Aug 31, 2012 8 Comments

As some of you may know I have been analyzing and commenting on the National Gardening Survey on behalf of the National Gardening Association for the last two years and it was a helluva time to start; just when American consumers seem to be walking away from what used to be their favorite outdoor pastime (yes, but that was 1997!). A quick glance at some of the key metrics or results from the 2011 and 2012 survey can be a pretty depressing read.

The Bad News

One number that got really got my attention was the spending per household per year on what the NGS calls “Landscaping”. In 2008 it was the biggest garden spending category, eclipsing “Lawn Care” which is the usual #1. “Landscaping” is the NGS term for the buying of trees and shrubs and all it takes to successfully plant them (DIY, not by a landscaper) so it includes purchases of the tools, mulch, stakes, fertilizer, irrigation and so on as well as the actual woody plants. Only 4 years ago this activity accounted for $11.7 billion or 32.5% of all DIY garden spending; by 2011 that number has dropped to $6.2 billion (a drop of 46% in just four years and 21% in just 12 months from 2010).

Wilting Tree & Shrub Numbers

The NGS is a consumer survey carried out by Harris Interactive with a level of accuracy (margin of error +/- 3 points) equal to political and other well respected surveys we take for granted. Even so some industry observers and operators have questioned the validity of the data so it was interesting to hear three clients in completely different parts of the country tell me of their woody plant experience. They had posted declines in Tree and Shrub sales (not including the associated hard goods sales which were not tracked separately for each woody plant sale in the POS) of 46%, 45% and 41% in the same time period – WOW.

High-Impact Woodies? 

In fact they (and other clients) added that in reality, there is little demand for what they call foundation plants and the only purchases of basics such as azalea or spirea are when they are in flower and consumers use them as seasonal decoration – like an annual. Retailers often add that consumers are spending “big” money on high impact woodies such as Hydrangeas or Knock Out Roses purely as a showy decoration for a weekend party or summer color, not caring much if it lasts through the winter.

Oh how things have changed! (Remember how those hobby gardeners would quiz you endlessly about guarantees?! )

The glimmer of hope

This huge drop is not just due to a stalled housing market or flat economy. And it won’t just bounce back when the economy and the housing market recovers. There just is no capital intensive DIY gardening going on right now, in rich or poor neighborhoods. It’s all about maintaining and decorating – just one more sign of a changing market and a changing consumer’s view of their garden. Remember, the glass is half full: if there are consumers willing to spend a few hundred dollars on woody plants they see as disposable, that is one attitude shift we can surely leverage!

Photo credit: Paul Anderson

  1. David Ruf
    Sep 3, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    It seems as if we have had the perfect downturn storm with the depressed housing market, the poor weather for an entire two seasons anywhere in the States for the last couple of years, the Boomers aging to the point that the hobby of gardening is not much fun any longer, and the new home buyers having more interset in toys and just about anything else than something to do with hard physical work to beautify their world, We, the nursery industry, are still pulling for the return of the 90’s. I do believe that the green movement will help, the grow your own will help and that the X’s and Y’s will want to have a nice place to show off but the yard service will be doing the work and following the KISS principle so the uniqueness will be replaced will the same cookie cutter look all up and down the street. This reminds me of the housing tracts that were built in the 60’s only to be updated and or replaced in the 90’s. Can we wait that long for the golden years to return?

    1. John Crook
      Sep 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

      I agree with everything you said, David, except the idea that the X and Y gens will go for the cookie cutter approach. To the contrary, I think they will want to differentiate from their neighbors (or at least from their parents). I really think the younger generations want to shop with independents if we will give them sufficient reason to do so. We need to carry the things they know and trust (Miracle Gro) while giving them something to brag about with their friends (unique plants, private label products). I think the future truly is bright for those garden centers that adapt, but the next few years will continue to see a winnowing as the current demographics just won’t support as many independents as we currently have. It will definitely be the survival of the fittest (and most nimble).

  2. Ian Baldwin
    Sep 3, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    David, if there is another glimmer, it would be the record number of houses built between 1995 and 2007 with an aging, low-cost contractor-installed garden. By now the early versions are ready for a makeover, many of the original owners have moved on, the trampolines, ponds and decks are done with but the new owners, especially the under 45 year olds have no idea where to start! Go get ’em!



  3. john heaton
    Sep 16, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Is the tree at the tow in your yard? Is it alive? John

  4. Ian Baldwin
    Sep 16, 2012 at 9:52 am

    No the tree was from stock pics, looks like an English Oak to me!

  5. Debbie Burris
    Oct 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    The one thing I didn’t see in the National Garden Survey or in your article is where people get their gardening information. As a Master Gardener program coordinator I can tell you that the number of calls, questions and requests for garden programs we’ve received in the last three years has increased dramatically over past years. Many are new gardeners including a much larger number of X and Y gens. We also get a number of clients who have purchased plants from the large box stores only to have them die or become diseased because they aren’t appropriate for the local climate.

    I’ve been trying to get both local garden centers and the big box stores to stock plants that will be successful in our climate. We even encourage our clients to specifically request garden centers to order plants by their latin names to be sure they are getting something that will grow successfully in our climate.

    Nothing is more disappointing to a new or experienced gardener than to spend their hard-earned money on plants only to be told a year or two later, when it is dying, that it is the wrong variety for the local climate or they weren’t given adequate planting and care instructions.

    I recently attended a National Master Gardener Coordinator’s conference and there was a common theme among all the states represented and that was the increased interest in gardening and the need to train more volunteers to assist home gardeners.

    The local nurseries who sell plants suited to our climate are thriving because they sell more than plants. They also provide information on how to plant and care for them and they refer them to the Master Gardeners for any questions they might not be able to answer. Our trained Master Gardener volunteers can help them with their specific situation. We’ve found that successful gardeners tend to expand their gardens and the variety of plants in them.

  6. Ian Baldwin
    Oct 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Debbie, thanks for the good comments. It just so happens that a once-every-three-year sub survey in the National Gardening Survey asks a series of questions under the title “What Gardeners Think”. This survey was just carried out in summer 2012 and one question asks for householder’s sources of gardening information. The top five sources in descending order are: 1. Friends and Neighbors, 2. Home Centers that sell gardening supplies, 3. Info on packet or product, 4. Internet search and 5. Independent garden center. Incidentally the fourth answer by popularity is “I just figure it out myself”!

    You are right that the number of people needing info and support is growing as the Boomers slow down and the next generation begins to engage in gardening but while the independent channel is typically the place with the best info, their reputation can work against them, just to get a one-time visit from a beginner. That’s why I say the glass is half full, 83 million households say they want a “nice” garden but we tend to forget how intimidating a GC can be to some people; a bit like me in Best Buy or Apple. I think Latin names are a part of that intimidation. Let’s get this new species of gardener to an easy win with a simple plant or project first, then we can move to the next level. Thanks for taking the time, hope the results above are helpful.


  7. Charlette Alliman
    May 7, 2013 at 3:58 am

    Gardening is an endless job, with many pitfalls. It doesn’t take much to completely ruin a beautiful garden by planting the wrong plants, or not planting them correctly. We have plenty of articles to make sure that everything goes as planned. From planting to weeding and poisons to plant food. Never worry that you will get it wrong when you have a resource like directweb helping you.^”


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