What Should I Tell ‘Em in Chicago?


So off I go to the Independent Garden Center show in Chicago, where I’ll be wandering the exhibit halls and talking to garden center owners and staffers about organics and sustainability.

As I’m assembling my notes, how about some last-minute polling?  One of the topics I’ll be speaking on is the availability of–and importance of–organic plants.  Does it matter to you how the plants you buy at the garden center were grown?  Here’s a poll, and feel free to elaborate in the comments:

OK, how about this one?  Garden centers are all trying to figure out exactly how "green" they can get.  It’s one thing to sell organic fertilizer, it’s another thing to put in a composting toilet for the customers to try out.  So garden centers are asking themselves:  Do we just need to put organic fertilizers and pesticides on the shelves, or should we go into green freak-out mode, transforming into a complete eco-lifestyle-demonstration center, complete with organic hemp aprons for the staff and cash registers made of recycled irrigation tubing?  Or something in the middle?


  1. I work for a garden center and I think its a travesty that the industry has not stepped up and solved its own run-off and chemical use problems. Call us hypocrites? when we preach to our customers about conservation and IPM and we don’t practice the same in our greenhouses and growing fields. Its too bad that most garden centers remain focused on short term seasonal profits and not on the long term sustainable goals.

  2. Where the green community falls down (and this is prominently displayed on that Green TV network) is that we fail to show how clients can have “green” AND beautiful. If it’s always perceived as an either/or, then only those already singin’ in the choir will adopt happy earth practices. Invariably, my wife and I will see something on tv and she’ll say “that’s great, but does it HAVE to be that ugly?”

    I’m designing a new facility for a landscape contractor who wants it all- rainwater harvesting, green roof, permeable pavement- so I guess I have *my* “put up or shut up” moment 🙂

    So, my point: heck yeah, show everyone how well green products fit with their lifestyles! It’s the only way to reach a wider market. IMHO.

  3. The big problem with gardeners like me who really garden sustainably is that we don’t spend a lot of money on unnecessary stuff like bagged fertilizers and miracle solutions. We just keep piling our organic mulches on top of the soil and call it a day.

  4. I’d like some information about plants new to me…where to plant (sun or shade?) and what it wants (water/feeding?). Just some information about what I’m seeing and hey! you’ve got an easy sale!

  5. I’m a novice gardener. In an apartment with very little light (direct eastern exposure). In Wisconsin. My lone advantage is my mom has gardened forever, so I’ve absorbed a bit by osmosis.

    So I have 4 pots of herbs, and not much else. They’re herbs that I *know* are hard to kill. But I haven’t the faintest idea what else I might not kill, and what else might like my windowsill. So I plan to stick with my four pots of herbs, since anything else is likely to be fraught with peril.

    If most garden center herbs are grown using pesticides, I’m not interested. Very few herbs are prone to infestations, and a pesticide is not something I really prefer having in my food.

  6. In our economically depressed county, garden centers have a hard enough time keeping their heads above water. I’d love to see some of the suggested changes implemented, but am not holding my breath. Not to mix metaphors about drowning.

  7. During hard economic times, it really is hard to expect altruism. But here’s a short list:

    1. Carry and emphasize ornamental plants that grow well in our area. Please don’t promote overly used invasives or disease-ridden cultivars.

    2. In watershed areas, stock only slow-release chemical fertilizers and provide clear instructions on how and when to use them.

    3. Emphasize natives and suggest native alternatives for popular (and overused) ornamentals.

    4. Give us clear instructions on sun and water needs. What does “part sun” mean anyway?

    5. Don’t just stock things when they are in bloom. Try stocking plants when it is the right time to plant them.

    6. Information on expected yield per veggie or fruit plant would be helpful.

    7. Rain barrels and compost piles (or the fixin’s for making either one) please!

  8. I don’t understand why chemicals are needed for any plant. If it’s to be eaten, I wouldn’t want it. If it’s ornamental, why should even more money be spent just for looks? Plants appropriate to the zone make more sense. A trial done between an organic acre and a chemically treated acre was done many years ago. Initially, the chemical acre outperformed the organic. With each passing year, the organic caught up, while the chemical slowed production. At five years, they were even. After that, the organic continued to increase production until it’s output was greater that that of the chemical ever reached. I won’t talk about appropriate plants for the area.

  9. I agree with Suzq.

    I’d like to see more regionally corrected assortments. My first year in northern Florida I planted 48 tulips in various beds to see where they’d do the best. One leaf sprouted–you have to put them in the refrigerator for six weeks and then they’ll only last a year because the ground doesn’t get cold enough. (It doesn’t mention this on the packaging.) Most lilies don’t work well here either, but string lilies, rain lilies, and other southern bulbs do put on quite a show. We can only grow short-day or day-neutral onions because we grow them over the winter months. It would been good to let customers know what to expect and to carry only appropriate plants for the region.

  10. I support the whole idea of the green industry going “green” but if it became just another way to jack up the price of something then I would keep my wallet in my pocket.

    I am so grateful that my favorite garden center has a huge area devoted to seeds, with all the necessary supplies. I don’t have to buy any oddball seed packets via catalogs, everything I would want is there including organics.

    There are so many other places to shop that are so much worse on the environment – I just don’t think of garden centers as the epicenter of pollution.

  11. I second John about the seeds. In my area, I’ve yet to find a store that focuses on seeds and seed starting. Maybe HD and Lowes have some stuff and my garden center carries some seeds, but it would have been nice to actually speak to someone or read some in-store copy about what my options are (and not just during January).

    Rain barrels would also be nice to be able to find in my garden center (or maybe a garbage can conversion kit). I really can’t justify the shipping or even a long drive for the expense of these things.

    Worm composters or just a kitchen composter — ever seen one of these in a garden center? I know I haven’t. All I know is, I’m sick of paying shipping, so when the heck is this stuff going to be available in my garden center?

    P.S. 168 Elm Ave is this amazing project where this guy turns his house into a rain coservation project. Almost all of what he’s done is really attractive, and his website is unbelievable. Here’s the site: http://www.delafleur.com/168_Elm/index.htm.

  12. Hey, I’m with swampgardener. I get frustrated too that I can’t find a composter in a local store–or even a compost bucket for the kitchen. Why isn’t the newly “green” Home Depot–whose poor results were headlines this morning–promoting this stuff? They might attract a new kind of customer.

  13. i need directions to the garden center featuring cash registers made of recycled irrigation tubing and a composting toilet for the customers to try out…

    and i will take all my friends too!

    people garden for reasons. garden centers best find out why “their people” garden, and stop just trying to sell plants. not every market wants or needs the composting toilet (yet!), but i do. and i think your poll is interesting, but it’s kind of part of the problem. if 95% of respondents don’t care if their plant is organic, why not? is that a hurdle or a sales opportunity?

    it’s hard to know without asking why they want a particular plant. please share that with your audience. once upon a time, engagement rings did not even have diamonds on them. debeers changed the market and now you can buy a diamond on the internet, without ever speaking to a jeweler. personally, i used to sell diamonds, and it was enlightening to learn why someone might go to a brick and mortar store versus the internet. that human interaction is important. if they’re in organic hemp aprons, great, but they are more than just decor.

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