Perspective: John Bagnasco, GardenLife

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You’d be hard pressed to find someone more in tune with the gardening public and the supply side of our industry than San Diego radio personality and writer John Bagnasco of GardenLife. The program is Southern California’s leading source for gardening advice, sharing scientific breakthroughs and new gardening ideas. He also was an editor and radio personality for Garden Compass.

Bagnasco holds a degree in horticultural marketing from Michigan State University. He then went on to be a buyer for some of the nation’s leading garden center chains–Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, the Nurseryland division of Sunbelt Nursery Group and Armstrong Garden Centers. He also knows the mega grower side of things as marketing director for Altman Plants in Vista, Calif. His latest project has been working with Log House Plants and Plug Connection to market and produce the SuperNaturals line of grafted vegetables.

GG: What are the hot trends in gardening this year?

JB: The biggest is gardening for a particular purpose. Roses are popular along with perennials and the edibles craze. People are picking a purpose for their gardens and choosing plants that are useful. People are becoming practical. They can’t wrap their minds around global warming but can make a difference in their backyard and create a sanctuary.

Succulents are continuing to rise in popularity. At first it was containers, now they are in hanging baskets, mixed planters and in the landscape.

We’re also seeing a rise in horticultural tourism and visiting gardens. The National Heirloom Exposition will be in Santa Rosa, Calif., featuring more than 2,000 varieties of heirloom produce, even animals. I’m surprised at how many people are interested in chickens. People want to know what’s in their food. We’re seeing a revival of old-time practices–canning and preserves.

GG: If you were a grower, what would you produce right now?

JB: It depends on the type of grower you are. Now you have to be able to supply commodities at a good price or be a specialist to be profitable. If you’re growing commodities to be sold through the chains, there’s a big risk there. You have to be run very well. The margins are so small, there’s no room for error.

Would I want to produce a product where the value is established or one that has a marketing program to establish the value? This is an area the industry is lacking–getting big retailers to see the value of our product and in turn letting the consumer know. If a 4-inch tomato is sold for 99 cents, in essence, you’re saying that’s the value of a tomato plant. What is a plant worth? We sold 4-inch Mighty ‘Mato grafted tomatoes for $11.95 and the double grafted ones for $19.95. You’d think there’d be sticker shock, but the only question was “Why does this cost so much?” No one said, “I’m not going to pay.” They just want to know why. Don’t talk down to consumers but explain why.

GG: What other successful programs have you seen?

JB: Proven Winners has done a good job establishing the brand but not promoting items within the brand. One nice small program is promoting Hishtel’s ‘Tomaccio’ tomato. The company is using traditional methods–nice POP, tags and banners. They promoted a particular product, told a story and put the value behind it. There’s a lot of buzz about this product. Nobody knows Hishtel but everybody is talking about ‘Tomaccio.’

On the hard goods end, Scotts is trying to deliver the message in the best way and went to the influencers, people who can influence the public through blogs and radio. I’m impressed a company that large had the insight to realize if they want to continue to be successful, this is the road to take.

GG: Is the independent garden center channel still a viable one to introduce products?

JB: Independent garden centers are part of promoting new products but the challenge is recovering the cost of producing them. Bayer spends $200 million to get a chemical registered. When Suntory introduces a new plant, how do they get their money back? It has to be on volume, which you can’t achieve through the independent channel. That’s why companies are courting the box stores.
But the mistake box stores make is they view our product as a traffic builder instead of valuing the product. They are beating the competition up on price instead of saying, “We can make money at this.” That’s the disservice they do to the industry. They say here’s the value on this particular item but it’s not where the value belongs.

For the independent garden centers, there’s still something to be said for specialty stores. If you carry 200 types of hostas, anybody who wants hosta will go to you. A box store is not able to do that. You have to know your market and see the support. I also recommend an internet presence to support the local specialty. There are a lot of cool things out there that the box stores will never carry. For commodity items, carry a larger size that’s ready to go or with value-added on it. Independents need marketing and merchandising to promote themselves. Instead, they make the mistake of promoting service and knowledge. It’s true they do offer it, but you can’t talk to everybody in the store. Many customers are not willing to pay for service and knowledge. It has to be through product.

GG: Are you concerned about younger people gravitating more toward gadgets than the outdoors as they grow older? Should our industry be concerned about losing the next generation?

JB: I know some people think we need to market toward the younger generation. I disagree. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a gadget, but I played baseball and went hiking and fishing. Why is that different? What made me garden was the people around me. We need to market to people who are influencing that generation, not younger people. Everybody recalls memories with grandma. If you ingrain that with young people, when they have the time to garden, they’ll do it. To me, marketing to the younger generation is wasted advertising dollars. I’d love a program that markets to mothers and grandmothers, presenting projects to do with kids, or even to fathers and grandfathers. Examples could be butterfly gardening or planting sunflowers.

GG: It seems more could be done to connect plants, health and cooking. Do you do that on GardenLife?

JB: We have a weekly newsletter and interview guests. What really surprised me is whenever a chef was on, how popular they were. The most traveled-to spots on our website are recipes. Last Christmas, a woman in Washington County, Texas, presented cranberry salsa. We got so many comments on this salsa and three to four weeks worth of calls. Another was chocolate ruby slippers–pomegranate seeds dipped in melted chocolate. We’re not only talking about recipes but incorporating things you can easily grow in a kitchen garden–simple recipes and simple cooking. We’ve seen lifestyle plant tags with recipes and websites. There’s definitely more room for that type of promotion.

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