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.