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What will happen “Back in the Garden?”

Gossip Girl, Blake Lively covers Vogue Magazine February 2009!

When consumers get ‘Back to the Garden’ this spring, will it become  ‘Back-Ache in the Garden’?

Maybe you’ve read that gardening is vogue again. The origin of ‘vogue’ is associated with sailing in the 1500’s and meant “wave or course of success”. In modern times the  phrase “in-Vogue” meant that a product or idea was written about in Vogue magazine. Gardening is timeless, and also been proven to be somewhat trendy. Staying in fashion has never been more important – even if you are not the type of person who ever cared about fashion or being fashionable.

Is this just another flavor-of-the-year to read about in all the trade industry magazines, email newsletters, and blogs, or will it bring real gardening back – I mean forward? Only time, and possibly your response to the emerging trend will tell.

Last week Trey Pittsenberger, The Blogging Nurseryman posted:

“Things have changed! Just a year ago with the economy booming, we had a different set of assumptions about how to appeal to a customer base that seemed to be giving up on gardening.

Here we sit today with a completely different set of circumstances. Interest seems to be growing in vegetable and fruit tree gardening, and I believe this may translate over into ornamental sales as well.”

I have no disagreement whatsoever with Trey’s observations and only hope to add some perspective and depth to the conversation. Let us remember that not every customer is or ever was alike in their interest in gardening. The true gardener was, is, and will always be around yet there will probably never again be enough of them to feed our industry at the level to which we have become accustomed. While the basic activity is gardening, the basic human need to be filled is not gardening. I fear some of our die-hard horticulturalist brethren may go off the deep end and return to the hortisnobbery of the 70’s. We need growth in horticulture, not to be shrouded in horticultural correctness. Even into the late 90’s Darrel Downey at Engineered Watering Solutions coined the phrase hortisexuals to fit some of us (you know  who you are).  Just this morning I read a letter from someone who signed, “Horticordially”. Now that is leaning toward blatent hortisnobbery if I have ever heard it. Let’s be careful not to get all techy and use our Latin on our customers again. You know how we hate it when the computer geeks do that to us. Their industry has almost saved us from all that geek talk. We have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to thank for that.

This does not end with “do they or do they not” garden. Gardening is not a benefit of itself. Gardening is not a universal feature of anything else. It is an activity, an event, and often endures a process some people will sign-on for but others will not. It will become unfashionable perhaps more quickly than it became fashionable for some of those who do sign on.  Let’s face it – many features of gardening are just plain unattractive to most people, even died-in-the-wool gardeners. What will happen when these neophytes encounter blistered palms, burning eyes (from salty sweat), pain, cuts, and bruises?

Now here’s a picture: Tim Elbert, owner of Four Seasons Nursery in Medford Oregon took on a delivery to a customer across town last spring. Tim arrived early to allow plenty of time for a meeting after the delivery. Tim offered to help plant the tree until he needed to leave for the meeting and asked the customer if he had a shovel. “I think I have a shovel”, the man replied, then emerged from his house fifteen minutes later with his only shovel – a fireplace shovel. Is this the level where many of your new customers will approach their newly found interest in gardening this spring? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.

Local medical clinics, emergency room physicians, and chiropractors lie in wait. We may be able to get new people into the garden, but will we get more of them down in the back, or get them to come back? It might depend more on what we tell them to expect than on what they find.

Get Fit and Get Paid

As the need for plants and related products has grown, our customers would race their formerly popular SUV into and through the parking lot to get the coveted front row parking space at the health club. Were they interested in exercise or not? Is that why we were supposed to avoid call gardening work? Perhaps one of the most successful recruiting messages at garden centers over the past few years promoted the “get fit and get paid” aspect of the job. That same message might also recruit some customers who have the same interest.

Consumer interest in buying plants and garden related products has grown over the years. As Trey observed, sales grew mainly in rather shallow (though real) justification for all the “pretty reasons”, rather than for physically or mentally healthy activity and outcomes associated with gardening. We have taken at face value what our customer tells us. There is nothing wrong with listening and giving them exactly what they ask for. By doing this we have stocked the benches, beds, and shelves and blissfully watched the product fill carts and cars and delivery trucks. It was not necessary to know or address why people really buy garden related products. As a result, we learned how to sell pretty – color, beauty, appearance, looks, sounds, fragrance, and envy and we have done that to the point of putting plants into a commodity status. Marketing in the green industry has been boiled down to giving consumers who have already decided to buy our product an unnecessarily better reason to buy. Discounts, coupons, bonus bucks, rebates, and all the bells and whistles of mindless giveaway marketing are on the tips of our tongues. You have been there and done that and have seen your peers and competitors do it. Sagging profitability reflects the misdirected effort.

It is within our power to change our own world if we could collectively create true knowledge and appreciation of the benefits of plants at a level all consumers can relate to. In other words – we must market to the lowest common denominator of desire first – the human primal instinct for plants (for fun). Marketing does not need to end there, but if we face the facts, it has been much more highly desirable to drive a new SUV than to use the family room on wheels than to take new plants home in it. Let us step it up while new cars are out of vogue. Use the reasons our customers buy in the first place to interest them in buying more often as well as to bring others into the garden fray and keep them there. We already have a killer-app product application (a phrase borrowed from the technology arena) and we did not use it.

The intrinsic or intangible benefits of plants are much more difficult to sell. Our industry is painfully shy of any practice at it. This is mostly because intangible benefits are difficult to identify. As the saying goes, “a problem identified is half solved” so let’s look at identifying the intangible benefits of plants.

Click here to go back and read my January 16, 2009 post about those instincts.

Plants and the process of using them creates positive feelings that meet basic emotional needs of humans. Fun, enjoyment, escape, relaxation, and peace are what people universally seek. When it comes to growing food in this economy security and control are certainly motives.

If you decide to begin marketing toward these primal needs, whose ads and emails will you copy? You can Steal This Idea, but not the implementation of it because there are so few examples. Is it time to roll up your sleeves and get to work a different way than you have become accustomed to?

Marketing effectively is all about the message that grows the market, not just sells product faster and cheaper in the market that is already there.

Reply to comment on this and tell how you are marketing to the basic human needs that are filled from the benefits of plants.

7 Responses

  1. I don’t buy the whole gardening as fashion/in vogue thing. I definitely think we are seeing/will see a resurgence in gardening but it will be more due to a “back to nature” trend than fashion, IMHO.

    I like fitness as a hook. Gardening is definitely a healthy activity and we need to tell this story more than we do.

    Veggie and herb gardening continues to boom and will certainly help attract new people. As more garden centers carry vegetable plants (bigger than cell packs), first time gardeneres should come out in droves. Vegetables are the gateway drug to flower gardening.

    But mostly, I think it’s on the backs of garden centers to encourage the resurgence of interest in gardening before it wanes. People want a shopping experience in a comfortable and interesting environment. There are plenty of products (live and not live) out there for garden centers… What we are often short on is inspiration and creativity.

    I was talking to a wholesale grower this week (have had the same conversation with a handful of others this winter) who wants to put together a creative pre-planted combo concept using one of those short round trays/inserts.


    He also wants to grow a program with plantable rice hull NetPots. So he’s been talking to his retail customers and the only ones he can get interested in the programs are supermarkets and natural food stores. Some have never sold plants and see this as the opportunity to get into the business. His garden center customers are just not interested. He says many are merely copying orders from last year and faxiong them in. They aren’t interested in new varieties like in the past and say they won’t pay an extra .15 or .20 cents for a plantable, biodegradable pot…

    Another grower in the Midwest supplying IGCs tried to put together a plantable biopot program for his customers to help them differentiate from the local chains and mass market stores. His IGC customers resisted the estimated price increase. To hold prices for his annuals (to avoid losing business) he instead has moved to very cheap square plastic pots. So basically his IGC customers have forced him to turn into more of a high volume, low price big-box type grower. They are more concerned with price than quality. He is very discouraged.


    Those are two sort of negative stories. I have about 100 positive ones I can share. Last week and this week, we are hearing about record shipping days from some CA and south TX growers. They are frantically trying to figure out how to get in another turn to meet demand at retail. The strongest performers in warmer areas where spring has broken seem to be IGCs!!

    Great blog, Sid.


  2. And I like the “Gateway Drug” reference. Gardening is addicting! But let’s keep it simple.

  3. I believe this year will be larger than previous for the honest-to-goodness vegetable/fruit/herb gardner.

    I am at the front line of our center and hear all the requests and speak with our customer base regarding their wants and needs.

    I am hearing MANY more requests for these items, and how to grow them in larger than “hobby size” gardens. From making the beds, preparing the beds to which of the varieties of each to plant. This started in late December. (When I had a little more time to research with my customers.)

    These customers are becoming very educated on sustainability and we will do all we can to provide the necessary items they need to feel comfortable; be it in our retail center or working in their new garden!

    There are still the “froo-froo” gardens and gardeners, always will be. Just don’t forget to keep an eye and ear toward the new generation of gardener!

  4. I would like to know if people are buying the bio degradable pots. I hope our grower will have them. I would pay an extra 20 cents per 4 inch pot for planting annuals at my commercial properties. No waste and no time spent taking them out of their plastic pots, picking up the plastic pots, and then finding a recycling center for the pots. I think there is a market but you have to find the right one that fits.

    I am newer to the game of owning my own garden center and being the top decision maker. I think my sustainable, recycling clients will more than likely embrace this trend of biodegradable pots. A lot of it is about education, making sure the client has the tools to be successful whether with a single container or a 1/2 acre garden stock to the gills.

  5. Great post Sid. It is probably the fact that I am getting older, but I am so bored with “lifestyle gardening”. I believe we are entering into an age where “the truth”, however you see that, will be the goal. People are so bored with the lies and half-truths coming out of politics, and the corporate world.

    Needless to say, truth has different meanings to different people. As the reality of this new world sinks in, people will be looking for activities and products that are truthful. True to their values, and true to the communities values.

    I miss the wisdom of my parents and grandparents(all diseased). I miss being able to ask them what they would do now, and what they did in times past. They survived and thrived, why can’t we? Are we going to let the drumbeat of negativity, that seems to be fashionable these days, color our world?

    I am most likely going against the grain here, but I was never that impressed with Urban Outfitters, or their venture into Terrain. I was brought up in an urban area, and find the idea of buy buying overpriced trinkets at a “lifestyle store” totally out of sync with my “independent” attitude. I just generally find places that sell “lifestyle” boring. Don’t tell me what it is to be cool. Cool is the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

    This is why I believe that gardening will be “cool” for a while. Most people don’t want to garden because it’s “hard work”, or just “boring”. As garden centers we should quit worrying about these people and focus on a smaller group of people who will find gardening “cool” for a variety of reasons. Cool because it’s hard work and you have the willpower to complete the task. Cool because not everyone else is doing it. Cool because you have the really cool vegetables, flowers, fruit, etc., that makes the block party rock. “Wow, a watermelon with spots, cool”, or “This salad is from my garden, it has five different varieties of lettuce.” Very cool.

    Walking through Costco the other day I was overcome with the smell of all the chemicals they sell this time of year. Right next to the under priced dogwoods, and flowering plums, are shelf after shelf of Miracle-Gro and other chemicals. It was the smell that got to me. Yes, in the old days that was the smell of money in the garden center business, not anymore. I know organics smell too, but there is something a bit different about the smell.

    I think their may come the time when you can take a fitness class that’s designed to keep you healthy and flexible, so you can garden. “The garden workout” keeps you looking great, and with all that healthy home grown food you will be radiating health. “I exercise, grow my own food and herbs, and generally live ‘large’. As a matter of fact now that my significant other is involved in the garden, our sex lives have blossomed and we have never been happier”. “We even have a ‘naked garden’ that’s private and out of site.

    Gardening is sexy. Sun, fresh food, hard work, sweat, birds, bees, and all that stuff just makes you feel good. Like exercise you have to “get into it’ to realize the virtues. That’s why I think it will stay cool for awhile, because not everyone will be doing it, and it takes some work.

    Here is my prediction for the upcoming year. The more you can express your individuality, and create a “lifestyle” unlike everyone else, the cooler you are. So what if Oprah say’s it’s so? Why do I want to emulate wealthy people who are really, so unlike myself? This is why I find stores that try to make gardening ‘hip”, so un-hip. Yes, it’s a contradiction, but that is the nature of our lives these days.

    Sorry about the rambling off subject, Sid. It’s Saturday morning and I have to much early morning free time on my hands.

  6. […] following is part of a comment I made at Sid Raisch Blog, Horticultural Advantage”. It was off topic there, and I hope Sid does not mind. It is Saturday morning, and Monica made some […]

  7. […] following is part of a comment I made at Sid Raisch Blog, Horticultural Advantage”. It was off topic there, and I hope Sid does not mind. It is Saturday morning, and Monica made some […]

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