Where’s the Wow? The Green Industry Takes Stock.


Garden suppliers’ sights are set on next spring. Last month, representatives from nurseries, greenhouses, independent garden centers and even Big Box Stores loaded up their cars, vans and trucks, heading to two vastly different Ohio trade summer shows.

Cultivate ’14, in Columbus, is the biggest North American trade show, attracting more than 10,000 attendees. The Perennial Plant Association’s (PPA) symposium, in Cincinnati, drew 400. At Cultivate ‘14, Jelitto Perennial Seeds (my employer for nearly twenty years) is a small fish in a big sea of annuals, woody plants, plastic pots and new equipment. At the PPA’s symposium we are among our people—growers, gardeners, academics and enthusiasts of every stripe—all crazy about gardening. Perennials play a big part in that.

Jelitto's Mary Vaananen at Cultivate '14.
Jelitto’s Mary Vaananen at Cultivate ’14.

P .T. Barnum once said, “Without promotion something terrible happens…Nothing!”

Many of the 2015 wholesale catalogs were freshly minted before the shows began, so the annual glorification of new introductions could flourish.

The ground is shifting underneath the Green Industry. It may no longer be enough to sing the praises of untested plants and hope the public buys the hype. The current logic seems to be: If many of the plants don’t perform, then next year there will be more new introductions that might.

To wit, Tony Avent, of Plant Delights Nursery, during one of his two PPA talks, said, “I don’t trust breeders, and I don’t trust marketers.” Avent trials hundreds of new plant introductions before he can say, with authority, that they will grow in Raleigh.

Tony Avent at the Perennial Plant Symposium. Mary Anne Thornton photo.
Tony Avent at the Perennial Plant Symposium. Mary Anne Thornton photo.

How long will it take before the retail gardening public becomes gun-shy about gardening and moves onto Pilates and yoga?

Wait a minute. Many of the Boomers have moved on.

While Baby Boomers downsize and pursue other hobbies, growers and retailers struggle to figure out how to make room for Millennials (young adults, aged 18-35). While consumer sales have recovered from the bottom of the recession, plant sales have flat-lined.

There are, according to Kelly Norris, 7,000,000 more Millennials than Baby Boomers. The Millennials have different expectations from the Boomers.  It’s no longer business as usual. (Note: There’s never been anything usual about growing and selling plants. It’s a tough business.)

“Why can’t there be a new experience?” Kelly Norris wondered. Norris is a creative, horticultural dervish. The 27-year-old is the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Manager. He is tireless and on a mission.

Kelly Norris sports a BÖ, by Mansouri, the innovative wooden, handmade bow tie. Jason Oelmann photo.
Kelly Norris sports a BÖ, by Mansouri, the innovative wooden, bow tie. Jason Oelmann photo.

Norris asked, “Where’s the wow?

What did he mean, where’s the wow? I don’t want to brag, but my longtime employer, Jelitto, offers over 3,700 different seed items—the bulk of them perennials, yet there are lots of ornamental grasses and herbs, too. We have very loyal customers but are constantly thinking of ways to grow the business. I’ve long thought we’ve got something for everyone.

Norris said, “The dumb aren’t into gardening.”

OK, maybe we don’t have something for everyone.

He's Got Seed For Brains Pumpkin Boy Hobbs PPA  1 2013

Norris explained the percentage breakdown: “The target retail gardening audience equals those that are interested (20%-30%) and those that are not—the overwhelming majority.” It’s foolish to try and grow a market with those who are not interested. “We chase after those that are not…like a foodie restaurant trying to lure fast food junkies,” he said. It’s a waste of time. Norris, wise beyond his years, urged retailers to focus on the 20-30 %.

“Brand spanking new,” in recent years, has taken on new meaning with a proliferation of horticultural marketing brand names. And year after year it’s always more petunias, heucheras, echinceas and “stuff.”  Millennials, most of whom are new to gardening, are not as brand-loyal as the Boomers. They’re savvy with social media and skeptical of hype.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 6.42.09 PM

Norris asked an estimated 50 conference-goers in the early morning on the last day if they had seen anything at the show that they thought was truly innovative. Not a hand was raised. There was a lot of good “product” on the show floor but nothing that knocked anyone’s garden boots off.

Norris always seems to encounter plants that “wow” him, wherever he goes, but he’s not your average gardener. The white flowering Silphium albiflorum, a rare species endemic to three Texas counties, came into bloom in late July.  Norris said in an email, “I bought a 2-yr old seedling from Ellen Hornig [owner of the former Seneca Hill Perennials] back in 2010 and it bloomed this year. Some days it seems like it was twice that long—the anticipation!”

But Norris is not typical. He’s an avowed plant geek. He gets it and doesn’t mind waiting years to get a bloom. The young Millennials don’t get it, not yet. They want color now.

Photo courtesy of Organic gardening and D.L. Anderson.
Photo courtesy of Organic gardening and D.L. Anderson.

(Read Ken Druse’s Organic Gardening installment, Next Generation 2.0).

Jelitto’s North American Manager, Mary Vaananen, and I pressed the flesh, talked the talk and handed out Jelitto Perennial Seed catalogs left and right.

But Norris said there’s a stumbling block: people, plants and passion don’t automatically translate to sales… We are a passionate, talented industry and there’s an audience who want that.”

So what do we do?

Norris said we cannot be complacent. “We must be revolutionary, we must be stylish.” Offering examples, he said, “Green roofs, vertical walls and outdoor rooms have become transformative.”

Spreading the word in Sydney, Australia. Jimmy Turner photo.
Spreading the word in Sydney, Australia. Jimmy Turner photo.

“Inspire an audience to want what they do not need,” Norris urged. For example: a wooden bow tie. A wooden bow tie?

Norris discovered BÖ, by Mansouri, the innovative wooden, handmade bow ties online. He was fascinated and ordered one with a couple of clicks. “How many of you can order plants this easily?” he asked. (I ordered one the next day.)

“The Millennials are visual and environmentally conscious,” Norris preached. “Excite and innovate.”

A Chihuly glass exhibit, currently at the Denver Botanic Gardens, has been exciting and innovative. Nurseryman Brian Core of Little Valley Nursery in Brighton, CO, visited the Denver Botanic Gardens in late July. He commented on Facebook, “Installing Dale Chihuly’s art was sheer genius. It couldn’t have been more spectacular!  The gardens have an energy this year that I’ve never felt before. The crowds are huge, obviously with many people who have never visited the gardens before.”

Chihuly at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Chihuly at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Panayoti Kelaidis photo.

Every plant has a story, and Norris knows that “marketing is storytelling.” We underestimate the “essentiality” of plants and gardens. He is convinced that gardeners have an opportunity to be canonized like today’s top chefs.

“People need plants. People need gardens.”


  1. Brilliant Allen… this is a timely and desperate topic. The horticultural industry has been in the toilet for a long time now and the industry ‘leaders” seem to have no other ideas than plant patenting and marketing blitzes on plants that haven’t been sufficiently trialed and are so choked with superfluous plastic packaging that you would never guess that this is the “green” industry . In Atlanta we have only one small, sad, independent retailer and a couple of corporate big box nurseries and most of the wholesalers and re-wholesalers went away with the great recession.
    The ones who have survived have been hanging on by a thread.
    But the industry is frankly comical on Laurel and Hardy levels… nurserymen barely scraping by who won’t do absolutely anything to adapt and survive.
    Recently a grower who shut down told me that they just couldn’t keep selling plants for 3 dollars. They’d been doing that for 20 years and the cost of the production had increased dramatically. When I asked if they’d ever thought about raising their prices they seem dumbfounded… they had never thought of it. The excuse – well no one would pay more for a plant.

  2. I keep reading that millenniums want to live in the central city. Not much scope for gardening except on a small scale. My own personal theory is that gardening is an every other generation thing. My grandma big gardener. Mom not so much. Me, crazy gardener. My daughter not much, turned off by my avid gardening. I’m waiting on grand kids.

  3. You do not mention, at all, the current layer of ornamental horticulture industry being ‘attacked’.

    The general contractor vs. wholesaler of plants.

    We placed a $40,000 order for plants this summer with a wholesale nursery. Been working with them for decades, they are in south GA. They never returned our calls about plant availability, delivery costs, etc. Once we reached them, several days leaving messages, they would not budge on their pricing. Even when told we would be ordering more plants in a month.

    USED CAR SALES treat their customers better.

    Needing the plants, & needing them cheaper, we called their almost-last- competitor. Bingo, cheaper plants, better delivery pricing, and they seemed happy to have our business.

    How long can we stay in business when it consolidates further?

    Does that 1st wholesale nursery realize they are killing a section of their buying pool? Sure they have contracts now for big box stores blah-blah but this domino effect is already bad, getting worse.

    As a designer I cannot design with the latest wow plants. They will pass my acceptance test after 2 decades of survival. And, they are not affordable or readily available at our wholesale vendors. How can a general contractor make money in a landscape having to source plants for hours on the phone then travel to 4-5 locations. Often, discovering the sales person totally misrepresented what was available.

    This issue has become so dire, when sourcing specific plants, or stone, I ask the salesperson to send me a phone pic. That single request is a game changer too many times.

    Most of our jobs are significantly smaller, the one above is a commercial site.

    My WOW plants for clients are the true proven winners in beauty/survival and can be sourced at 1-3 wholesalers. Do you think it feels good when my contractor can’t source plants for my plans? Those phone calls are not pleasant, and affect what I design.

    More layers, but must get to a jobsite.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  4. I agree and disagree with Kelly and with great respect for him.

    Yes, an independent garden center must focus on the people who are into gardening. But most will not survive with those people alone.

    We have been given a gift of spring fever – every human on earth has it to some degree. Garden centers benefit from this and can’t do without that peak spring once a year whether they are all that into it or not.

    WE HAVE FAILED already in that more people don’t enjoy the garden, and it is time to have more foresight and to be inclusive and bring them into the fold. Two generations have been lost since our families became disconnected from the family farm. The only way this will change is if we bridge the gap.

    Some marketing effort should go to the long term big picture opportunity while (as I said I agree with him) a good portion goes to keeping the customers we do enjoy.

    We cannot abdicate the spring and maintenance gardener to the box stores and expect them to do anything with them.

    And I’ll repeat – almost all independents will fail if they fail to get that business.

  5. Excellent on most point. However to call millennials environmentally focused which include LOCAL LOCAL LOCAL they are the first to shop the box stores.
    So until we get over the fact that Gen X Y Z and millennials are fad oriented as the article says they WANT IT NOW we cannot pretend they are into local.

    They do not vote………baby boomers do

    They want the big paycheck now………baby boomers worked their way up the ladder

    They do not commit to marriage aka stability…………..baby boomers do

    They have kids out of wedlock……………generally baby boomers did not

    They move far away from family including elderly parents……baby boomers generally did not

    They want someone to blame for high college debt…….baby boomers not so much

    They will suck up to the trendy victim game of SANDWICH GENERATION
    most older generations and European cultures take care of their elderly not looking for handouts

    They will stick their kids in daycare or leave for grand ma to raise…..selfish have a family and career too

    • WoW! I would really hate to meet all the millenials that you have met, and I am thankful to know the ones that I do. I see a lot of millenial bashing going around, and yes they are different from the boomers just as the boomers were different from previous generations.

      “They do not vote………” Yes I do, as does my partner and many of my friends who are younger. Though I admit, it is a tough sell to get some of my peers to vote. Apathy is generally the reason I get. “What difference will it make…they’re all the same”. I don’t necessarily disagree with them on that point, but I will not give up my voice by NOT voting. Especially in local elections.

      “They want the big paycheck now………baby boomers worked their way up the ladder”…..at least you had a ladder to work your way up. Your generation’s push for disposability has made the workforce (Us) disposable too. You threw out the ladder and us along with it. I have never worked in a position where it wasn’t abundantly clear that no matter how hard working and loyal I was, the bottom line is I’m replaceable. Incidentally, I work very hard for no money to build a business that will (I hope) one day secure a future for myself and family…while at the same time working a part time job.

      “They do not commit to marriage aka stability…………..baby boomers do

      They have kids out of wedlock……………generally baby boomers did not”……. Wedlock worked out SOOOO well for all of our many-times-divorced parents. That was a super-stable way to grow up for sure. I may one day marry my guy of 14 years, but it will be as a legal security measure. As we age I am beginning to see the necessity.

      “They move far away from family including elderly parents……baby boomers generally did not”…. I see my mom every day. Many of my friends invite me to their family gatherings, with whom they are VERY close. Not to mention, I was sure that I heard that it’s nearly impossible to get 20-somethings to move out of the house because they won’t grow up, get jobs and pay off their college debt? There must be some divergence between millenials here.

      “most older generations and European cultures take care of their elderly”
      I don’t think the millenials invented the waiting rooms of death known as retirement homes.

      If this is the sort of animus that folks have for the millenials is there any wonder that you’re not getting their business? You’re just not “getting it” in general. Yes, they do want to spend a crap-ton of money on craft beer and small batch coffee and other whimsical interests. Boomers were never whimsical and fad driven though….oh wait….bell bottoms, free love, communes, disco, self help tapes, I really can’t go on cuz I just wasn’t alive back then, but I suspect that you boomers were fad driven when you were in your 20’s & 30’s. OMG, and you think you aren’t STILL fad driven….two words for ya… FAIRY GARDENS! Gag, I am so over them and these little old ladies are still beating a dead horse wanting more of that crap. I work in a boutique beer and wine store (part time job on top of growing a business) and you know who brews their own beer as well as drinking it pre-made for them at hyper-local small businesses?? Take a wild guess. Millenials. You know what they pay with? Mostly cash. They talk about shopping local and they act on it. Yes, they are impatient….so are older shoppers. If they can’t get it right away from you (or if you don’t have an instant answer that suits them) they will move on to find it elsewhere. I know that’s what I do.

      Why not find crossover for their interests. Take the beer brewers….show them how easy it is to grow their own hops and harvest them. Show them that coriander is stupid-easy to grow by the jar full. If they are hell bent on city living find ways of bringing the landscape into their homes successfully. I live in a small city and have almost zero ground to grow in. I have been looking for ways to interiorscape with plants that is beyond having plants in awkward pots sitting around the house. I did a market event that was at a college campus. There was lots of interest from students in the perennial plants….mostly so they could take it to their parent’s home to plant and others that were looking for something they could keep in their dorm. What that said to me was that there is a general interest and longing for growing things. The younger side of the millenials just doesn’t have a place to put perennials, trees and shrubs. But they may have a place to put a succulent, air plant or terrarium….or wear a succulent…I have a recent (fad-like) passion for succulents and I am experimenting with wearing them as jewelry.

      You want the millenials….or whatever generation is in its 20’s & 30’s….get to know them.

      • You took Greg too serious Rachel. He has a way of irritating people that way to make a point that in this case I also don’t agree with. You are much more correct in your assessment. He must have woke up on the wrong side of the bed when he wrote that. He’s a good guy overall though. Give him another chance if you get a chance.

    • Wow, what a lot of hateful, content-free dogwhistles. I guess that’s a “Boomer” thing, too, isn’t it?

      • Saurs…

        What was the hateful content that you refer to? What are the “free dogwhistles” I don’t understand the reference? Were you responding to my post? If you were, I took a little offense to Gregg Draiss’s comments about myself and my peers. There are all kinds of us, just as there were in previous generations. I know the “boomers” weren’t all dope smoking, bell-bottom wearing hippie freaks that named their children Rainbow and lived on communes. Just as ALL the millenials are not whining waste of breath do-nothings. Where, I ask, is Gen X in all of this? Are they like the forgotten middle child on the generational spectrum?

        • Greetings, Rachel, apologies for any confusion. Yes, my comment was directed at greg draiss. I’m in utter agreement with you, and appreciate your more thoughtful commentary above mine. Thank you for taking the time to address him, point by point; I really didn’t have the stomach to take on that amount of self-righteous, self-serving blarney.

          • I so often take things wrong in the comment section, I really wanted to clarify and not be flying off the handle in the wrong direction. I almost deleted my response to the previous poster, but I just couldn’t let that fly along with ALL the others.

            I am glad you responded and I would love to hear your input in regard to the millennial generation. Are you a part of it?

    • Greg, congrats on enticing me to comment. I normally don’t because I don’t want to be sucked in to the cesspool of cheap shots and vitriol that appears too frequently on this site, but I pretty wholeheartedly agree with Rachel and I hope Sid is right about you just waking up on the wrong side when you wrote that. You often make good points in Rant discussions but you’re way off base this time. I hope you have better encounters with our generations soon and that you you’re not actually as bitter as you sound. Good luck, sir. And thank you Rachel.

    • what a horrid comment – full of bias and assumptions.
      If this is the way you see the world, how sad for you.

  6. The facts are people NEED gardens, landscapes and trees. Reality is that most people do not realize that they need gardens, landscapes and trees. The challenge is how do we convince people that their priorities should change to include more gardens, landscapes and trees? I do agree that the Annual side of our industry seems to be stuck in a PVC mode, (petunias, verbena, calibrachoa) It is hard to inspire a new customer with more of the same especially if that customer grew up with those plants at Mom’s house. Do you really wear the same style cloths as your MOM or DAD? Perhaps this is why someone here suggests that gardening is an every other generation activity. Perhaps our industry should pull a couple of dozen new plants that have not been used before out of the millions of species of plants available and offer something new to the next generation. We are already seeing upticks in interest in foliage plants, perhaps this is just reinforcing this notion that the new generation is looking for plants they can call their own. Or perhaps it is because the next generation sees foliage plants for sale at the box stores and not at the IGC’s and it is something that they did not see at home growing up. Where will this industry be if we allow the box stores to be the source for education of the next generation of gardeners? I suggest that allowing the box stores to participate in our industry is doing irrevocable harm to the industry at large long term. The majority of first time gardeners start at the box store. And these companies are least prepared to deal with new gardeners. And yet somehow the industry needs to educate these new gardeners. A task everyone agrees is best done by the IGC’s so if we allow the box stores and the internet to train the next generation of gardeners is there any surprise to the logical conclusion of that journey? Or industry is one of the few industries that would allow the Devil himself to sell our products if he paid cash for them. If you don’t believe that go call Ford motor and tell them you want to start selling Ford cars and trucks at your location and offer to send them a check for the first two semi loads of vehicles and see what they say… LOL! The Box Store participation in our industry along with the internet has interrupted a vital function that the IGC’s have always provided, training those new gardeners. The important question is how do we address this issue?

  7. Gardening often requires hard work. Millennials don’t work hard.

    They would rather spend their income on expensive hand poured coffees and craft beers (someone else makes) than bother with the work and time it takes from their social media devices.

  8. Everyone in the industry is constantly talking about the Millennials – how do we attract them? How do we get and keep them as customers?

    To which I say simply this: Has our industry EVER relied on 18-33 year olds for any significant sales?

    As much as we’d like all people to share our enthusiasm, the practice of gardening is very much tied to one’s phase in life – do you have space? Do you have time? Do you have money? Millennials, busy graduating school, finding jobs and developing their careers, and getting married and having children, are hardly in a position to garden passionately. When they reach an age where they own a home, have some time, and some disposable income, they will most likely patronize garden centers in similar numbers to what we see with the baby boomers now. I’m not saying we sit back and do nothing, but our industry needs to sit down for a minute and drink a hyperlocal microbrewed stout made with free trade organic coffee: when the Millennials are ready, they will garden.

    • Thank you for this. I just landed last year (at the age of 31) in a home where I have an opportunity to garden for the first time. I got bit by the gardening bug quickly and have been spending way too much of my budget this year on plants and gardening supplies, trying to grow our small collection of perennials into something that will impress. It is my experience that most of the 25-35 year olds I know don’t yet own a home, unless they received signicant help from wealthy parents or in-laws. Balcony gardening is an option that some have taken up, but that can be rather limiting (both in terms of space and $$ spent). Millenials and baby boomers were both hit hard by the recession. Now, baby boomers aren’t retiring and getting off the ladder so millenials can move up. Until they do, it’s unlikely that most will be able to buy a patch of dirt to call their own.

    • Exactly right, in my case, for example. I will be 57 next month and in spite of growing up on my grandparents’ farm, and being the child of a lifelong passionate gardener, I couldn’t have cared less about gardening while I was busy working and raising two children. Once they went off to college and then married, I cut back on my work schedule drastically and guess what I discovered? That’s right – the joy of gardening. Prior to that, I just didn’t have the energy for it.

      It’s one thing to plant a garden, but oh guess what? You have to take care of it too, and sometimes a garden’s needs come at a time when it’s pretty inconvenient. We can’t do it all, and priorities are set. Work and kids are pretty important. But many will eventually come around – even those that you least expect. No one was more surprised than my mom when this dental hygienist started digging up lawn for gardens in her 40s and eventually discovered a new career in garden writing, which sprung directly from all those marvelous hours digging in the dirt.

      Nothing wrong with wanting to appeal to the Millennials, or the Boomers, and the Gen Xers in between, but in all honesty, relatively few people of any age will look at gardening as a true necessity – for them. They’ll come to it when they’re at a time in their lives when the desire to do it pushes something else out of the way and it really has nothing to do with marketing or the fact that gardening is a worthy activity.

      • Of all the replies, Kylee’s resonates with me the most.
        I have been gardening for 39 years and have always found great satisfaction in it. I am 59 and my 3 boys grew up watching me work most weekends in my gardens and decided they didn’t want to do that. Don’t blame them! However, as adults now ages 29, 31 and 34, I can see little glimmers of interest in gardening as they now own their own homes. Questions come to me often about “this and that” in the garden.

        I however have done the ‘most changing’ – as I decided I wanted an easier lifestyle with more time devoted to other hobbies besides just “gardening my life away” – which I felt like I was doing! To me, it was a choice of – make gardening easier or quit. I didn’t want to quit, so the ‘PVC’ varieties of plants are the ones I use – because they are trustworthy, easy to grow, and easy to find anywhere. I am at the age where I just want it to be ‘simpler’….in all areas of my life – gardening included. Hope this makes sense.

  9. Wow can come in different forms. Too many in the industry are focused on the brand new and exotic when, in reality, for the vast majority of consumers ‘wow’ is just something beautiful. While totally pedestrian for horticulture professionals, a big bed of pink petunias would do it for even the average millenial. Keeping things fresh, vibrant, and colorful is generally wow enough. Many garden retailers should look around their sites in the dog days of August and see if they can find the ‘wow’. Frankly, if your IGC isn’t more beautiful than the local box store right now all of the latest and greatest plants won’t matter at all. I don’t want to sound cold, but many of the independent businesses that have been lost over the last decade just weren’t up to the work of keeping up the ‘wow’ even at the most basic level.

  10. Perhaps there should be more of a focus on the benefit to the environment, a “giving back” so to speak for what we take. In my suburban Washington D.C. county you can actually get a pretty large rebate for planting trees and rain gardens to decrease storm water runoff to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.


    Personally, I don’t garden for beauty, though that comes as an added benefit. I garden for birds, bugs, and the bay. When it becomes not about me and my focus turns to others (in this case our non-human friends), I want to buy and buy more.

    It’s like food. The healthy, organic food movement is on fire. We want these more expensive items. “Eat for your health, not for the quick fix.” Perhaps nurseries could say, “Plant for the planet.”

    It’s like the automobile. I might want to buy a car that’s got a great sound system, individual air conditioner controls, back up cameras, and heated seats.
    But, that’s not what a car is for. I want a safe car that gets me from point A to B reliably, safely, less expensively. A great car transports greatly and that’s what sells. A good plant is like that trusty car. It may not have all the bells and whistles of large blooms, but t attracts pollinators, acts as a host, heals the environment.

    How about:
    “Do something good in your yard. Do something good for the earth.”

  11. I found Kelly’s comments interesting, but I wouldn’t kiss off the 80 to 70 percent milleniums that are not interested. I think we have a tendency to dismiss people who don’t have the same passion as we do. There just isn’t enough customers if we deal with just 20% of the population. That 20% is easy to retail to, but to get any of the majority to like gardening will require alot of effort and skills. Those who are successful in attracting the sideliners will be the ones that remain in business. Let’s preach the gospel of gardening to all, not just a select few.

    • Al as read your comment ( which I liked), it caused me think of how I have progressed from uninformed(dumb to some) to enlightened on various subjects throughout life. This resulted in realizing that just as there is expertise there is also dumbpertise. Both are readily available everywhere; thanks for your post


  12. Al and others,

    What great points you all raise. First off, to what shocked Al, I too was shocked at the quote “the dumb are not into gardening.” I plead the fifth in that I have no memory of actually saying that, even as I wouldn’t question Allen’s reporting or his notes. I can imagine though that in the course of what I clearly fumbled to say, was that we are doing a fine job of boring our customers to death and debasing the very products and experiences we offer on the sales floor each and ever year. Words matter, and nobody should know that more than I do. Comments carelessly offered like that haven’t a place in a discussion aimed at doing exactly what Al notes–bring the joy of gardening to an even wider and wider audience. I’m duly sorry if this is what I actually said–I could have found better words.

    In the spirit of clarity, I would also take a point of contrast to say that I’m not at all suggesting that we kiss off the 80% of people who don’t. But in all reality, every business and industry channelizes and focuses how it does business. Our marketplace isn’t very good about that (more to Sid’s point that we need to support the independents that do differentiate and encourage others to do the same to not let the bus continue to hit the ditch). Take the parallels with food, as I suggested in the story. McDonalds doesn’t care who wins a James Beard Award; probably about as much as the customers of their chain care. Through the lens of retail mechanics, this is great–they have differentiated a product and experience that fits with what their customers want. Our challenge is that in our industry, we’ve neither differentiated the product or the consumer, even as we have huge opportunities to do more than just sell “stuff”. We have a tremendous experience to offer people, and that’s the kind of sales we should be cultivating; what plants do and why plants are worth falling in love with.

  13. Marketing gardening is telling stories. Yes. People want a narrative, need a narrative — it’s one of the few if not only authentic ways to connect to place. Plants need to tell stories, nurseries need to tell stories, and maybe part of that is focus. My intention is to open a local ecotype native plant nursery, and we’re going to be up the wazoo in tech and art and local businesses. But we’re also going be working in an (albeit) limited niche — folks who want natives of regional and local origin, and of which most folks don’t have access to. I see a hunger for story that connects us to place every time I give a talk, and a hunger of doing right by the landscape. Tap into that, however you want, natives or not (please don’t debate on what “native” is here).

    And as a college teacher for 14 years now, some of the above observations of millennials are just, well, silly. You know what a millennial is? Young. Naive. A little dumb. A little self centered. All because they are young like you all once were. But you know what? Once you start sharing stories with them and they with you, something clicks, and they aren’t the people you assumed them to be — they seem much older and wiser than I’ll ever be. Oh the lives they’ve lived already before they hit 22! Tell stories. Share stories. Do it through plants.

    • Depending on what authority you cite, the so-called Millennial generation was born 1980/1/2/3, so this business of characterizing that co-hort as young or naive is bit misleading. The oldest are reaching their mid-30s by now; the median age is 24. As for self-centered, there’s a reason the Boomers (at least, the white, middle-class sort) were labeled the Me Generation.

      The ahistorical (conveniently amnesiac?) perspective in this thread has been QUITE interesting.

    • YES to everything Benjamin said! We hunger for narrative – basically, that is what a garden IS, a semi-theatrical space that tells a story, the story that the gardener wants told. Right now, the narrative most young gardeners want is that of sustaining our planet, figuring out food security, and creating a wholesome life for a family, which often includes some measure of gardening.
      Those commenters who dismiss the younger generation as spoiled or uninterested just because the narrative they are interested in is different – well, THAT speaks to a narrowness of vision. Of course this group will garden, and garden well – but they will do it differently than it is being done now – and that is a very good thing. Let them define themselves!

  14. Wow, doing plant trials for particular areas; how great is that. Those of us who like to “test fly” new plants know that there are lies, damned lies, and winter hardiness labels. Clearly the industry has no certification of such claims. Sure that nice shrub thrived in my garden for the past five years of mild winters, so you might think the zone 5 hardiness was on target, but when it hit the rock bottom temperature for zone 5, the plant died. And here in the Midwest, winter hardy alpines just burn up in out summer heat.

  15. I am a plant geek.

    A couple of weeks ago I went on a garden tour of some wonderful gardens in the Boston area, designed by friends and colleagues who are plants men, designers and landscape architects. My favorite garden, and they were all beautiful, was the small, plant focused garden of one of the designers.

    25 years ago we started a nursery to supply our garden installation biz with uncommon perennials…there was a time when there was such a limited selection except a few mail order sources. Our early customers were, on the average, women and a few men in the 45-65 age group, folks whose children had grown up and now had time and extra resources to devote to gardening. Plants were their passion, and since we came on the scene when there were so few options, people flocked to us from all over New England (before we started shipping mail order).

    The point I make is that now the women in this age group have careers, and hire landscape gardeners (like us) to create and care for their garden. It has to be easy to take care of & look good ALL THE TIME. A garden created for a client is different than the garden of a passionate plantsman. The passionate gardener will take the chance of trying an exotic Trochodendron, or scatter self sowing Papaver somniferum, or plant miniature Hinoki Cypress knowing it may be 15 years before they make a statement. Their gardens may not be picture perfect all the time…..but their passion and willingness to explore new plants makes their gardens far more fascinating.

    The millennials and gen-x’s are gardening, but their energies (time and money) are devoted to food crops and perhaps a few cut flowers. And that is a promising start.

  16. Thanks Allen for the fine piece and all for the thought provoking comments. The article looks at the situation from an industry point of view- and a corner of the industry too- The “ornamental” portion of the market does seem to be flatlining at best in sales but can the same for said for the edible- food and veggies folks? I think they’re doing better.

    A few generations back gardening and life to a great extent was about providing for oneself and friends/family, being frugal, saving seeds, trading with neighbors, etc. and not so much about consuming. And as the market shrinks I wonder whether or not gardening is shrinking?? I think not.
    Also I agree with many commenter’s that folks- millenials in this case- don’t have the financial security to garden primarily as beautification- likely they’re starting with edibles- if at all. Add youth and financial insecurity/fewer having the larger yards we’d like to help fill- and you have more reasons for their lackluster purchasing power so far…
    Now to get out and water those plants….

  17. Great post, but a complex problem. I think a lot about this issue, as I am both a futurist/trend director for a large corporation, and a passionate plant geek. I think I am changing my position about this topic however – insights which I have been reviewing recently, all seem indicate that social behavior has changed. I almost dare not to lump generations into buckets when it comes to something like this, as it involves so much more than just catchy labels. We live in a completely different world than 20 or 30 years ago, and that’s OK. But remember, basic human needs remain the same. It might be quality, value. convenience or experience – each has a place and time in a customers day.

    I think the future for garden centers is both bright and dim. The successful ones who specialize or which offer great experiences will win out, the more commercial sort will either become mega stores, or be lost to big box stores.

    There is so much to say about this subject, that I really need to work on a few posts on my blog about what I imagine could happen. Interesting though, that this subject was raised and presented at a commercial event. I think that is there is one takeaway regarding the threat to big box stores, it’s this. Big box stores all have high concept groups and futuring groups (I know, I work with them). They also are willing to experiment – Walmart looking at smaller, local stores – more like mom and pop stores, Target and Tesco looking to amp up the experience quotient. They all hire big thinkers to evaluate and prototype new, innovative ways of reaching customers. Rather than complaining about these competitors, I would suggest behaving more like them, ( not be them – just think like them) or find out what your customer truly wants rather than trying to compete with with the big retailers.

    They will only get bigger, but this could be your opportunity to think even more strategically. Oh – and by the way — what are those futuring groups at these BB retailers looking at as their competition? Amazon. — I would be more worried about that, and then thinking about what my business could offer that would be so unique— such a game changer, that they never saw it coming.

  18. Allow me a little thinking out loud here. So, Millenials want what? Local. Small batch. Storied. Convenient. One click plus plastic. Sustainable. Guilt (and cardboard) free. And the threat is what? Big box stores. Amazon. Overnight shipping. Bad experiences with schlock.
    There’s no question that the internet will increasingly be the conduit through which this problem must be squeezed, but those tubes, at least at this point, are remarkably egalitarian. It occurs to me, not unreasonably as a grower and purveyor of cut flowers, that there is already a nationwide distribution network of trained professionals that addresses every one of those issues on a daily basis, that coincidentally is facing extinction and could use a shot in the arm. It’s called your local florist. What’s to prevent local nurseries from teaming up with local florists in a well designed plant promotion/procurement/delivery scheme beyond the current Peace Lily or Pothos options, cardboard and packing peanuts-free? The orders are placed. The nursery supplies the shop the next morning. The shop delivers that day, or even same day with stock items like veggie starts in the Spring. The plants have an origin, a story and a customer service rep at the nursery. Unlike with cut flowers, the delivery service could safely drop the prepaid orders any time, any place, eliminating call-backs. The fresh flowers offered become samples/incentives to expand the customer’s derring-do. It’s a scenario that, through partnership and technology, basically recreates the small town flower shop of fifty years ago, when every shop except for the most urban had it’s greenhouses and cold frames producing plants and cuts in every season.

  19. “the dumb aren’t into gardening”–really? I’m not overly bright (my own father, who grew up on a farm, has shaken his head and said “a fool and her money are soon parted” for what I spent on a couple of plants, most recently a Jeffersonia and a really beautiful anemone, I just HAD to have!) but I love gardening! y’all really want me to give it up?

  20. Funny this is titled “Where’s the Wow?” With the Chihuly link thrown in there because….Wow! Exquisite.

    Generation X was first named such bc marketers couldn’t figure them out. As one I’m always a pretty self-controlled shopper. Yesterday I went to my indep. garden center for fall bird seed & 1 mum. So how did I walk out w/ 6 mums &3 ornamental cabbages? Simple, my 2 kids were w/ me, faced w/a rainbow of mums. Get the kids to come. Even the strictest non-spoiler cannot resist a splurge on gardening with it’s many lessons in science, math, art…

    Besides the children’s events & pumpkin patches, I would think a donation of some free seed or plant certificates to a school w/ a children’s garden would be a pretty cheap promotion and a win/win all around. Offer incentives (like a cheap pinwheel)for the kids to come w/ parents to pick something out, the teacher can assign a few students to the task.

    Gen X may not be the target of the industry but we are at the “ripe” age for gardening and sharing w/ our kids..aka Achilles heel of spending.

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