One rises; another falls

Voodoo Lily image from the Gentling garden, Asheville

There’s no doubt that independent garden centers and nurseries—like many businesses—have been seeing their sales decline over the last few years. The percentage dips have been in as much as the double digits, depending on where you are in the U.S. Many nurseries and IGCs have been forced to close.

Things could look up, probably as the stately pace of the economic recovery continues. But is it really all about the recession?

Not so much, says consultant Clint Albin, who regularly works with independent garden centers. Albin always has interesting things to say (In a Regency romance, someone would flirt their fan and trill “Such a rattle!” here.), so I was pleased that he was one of the attendees at last weekend’s Asheville bloggers’ meet. He’s lots of fun.

Albin’s theory is that a major recent impact on garden center sales has been a disappointing performance by the baby boomer set. Why? He says it was expected that aging baby boomers, sliding into their golden years, would turn to gardening—and other gentle home-related pastimes—more and more as they lost interest in the passions of their youth.

But then came … VIAGRA. Suddenly an activity that had become somewhat problematic was very much on the menu. Who needs a hobby? And there you have it. Garden centers were the hapless victims of a renewed interest in sex on the part of older Americans.

I can’t say I really buy this. It doesn’t fully explain the female part of this equation, and—well—I’m sticking with the recession. But I like the originality; kudos to Clint.

There is one irony here that has always struck me. I think it is true that many of us got into gardening somewhat later in our adulthood. I am certainly one of those people—I really didn’t start seriously gardening until after forty. But it just seems so unfortunate that I initiated an activity that requires the worst kind of lifting and bending you can imagine just when my body became more vulnerable to the damage that can inflict.

Clint, can you explain this?

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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


  1. It might be more about the fact that the Baby Boomers are the first generation that has been largely divorced from the environment, divorced from the soil.

    They grew up in suburbia, not on farms, watching TV and not playing outside as much as in the past. The technology on which we now type and project out into the world has only accelerated the number of distractions and activities that keep us divorced from the soil.

  2. Not Viagra, but Poverty!
    Foreclosure, personal (due to health issues) bankruptcy, an anorexic 401(k), can all lead to “downsizing”. Plus when, instead of retirement, one is forced to take on another job can preclude leisure pursuits.

  3. Sorry Chris. My parents both grew up on farms, and left them. My mother didn’t get into gardening until I was grown up and gone, and I taught her. I loved both my grandmothers’ gardens, but I don’t remember every seeing my mother in them. And I was the only one who ever cut a flower and put it in a vase as a child.

    Most people I know just see it as another chore, and quite honestly we are all just bursting trying to get the laundry and groceries done without adding another chore. I make time for gardening because I LOVE the plants.

  4. My money is on the lack of money and/or time. Remember the ‘back to the land’ movement in the Baby Boomers’ heyday? Communes? And it is still continuing, from Boomers’ age on down. I grew up with gardening grandparents on both sides of the family, and my mother had a big garden. I never felt the slightest twinge of the gardening bug as a kid, though I liked eating the fresh cherries and peaches, and I had a thing about watering. But practically the instant I got married at age 21, I became obsessed with digging, planting and gardening and it hasn’t really ever let up in the subsequent 40+ years. I lament the aging muscles and back, and have a lot of sympathy for you, Elizabeth, launching this body-dependent activity when the body was starting to complain.

    I do also think there are simply more other things that have a higher distraction factor. I am an independent music teacher (piano) and I can say with no reservations that music study is way way down. Sure, there are parents who can’t afford (private) lessons for their kids. But demand overall is down. School sports programs are better organized and more demanding/aggressive of students’ time, and there is the lure of texting, computer games and gawdonlyknows what else. I guess that takes us right back to the question about Gen X, Y, Z, Q and whatever is next.

    My theory is, sooner or later people will figure out that if they want to eat, they should grow some food. And maybe a flower or two for upliftment and beauty. At least I hope so.

  5. I have to wonder about the lure of travel for many people once the demands of children are gone. Many of us are healthier and more fit than earlier generations and with nothing needing care (children, animals, plants) at home the open road – around the world – beckons.

  6. hmmm wonder if the same thing is going on with nurseries that do most of their business by mail order — maybe the convenience of ordering plants online is taking people away from their local garden centers? Also wonder about seed companies…
    People who are into farming and sustainability might be starting most of their stuff from seed. Our county just lost the most amazing flagship garden center (Matterhorn) So sad.

  7. Everything has an ebb and flow to it. We may talk about our favorite things as if we never lose interest but it happens. I think that a lot of people get into gardening, then ramp things up to a fevered pitch, and then calm back down meanwhile some people give it up completely and move on to something else.

    Once you get really good at gardening you tend to not need so many new things for your hobby. Once you get to the level that you buy really well made tools you hardly need to buy another tool again. Once you advance to the point you start your own seeds or propagate your favorite plants you buy fewer plants from the store.

    Gardening is my only hobby. My yard is big and it takes up all of my spare time. I spend all of my disposable income on gardening and even I have slowed down a bit – the yard is full.

  8. I am not sure about the lot sizes in the U.S. but here in my hometown, Markham, Ontario, Canada no one cares about sq ft of dirt, its the sq foot of hardspace indoors and out.

  9. After hosting a garden tour last week I realized I have many, maybe too many garden beds to take care of. I’m 54. My 85 ft perennial border I’m re-doing and will install lower maintenance plants. I do not know who would buy my property currently and maintain it-too much for the run of the mill gardener. But yet I continue to buy new plants!

  10. Lifting and bending is a matter of doing it properly and often, and for short periods. The more you do it the easier it becomes even when one hits your 3 score and ten.
    As to Garden Centres, we lost 2 in this small town, mainly because they bought in plants and the nurseries would only sell in too large quantities for small centres.

  11. I think several people above have the answer. The longer I garden, the more I find ways to save money while doing it. I go to plant swaps and propagate my own plants and those of others. I have my own “special” fertilizers that are either free or very cheap. My garden is also pretty mature so I don’t need as many plants as I did when it was planted 12 years ago.

    I also think the need to garden is an inherited trait 😉 and perhaps skips a generation. My dad was never a gardener, but his mother was. My husband’s parents were never gardeners, but his grandmother was. Plus, for some of us, the gardening gene expresses itself later in life much like Type 2 diabetes, schizophrenia, a mid-life crisis, and whiskers on women.

  12. Gardening is about maturity, but not the kind that comes with age. It’s the maturity of feeling connected in a deeper way to nature and life. It doesn’t have as much to do with money (or buying cool plants to impress the Jonesess), or time (making a choice between travel/sex/shopping/being on the Internet as it has to do with honoring something you want and need in your life.

  13. I think commonweeder is on to something with their answer of desire to travel. My mom, who has gardened my whole life, just isn’t as much anymore. Her veggie garden is reduced to tomatoes and sunflowers. Long gone are the tomatillos and summer squashes. She also had dogs, at least two, her whole life. When her last dog died, she didn’t get another. Her reason for both of these changes? She and Dad wanted to travel. They said Costa Rica was gorgeous!

  14. Unfortunately, I think the slow pace at nurseries has more to do with people buying all of their gardening stuff at the big box stores. This article (below) from Nursery Management reports a survey showing that garden sales were up in 2011, but they have shifted to the home improvement stores:

    Supplying plants is part of my design business, and in the past year i have not been able to match my local big box on quality, price, or size of many of the perennials that I use. I keep wondering who their buyer is, because they are getting in some not-so-ordinary stuff and charging not much more than I am paying wholesale.

  15. As a family member working at our IGC, I feel that the problem is the big box stores, as well as the Wal-Marts and Meijers, and all the different organizations having their flower sales. I had a man today trying to get me to match a big box store’s prices. The difference was $2.50, and he was willing to drive back to the big box. And, of course, he had to tell me all about it. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he would rather drive back to a big box, instead of supporting an 81 year old, family owned, 3rd generation, IGC? Really?! People are so rude. We work over 70 hours a week, certainly aren’t wealthy, and are just trying to make an honest living. It’s very hurtful when people open their big mouths without thinking. Needless to say, I told him to go back to the big box.

  16. I would guess that the same thing is happening in garden retail that is happening in retail for other products. There is an upscale market – stores that compete with greater quality, variety, and service but that also have higher prices. These stores serve higher income folks as well as the most avid gardeners. And there is a downscale market, dominated by the big box guys. The trump card for the big box guys is price. In our area, we have some expensive and successful IGCs, as well as big box stores. Unfortunately, the middle is getting squeezed out.

  17. The problem stems in Clint’s cause of the problem. Poor performance by baby Boomers? Once again a whiner blaming the customer base! stand by and watch your business go away and blame the other guy.

    Anyone believing this advice will be out of business before they know it. Apple owns their audience, Facebook does not. We need to follow the lead of Apple and see why they have legions of loyal customers.

    The TROLL

  18. I must be getting old because for once I agree with the TROLL. (Only say “getting old” because yesterday I turned 65, and I also started gardening late, Elizabeth, and I can feel it in my back after a long day in the garden, but wouldn’t have it any other way.)

  19. Viagra. Really? I don’t think so, but even if there’s some credibility there, what is 5 minutes in a gardener’s day?

    I still spend a pretty penny at the garden center each spring, but the plants I buy are all for containers. The beds in my third of an acre yard are filled with perennials and I rarely have to replenish them. So I agree that many of us have mature gardens without much need to buy as much as we used to when our gardens were “new”.

  20. Earlier this week I used an out of town vist as excuse to stop at two of my favorite small garden centers. (Why are the they always greener on the other side of the county line?) And stopped in a local one thaht I usually purchese all my stuff. At two of the three the staff was no more knowledgble than what I run into at the big box stores. And about as personable. They hire teen agers and college students to water and do grunt work. Which is fine-I would have killed to have a job like that when I was doing summer work. But you can tell these kids are not gardeners, have no interest in gardening, took the job because mom/dad knows the owner and could get them the job. With the high unempployment rate you would think garden centers could find someone who had some idea about plants.

  21. Is this an old post that’s been resurrected for the newer site ? I see the dates of May 25th 2012 here.

    I don’t buy any of the Viagra Theory. How exactly would someone spending time with that not find time for gardening if it’s something you love to do. Gardening is not something you do because you are bored with life and would trade off in a heart beat if something more exciting came along.

    It could be a recession economy thing, but was that nationwide survey taken only considering large well known giant brand name gardening outlets ? I’m thinking some folks are becoming more into Native Plants in their various areas and maybe it hasn’t gone down hill, but simply adapted into newer interest in otherwise uncoventional plant areas which that Chain Store Survey may not have considered.

    Your last comment on getting into gardening later in life certainly doesn’t apply to me. I was into gardening and nature ever since I was a small kid, in fact I wrote about this in my blog. Actually I have always been obsessed with it. However I have been more into learning environmental and ecological fundamentals of wilderness settings which have translated into practical applications in the urban landscaping and home organic gardening I pursue. I’m not sure about baby boomers. I also grew up in the 1960s the era of counter-culture protesting and fights for ecology-Earth
    da y and all that. Most of my friends who tried to get me involved into those protest movements for ecology were never truly interested in those causes they rioted for, they simply gravitated towards the juvenile aspect of it’s childish behavioral love of civil disobedience which I was never into.

    Well best wishes on your new blog look and thanks for future rants

    Cheers – Kevin

  22. Lots of people write LOL without actually laughing out loud but in this case I can confirm that an actual giggle made it’s way out 😉 VIAGRA – lol

    I’ve been gardening for years and am only in my early 30s – in fact I know a lot of people who garden in their 20s and 30s since it’s become trendy. In the years to come I imagine that these smaller gardening centres could see a boost in their sales not from the boomers but from the younger generations.

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