, makes sure they look good, and retains the actual product.
On the flip side, “to tune them up at my cost, not the cost of the customer, it works really well for the customers too,” he said.
As for the business name, Buchanan said it portrays the importance of focusing on individual units rather than large operations, “If you have enough of the small, the large kind of manages itself.”
For Small Horizons, it doesn’t matter whether a business wants just one plant or dozens of plants. “It’s not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of appreciation,” he said.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter @FDNMcity.