Their backyard greenhouse is a sanctuary — and a place for healing


In our Plant PPL series, we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have suggestions for PPL to include, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.

In the backyard of a house on the east side of Torrance, there is a greenhouse.

A full, leafy canopy frames either side of the wooden door. Overlapping palms and succulents soak up the sun. Inside the structure, dozens of rows of plants — monstera albos, variegated alocasias and anthuriums — enjoy the warm, humid air that surrounds them. Plants of many sizes and varieties coexist there like a miniature tropical rainforest.

Betty and Daniel Choto.

Betty and Daniel Choto.

(Anna Braz / Los Angeles Times)

A close-up of a ripe strawberry hanging on the potted plant next to an unripe strawberry.

The Choto family greenhouse, which is in their backyard, is a labor of love filled with plants they also sell.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

This greenhouse belongs to the Choto family. It was hand-built by Betty Choto, 54, and her husband, Daniel Choto, 64, in three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. It houses the plants they sell through their business, Plants Choto, which they run with their son, Jacob, 27, and daughter, Daniella, 29, who helps out remotely from her home in Seattle.

Plants Choto specializes in exotic and tropical plants but offers more common, low-maintenance greenery as well. The family primarily sells through Instagram and pop-up plant markets, but occasionally they host an open house for customers to shop at the greenhouse in-person.

On a recent summer day, bird sounds darted from leaf to leaf throughout the greenhouse, originating from a speaker fastened to the ceiling.

“If the plants hear the birds chirping, they grow,” Betty says. “In the morning, after they heard the bird sounds all night, I say, ‘Hey, mama, look, you grew!’”

The family also has a cage of colorful — real-life — parakeets in the backyard that serve the same purpose.

A handful of parakeets standing together inside a cage.

The Choto family says the high-pitched chirps from the parakeets help their plants grow.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Admiring the peaceful plant sanctuary that is their home, the Chotos reflect on the paths that led each of them to this moment.

Daniel says when he was 20, he made the difficult decision to leave his home country of El Salvador. It was 1979, and the Salvadoran Civil War was erupting. He says all men his age were faced with three choices: “las guerras, el ejército or death.”

“All his friends got killed,” Betty says.

Daniel got a ride to Guatemala, where he slept for one night and then traveled to Mexico. A year later, he came to the U.S., settled in Los Angeles and immediately began working in landscaping night and day to send money back to his mother and younger siblings in El Salvador.

Betty and Daniel met at a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting shortly after Betty immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 17. She says she asked Daniel if he needed any help with landscaping because her brother was looking for work.

“At first, he said no,” Betty says. “But then he said ‘Wait, yes, I do need help. I need help with my life. I need someone to spend my life with.”

They married three months later in 1987, and together they have spent decades building a verdant life in Los Angeles.

Today, Daniel says some of the lawns he worked on more than 40 years ago still remain on his route.

However, Jacob says he wasn’t too interested in his father’s work as a child.

Jacob Choto in the greenhouse.

Jacob Choto in his family’s greenhouse. Misters keep the humidity in the space high at around 70 to 80%.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“He would take me to work with him during the summers, and I would absolutely hate it,” Jacob says. “I always told him, ‘I don’t like dirt, I don’t like soil, I don’t like getting dirty.’”

It wasn’t until the pandemic that he took an interest in plants. During his senior year of studying fine arts at Cal State Long Beach, he was tasked with redesigning his bedroom for a final project. He bought a bunch of plants as decor, including a string of pearls.

Jacob bought more plants for his room and started learning about them even after that project was finished because they brought him happiness during a time of isolation.

“In the pandemic, he feels so sick. Depresión,” Daniel says between tears. “He explained to me that the plants help him, and when he asked me to help him make more, I say OK because I want to help him.”

Over the years, Daniel grew that one small string of pearls into 10 large pots that now drape over the palm trees in the yard.

Father and son say they remember a pandemic conversation they had in the hammock of their backyard. Jacob says he and his dad talked for more than an hour about various plant-related topics including air layering and the value of plant cuttings. Betty says watching her husband and son bond over their love of plants that day was incredible.

The Choto family greenhouse.

The Choto family greenhouse.

(Anna Braz / Los Angeles Times)

“It turned into this really beautiful way to interact with my father and to get closer to him because we were not close before,” Jacob says. “In Hispanic families, the father and the son are not always close, but the plants brought us together.”

Jacob says the conversation he had with his father planted the seed of starting a business together. Betty is an architect by trade; Daniel, a landscaper of 40 years; Jacob, a furniture designer; and Daniella, a corporate tech whiz. So, in 2021, when the family decided to build a greenhouse and officially open Plants Choto, each of their roles came naturally.

Daniel says for three full days every week, he cares for all the plants in the greenhouse and the rest of the yard. In the morning, he says, he waters the plants and gives them different fertilizers to keep them green. He says he proceeds to inspect the leaves and soil of each individual plant to make sure they are healthy.

A pair of hands digging into charcoal.

Daniel Choto displays the charcoal he makes himself. He saves tree trimmings from work and chars them on the backyard grill. He uses an ax to chop the charred bits and mixes them in with the plant soil.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As Daniel and Betty sat at a table in their backyard chatting with a reporter recently, Daniel couldn’t resist turning to look at and touch the leaves of a plant next to him multiple times throughout the conversation.

Some days, he fires up the pizza oven in their backyard to make his own charcoal to put in the soil. According to Daniel, charcoal acts as a natural biopesticide, keeping bugs and bacteria away from the plants and allows better airflow between the roots. Betty says Daniel was not impressed by the quality of store-bought charcoal. Therefore, he chops wood, puts it into the oven and scrapes off the charcoal himself.

Most days he has lunch at around 1 p.m. and continues his rounds until the end of the day.

“He complains like ‘Oh, I have to water all these plants. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it,” Jacob says of his father. “But then on a Friday night at like 7 p.m., I’ll find him in the backyard just looking at his plants, so it’s very obvious to me that he absolutely loves caring for them.”

Rows of small potted succulents.

Succulents propagated from cuttings in the Choto family’s backyard.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A man, his face obscured by mist, walking down the aisle of a greenhouse.

Jacob Choto monitors the plants in his family’s backyard greenhouse.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As for other parts of the family venture, Betty says she enjoys interacting with their customers. They all call her Mama Choto, and during open houses it feels like one big family. She says she’s proud to sell their plants because she knows they are strong and good quality. Betty, Daniel and Jacob say they are motivated by passion, not money, and they also say their business is about spreading joy to others and cultivating a community grown from a shared love of plants.

“Everything’s not rainbows and daisies,” Jacob says. “We do have our struggles here and there, but we always push through them because we’re a family.”


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