Cultivate’15 Town Hall Meeting: Not Your Grandma’s Garden

Left to right: Lloyd Traven, Kelly Norris, Brienne Arthur, Garry Grueber and Mason Day
Left to right: Lloyd Traven, Kelly Norris, Brienne Arthur, Garry Grueber and Mason Day

Young and innovative industry minds threw down ideas about future of gardening in the new millennium at the Cultivate’15 Town Hall Meeting. Traditionally one of the most innovative, captivating, controversial, edge-of-your-seat, interesting discussions at the whole show, this year’s Town Hall Meeting was no exception.

The set up for this discussion addressed the radical change within the world of horticulture over the past decade, due to economics, demographics, technology, retail competition and the redefinition of gardening. The premise: Change cannot be ignored, and our old strategies won’t win us the game anymore. This session acted as a “callback” to the drawing board to determine what gardening actually means to consumers, how the horticulture industry needs to respond to meet the demands of the new millennium and the consequences that may result if we don’t.

The esteemed panel included some of the brightest young and innovative minds in horticulture: Brienne Arthur of Growing A Greener World, Kelly Norris of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Garry Grueber of Cultivaris Europe and Mason Day of GrowIt! Mobile. Moderated by Lloyd Traven of Peace Tree Farm, but with strict rules not to quote anyone directly, the discussion went like this:

There are currently 7.9 billion people on Earth, and by 2040, there will be closer to 9 or 10 billion people inhabiting our planet. More people are moving to cities and by 2040, three-quarters of our population will be urban dwellers. Our population is aging and living longer. In Germany, 60 percent of the population is over age 60, while in the U.S., 20 percent of the population is Millennials. The value Millennials bring to the marketplace is $1.3 trillion in spending annually, making them now a major consumer force.

But don’t overlook Gen Xers or suburban dwellers. The 30-something, suburban women with disposable incomes are looking for lifestyle buys, and gardening provides a good lifestyle. A panelist said right now, when visiting a garden center, they see the same thing that is seen at a box store. That’s not good. Instead, garden centers should be doing four things;

  • Selling supplies for home-brewing
  • Selling supplies for canning
  • Hosting educational seminars
  • Holding wine tastings

It’s not about going to the garden center to buy a hydrangea for Millennials — it’s all about searching for lifestyle. Food is one thing that drives young people. When the economy dips, flowers and landscapes are often the first luxury to go, but everyone needs to eat, and often gardens become more popular. People like to grow what they consume, and with the changing demands on our resources due to a growing population, people need to begin producing more of what they eat.

Urban dwellers have relatively modest square footage, and the means by which we approach horticulture are very different. We are part of an industry that allows people to both meet their needs nutritionally with food crops and express themselves stylistically with ornamentals.

We live in a different economy and a different world now. Young consumers are not going to go to a garden center and buy shoes, purses and pottery. That’s what Amazon exists for, but that’s what they see now at garden centers. Hops, grapes, beer, wine — that’s what speaks to Millennials.

We have cultivated an environment that does not cultivate a hobby of gardening. When we promote low-maintenance plants, we are not making them garden or even think about their plants after they put them in the ground. That’s why annuals are more popular than any other category of plants — customers “get to” replace them. We need to reinvent the hobby of gardening.

Public gardens are dynamic and changing, and have grown in popularity among consumers.

At the same time, the industry preaches sustainability, but how can you be sustainable when you are ripping out plants and replacing them all the time? Answer: Sustainability doesn’t have to mean static. Sustainability is also about management and about people’s enjoyment of and engagement with gardens. We have to work with and for the people to promote gardening.

Humans have to be part of the equation when it comes to growing their own food. How are we hooking them? We need to start by engaging young kids — not just Millennials, but the even younger generations.

If you want to reach someone new, think about taking plants to the people. What if I go to a local craft brewery and ask the owners if I can promote my garden center on their coasters?

Go to a food festival. People will be eating, drinking, having fun, and when they are enjoying themselves and have full bellies, they will very likely buy plants to take home as a memento.

Edible foodscapes are the next big thing in gardening. One of the panelists worked with a school in New Jersey to install an edible foodscape garden the first week of May. It was a huge success and became a community source of pride. Suddenly it had 150 volunteers ready and excited to maintain it. The school held a pep rally and the kids chanted at the top of their lungs, “Garden! Garden!” Every Friday, the school serves a meal from the garden, and the number-one favorite vegetable is Swiss chard.

This needs to be part of the curriculum at every school. Every garden center should have a plant mobile — go to schools during Earth Day week and get the kids there gardening. The kids will eventually guilt their parents into going to the garden centers to buy plants and trees, and plant gardens because it’s good for the environment.

Audience question: I own a garden center – what should I do to impress you?

Greet me with champagne! (Laughter) One panelist went to 50 garden centers this season. One of the coolest things seen on this tour was a wall of organic heirloom garden seeds, which the panelist hadn’t seen before in a garden center. Another impressive thing was a fermenting section, also not seen before. Another: a hydroponics section. Hydroponics are the best way to grow vegetables on a patio — very flavorful. One garden center also had a huge canning section. Not everyone loves canning but everyone loves Ball jars. The best thing about this is that canning seems like it’s seasonal, so consumers feel like they’re going to run out, so they need to buy jars now. When the panelist was at the garden center with the canning section, there were at least 30 transactions with people under 30. The store: Fifth Season Hydroponics.

Moderator question: How do we get our message to young consumers?

Garden center owners say all the time, young people come into our stores and they’re always on their phones. Well guess what? If you’re not reaching them there, you’re not going to get them.

Millennials love free stuff. Give them a beer and trade it for their phone number. Send them text messages about the plants — and things they want — that are coming into your store. Tell them about the new hops plants, herbs and berries.

You’re not going to reach them in newspapers. You have to spend money on social media because that’s where they are. Host events and invite them — make them feel like they are included in something special. 300 million users are on Instagram — you need to be there.

One panelist said: I’m 36. I’m not even a Millennial, but I’m always on social media. You’re not going to reach me either if you’re going to use newspapers and magazines. And advertising in gardening magazines is only reaching the people who are already gardening.

Use Snapchat, which sends a picture and then it disappears, but it stays in the user’s mind. You can send pictures 25 times a day and they won’t get tired of it.

In the end, you’re not going to cultivate an audience if it’s not there to be cultivated. You need to ask, “Why do these people want to come to my store in the first place?” That’s the real navel-watching question we need to ponder.

The great thing about horticulture is our product is often so regionally specific that the reasons for people to come into garden centers in different parts of the country are different. But people still need a compelling reason to come to the store.

Foodscaping is one reason. Why are all of the edibles and ornamentals still displayed on opposite sides of the store, when we can show consumers how to blend them into ornamental foodscapes? And why are vegetables restricted to being grown in a box, when we can have foodscapes?

We need to appeal to people’s style — they are very style-conscious.

Trunk club is a great example of curated shopping (the word “curated” was flagged here, as a “fabulous word in the retail context”). Trunk Club creates a collection of clothing items for men to wear, taking their style and the things they like into consideration. It’s a concept that can be used with gardening, as well.

Millennials look up to someone who is perceived to be an expert. We live in a culture where there is certain sex appeal to geekiness. Anyone who watches the “Big Bang Theory” knows that. Expert plantsmen could compile a Zone 7B collection of edibles, which allows gardeners to approach their landscapes in a logical way that also appeals to style.

Be careful with geekiness, though. There is a fine line between being an expert who helps and one who intimidates. We don’t want to overwhelm gardeners with more information than they can handle.

One panelist said, “I’ll buy from someone like me, my grandfather or my grandmother, because she’s cute and lovely. But I won’t buy from my dad or mom.”

There needs to be a happy medium between over-informing at a garden center and under-informing at a box store. Going into garden centers, we want to be acknowledged but not pounced upon or talked down to. But at the same time, we need help with things like loading bags of mulch or fertilizer into the car. Don’t busy the staff with answering questions that a computer kiosk could answer.

In Europe, the approach to crop protection products is like that of a pharmacy – a plant pharmacy.

For people of varied ages, plants are seasonal. They want to buy plants like they buy fashion. It doesn’t always matter that it’s new. New is not the answer. New means it might not grow. New varieties only matter to people in the industry, and not even as much anymore. New should not be your marketing strategy.

Invest in technology. Props to Cultivate for creating an app to navigate the show. Perhaps you should create one for your store.

But how many people use apps? How many people used the Cultivate app? Apps may not be as effective as you think. Perhaps the better strategy is to be visible on the apps that are already out there, like Houzz, Zillow and Pinterest. Chirp is an app that allows someone to send a message to anyone in the area who has an app on their phone, which can help promote messages like an event or a plant program.

Question: Besides tomatoes, what else can be grown in a foodscape that people would like?

One panelist is obsessed with grains: #crazygrainlady. Grains can include oats, wheat, barley, etc. They are beautiful, cheap and easy to grow. You can’t fail with them. The panelist weaved grains in a landscape with woody ornamentals that essentially separates the front yard. On the 4th of July, the neighborhood celebrated with a wheat harvest.

Suburban sprawl is truly the largest space we as an industry are not taking advantage of – those sunny, irrigated yards that people with disposable income want to fill and landscape. A suburban garden in Germany is professionally maintained, allowing gardeners to plant food and not have to maintain it themselves, for a fee.

Moderator comment: The breeders feel like they have to have ornamental appeal to edibles – how do we get past that?

The thing is, vegetables are really cool and beautiful already. We need to change our mindset. Take Early Girl tomato for instance – it is beautiful with its big leaves, and fruit in many different colors.

At Epcot Center in Orlando, for the first time year this year, it planted a foodscape. It showed a 25 percent increase in attendance among the people who hold member passes. They keep coming back because they love eating zero kilometer meals from the restaurants supplied by the food grown in the foodscape.

In general, public gardening attendance is up 25 to 30 percent. That’s because it’s a source where consumers are seeing ideas that they want to try. Public gardening is a huge opportunity to connect what we do with consumers.And frankly, the example of the food vans to elementary schools -that is really a public horticulture function. But what if garden centers collaborated with public gardens? Heaven forbid they play in the same sandbox with each other! All good gardening is local. There needs to be more collaboration among educators and the commercial and retail parts of the industry.

Public horticulture is also a way to get plants into people’s minds. Your customers are going to public gardens to see the new stuff and get ideas. Look at the green infrastructure angle. In Germany, groups are taking wasteland and transforming it into public gardens. There is one on the Rhine River that has 3 million visitors annually. The High Line in New York City is another great example, also with millions visiting. There is clearly a craving for horticulture, which is inspiring.

Question: I work in public horticulture – what can I grow beyond the PMS Syndrome – petunia, marigolds and sage?

You can blend anything – that’s the beauty of landscaping. We need to start working together. We are not a cooperative industry, but it’s good that AmericanHort has started bringing professionals together in one location – producers and retailers of annuals, perennials, woody ornamentals, vegetables, to start making those connections.

Final Question: Is there hope?

To which he received a resounding, “YES!!!”

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