How Flora Grubb and an Airport DJ Saved My Soul


images-1I never saw it coming. Flora Grubb, the pioneering urban gardener and style maven, convinced me—to my great relief—that the Millennial Generation is beginning to shop for plants. Meanwhile DJ Juice proved that airports needn’t be a gauntlet of unending insult.

I’d never heard of Flora Grubb and might have missed her talk, if a perplexed friend hadn’t grabbed me in the Vancouver hallway at the Perennial Plant Association’s Symposium. “You’re not going to hear Flora Grubb?”

I wandered into the hotel auditorium with no idea of what to expect.

Nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers have been closing at an astounding rate for the last ten years. There are some obvious reasons: the owners of mom and pop businesses are reaching retirement age, have no interested heirs and thus decided it was time to cash out, close their businesses, sell their land.

Most of us in the nursery and greenhouse trades long imagined that Boomers would go on gardening, and buying plants, until the end of time. There were a few unforeseen problems. Some Boomers decided they preferred Pilates to petunias; some downsized to condos; still others are burdened with elderly parents or kids that haven’t left the nest.

USDA figures proved that plant sales are not going through the roof. Gardening was long thought to be recession-proof. When hard times came, homeowners typically scrimped on vacations, stayed at home and worked on their gardens. Not this time.

To make matters worse, there seemed to be little hope for a rising generation who had a small stash of walk-around money but no plans to spend it on plants. These Millennials had logged a lot more time online than they had hiking logging trails. How could shut-ins be convinced to dig into the soil when they’d never dirtied their hands?

Flora Grubb, to the astonishment of a packed room of 350 worried professionals, explained how she had cracked the code. Grubb (and what better name for a gardener?) is leading by design to a younger demographic. She has the mojo and moxie of a Martha Stewart but in a genuine, personable way that makes you believe in her.

Many of the youngsters Grubb inspires have no gardens at all but do crave a piece of plant kingdom for their apartments.


Now, of course, there is a kicker. Grubb admitted that San Francisco is not representative of most of North America. There is little garden space, and there are lots of rich 30-year- olds with wallets fattened from Silicon Valley. But in many ways, they’re no different than 30-year-olds anywhere. They don’t watch TV; they communicate with one another on social media; they are drawn to “visual moments” and authenticity. Flora’s rise has a lot to do with simple word of mouth but via social media. They love the architecture of their gadgetry and have a preference for hot colors and succulents crammed into pots.  Indeed, succulents may be an important “gateway drug” to further gardening experimentation.

Grubb, a youthful breath of fresh air, in a room full of aging hot air, confessed that she sells, among many stylish products, “bags of dirt that hang on walls.” Many of these wall hangings of air plants (Tilandsia) will die. (This was an inside trade joke: They will need to be replaced. The garden center operators in the room liked that.)


The audience was buzzing afterwards as if they’d seen the light at a tent revival. Grubb has good instincts and marketing savvy. But it was her easy, unforced charm that gave us all hope for a new generation of gardeners.

A Suitcase of Perennials and Dirty Clothes
A Suitcase of Perennials and Dirty Clothes

I was delayed the next morning, at the Vancouver airport. For 45 minutes, the USDA scrutinized my suitcase, packed with my dirty underwear and 13 plants from my friends Marjanne and Lambert Vrijmoed of Free Spirit Nursery in Langley, B.C.  (When I travel, I almost always carry an extra suitcase to satisfy my plant lust.) The USDA officer wondered why I didn’t buy phlox, Solomon Seal, black bugbane and an alpine willow in the U.S.  I showed her my Canadian phytosantitary inspection certificate and replied, “The cultivars aren’t available in the U.S.”   The questioning proceeded: “What are you going to do with these plants?” This must be a trick question, I thought. “I’m going to plant them in my garden,” I answered. She rolled her eyes and sent me on my way.

I couldn’t have imagined what would come next.

Besides a shoeshine and a cup of coffee, there’s nothing along airport concourses anywhere that has ever moved the meter from dreadful to tolerable. But suddenly, in Vancouver, I heard Bill Withers singing. I followed a trail of curious travelers, drawn to the music. Lovely Day is a beautiful song.

Bill Withers
Bill Withers

DJ Juice was working two turntables. (What an enlightened airport authority, I marveled, to hire a DJ.) Soon there were a dozen people smiling, bobbing their heads, and tapping their toes. I won’t tell you much more. Try it yourself:

Download his playlist, put it on your IPod and take it with you, so you’ll be ready the next time your jaw starts to tighten up as you approach Homeland Security.

  • Bill Withers Lovely Day
  • Stevie Wonder Sunshine of My Life
  • The Supremes I’m Coming Out
  • Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  • Sly and the Family Stone Hot Fun in the Summertime
  • Van Morrison And It Stoned Me.
  • James Taylor How Sweet It Is To Be Loved by You
  • Jason Mraz I’m Yours
  • Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  • James Brown I Feel Good
  • Elvis All Shook Up
  • Aretha Franklin Respect

DJ Juice’s playlist will make your travels a whole lot easier. Combined with gardening, it might save your soul.

Photos at Flora Grubb Gardens by Susan Harris.


  1. I already have half those songs on my iPod. Might just go get the rest.

    This younger generation sure does some strange things. Succulents as a gateway drug? I’m progressing slowly, then. My gateway drug was homegrown tomatoes … or maybe peaches – I forget. I’m just now working in the succulents.

  2. I think Grubb hit the nail on the head. My Millenial daughter has been living in tiny apartments with limited sunlight and faux “Juliette”balconies (a few inches out from the door, no space for pots). Succulents, cacti and air plants have been her choice. She even sent her plants cross-country by Amtrak during a move once, and they survived. They seem to fit her current lifestyle. She hopes to have a big garden someday, but isn’t ready to settle down yet.

    Allen, if you get a chance to fly through PDX someday, I think you’ll like it too. There are live musicians on the concourses there.

  3. Anne, I will be on the lookout next time I pass through PDX! I’ve only seen musicians employed in an airport one other time. They had a Dixieland band marching through the Amsterdam airport. My first thought, seeing and hearing this was: how silly. I came to my senses in a hurry. Music is a marvelous tonic for jet lag.

  4. and I quote you:
    “Many of these wall hangings of air plants (Tilandsia) will die. (This was an inside trade joke: They will need to be replaced. The garden center operators in the room liked that.)”

    Flora Grubb’s Aerium (their name) or glass coffins (my name) are small glass containers stuffed with tillandsia, moss and lichen that are very popular, despite the fact that the plants inside will always struggle, and most eventually die, forever trapped in an enclosed environment not suited at all to their horticultural needs.
    This fact should be made more apparent to novice plant growers, that they were indeed purchasing, in effect, a very long lived cut flower – it doesn’t hurt that frequently a dead tillandsia looks very similar to one still alive.
    Garden center operators will always profit from the myth of the magical “green thumb” – it seems just extra cynical to work this to the advantage of a bottom line.

    • Cooper,
      I call them ‘crystal coffins’ , and as a card carrying member of the San Francisco Bromeliad Society shook my head in disbelief that people were buying these tombs of death but soon realized it was clearly very smart, creative and clever marketing and merchandizing that someone was able to sell a plant in a .50 cent glass orb with a pinch of moss and a dead stick for $ 25 bucks
      I have a tremendous amount of respect for someone who can pull that one off, and Flora Grubb does it with panache.
      But to really see verve at its best check out the $40 dollar tillandsia on a roach clip/ nail.- brilliant.

    • Cooper,

      The gardener and writer, Fred McGourty, a lovable cynic, once described a perennial as: “Any plant, had it lived it lived, would have come back year after year.”

      Profit margins in the green industry are like getting a dog to stand on its hind feet. Lucky are the few who can pull it off.

      • Allen:
        While I can appreciate how elusive a profit margin can be in the nursery industry, I also believe in a marketplace of informed consumers.
        Novice indoor and outdoor gardeners always blame themselves when their newly purchased plants die – encouraging this mindset in anticipation of future sales is what bothers me.

        • Cooper,

          I understand what you’re saying, but I think learning how to a garden is like teaching a child learning how to ride a bike. Everyone falls off a bike. How do you get them back on the bike?

          I was in the retail nursery business for 15 years. Customers would visit, choose something that looked appealing, but they often needed assurance before making the purchase. Would the chosen perennial live forever, they sometimes wondered? I offered the usual caveats about cold, heat, water — not too much; not too little — moles, voles and so on. This was a sure fire way to NO sale. They looked at me as if I had a tattoo on my forehead that read: This plant may die. Once, out of frustration, when asked, “Will this live forever?” I answered, “If it’s god’s will.” It was unwise to question god’s will in North Carolina. There was always a moment of bewilderment before the epiphany: “Of course, you’re right,” they acknowledged. No one pursued the questioning beyond this.

  5. I took two major points away from Flora’s presentation. The first was so plain it felt like a smack in the face. Millenials take pictures of what they like and they post those pictures to FB and Pinterest and whatever the hot new thing is. Make something at retail that’s pretty – something they can take a photo of – and they’ll market it for you. You can also then see what they like which helps you fine tune what you make next and what you offer. Having the same tired old display you’ve always had inspires no one.
    My second takeaway was only slightly less of a DUH moment – the definitiion of a garden isn’t what I think it is, it’s what they think it is. I have acres where I can plant whatever I want, but even a very well to do 30 something San Fran whiz kid might have no yard at all – maybe not even a balcony. They can’t buy what I grow because they have no place to put it. To them, a garden can be as simple as an air plant and some sticks with moss in a glass dangly or three succulent cuttings in a stylish planter with a tiny opening. They’ll hopefully garden in a more traditional sense someday, but not if we don’t throw them some sort of bone now. With more people now living in cities than outside of them, these feel like lessons applicable to lots of markets.

  6. I’m past Millennial age (Gen X here), but I do help stores like this (this exact one, in fact) market their cool stuff to a larger audience, having recently enthused about my visit to Flora Grubb on my blog Digging. Merchandising — showing goods stylishly and temptingly — has always been important, but never more so than in this age of instant sharing. Flora Grubb is a genius merchandiser.

    Allen, fly into Austin sometime. Music by Texas musicians is always playing throughout the concourse, and often you’ll find live musicians serenading travelers on small stages throughout the airport.

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