My college professor, a regarded scholar in the fields of agricultural teaching and pedagogy, used to remind me that most humans only commit an idea to retrievable memory after encountering it on average 17 times. As a result of that lesson, I feel like a broken record, ever-repetitive in hopes that someone will hear something I say for the 17th time. I struggle with the paradox I face standing in front of so many trade conferences around the country — how can an industry brimming with talented, creative professionals wander along for almost a decade without ever hitting stride?
The problems we wrestle with are not unique to a particular economic condition. They are structural. Like a crack in a good foundation, they’ll give way to greater faults.
Sure, on a practical scale of numbers, if nothing changes about the percentage of people who garden in the next 30 years, there will still be more gardening consumers. Why? Gen Y numbers from 10 to 15 million more than Baby Boomers, depending on your definitions and demographic inkling. These are simple proportions, but no insurance policy. It’s a sullen state of acceptance, which we hardly have to embrace.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it. I believe in the power of influencers — we are not forever bound to what the public wants. In so many words, noble as grassroots groundswells are, people (particularly Gen Ys) are influenced by those they deem to be experts. It’s high time we start behaving like them.
We Must Be Dynamic
Collectively, this was one of the dominant messages from Greenhouse Grower’s 2013 GROW Summit in October: As an industry, we must work to change the mindsets of the audiences we serve, while working to change our own, as well. To get something we’ve never had, we have to do something we’ve never done.
Not only does our mindset have to change, but so do our products. The marketplace today is glutted with an enormous variety of plants in virtually all categories. But where is the wow factor? Where is the compelling reason for anyone to give a damn about the latest alyssum or petunia hitting the benches this spring?
That’s not to say there aren’t stunning developments that come along. (Digiplexis, anyone? It’s a bigeneric cross for God’s sake!) And while we have more new plants coming on the market than perhaps ever before, you have to ask — what kinds of plants are we out there promoting? Is our plantsmanship driven by passion or common denominators?
We Must Be Passionate
Recently, in a conversation with a donor to our institution, I was reminded of the selling power of passion. She said, “I love witnessing someone’s passion to care enough about something to convince me that I should, too. It’s addictive.”
When we’re passionate, we’re relevant, because we give people a reason to care. Our job is to sell our relevance. Without plants, gardens and the joys of making beautiful and edible spaces, our lives would be less rich. If a brand can’t sell the idea that its plants are compelling, a brand isn’t delivering. By definition, a brand is an identifiable factor that sets a product or experience apart from its competitors. How often today are brands identifiable by consistently amazing plants with lasting market appeal instead of plants good enough for fancy POP for a season or two? Leading food personalities 50 years ago didn’t accept post-war, packaged food as mainstay, but rather endeavored to pursue craftsman ingredients for a more genuine meal. The success of their beliefs and their passion is obvious half a century later as we readily embrace a relevant, new American culinary identity — local, culturally diverse and seasonally fresh.
We Must Be Stylish
Yves Saint Laurent put it best: “Fashion fades, but style is eternal.” Perhaps nobody really knows what will settle out from fashionable into stylish. Plants wax and wane in popularity, spinning around the botanical clock from peak popularity to shadowy obscurity. Regardless of what remains, gardeners want gardens to look like them — savvy expressions of their personalities and attitudes, no matter the scale. Ultimately, American horticulture needs to accept that if people can’t see themselves gardening or see their desires for quality of life reflected in our work, they won’t support it. Wallowing around, talking about how people have no time to garden will not inspire anyone to consider doing more gardening.
We Must Be Visible
We have to inspire an audience to want something they don’t yet know they need, to inspire them to see the cultural relevance in horticulture. In the world of public horticulture, where I work, we have a lot to do to improve the public’s literacy. We have to aspire to artful interpretations of horticulture that not only captivate people, but instill in them a renewable relationship with gardens.
When beautiful, functional landscapes permeate our living environments, the generational impact this has on perceptions of quality of life is incalculable. If you really believe in tomorrow, do more than just plant a tree. Plant a tree where someone will see it and grow with it. When people form relationships with their environments, they become eternally
invested in them.
We Must Be Compelling
The last thing new consumers want is something simple. They aren’t dumb. Gen Ys, after all, value doing — the process and its subsequent experience. In a life spent tethered to technology, not out of choice but out of cultural necessity, the value in doing something becomes hyper-compelling over merely the illusion of it. The challenge isn’t to make gardening simple, but rather to make the experience accessible and enticing.
We have to make a loftier, yet believable, message that conveys the lifestyle of gardening beyond canned cover shots of major shelter magazines. While we have reach as an industry, it isn’t pervasive.
We Must Be Revolutionary
What’s your next big idea? We have to go to work and focus on the people who matter and give them what they want: a truly great gardening experience, no matter where we work between innovation and consumption. We have to commit to the idea of cultivating the customers we want along with products that they want, even if we have to tell them 17 times.