“Yes, but you’re a gardener”


This is always a disconcerting thing to hear when you’re talking
to people who spend most of their professional lives working in the
horticultural field. But I’m almost getting used to it.

The last time it happened was at the IGC show in Chicago
this past week, as I was talking to some PR guys about plant marketing. Never
mind what specific instance of plant marketing. OK, it was Hort Couture.  But that doesn’t
matter. What matters is that they—and so many companies—are starting out by
assuming that most homeowners would rather be stabbed through the heart with a dull
spade than create a bed with plants in it. The conviction is so entrenched that
it has spawned a new vocabulary. Those of us who attend events like the IGC are
inundated with terms like “lifestyle,” “outdoor rooms,” and “outdoor
living.”  Anything but gardening.
Thus, the come-on of companies like HC—homeowners need to be tricked into liking
perennials through savvy marketing techniques. (Cute silhouettes of women with
purses and so on.)

I don’t know. Maybe they do.

You need to attend an event like the IGC show to discover
that the vocabulary of gardening is changing—and drastically. Even with the
basic stuff. Did you know, for example, that “fertilizing” as a common
gardening term may be on the verge of extinction? The products I saw at IGC
were about “enhancing,” and “strengthening.” (Not a bad thing, but it’s still
about growing stuff better with chemicals.)

Yet. There are still those of us who like to be thought of
as serious gardeners. We want to grow plants in every possible nook and cranny
of our property that we can, and many of us will spend money in startling
amounts to make that happen. Don’t we count any more? Are we less important
than those who visit the garden center for the stuffed animals, holiday
ornaments, and resin statues? What happened to “make new friends and keep the

Here’s a shorter version of the E. Licata IGC panel
presentation: To all independent garden centers: the gardeners are still out
there. Throw us a bone!

After looking at the conversation in comments, I’d like to add to it here (because I can). I honestly believe that raising the level of education and offering prospective gardeners a challenge—rather than coming down to some perceived level—is the way to get and keep dedicated IGC customers.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I’m a homeowner and is attracted to gardening. However, I find it very intimidating because it is so vast and I don’t know much about it. Gardening for dummies, here I come!!! Great blog!

  2. I will say that many homeowners do not know where to begin to create a bed with plants in it. That is why they hire me. The desire is there. They just don’t trust their skill or knowledge level to have it turn out to proper neighborhood standards and to actually like live long and prosper.

    If I was a PR guy, Hort Couture might be an additional add on to a PR campaign, but not the main focus. For the DIY’s, simplicity of bed design would be the main focus. A simple how to of plant size, texture and bloom with a soil ammendment primer to show how easy it can be would get more homeowners over their fear than some high falutin’ Hort Couture. Make it look too elite and that will just scare more homeowners my way.

  3. Maybe the trends by the marketers are on target since two thirds of the customers of garden centers don’t know much about gardening. they don’t know what roots do. If a plant has any problem it either gets fertilizer or more water or both; knee jerk reaction. My problem as a garden writer is where do all those people go to learn anything? Maybe be lucky to move next door to a serious gardener.

  4. Well, I live in the country, so perhaps my view is skewed, but it seems like most everyone who shops at our LGCs knows what a plant is, and how it works. But if customers are intimidated by the idea of gardening, isn’t that the perfect opportunity for the garden centers to EDUCATE them, as that would be their biggest advantage over the big box stores (until they figure out that there are a lot of us out there who want variety and quality in PLANTS)

    Humph! This is a really depressing post, since the venue was for “Independent” garden centers

  5. Here’s the thing: bookstores don’t cater to non-readers. Cooking stores don’t cater to non-cooks. The fun for me, as a (more or less) non-cook, in a cooking store is marveling at how much there is to do/learn/buy/explore. Garden centers should not give up on us or abandon their own passions.

  6. There seems to be a whole new generation of folks who have a “bit of earth” to play with, but who did not grow up gardening. They seem to view their outdoor space as an extension of their indoor space, and try to “decorate” it accordingly. My observation, after working for years in the retail garden center setting? There are more of them than there are of us.

  7. As an independent garden center owner in northern California my customers are very interested in fertilizer. We have one of the largest fertilizer selections around. One reason I don’t go to these trade shows is the complete disconnect that marketers have with what’s really going on in the garden world where I reside.

    My customers don’t want “lifestyle gardening”. They could care less about outdoor rooms. I had a workshop yesterday on planting the fall and winter vegetable garden. It was well attended and we talked fertilizer, soil preparation, etc.

    The marketing attempts you witnessed at the show are designed to lure new people to gardening. I prefer to deal with people who already have a vested interest in gardening. If your a newbie gardener we are not going to try and make it sound easy or chic. The newbie gardeners we do get seem to be willing to learn how to garden, not design a “outdoor room”. Most likely those people are heading to Home Depot for their “lifestyle fix”.

  8. as lawns go, so will the independent garden centers go. with the emerging environmental constraints, the gardening world has serious challenges ahead, and those of us who are in the know- should be doing some serious thinking and advising from the garden center on saturday morning. there is a market, just not for what is being promoted.

  9. These comments made me think about where (and when) we learn about plants, and gardening. I’m a 50-something person, and when I was growing up in suburbia, kids (in our area) often did gardening chores around the yard. More importantly, starting in kindergarten we planted seeds (usually a bean in a cup with a wet paper towel that we transplanted after it sprouted), and there were many other plant projects in school after that. Maybe that’s not done in school anymore, due to budget cuts? Clearly education is key.

    I have always thought of IGCs as sort of a parallel to independent bookstores (vs big box corporate bookstores), savvy about local needs, with an individual personality and often carrying things the big-box stores don’t.

  10. I get inundated with e-mails from Hort Couture and delete them immediately. I find them and Aqua Scapes annoying to the nth degree.
    Gardening is confusing which is why we are eliminating more than 1500 SKU’s from my 12,000 SKU product count. And this is just the beginning. There is a market for marketing to “pretty people”. But the fact is as much as Gen x and Y say they are into local-ism, the environment but collectively they are the first to shop at the box stores. So who is lying, Madison Avenue, Gen x/y or both?
    I find gen x/y very self centered. A number of them have columns in local papers covering a wide variety of topics. The words “I, me, mine” are used in almost every sentence, instead of
    community, social, justice etc.

    The TROLL

  11. Elizabeth wrote “…fertilizing” as a common gardening term may be on the verge of extinction? The products I saw at IGC were about “enhancing,” and “strengthening.”

    Which reminded me of a tale about President Harry Truman that I am unable to resist repeating here:

    Always an earthy talker, Truman once offended a friend of his wife’s by referring repeatedly to “the good manure” that must have been used to nurture the fine blossoms at a Washington horticulture show. “Bess, couldn’t you get the President to say ‘fertilizer’?” the woman complained. Replied Mrs. Truman: “Heavens, no. It took me 25 years to get him to say ‘manure.’ ”

  12. Troll,

    Need you be reminded that the boomers are the “me” generation? While tempting, it’s not productive to blame one generation or the other for a certain set of failings.

    As a gardener and gardening consultant I visit people’s garden and teach/show them what I know. The only way to learn a skill is to do it, right?

    So all trades have these trade shows. Do you need most or any of these new products to do your job? Most likely, not. Those people are there to sell stuff and make money-not to teach or consult necessarily. I wouldn’t go to a trade show to learn anything and I’m surprised that garden rant is surprised to learn that most trade shows are filled with salespeople selling the latest product or gimmicks with greenwashing language and sales tricks.

    I really don’t feel threatened by these shows as a garden professional and I don’t think they are signaling the “end of gardening times.” If you don’t like them, don’t go. Or start your own circuit.

  13. I’m a grower/retailer (a dying entity these days) I think it’s the PR/marketers making the money in this economy. In order to get the new and exciting plants, you have to buy the minimum quantity, along with their branded pot, along with their big HUGE pot tag that has very little useful information. These are all required if you want to sell plants like Limelight Hydrangea, Black Lace Elderberry, Bloomerang Lilac. etc… You have to pay the patent fee, and the marketing fee along with that too. They (the likes of Proven Winners etc) get my money for the product with an assurance that their marketing is going to let us get top dollar for their product. When I talk to these guys, its like they can’t fathom that I may not possibly sell each and everyone of their branded Limelight hydrangeas for top dollar. So in the end, its the retail independents that get left holding the bag, suckering us into their marketing. Meanwhile we are left to keep watering it through the dog days of summer, hoping that sometime that good ol’ marketing fee we paid for will kick in and people will show up in droves for the latest and greatest.
    Its a sham really. Next time you’re in a garden center, see how much truly useful information you can glean about a particular Proven Winner brand plant from its HUGE plastic tag. Its a joke, you can barely find out how tall a shrub will get, yet alone the sun requirements, but they sure will tell you how easy their product is. And I’m supposed to educate people?? It like I have to fight the very tag I had buy in order to educate the customer.
    I could just go on and on about this topic.

  14. hello,
    They seem to view their outdoor space as an extension of their indoor space, and try to “decorate” it accordingly. My observation, after working for years in the retail garden center setting? There are more of them than there are of us.

  15. I’m a boomer. If I want slug bait iron based of course) or potting soil, I go to the big box. They’re cheaper there. I go the IGCs for the stuff I can’t get at the big box. The IGCs can’t compete with the big boxes. They need to stop trying, and concentrate on the stuff we can’t get at the big boxes.

  16. Deirdre: wrong when it comes to competeing with the boxes. Our prices on the key 50-75 items that the boxes sell are right in line if not cheaper. Do not be sucked in by the marketing promisongthe lowest price. If that was the case why are Lowes and DePot putting items on sale if their prices were the best in town to begin with? Also is making two stops really worth th effort? Everyone says they have no time these days but yet we hear about going to the box for this the local for that……..

    Are we hypocrites just jumping on the latest sound bite band wagon?

    the TROLL

  17. One side of me runs a commercial landscape maintenance company (the other side is a manic gardener/plant fanatic/bug lover). Side # one learned quite awhile ago to stop referring to her professional self and her workers as “groundskeepers”, “maintenance technicians” or even “landscapers”. No, in our day to day duties, even in commercial settings, we consider and refer to ourselves as Gardeners. It’s honest, keeps our eyes on the plants and soil, and makes Side #two feel good.

  18. Coming from a west coast / warm climate perspective : Gardening is a lifestyle and has the ability to enhance your lifestyle.
    It’s been that way for decades here in the west.
    Our outdoor areas are an extension of our indoor living areas so the vocabulary for describing indoor and outdoor activities are one in the same.

    The east coast marketers are picking this up and using it to sell their products to east coasters hoping for a 365 day marketing revenue.

    It may or may not work, depending on how staid one is in their way of living/ thinking or how innovative or determined one is with making their life more diverse.

  19. Elizabeth – Thanks for the report but it is hardly surprising. You were at a garden center convention, these are not really nursery folks for the large part.
    Remember my reporting from the California Pack Trials where all the plant breeders are aiming at the lifestyle market hoping to reach it through the big box stores and larger independent nurseries ? where marketing folks tell the nursery owners not to insult them by calling them gardeners?
    Follow the money as surely you are by even going to the IGC convention. No money in individual plant sales. Sell ready made containers, patio furniture, chemicals, tools, and increasingly – kitsch and cutesy.
    I just hope they don’t turn off the new gardeners by selling them a lifestyle without the knowledge.

  20. Hi Saxon,

    Your points are right on, of course. But I am not a garden industry insider and I feel I have to speak for all the gardeners who will be leaving their IGCs disappointed as a result of all this–the ones who don’t know how the game is played. I may not be surprised, but I can still raise my objections and hope that some of them reach someone. And there are some great IGCs that offer local plants, relevant education, and listen to their customers. So there’s also hope.

  21. Troll, The big boxes are really near me, and I can run in and out. I’m usually there for some form of hardware anyway. The IGCs require more time to get to, and to browse. There’s no running in and out of a good garden center. As I said before, I got to them for the stuff I can’t get at the big boxes; the stuff that’s a cut above, the stuff that’s more interesting and more unusual.

  22. I’m getting a little bit of a kick out of all of these people telling IGCs to concentrate on what they have that the big box stores do not.

    Why? I can’t tell you how many times that people will come in, call, ask a million questions, have our IGC staff write down product names and application rates, diagnose problems, even design entire beds… and then walk out the door. We know that they’re heading to the nearest big box, armed with the knowledge from our IGC, to make their purchases from a big box store that offers much more attractive prices than we can.

    So if what the IGC’s have that the big box stores don’t is knowledge, and maybe a better selection… and people in general seem to feel as though they don’t need to pay for things like knowledge, artistry and expertise anymore, what’s an IGC to do? I can see where some of them are tempted to minimize the plants and go the “lifestyle” route, since that’s one of the few areas of spending that has increased with the personalization of outdoor spaces and entertaining. And, as a bonus, stores have to spend less $ on labor to keep non-plant stock looking nice. (Wrought iron tables don’t wilt if you leave them sit out in a patio display without watering for days on end.)

    What’s the answer for IGC’s? I don’t know that there’s a magic bullet, but I have always wondered why more of them don’t get together and form buying groups. On a large, national scale would be awesome, but if it would have to be a regional group to better take advantage of quantity pricing without creating a distribution mess, that would be fine, too. There’s (buying) strength in numbers, and if they could even get just a little closer to the big box stores on some of the non-plant items they sell, I think that they would get more people in the door. People who would also buy plants while they are there.

    Just a thought..

  23. This is all a very interesting conversation. I can’t wait to see the video of the session mentioned. There is a lot of arrogance in the upper echelons of the big hort companies as well as many local independent garden centers. The rapid rise of the voices of Garden Rant and hundreds of other real and aspiring gardeners who share their thoughts, feelings, and the truth about the performance of garden products online and in print will cause this to change.

    Blackswampgirl Kim, There are actually many regional garden center buying groups for independents, including one in the northwest Ohio area as well as several with national scope. The new yellow pages is actually much better than the old local ones – Google will point the way…

  24. Sid, that’s great to know. I hope that some of the smaller IGC’s back home in NW Ohio take advantage of the buying group idea. And I wish more of the IGC’s around here would stop being so acrimonious and start working together like that. (I’m in NE Ohio now–but I know where Hillsboro is located. I worked in the Milford/Blue Ash area for a few years, doing a co-op job during college.)

  25. This is a great topic, as I’ve been fuming about this for years. Ever since the first Proven Winners came along. Ever since a decent variety of 6-packs of annuals began to disappear. [Six-packs themselves are gone, pretty much.] Ever since I first heard that horrible term “plant material.”
    It’s true, many seek to furnish their yards rather than grow plants they love. It’s akin to those who buy a painting because it goes with the color of the living room sofa. There will always be those people, but add in marketing, conglomerates, big box bullies and the lack of indy stores of every type, and we now have the present situation. So, I think all gardeners can do is keep asking for what we want,and never buy what we don’t want just because it’s the only thing around and it’s in a big box. If a person is a gardener, not a decorator, they will want to learn. They will want to try propagating, growing from seed, looking for unusual plants, finding odd nurseries–at least I do. There are gardens and gardeners, then there’s “the industry.” They aren’t the same thing. If you love plants, you’re a gardener. It doesn’t have much to do with economics, mass production, or even individual skill [I should know!] — it’s a frame of mind. Am I naive??

  26. The marketing is just following HGTV, where gardening is no longer a topic; just landscaping techniques and contests. As a consequence, where I used to watch The Winter Gardener, Gardening by the Yard, and A Gardener’s Diary, I now watch absolutely none of HGTV’s shows. And I haven’t bought a packaged container garden yet. Somewhere, there’s a whole niche market of gardener’s being missed.

  27. Maybe things are just totally different here in Canada–or should I say more specifically, here in Nova Scotia where we have a number of small, independent nurseries all around the mainland (I know much less about what’s in Cape Breton Island). Some of the nurseries work together, sharing orders, swapping plants back and forth between themselves, and most of them still focus on plants rather than accessories. Some do carry a selection of interesting and unusual garden art, plant pots, locally made garden decor and things that sort of go along with gardening, but they’re catering to people who genuinely love plants too. Those who just want their stupid petunias and made-in-China resin statues (thank you, Amy) can go to the big boxes or the overpriced ‘garden centre’ that caters to such crap–the rest of us seek out the nurseries that grow much of their own material, focus on natives or pollinators or alpines or rhododendrons or what-have you.

  28. I have to agree with you. I do not know why people have to go changing things to make things sound more interesting. I love the word gardening. It makes me feel good to do it and it makes my house more beautiful. I also call fertilizer, fertilizer because that is what it is going to be called at my house. Adjectives do not do it justice.

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