Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gardening's Image Problem Part 1

Something tells me we need a makeover.

Over the course of the past 5 to 10 years it has become apparent that the garden industry and gardening as an activity have an image problem.  Garden clubs are oblivious to their aging membership.  Locally owned garden centers struggle to make profits and blame their blight on the prices at the box store down the street.  Growers meet every winter with their broker rep and ask "What's new?" only to order the exact same plant material as the past five years (and their competitors).  Breeders celebrate a "game-changing" variety while their hired PR specialists ponder over how to market yet another red petunia.  And everyone is asking "how do we get 'young people' to like us?".

Some in the industry say our focus should be on schools and children, incorporating gardening and food harvesting into curricula through school gardens, field trips, and other activities.  This is an excellent effort to get kids outside, to play with the earth, and get their hands dirty all the while learning about gardening.  However, I'm not 100% convinced that participating in a school garden will lead to future gardeners.  Growing up I personally was encouraged to make mud pies, was a member of my town's junior garden club, grew marigolds in Girl Scouts, and planted a tree for Arbor Day with Mrs. Silver's 2nd grade class, but every spring Saturday when my parents would ask for my help dividing the hostas and spreading mulch I refused.  Adamantly.  Dividing hostas and spreading mulch was in my teenager mind Manual Labor and neither entertaining nor worth my time.  I'd rather be hanging out at my friend's pool listening to N'Sync.  I wouldn't enjoy gardening and spreading mulch until later in college.
Happy Plant Science college students, c2006

I have found similar stories with friends of mine, both in and outside the industry.  Nichole and Brian don't garden because Nichole works 40hrs a week while Brian finishes his masters in engineering.  They have a small space in their back yard for a couple hops plants Brian uses for his home brewing hobby.  Wendy, a recent law grad, music lover, and foodie doesn't garden due to space limitations with her Brooklyn studio apartment, but has a collection of herb plants she uses regularly to season her favorite recipes when she hosts Saturday Night Dinner.  Courtney, an accomplished photographer for a number of blogs and home & garden magazines doesn't garden because it's such a labor intensive activity "where you get dirty."  She does however purchase a bouquet of flowers on occasion at Reading Terminal Market.

Another friend, Dani, a past wine sommelier and budding agriculturalist, works at a market in Brooklyn where he helps curate the farms and companies who participate.  On his apartment balcony he grows a few dozen varieties of tomatoes every year to concoct the perfect summer salad, and has become quite the heirloom fanatic.  Dani purchases plants from one of my customers and favorite garden centers in Brooklyn -- Crest Hardware & Garden Center.  However Dani has qualms with garden centers -- actually, he hates them.  The "bland Costco layout makes it incredibly difficult to shop and visualize" his garden at the store.  It doesn't help too that the plethora of products offered is unappealing to his 29 year-old male self, referring here to all the lawn ornament and "gifty" stuff (seriously, it's all crap from China, so why offer it?).

Whether they state it or not, all of these friends "garden" even though they don't classify it as gardening.  In their minds they are supplying their home-brewing hobby, trying delicious new food recipes, decorating a home.  Not only are Generation X/Y consumers changing the way consumers shop, read books, and communicate, they are changing the action and therefore definition of "gardening".  Fellow industry colleague Chris has found when polling neighbors that "gardening" means "planting herbs and vegetables", while a "gardener" means "you're old".  In an effort to rid ourselves of the old ladies wearing loud hats at their elite garden club luncheon at the country club image, do we change the image or gardening or do we develop a new term?

So where do we go from here?  Who do we target -- Rookie Gardeners like Dani, Courtney, Wendy, Nichole and Brian, as they change the definition of gardening, or younger Millennials who don't have plants on their radar yet (come on, people, they just got INTO college)?  What is the new definition of gardening, and how do we adapt to the changes consumers are indirectly forcing onto the industry?  How do we adapt the garden center and shopping experience to appeal to Gen X/Yers?

This is what I'm pondering.

Plant on and rock on,

Song for the Garden: It's Tearing Up My Heart - N'Sync

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy T-Givz!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my faithful and casual readers out there!  May your holiday be filled with family, fun, love, and plenty of lovely nature-inspired holiday decor.  To my friends and collegues affected by Super Storm Sandy earlier this month -- Nick and I are thinking of you all, and hope that even during a difficult time such as this, you are able to enjoy what is truly important in life, family and friends.

Love to all!

Plant on,

Song for the Garden: Fir - Blitzen Trapper

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sex & the City or Plants? Choose Wisely

First off, I hope all of you who are Mid-Atlantic and New England readers are safe and at home as Hurricane Sandy comes blundering in.  Let's hope the power stays on long enough to publish this post!

An article was published today in Today's Garden Center Magazine by their new associate editor, Karli Petrovic.  The article, titled 'Why I'm Not Gardening (... And No One Else My Age is Either)', is an op-ed discussing why Gen Yers are not giving garden centers a portion of their purchasing power.  Karli claims that commitment issues are not at stake, but instead that 'gardening' is seen as 'work'.  If I remember correctly, I think I made this very claim two weekends ago at a cocktail party with fellow industry leaders.  Bob at Dickman's, correct me if I'm wrong.  And important to note, the last cocktail party I had been to was in July - quite the dry spell for a Gen Yer and I'm sure Karli would agree.

There are many garden center owners and buyers who are probably reeling in their seats after reading this article.  The blasphemous double speak!  The poor cash-strapped Gen Yer!  Oh those Gen Yers who only want to spend their money on booze and clothes -- they're so detached from the real world!  I partially agree with them, but realize that I too was once in Karli's "WOOO! Post College!" mindset.  Yes, in grad school I'd rather spend my tip money from working as a barista on drinks at Pixel.  Yes, I used to have a much more extensive wardrobe.  However, note the past tense -- there has over time been a change in my mindset, and even though at 23 I wasn't ready for plants, I wasn't ready for a pet or a child either for that matter.  But what I was or wasn't ready for was not the same for ALL 23 year old's, or ALL of my friends.  One important take away for the readers AND Karli: beware of superlatives and over reaching generalizations.

However, I feel the true issue is not that gardening is perceived as work, but that the horticulture industry is not speaking or promoting plants in Gen Yers' terms.  We don't want to garden, we want to make Summer Salad with our neighbors and friends.  We don't want to garden, we want to have our own hops for our home-brewing project.  We don't want to keep a house-plant, we want to collect comic books.  Ok.  So that last example doesn't involve plants, but the collecting and nerdy culture of comics could easily be transmitted to collecting succulents and telanzias.  Make no mistake though -- those of us who do have container gardens, rooftop gardens, edible landscapes, house plants to make the apartment more "inviting to the ladies" sure as hell do NOT want large swaths of petunias as you'd see back in the 90s.  Those days are lame and gone, my friend.

Are you a Gen X/Yer who just recently started gardening?  I'd love to hear how you started living with plants, and why you enjoy it!  Please share your comments.

Maybe Karli needs to read my post from earlier this fall about killing plants.  It's alright Karli -- I kill mint too.

Plant on and rock on,

Song for the Garden: Little by Little -- Groove Armada

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hurry Up and Wait Part 2

The bulbs arrived!!!

So only a week later than I wanted, I arrived home from work this afternoon to a small white box filled with bulbs from Holland!  Actually not Holland but Lewisburg, Ohio.  Those posers and their "DIRECT FROM HOLLAND!!!" plastered over their website and the daily emails I've been receiving since placing my order.

At any rate, the bulbs arrived in great shape, and the iris came with a cute name tag wrapped around the shoot.  Nick and I planted our goodies this afternoon and were watering in the plants just in time before it got too dark to see what we were doing.  I would have taken photos to share with you all, but Nick's camera battery needed charging and my camera was left at my parents home earlier this fall.  We'll just have to wait until spring to share!

Happy fall planting, everyone!

Plant on,

Song for the Garden: Hurry Up & Wait - Stereophonics

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hurry Up and Wait

In August I stumbled upon a Dutch bulb company while researching colors of amaryllis for work.  This happened to be during one of the hottest weeks of the year and my garden at home was looking as horrible as the neglected patch of invasive weeds in my neighbor's yard.  My garden was surely in need of a life makeover, and I was dreaming of cooler fall weather.  After browsing the online catalog, I put together a wish list and placed an order later that weekend with Nick.  We were excited (ok, honestly I was excited; Nick just thought ordering some plants was nice) for our future fall planting project in early October.  I also liked the fact that next spring we would have flowers for fresh cut bouquets.  The order confirmation noted the bulbs would arrive in late September.  Sweet!

Poppy Anemone Mixture
Poppy Anemone 'Mixture', one of the items I ordered (and really want to plant)

In September I decided to schedule a week off from work for early October.  I was past due for a vacation and decided October would be a great time to have a stay-cation to spruce up the garden, put together some fall combination planters, and plant the order of bulbs.  Then I got an email from the bulb company: "Important Update Regarding Your Order."  The delivery date was MOVED!  Moved to LATE OCTOBER!  I was crushed with my plans for an idyllic gardening vacation thwarted.

The bulb industry side of horticulture is so different from the rest of the industry -- it seems to have a bit more whimsy, more magic, something you can't quite put your finger on but spark curiosity.  In college we learned about tulips and how they were a form on currency in ancient cultures, where different colors yielded different monetary values; if I remember correctly, one of the first "market bubbles" was the tulip market.  Seems almost too good of a story to be true; perhaps great tulip industry branding efforts?  Other parts of the industry just seem so unorganized.  My undergraduate advisor would receive shipments of free bulbs to use for research experiments.  Some years there would be more bulbs than research and my friend Cheni and I would spend part of our summer composting bulbs that had gone unused and rotted in the greenhouse coolers.  Then there's last year's Dig, Drop, Done campaign that was so campy I to this day have no idea whether consumers bought it, found it appalling, funny, whimsical, or just plain stupid.  Kind of like the email confirmation when my bulb order was placed: "For Zone 6a, expect your order to arrive between September 15th and November 15th."  It's amazing that the bulb industry can operate so lackadaisical, when the rest of the horticulture industry demands live inventory stats and immediate order confirmations.  Maybe this is just a bad experience with this particular bulb company (that's been in business mind you since 1818, or so their website states), but I seem to remember other bulb companies having similar work ethics.  Am I missing something here?  Do I just have over-rated expectations because I, like other Americans, sometimes have "I want it NOW" consumer habits?  Are the Dutch onto something with their more laid back attitudes?

At any rate, I still am missing my order of bulbs. Please send ASAP.  ::Sigh::

Plant on,

Song for the Garden: Now Generation - Black Eyed Peas

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fear of Dead Plants

I have a confession to make: I am a terrible gardener.  I may know my garden plants and my weeds -- hell, I only went to an Ivy League school for seven years to become a horticulturalist and weed ecologist -- but I generally end up killing most of what I plant each year.

This year Nick and I moved out of Lehigh Valley and into a new apartment in a northern suburb of Philadelphia.  Along with the brand spanking new open-concept apartment came a lovely, well established garden off the side of the property.  There are a number of hostas, a single rose "tree" (for its shape in no manner resembles a "bush"), a peony that seemed to disappear over the summer, and a tall mamosa tree.  I tried making my mark on the space this spring, tearing out a number of ground geraniums that multiply like Tribbles and planted some 4 O'Clocks, peas, and dahlias.  The established perennials, 4 O'Clocks 'Limelight', and black leafed 'Dark Angel' dahlias did well until this past week; the peas never made it.

"Well" might be an over statement.  Mind you the 4 O'Clocks did bloom but fried in the August heat.  The dahlias, without proper staking or training became more of a ground cover rather than tall and upright.  An the herb pots for mojitos and grilling -- dead.

Every year I start with good intentions but the three past years at the greenhouse have made me realize that perhaps my gardens will always be the shoemaker's children -- always happy but without any shoes/plants.  My past and current landlords must regret allowing the "flower girl" take the apartments with their largest garden areas.  I know I should pay more attention to the garden by watering more often, amending the soil in the early spring, planning out each season what I'm going to plant, etc.  However, even with my type-A personality, I kinda don't care that the garden fails every year.  You'd think that I would cry over spilled milk (only sometimes) or dead plants.  This seems to be the case with most American gardeners -- we can't stand the thought of killing a plant.  Americans seem to treat plants as we treat our pets, as members of our family, although not as close.  Plants are like an estranged relative -- Aunt Lucy, twice removed on your step grandmother's side.  You still feel horrible when you learn she died two years ago, guilty that you were mad she didn't send a Christmas card during that time.

Why is this?  Why do American gardeners cherish plants so much and yet have a hard time validating purchasing plants throughout the year to beautify our homes or apartments?  Cut flowers are seen only as for special occasions or for when someone died.  Why are we so quick to cut the landscaping budgets when money gets tight, but still make sure we have $5 a day for our soy lattes?  Why do we run away in fear whenever a politician brings up "preserving the environment"?

My friends and colleagues in Europe don't seem to share this thinking.  It's more a mentality of "Oh hey, the plant died?  No worries, mate!  We'll just get another one!  It was time for a change anyhow."  I can agree with this sentiment -- so what if the plant dies?  It just means it's time to try something new!  I think other Gen X/Yers are starting to share this same way of thinking, as it can be seen in the boom in edibles, seed starting, terrariums, and the succulent craze.  Do you know how many different heirloom vegetables there are to try?  How many succulents?  The lists seem endless.

So how do we harness this curiosity to encourage more gardening?

Monday, July 30, 2012

On the Blog Again...

320 days.  That's how long my hiatus from blogging has run.  And it's not that I haven't had blog post topics on my mind, or the lack of encouragement from peers; life just took over.  My husband Nick got a much better job and we moved to a much nicer neighborhood closer to Philadelphia.  I found Pinterest -- follow me!  Spring came and performed above the industry's expectations.  My company patented a new hardy lavender.  We built an outdoor patio for a trade show booth.  Two weddings down and two more to go.

Working in the horticulture industry for nearly the past three years has opened my eyes much wider than my graduate student mind thought was possible when I started blogging.  Lately however I have been a bit confused about the focus of Generation X/Y Gardener.  I had a number of blog topics in mind that were focused more on the industry: how to effectively market to generations X/Y; why Generation X/Y buying power is focused on the tech and clothing markets and not plants; or branded programs and the difference between a brand and a package.  These topics to me sound as if they should be case studies for a marketing class at The Johnson School, not on a blog geared towards the cool kids.

Then GPN Magazine's 40 Under 40 happened.  On my mom's birthday in March I received an email from the editor congratulating me on my induction into the inaugural class of the 40 top individuals under 40 years old in the horticulture industry, hand selected from over 100 individuals who were nominated by their advisors, colleagues, bosses, etc.  I was floored.  Completely blown away that I had been included in a group of such amazing individuals; absolutely humbled that people other than my parents, husband, and bosses think of me as a future leader in the industry, a 'game changer'.  I needed to start blogging again.

I still was really unsure though about Generation X/Y Gardener.  When I started the focus was on the young, novice gardener and the blog was to act as an education tool for those wanting to know more about how to garden, what's new in gardening, and that it truly is easier than it looks in most cases.  I also wanted to voice to the industry that people in my generation are indeed interested in all things green, even if the interest and buying power are arguably not strong (yet) or visible in the traditional sense of large swaths of bedding plants and gaudy, grossly oversized hanging baskets.

Earlier this month I attended my favorite conference of the entire year -- OFA Short Course.  It's an all inclusive industry event which holds both education sessions and a trade show that covers over 8 acres.  It was a past Short Course that convinced me to return to the horticulture industry during my graduate school days, and I'm thrilled to now be a part of the Generation Next Committee.  It's a time when I get to recharge my batteries after the spring craziness, open my mind to new ways of thinking about business and the industry.  I love catching up with friends and peers -- it's like my annual therapy session for work, plants, and life.  A friend I have gained much appreciation for over the last year is Jared Barnes, a PhD candidate at NC State.  It was chats with Jared throughout the week that helped me regain focus on this blog and helped me develop the perfect topic for my next posting.  From here forward, Generation X/Y Gardener will be more of a dialog that is applicable to both folks involved directly in the horticulture industry and Gen X/Y'er gardening fans, to make us all think and gain a better understanding of the other party.

40 Under 40 Peeps and Jared -- thanks for getting me back into my blogging groove.

Rock on and plant on,

Song for the Garden: Welcome Back - Mase