We lament the closing of Heronswood and the looming threat of Big Box stores to the continued existence of independent garden centers, but for a bit of good news let me introduce you to an 80-year-old nursery in the Maryland suburbs of DC called American Plant Food. It has that funny name because it began by selling an organic topsoil/fertilizer combination (using manure from local stables and the National Zoo)
which they called Green Magic. Later the business became a full garden center and now this third-generation family-owned and -run company has expanded to a second location and they’re currently scoping out a third. Dear God, please let me closer to me.
But here’s what makes this garden center interesting: Back in 2000 it decided to go organic. It’s been a gradual process and there are still a few baddies on the shelves but after these seven years, they’ve PROVEN that organic gardening methods work, so the transition will soon be completed. And to find out how going organic has affected business I sat down with their horticulturist Mitch Baker, who told me there’s been no loss of customers. In fact, their eco-friendliness has brought them some new customers, people looking for a retailer they can trust.
What’s more, when asked what’s new in the nursery biz, Mitch’s answer is:
enviro-consciousness. That means selling fewer synthetic products, yes, but primarily the changes thus far have been on the supply end – moving away from plastic pots and trays. He sees changes in the products being offered coming slowly, with the creation first of organic or eco-friendly sections in the stores, so they’re not getting rid of the toxic stuff YET. It takes time to educate customers about the many ways that organics work differently than Miracle-Gro-type products – results that aren’t instant, and less-than-100 percent reduction in insect populations, which is fine with the plants but not yet fine with so many consumers.
Mitch advices the eco-conscious consumer to look for the OMRI label on products they buy – for Organic Materials Review Institute. Looking around the APF products section together, we found the label on most products but noticed that Bradfield Organics doesn’t use it, which is curious because the certification and label is cheap and easy to get.
But here’s a bonus for retailers willing to be out ahead of the pack in Going Green: When local media outlets need experts on environmental issues they call the organic garden centers. For their stories about Rachel Carson’s recent 100th birthday, they ALL interviewed Mitch. One skeptical TV reporter didn’t seem convinced by the organic spiel so Mitch dragged him and his crew to his own all-organic garden in DC, and seeing was believing.
And guess who else is going organic. According to Mitch, golf courses are discovering that organic turf care, including the use of compost tea, saves them heaps of money they’d otherwise be spending on fungicides. They’re also responding to concerns expressed by their more environmentally concerned members. Go golfers!
And no surprise, this garden center has gone crazy for compost tea. They have five 22-gallon brewers and sell the stuff from April through October on weekends. It sells
for $15/gallon and has the full range of microorganisms (versus "Soil Soup",
which is an extract of dormant microorganisms.) The alive, nonextract stuff has no
shelf life at all, so must be used the day it’s sold, preferably within 6 hours.
HAVING A GREAT WEBSITE
Every time I go to their website I’m impressed all over again, especially in comparison to my other favorite nursery which will go unnamed. Look what’s there, folks. First, it’s strictly for information, doesn’t sell a thing, but it’s still an effective sales tool because people ask for products they see on the site, especially their compost tea. Just this year Mitch is hearing people referring to what they’ve seen on the site and asking for it, including their services. I hope other retailers look closely at the site, especially the "Gardening Resources" link to a long drop-down list of how-to articles and the calendar of what to do when, then go forth and copy! And notice too while you’re there their huge commitment to the community.
Well, I had to ask, since I’m always harping on the need for them. American Plant Food offers an on-site consultation, including a plan and plant recommendations, for only $150. Good deal!!! Or if you want help by the hour – coaching – they charge a reasonable $75 per hour. And because I’ve both taken and sent clients to this nursery, I asked Mitch for advice about how to best work with the staff there. He says it’s damned frustrating for the staff and their customers alike when designers give their clients lists of plants to buy, since nurseries rarely have exactly what the designer has specified. He suggests instead that designers (and coaches) give their clients plant "suggestions" to take to the nursery, along with measurements of the area to be filled and photos. The nursery design staff then recommends plants the client can actually buy, and charges nothing for the help. And nobody walks away frustrated. Oh, and clients should be told NOT to show up unannounced on Saturday morning but instead, to make an appointment.
KEY TO SUCCESS
So, Mitch, how DOES American Plant Food stave off Big Box competition so well it can even expand to a third location? Service and good information are key. Shoppers arrive and are offered help finding what they need – what a concept. So I’m not surprised when I hear glowing reviews from people who shop there.
Next up: Picking the horticulturist’s brain.
All photos were taken from the American Plant Food website.