People Love Plants – Sometimes A Little Too Much

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More than 1,000 people came out to participate in Plantapalooza.

Oh boy, was I in trouble. I figured I would be toast once everyone figured out that nearly all the geraniums and petunias that had been sent to me to be trialed in the gardens had been stolen. Well, stolen is not the correct word. Perhaps “taken in error” is more accurate – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Decision

With the economy still dismal, consumer confidence low and discretionary dollars difficult to justify, the team at the trial gardens discussed the pros and cons of doing a large plant sale. Would people show up? Would they spend the money? Does anyone even garden around here with water restrictions still in place? On and on we argued.

Instead of backing away, however, we decided to go forward, approaching The State Botanical Garden of Georgia and the student horticulture club to create a plant sale extravaganza we dubbed Plantapalooza. We approached our retailers, and they bought into the concept and offered discounts and specials to anyone who visited one of the three venues.

We quickly ran out of greenhouse space, so to free up benches, we put the tougher plants like petunias and geraniums around the corner behind do-not-enter tape. We marketed Plantapalooza as a destination weekend and crossed our fingers that people would attend with open wallets.

The Result

It was a smashing success; people came to Athens from at least five different states. We sold all the unusual stuff, from vines, unusual veggies and perennials to annuals like alternanthera, solanum and nierembergia – all for five or 10 dollars. More than 1,100 people showed up over about seven hours, and we raised thousands of dollars to support the students and the gardens. And that was just us. People were excited to go down the road to two other venues, be welcomed by the retailers like royalty and find plants for decorating. Everybody was pleased.

The Trouble with Social Media

As successful as the event was, at least a hundred plants remained. The last thing I wanted to do was haul them back in the greenhouse – so I flexed my newfound social media muscles and sent a message to our eMail list, Facebook and Twitter (yes, I now tweet, to the shame and embarrassment of my best friend). I wrote, “Free plants at the back of the greenhouse, pick them up Saturday evening or Sunday.”

People speak of the power of social networking – I could practically hear the squealing of brakes, U-turns and messages being sent – and within an hour, everything was gone.

I meant to send a second message telling everyone that all the free plants were gone, but, well, my Swiss cheese brain forgot. The next morning I received frantic messages from my students telling me that people had come to the garden on Sunday and looked for those promised free plants – and what they found were the flats of petunias and geraniums being saved for the trials. Nearly everything had disappeared.

Yes, they were behind do-not-enter tape, but hey, my message said free plants, and people took me at my word. Social media had worked too well – I was in big trouble.

The Moral of the Story

What to do? These plants were irreplaceable; breeders had paid us to trial them, and now they were gone. Once again, I turned to social media and asked for their return. Apologies to all of you who received these pleas. We hoped to receive a flat or two anonymously, and then scramble to find replacements. But, people drove back the next day, apologizing profusely, “We didn’t realize. We are so sorry. We just thought…” More than 95 percent of the plants were returned. Some had even been planted and were brought back with garden soil clinging to the roots.

I learned three things that weekend. 1. People still love what we sell. If we market ourselves boldly, they will come, and they will spend. 2. This social media thing is powerful, both in a positive and negative way. 3. My faith in mankind was rekindled. The final lesson is the one I will remember the longest. I smile as I think of these people bringing back the plants and setting them at our feet. I was touched.

If you missed Plantapalooza, visit us this season and check out the trial gardens. We’re having an Open House June 20, 2012, and you can check out the much-traveled petunias and geraniums.

Allan Armitage was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia for 30 years. He recently retired and remains an active consultant, author and lecturer.

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