The consumer uprising against neonicotinoids has roiled the industry over the past couple of years. In June 2013, someone applied pesticide to a tree in full bloom, using the product in an off-label manner. That misapplication killed tens of thousands of bees, capturing the attention of activists.
A short three years later, that activism has led to policy changes for big chains like The Home Depot and Lowe’s. Several cities and towns across the country have banned the sale of neonicotinoids, as has the state of Maryland.
All of this made me curious. How was all the publicity affecting consumer attitudes at local garden stores? Traditionally, customers have shown little interest in how flowering plants are grown, other than they like the idea that they are from a local source. They have been much more particular about food plants than they have ornamentals.
So I sent questions out to a few retailers across the country, and you’ll want to see their responses:
How Many Ask About How Plants Are Grown?
I wondered if only a vocal few, passionate about a cause, asked about how the store’s plants were grown. It turns out that a significant number of consumers are asking, however.
“I would say probably 40% to 50% of our customers would be aware and care about how environmentally sustainable our stock is grown,” says Rolling Green Nursery’s Beth Simpson. The store is located in Greenland, NH. “They want bee friendly, pollinator friendly, non-invasive plants.”
Bauman’s Farm and Garden in Gervais, OR, sees a wide range of customers asking about how plants are grown.
“It surprises me that it’s not just the younger generation, but even the baby boomers seem very interested and concerned about what went into growing the plants they buy,” Brian Bauman says.
What Are They Concerned About?
There were no surprises with this question. As expected, customers are feeling protective of bees and other pollinators, the retailers told me. They also want to know if it’s safe to consume herbs, vegetables, and fruits from the food plants they buy at the store.
“When customers ask about the pollinators, they do not want any form of chemical insecticide, pesticide, or herbicide of any sort on their plants,” says Amy Jo Kellem with Hoerr Nursery in Peoria, IL. “Basically, they want their pollinator plants and edibles to all be organic.”
Some customers have a very good reason for this concern, says Calloway’s Steve Moore.
“Several customers cite that they are either setting up beehives or know someone that is, and want reassurance that our plants are safe to plant around the hives,” says Moore. Calloway’s is a regional chain throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. “A couple of customers have said ‘Adios’ when we cannot guarantee that our plants have never been treated prior to being delivered to us.”
Moore and Bauman both say customers are also asking if the plants sold are GMOs.
What Terms Are They Using?
“Neonicotinoid” is a mouthful, and I wondered if customers were actually asking about this class of pesticides, or using more generic terms.
“Chemical” and “organic” are used by many of Rolling Green’s customers, Simpson says, and she thinks “biocontrol” and “neonics” have little meaning for them.
Calloways’ customers are asking about “neonics,” as is Seattle-based Swanson Nursery. Swanson customers are also asking about a more emotionally charged term: bee killer.
“They’re using ‘organically grown,’ ‘bee killer,’ ‘neonics,’ and ‘pesticides.’ They’re not using ‘IPM,’ or ‘naturally grown,’” says Alex LaVilla, who’s a plant buyer for Swanson Nursery.
Does IPM Matter To Customers?
Many growers use integrated pest management [IPM] to help control pests. It’s a sustainable practice, and I wondered if retailers were able to tout this common practice to their customers.
“It seems customers see it as black or white — it is either organic or it’s not,” says Hoerr Nursery’s Kellem.
That was echoed by other retailers, although Swanson’s LaVilla says they can massage the message.
“They don’t understand IPM and it is too much to explain it,” he says. “If we say ‘naturally grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers,’ they seem okay, even if it’s not certified organic.”
Rolling Green, however, uses the concept of IPM, if not the term “IPM,” as an educational tool.
“Personally, I am not sure the customer gets IPM, but as long as it is explained that we monitor insect hatches, they connect the dots,” Simpson says.
How Growers Can Help Calm Customers’ Fears
I asked retailers what they’d like their growers to do on this issue. Here are their responses:
Amy Jo Kellem, Hoerr Nursery: Labeling!! Share what IPM means with the layman so they can make an educated decision as to what is best for their needs. POP never hurts, and it allows us to make a display that can spark a conversation with the consumer.
Beth Simpson, Rolling Green Nursery: Growers can label their plants as pollinator friendly. For us it is the line of communication on when they last sprayed, and what they sprayed, so we can continue to monitor the plants for any issues.
Brian Bauman, Bauman Farm and Garden: Focus on the benefits that certain plants bring to their garden. “This lavender attracts pollinators to your garden.” “This tomato is disease resistant, which means you don’t have to spray for mildew.”
Alex LaVilla, Swanson Nursery: Label plants “naturally grown without chemicals.” Actually grow them naturally, as many growers still don’t do this, or don’t seem to get that it is important to us and to customers.