When Nakia Maples moved into his South Philly house on Halloween, his new neighbors didn't know what to think of the more than 200 plants they saw Maples and his friends carry into the corner rowhouse.
"They kept asking, 'Is this going to be a plant store?' " he said.
Maples assured them that no, this was his personal collection of flora and fauna — one he's cultivated over the last 10 years — and that it wasn't for sale. What Maples gives away, however, to those in his South Philly community and to the wider plant community he has sowed on Facebook, is the knowledge he's gained through experimentation about how to cultivate, care for, and live with plants.
And for that, Maples has gained something in return, too — a special place within these communities and a nickname that's really taken root.
"People started calling me the Philly Plant Guy," he said. "I never thought I'd have an alias."
Maples, 43, is a stagehand with Local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He believes the sense of spatial reasoning he's developed on that job and in other gigs as a set dresser for movies like Law-Abiding Citizen have helped when it comes to placing his 200 plants tastefully around his house.
"Even though I live with these plants, they are something beyond me, and it's something I never take for granted," he said. "I want to show people that it's a lot of work, but it can be integrated into your everyday life."
While his house is covered in greenery, Maples also has a dedicated "plant room" that's sectioned off by a lace curtain. It's filled with flora and fauna from the tiled floor to the ceiling. The only audible sounds are the soft, Enya-like music that plays in the background and the gentle gurgle of the water filtration system for Silly the Turtle, who was named after the South Silly Facebook group.
"Someone posted in South Silly last summer that he was at Sixth and Moore in the heat," Maples said of the turtle. "I rode my bike down there and picked him up."
The only thing out of place in the urban oasis of the plant room is the 76ers blanket that hangs over the back of the leather couch inside.
"The plant room is a designated place for anxiety," Maples said. "So you can actually call me up and say that you need to come over, sit in the plant room and just relax."
Maples said the seed for Philly Plant Guy started when someone asked him to join the South Silly page. He began posting about plants and was asked to be a plant liaison for the group.
"I thought it wasn't a big deal, but it definitely turned into something that was unexpected," he said.
"There are some days when I have to answer four hours' worth of questions," he said. "People are appreciative, but we all learn from each other. I ask just as many questions as I try to answer."
But perhaps the sweetest messages he receives are still the hand-written ones his South Philly neighbors have left at his door.
"Thank you for making this corner so beautiful and celebrating nature. God Bless Your Work," read one letter written on yellow paper.
"I admire your love of plants," another of Maples' neighbors wrote in a card. "I have enclosed two leaves from plants that I have in the past taken off of the trash. I can't pass a living plant ready to be trashed…."
Maples said letters like those are like a good watering for his soul.
"It warms my heart, definitely," he said.
"That it took more pride in the way it looked."
"Being a stagehand, I've got to open a few buildings in the city, like the Kimmel Center, the Jewish center, the Constitution Center, the Wells Fargo Center, the Revolutionary center. I've done PIFA for the last nine years. If I knew that as a stagehand in my career that I would be involved in so many things in the city that's close to me, I would have paid more attention to it as a kid."