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