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Is It In Our Nature?

Jun 10, 2015 19 Comments

Being one of those Nature Nerdy lads (actually more of a football-crazy Nature Nerd), I always paid attention to people who raised awareness before it became mainstream.  Rachel Carson was an early influencer (as was Sir Peter Scott for my English mates) and like many people in the garden business, I grew up in the outdoors.

The garden retail community embraces nature in gardening (after all we are very good at helping consumers succeed). But our industry seems way behind the ball in its sensitivity about the wider garden around us, outside of the manicured lawns and perennial beds.

Sure, we support Arbor Day … but we do so with any tree that grows well locally, looks good and makes a bit of money.  I still don’t think the garden supply chain wholeheartedly supports Earth Day with its assumed political agenda and 1970’s culture. Meanwhile garden retailers dislike fertilizer regulations aimed at cleaning up the very rivers, lakes and coasts they frequent with their families in their spare time.

Head for the Hills!

Most people I know in the garden business love the outdoors in their (limited) free time. They backpack with their kids, fish their rivers, hunt their deer or escape to their cabin. These people not only love plants but they can’t wait to be connected with nature on their first day off. They don’t go to the movies, they go kayaking!  Yet ironically the garden industry has not shown the leadership and influence around “nature” that we could and should. Americans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. We face an entire generation fearful of stepping outside their own back door.

As a lifelong bird watcher I may be more sensitive but why, 50 years after “Silent Spring”, do we have to wait for non-profits like the National Wildlife Federation to tell us how back yards can help disappearing songbirds?

It should be the garden business, not CNN, raising awareness that plants sustain the bees or offset droughts. Even Dr. Charlie Hall’s excellent review of the economic power of “green” practices, from health care to clean water, failed to shake us up.

Money Is Green Too

So I think it is time to frame this differently – business opportunity!!

Twenty years ago working with Hines Nurseries we used a photograph of a monarch wing to signify “Plants for Butterflies,” not knowing this ubiquitous summer icon would now need our help. Several years ago I saw and promoted the “Save Our Monarchs” website but didn’t get much traction from retailers. Only now, after TV news reports the population crash, do we see Monarch plants and programs in the garden business (kudos to those companies, like the Monarch Cafe’ program, carried by Family Tree, pictured above!)

Almost 50% of American households watch birds (a lot more than watched Breaking Bad!) and Facebook is full of cute ducklings and baby owls. But apart from bird food manufacturers, very few suppliers (and no major plant breeders that I know of) have taken leadership on a “bringing nature to your yard” theme.

We are losing this fight: take a look at those landscape-in-24-minutes shows on TV where homeowners are talked into spending big money on outdoor living, almost none of it nature focused. Some of it is almost anti-nature! Who wants to be a Robin in that yard? Homeowners just fall for what they see and the way it is told. They are wide open to persuasion. Don’t we call that selling?

As Go the Birds…

This is an opportunity. U.S home gardens constitute a huge area of land. One in three USA homes grow food; 48 million households watch birds. Garden retail and landscape is worth around $70 billion dollars a year, employing millions. We are not small fish.

Just as the small breweries leveraged the consumer’s boredom with “corporate” beer and the food industry has exploded with innovation, the garden business should be strutting around as the savior of suburban nature. We should be selling ourselves as the go-to place to save the Monarchs, or the bees, pollinators or maybe even the modern human.

Most of us are in this industry because somewhere in our upbringing we just connected with a plant, fish, insect or bird and never let go. Why leave it to others to set the agenda with our product? That’s never a good idea as any politician will tell you. Let’s get out there and lead the homeowner back into the woods, starting with their own little patch of nature outside the back door.

  1. John Cowburn
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Well said that man! As Dave’s dad said in the Royle Family Xmas Edition – “Fair point, well made Jimbo!”

    Is it as bad in the UK? I fear so, everybody’s concreting over the front garden for the 3 cars and decking the rear garden for b-b-qing and lager drinking – Green stuff – oh no we don’t want any of that – too much like hard work!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 10, 2015 at 10:44 am

      John (though that’s clearly not you!), sorry to hear that it is the same in the land of gardening. I wonder if future “English Garden” themes in the USA might include concrete, decking and lager!?

  2. John Cowburn
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:34 am

    Don’t know where that face came from?!?!?!? Better looking than me though!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 10, 2015 at 10:45 am

      John, you are really looking younger these days!

  3. Toni
    Jun 11, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Our monarch display is up in the front of our store and the best advertisement we have is the abundance of monarchs flying around the nursery. People are so excited to buy a plant then find caterpillars on it already, we tell them it’s our gift to get them started.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 12, 2015 at 9:25 am

      Thanks, Toni, keep up the good work!

  4. Trey Pitsenberger (@pitsenberger)
    Jun 11, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    The “industry” blew it over the last decade or so when it comes to marketing, and the best bet for small ventures like us is to do our own marketing. There is no one industry anymore. It’s made up of many different trades, each with it’s own agenda. The trade almost seems at a loss as to where to go, or what to say. The nursery slogan “Grow Something” epitomizes this. I know it’s near and dear to some, but really? All we can say is “grow something” as if that’s going to inspire? Of course it’s safe and secure and won’t offend anyone, which is why its so bland.

    With social media it’s possible these days for any small garden shop to do their own marketing. Don’t wait for the “trade” to come up with something. Find your niche, and go for it. Promote organic, nature, eating better, relaxation, and all the great things the garden, and gardening does. More flowers, more fruit, less lawn should be our mantra. Go Green!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 12, 2015 at 9:41 am

      Troy, good feedback thank you! You are probably correct about the national garden trade aspect but I live in hope. Even with social media and the localization of garden leadership you are describing, it will still take a long time to build the gardening confidence needed in an increasingly disconnected public. You are and should be doing what works for you and your business but there aren’t enough of you out there so nationally the Local GC channel doesn’t appear to be leading this charge (as Josh Hinerfeld mentions here below). I agree with you at a micro, local level, but worry about the long term garden industry at a macro level. How DO we get the public to put a value on the joy that we experience every day (although it’s going to be 103 in Elk Grove, not a lot of joy here today). Thanks again for taking the time, best wishes.

  5. Diane St John
    Jun 11, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    This is exactly what we should be doing. The tagline we have used says the following; “We have been Connecticut’s organic gardening experts for the past 32 Years! We grow our gardens the way nature intended, creating healthy and beautiful ecosystems right in our own backyards.” We live, eat and breathe this statement with all we do at the garden center-and in all of our own gardens. We teach people every day. Our most popular plant even three years ago was butterfly weed which we promoted for the monarchs and sold it with caterpillars on it. We have plant lists for hummingbirds and pollinators. Everyone on staff is passionate and word of mouth has spread we are THE earth friendly place to go. We love it and love our mission and we have successfully raised awareness since our beginning. I am proud to be there with this group of people and happy to teach anyone who comes in.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 12, 2015 at 12:25 pm

      Diane, thanks for adding your welcome comments. I know many out there are leading by example like you, we just need another 50000 owners to think that way and a few “big guys” to align their strategies like Josh (below) says about the grocery business. See also his note about “local” being more appealing to the consumer than “organic”. Enjoy your CT summer and thanks again!

      1. Diane St John
        Jun 13, 2015 at 8:16 am

        Agreed about the local aspect–we promote being a neighborhood, local garden center and how we buy much of our plant stock from local growers. One of our growers this summer has printed a beautiful new plant tag stating how the plant was locally, sustainably grown with the bees and pollinators in mind, which is in great contrast to the new neonic labeled plants at the big box. Seems as if some small growers are realizing the importance of this as well and we will help promote and support them too.

  6. Josh Hinerfeld
    Jun 11, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    Dear Ian:

    Nice post. As you know, I’ve spent the better part of the past decade in the world of organic produce running a business that distributed fresh, organic produce to retail stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. I’ve also been a native beekeeper and have operated a micro-enterprise that raises and sells orchard mason bees to support local nonprofits and more recently purchased a farm in NE Oregon that is focused on practicing regenerative agriculture. So, I’ve been pretty close to the front line of the evolving Food Movement. Here’s what I’ve gleaned that apropos of your post:

    1. Organic has gone mainstream. In fact, the warehouse clubs and mass merchants are gaining share on conventional grocers and pinching high-end, specialty grocers that built the market for organic foods. [Does this sound like a familiar theme?]

    2. Local and regional has gained more currency than organic in the minds of consumers. A number of other folks are trying to build brands/ stake territory touting other attributes like Fair Trade, GMO-free, Cage Free, Grass-Fed, All Natural, etc. that are confusing consumers and diluting the value of the organic brand.

    Hartman Group in Seattle researched buying attitudes of shoppers in their homes and discovered that consumers attribute more favorable, values-based attributes to “local” than to organic.

    3. Retailers have an opportunity to great influence the behavior and shopping habits of their consumers. New Seasons Market, a very successful regional grocery chain that started in Portland, Oregon, carved a niche by being both “the friendliest store in town” and by going the extra mile to develop and support regional growers and food producers. They built huge loyalty and have become a catalyst for development in communities where they locate stores.

    I am frankly stunned that the retail garden industry by and large has been slow to seize upon an awakening consciousness about the stewardship of our natural resources. I challenge the industry to think of ways to educate and empower homeowners to find simple, cost effective ways to create beautiful habitats that support good stewardship of soil, water, wildlife, pollinators, etc. A row of “native plants” just doesn’t quite cut it. What about layering on some educational opportunities, hands on workshops, garden tours, etc. to help people down the journey?

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 12, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      Josh, Wow. So good to hear from you again after too long! Your detailed comments reminded us of some lively debates in Garden Center University!

      I think time has more than proved you right about going into the produce business instead of the garden business, though it looks like the latter needs you more than the former! Your analysis is so timely and relevant for the garden supply chain from breeders to retailers and I am glad you validated the power of “local” compared to the over-used “organic”.

      As the latest National Gardening Survey shows, Americans are still trying to garden, few want concrete and plastic, but are spending less as they just decorate with color, plant a few veggies and call it done for the year.

      I worry that without some seismic shift, the retail end of the supply chain will become less and less relevant to the homeowner’s week, with gardening destined to become a Do It For Me project for an increasing number of consumers. Nature is surely a touch-point we could use to increase the value proposition – something the industry really must do.

      See you got me going again! Thanks and BTW: if you ever want a job blogging….

      Best wishes to you from Lisa and I, happy farming!

  7. Melanie Bedner
    Jun 13, 2015 at 4:27 am

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for sharing your blog post, and for the encouragement and inspiration to be more active leaders in promoting the stewardship of the beauty all around us. Interestingly, I opened this GreenTalks email article right after reading your post, and thought I’d pass it on.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 13, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      Melanie, thanks, I just saw that myself, great minds think alike!

      Your locations is so beautiful and rural, nature is a natural for your company. I remember watching an Baltimore Oriel in that big tree by the house – now those are the “precious moments” garden centers should be selling! Take care.

  8. Jack Davis
    Jun 13, 2015 at 5:45 am

    Hi Ian. It dates me, but I remember printing the tags and signs for that Hines butterfly program. One of a series of innovative marketing programs that Hines developed to promote gardening and support IGC’s. Of course you are a much younger man. 🙂

    Some thoughts…..

    I agree that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from the natural world. I believe this this is a cycle and that as the young generations settle down there will be a reconnection. It is up to us to help educate and facilitate.

    Do it for me is not a bad thing as long as consumers just do it. The environment our industry benefit either way. Doing it for them can lead to future do it yourself business. A starting point and training ground.

    Water will continue be an issue and become a bigger opportunity as our population grows. Replacing turf with low water use shrub and groundcover plantings is a huge opportunity. Stop the gravel!

    Energy efficient homes are mainstream today. How about the energy efficient plant or landscape angle. I think it is worth considering. And we have the information to quantify.

    In many areas, including Texas, natives are disappearing from the wild at a rapid pace. Everything from herbaceous perennials to trees and shrubs. Today many only survive in fence lines. Using these plants in residential landscapes may be their only salvation. Although, in Texas, there are some specializing in helping land owners reintroduce these plants on their acreage. Another niche opportunity.

    All the research I have seen points to locally grown being absolutely best approach for independent retailers. The opportunities are endless to create differentiation and a splash.

    There are still plenty of opportunities if we adapt to the changing consumer and marketplace. And help folks reconnect to the natural world.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 13, 2015 at 4:02 pm


      Yes those were great days at Hines, the best nursery team I ever worked with – no question.

      Your great ideas and observations all make lots of sense and individually single growers and retailers can make a difference gradually but it is sad that we don’t have a Hines type of big-picture strategic leader emerging. Meanwhile we are fighting some of the smartest brains on the planet for the consumer’s attention and money and not winning, judging by the latest National Gardening Survey I just analysed.

      So now it is your turn to go around spreading common sense! Your optimism makes me feel like an old curmudgeon (no comments please!) but I notice you did end with an “if”. “If we can adapt to the changing consumer and marketplace”… we shall see!! Thanks as always for your great insights and counsel Jack, take care with those Texas natives!

  9. Frank Fernicola
    Jun 17, 2015 at 5:39 am

    Ian, Good point about combining nature and garden sales. On any given day in my own suburban NJ backyard less than 15 miles outside of NYC (hardly a rural landscape) we have many birds, rabbits, groundhogs, turkeys, fox, coyotes, deer and many more. It is always interesting to me that people pick and choose the nature to keep around. The rally about saving the bees and butterflies is ok but deer and groundhogs must go. This is the give me nature as long as it does not eat my tomatoes or arborvitae attitude many people have. If this means selling plants for the pollinators and buckets of deer deterrent then that is what we will offer for now. Helping consumers sculpt their gardens for the future with all of nature in mind, not just the cute and pretty parts of it, is something that will be more important for years to come. Adapting older landscapes that can be welcoming and sustainable sources of food and habitat for animals, birds and bugs is definitely something that customers indicate they want to work towards. Grouping plants is not always easy for this purpose but we have had some success with the Prides Corner Farm line of American Beauties native plants. The product is well tagged and the pots differentiate the plants for the consumer. It would be far easier for buyers if more growers followed their lead. As always thanks for the thought provoking posts.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 17, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      Frank, so good to hear from you again, hope all is well in the Garden State.

      You are right, we do tread a fine line between butterfly support and “varmint” protection but as you say we will do what it takes to keep people coming in and trusting us with their problems. Then we can be influential and gradually move the needle. I am optimistic and do see a slow gradual change in the population, quicker in some areas of the country than others, but if garden retailers remain the place for answers to known garden problems, we should begin to edge into a leadership role to become the place for suggestions for unknown garden opportunities.

      Other industries are so good at this: How many people do you think demanded medication for “Restless Leg Syndrome” before they heard about the “condition” on TV??!!

      Now that “local” is in vogue and social media makes outreach so much more affordable, Local Garden Centers (LGCs) should be leading their loyal, trusting customers into a nature friendly garden before they even think about it.

      Thanks Frank for taking the time, hope to see you at Cultivate 15 next month, Go GCU Class of 2008!!

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