Connecting People & Plants
P. Allen Smith takes us behind the scenes of his garden home retreat — a 100-acre test kitchen and studio for outdoor living.
June 13, 2008
This spring, garden celebrity P. Allen Smith's new garden home retreat will be the epicenter of all his media platforms engaging consumers.
In addition to being a showcase for the latest and greatest in gardening, activities at the retreat will appeal to interests ranging from home building and home décor to cooking, outdoor living and entertaining. Animal lovers will connect with the dogs, chickens, sheep and horses on the working farm. The retreat also ties in with the green movement, with the energy-efficient home being built with sustainable materials and the grounds irrigated with recycled water and maintained as organically as possible.
"The retreat is America's test kitchen for outdoor living," Smith says. "Not only will we be trialing new plant varieties, but other products that are part of the outdoor lifestyle. What the consumer really needs is a way to pull it all together, feel good about it and not break the bank."
Smith is a landscape designer by trade who grew up in a family of nurserymen in Tennessee and garden center owners in Arkansas. He studied garden history at the University of Manchester in England and became a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society before returning home to Arkansas in 1986.
The gardens he designed in Little Rock, Ark., captured attention locally, regionally then nationally. His first brush with celebrity came when he was invited to answer questions for a local radio talk show, which led to the local ABC television affiliate approaching him about producing a weekend show in his gardens.
Today, Smith can be found in a wide range of national media:
- "P. Allen Smith Garden Home" television show on PBS
- "P. Allen Smith Gardens," a syndicated television show
- Gardening reports on The Weather Channel
- Regular appearances on the "Today" show
- Contributor and advisor to Cottage Living magazine
- Contributor to Woman's Day magazine
Smith just published his fourth book with Random House, "P. Allen Smith's Living In The Garden Home," which focuses on connecting the seasons with containers, crafts and celebrations.
His next book will focus on bringing nursery plants indoors. "We're trialing the best nursery plants in the house to see the length of days they will last inside and length of days they will last as a cut flower," he says. Woman's Day's special interest publication, Garden Deck & Design, will showcase the best live plants for weddings, receptions and parties - 14 plants that will last at least 10 days inside.
Smith incorporates his love of plants, cooking, art, history and charitable causes in all his work. Recent landscape projects in Little Rock include a healing garden at a local hospital, the restoration of a historic hotel and an overhaul of the gardens at the governor's mansion.
Last spring at the garden home retreat, sixth graders and tenth graders planted 50,000 daffodils, harvested them and sold bunches of 10 for $5 to benefit local underprivileged youth.
A Labor Of Love
For 12 years, all of Smith's filming was done on location at a small, urban lot in a historic part of Little Rock. He had relocated an old home to the empty lot and created a series of garden rooms around it. Out in the country, the new garden retreat opens the doors to limitless possibilities, and eliminates background noise that can interfere with the audio side of shooting video.
"We just needed more space to experiment with different kinds of plants," Smith says. "While it may seem huge, it's very contained. Throughout 2008, you'll see the evolution of the property on the show, in print and on the Web. A brick doesn't get laid without being photographed or on video tape."
The actual home, which will be completed in February, is a brand new Greek revival style inspired by four historic homes built in the 1830s. An expansive, Viking studio kitchen will seat 45 people. Additional kitchens are outdoors and in a separate building detached from the house. Another room is a studio for dried flowers and crafts. Each space has a function.
When I visited in late October, I got to see the foam insulation derived from soybean oil and fluffy fabric insulation from bluejean factory scraps instead of fiberglass. Gutters will capture runoff and direct it to a 6,000-gallon water tank concealed under lawn space to water the garden and orchard. Local materials, including cypress and stonework, were obtained to build the house.
When asked if historic homes already were "green" in their construction, Smith says, "The older materials were green, but where they run off the road is in energy efficiency. We have a radiant solar metal roof that preheats the floors with hot water, and our windows have an energy rating."
His business manager, Bill Reishtein, continues to be in awe of the scope of the project and Smith's vision for it. "No one in the industry has undertaken a project like this to show ideas in a compelling way to get the public inspired and excited," Reishtein says. "PBS viewers follow what's going on at the retreat. It's like a reality show. Everybody wants to know what he grows."
Driving Plant Sales
Smith's most direct tie with growers and garden centers is the work he does with Proven Winners, which is funded by the sales of plants to growers and retailers. Smith is an important part of the Proven Winners media strategy, which should generate 900 million impressions in 2008.
"One of the deal closers for us was that he was on the cusp of doing this," says Proven Winners Marketing Director Marshall Dirks. "We could see his passion and how much more creative and how many more opportunities there would be with this property. He has the media platform, needs good plants and it works for both parties. He can reach new gardeners through cooking, sustainability and his care for animals. There is a high correlation between gardeners and pet owners."
Reishtein said he and Smith chose Proven Winners because the company has the stability and critical mass to support the brand. "If you can't find the plants, you're going to be dissatisfied," Reishtein says. "Proven Winners has enough critical mass that you can go to a retailer and buy them."
Smith isn't a spokesperson for Proven Winners, but presents gardening ideas and concepts with Proven Winners plants. "I like to talk about combinations, not just a specific plant, but what does it hang with? How does it look best with companion plants and in the outdoor space?" Smith says. "I'm a plant nerd and very interested in plants for the sake of plants, but I'm looking at the bigger picture all the time."
He says he was attracted to Proven Winners because they believe in promoting gardening as an activity versus promoting just their plants. "While there are certain products they provide, they do recognize the importance of promoting the pursuit of gardening and outdoor living," Smith says. "For the industry to have a bright future, it's going to be incumbent on more industry corporations to think about their market that way."
This will be the third spring Proven Winners and Smith have worked together. By zeroing on the Hot 21 Plants, Proven Winners is able to measure results of the campaign.
"In the last two years, we've seen a 31 percent increase in sales for the Hot 21," Dirks says. "It may be 300 percent for 'Diamond Frost,' but on average, it's 31 percent. If you set that in context of 5 to 7 percent average growth in the industry, that's pretty significant. Next year, maybe we'll have a Hot 30 with nine new varieties."
Proven Winners will be sponsoring "the first day of spring" on The Weather Channel, where Smith will have regular reports related to getting ready for spring. Smith's Web site also will offer viewers online video features and allow viewers to rate, comment and share their views on plants.
Both Smith and Dirks are concerned about the future of gardening and want to cultivate and convert as many gardeners as they can, whether they be children getting their first exposure, busy Generation Y consumers who are just getting established professionally or Gen X couples juggling work with family. Capturing leisure time will be even more important than dollars.
"The reality is we're not competing with one another," Smith says. "One flower brand is not competing with another flower brand. It's not family-owned independents versus Home Depot. We're competing for the consumer's time. This industry has to create a compelling reason to take time to go to a garden center, plant a garden and create an outdoor living space for their family. My goal is to help consumers create style and comfort without spending a lot of time and resources and feel what they have done is an expression of their own personal style."
Reishtein believes this strategy will help the entire industry. "Together, let's elevate all ships, make gardeners more successful and get a share of their leisure time."