Taking The Guesswork From Gardening [Opinion]

In my previous job as horticulturist at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, one of my responsibilities was to answer the “Horticulture Hotline.” Members and the public could call in several days per week with their gardening questions. It was a free service, and in the spring and summer I answered an average of 30 to 40 questions per day. People asked why there were brown spots in their lawn, why the wisteria hadn’t bloomed, how to save dahlias over the winter, what that disgusting green caterpillar was on their tomatoes, how to save seed from jack-in-the-pulpit, and what could they spray to keep the Japanese beetles off their roses. I never knew what questions the day would bring (sometimes it brought obscure questions on sedges or South African native plants from co-workers calling from another extension trying to stump me).

Even now, at parties the hostess often steers me out to the garden or landscape beds to have me help her figure out what to plant and diagnose problems. No doubt you have had the same experience when people find out what you do for a living. We, as an industry, worry about a waning interest in gardening. But my experience tells me otherwise. People still love plants. I believe we are programmed as a species to love plants. People want to garden, and they’re hungry for knowledge. But they’re intimidated. They’re afraid of spending their hard-earned money on something they don’t know how to grow.

A few months ago, I interviewed Joe Gray, senior vice president of Hines Nursery. During our conversation, he said, “I travel a lot, and when I’m asked, ‘What do you do?’ people respond, ‘Oh, I’m a terrible gardener,’ or ‘I have a black thumb.’ They say it’s too complicated; there are all these steps, and it’s just too much.”

Gray says, “We as an industry make it complicated for the consumer. We need to simplify it for them so it’s easier.”

It’s an opinion I’ve heard echoed by industry leaders. The effort to produce low-maintenance, high-quality plants has been underway for a long time. But now the focus is widening. Real efforts are being made to help consumers feel confident that what they buy will succeed.

HGTV has already proven this works with its line of paints, which are grouped and color-coordinated so no matter what the customer chooses, it will look good. They’re doing it with a new line of plants too. These pre-selected plant combinations that work well together, both in color and in culture. “They are designed to grow well, show well and go home well together, says Randy Hunter, CEO of Agricola Management Group, which is marketing the HGTV line of plants.

Burpee has an app, My Garden Designer, that allows consumers to match plants together right in the store. They can scan a QR code with their phone and see what will go well with it, or look up “recipes” others have suggested. Proven Winners has long worked with retailers to group plants together in POP displays that attract attention and eliminate guesswork. There still may be a place where traditional displays of plants in alphabetical order by category make sense, but if we’re going to make it simple, easy and uncomplicated for the plant novice we have to think out of the box.

“Educating consumers is the retailer’s job,” you might say. And traditionally it has been. However, more than ever before we’re working with a population with less discretionary spending and less time, but conversely, one that is used to instant gratification. Many retailers are asking for marketing help. Get together with your customers to find out how you can work with them to make it easy for their customers. I say it’s the duty of the whole supply chain to shift the thinking from “I can’t garden” to “I can.”

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