Marketing to gardening ignorance

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I always have books around and these are good ones. I’ll be giving these to the beginning gardeners I know, except for Tom’s, which I’ll keep.

Beginning gardeners in the US are the focus of a variety of persuasive techniques. Last April, I posted about how dubious websites and silly memes try to convince people that they’re not just endangering their plants, they might be killing the world. Unfortunately, these often become viral, as people who have grown up depending on digital information spread this stuff without questioning it too much.

Gardeners who aren’t sure about mulching, garden clean-up, and other interventions would be well advised to put their devices down and go talk to a green industry professional. For the past ten years or so, I’ve been trying to attend the yearly education days put on by our industry group, PlantWNY. Other than some master gardeners and a few longtime garden clubbers, this is mainly attended by the professionals and those in training who need CNLP (Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional) and other credits. It’s a very good event; speakers regularly travel in from all over—I have seen Michael Dirr, Tracy DiSabato-Aust, and many others talk at the event. This year, we benefited from the enthusiasm and knowledge of Susan Martin, who gave fun and insightful presentations on design and plant choice.

I wish more local gardeners came to these. If they had, however, some of them might have been taken aback by Martin’s characterization of the new generation of gardeners. She noted that gardeners coming into nurseries and garden centers for the first time these days come in without the inherited or partial knowledge and experience of their baby boomer predecessors, and you can see in their social media posts, where Japanese beetles might be labeled pollinators and fern spores as pests. They just don’t know.

In my view, the remedy for lack of knowledge is simple. Acquire knowledge, through classes, reading, talking to proven experts, whatever it takes. And then acquire experience. In the world of marketing, it’s a little different. There, one can’t assume that knowledge or the desire to acquire it is present. The strategy? Accept and encourage ignorance. First off, forget about using botanical names or maybe even any name—label plants for what they do, like “yellow flowers all summer in partial shade” or “grows to eight feet with white flowers in spring and orange berries in fall.” The idea is to talk people into gardening by implying they won’t need to know anything. In the trade, this is necessary; I am told would-be clients walk in saying they don’t know anything and don’t want to do anything.

But those who intend to maintain a garden without a weekly crew are going to have to learn something. I had to. Something’s going to happen in that garden full of foolproof plants and somebody will have to deal with it—probably by doing as little as possible. The more knowledge and experience, you have the less you have to do. It’s a big benefit! I have seen so many frantic Facebook posts with one brown leaf, leggy flowers, minor insect damage, or many other situations when the answer is “cut it off or ignore it.” Knowing the botanical names of plants can also be key.

Get a clue, beginning gardeners. Don’t let others dumb everything down. They may have taken the word “write” out of the garden writers professional organization, but books can still work, extension websites tend to have correct information, and the smart pros at the nursery can help more by giving real names and real info rather than pointing to the pretty yellow flowers.

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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

10 COMMENTS

  1. I started gardening with a small greenhouse at 16 and will soon be 80. Now as never before, the availability of quality gardening books, lavishly illustrated and technically precise at affordable prices, is amazing. I would have loved to have these resources at my fingertips when I was beginning. I see no excuse for ignorance these days.

    Yes, many beginners think that whatever information they want is available from a simple Internet inquiry, but they lack the ability or perhaps experience to critically evaluate the quality of what they find. It is like a starving man in the middle of a sumptuous banquet.

    We should steer them to reliable resources and recommend reliable books. Perhaps in so doing, they can be set off on a path of lifetime enrichment!

  2. Bravo Elizabeth. Well said. I understand that it’s important to appeal to a new generation of gardeners, and if you have to do that with an angle or a gimmick so they pick up that book or read that article, so be it. However, once you’ve got their attention, you have something precious. Don’t squander it. Give them real information, real expectations and for God’s sake REAL NAMES!!!!! You can still have fun while educating.

    On the devil’s side however, how much of my vitriol (and perhaps yours) is being directed at lifestyle outlets that are primarily appealing to those who otherwise would not garden? Their readers may no more have gardened thirty years ago then they would now – it’s just more in our consciousness because of social media and the digital age. Possibility?

  3. Interesting topic! I would just say to be kind and supportive to beginning gardeners; try not to shame or scold them because they don’t care to learn all the Latin names. Not everybody is a wonk. Gardening can be pretty complicated, and there is an awful lot of conflicting info out there that could be overwhelming to new gardeners who are simply lured in by pretty flowers. We can’t wait around for peer-reviewed studies to help us with every gardening decision. Not that the science isn’t important, but science is not generally what makes gardening enticing to newbies. They are drawn in by the beauty of plants, the connection to the earth, the satisfaction of homegrown food, etc. The studying comes only after they’re really hooked.

    Plus, I think that social media can warp our perceptions of what our fellow human beings are actually up to. 99% of social media discourse is shallow, stupid, inflammatory, etc., and we’ve all been drawn into the BS and posted stuff we probably regret. I don’t think we should draw too many conclusions about the state of gardening because a bunch of people “liked” some bad info about Japanese beetles. Not that it shouldn’t be called out, but it’s just too easy to get sucked into a social media vortex of doom if we take it too seriously.

  4. Contrariwise I discovered that in the UK garden media (magazines, newspapers) which feature gardening only want us to write for newcomers to gardening. Why? Because they are the market – the ones who still need to buy all the necessary stuff. So we are endlessly taught basics. A friend declared he always fell asleep when the bit about taking cuttings came on the telly.

    Depressing, when there are so many more things to discuss than Elizabeth is describing.

    I remember a neighbour asking me in my early days how I knew so much about gardening and being surprised when I said ‘books’ but it is, of course, still the answer and they are so attractive now. They have pictures!

  5. It sounds as if “they just don’t know” and are arrogant enough to act as if they do know. We hear that many do not read books much these days. Is it really true?

  6. We launched the Columbus Garden School (in Ohio) last year, and business is great. We offer year-round, eco-friendly classes in DIY gardening, homesteading, home maintenance, and crafting topics. One big difference between us and other sources of gardening info is that we have a lot of HANDS-ON activities — our classes take place both indoors and outdoors. I agree that homeowners and nonprofessional gardeners often have little knowledge to start, but I give them credit for taking a class to learn more. Times have changed and how folks absorb new info needs to change too. If we want young people to embrace gardening, we have to meet them halfway — to their starting point.

  7. At a similar Nursery trade show, I heard an insightful presentation the offered insight into a younger generation of complete novice gardeners. Info called up on a smartphone is preferred to revealing their ignorance to others, and they feel ashamed of that lack of knowledge enough to avoid the people who would be happy to share information (like the staff of a quality garden retailer).
    So marketing books and offering seminars to “Beginners” or “Novices” is one way to spark a passion. Once over the fears of being exposed as someone who doesn’t know the different between a petunia and a peony, if excited enough the learning can begin. So let those folks grow plants by descriptions of how they perform and if it satisfies their soul you can presume they will learn their names (or find a phone app that will give them an answer).
    My recommendation is to request that more public gardens include plant ID tags. And we all should be taking compelling photos of gardens – better than what most of us do – and posting them so there is more digital fodder to inspire those trapped behind their devices to seek a non-virtual reality.

  8. The kids now just kill me. Whether it’s gardening, or whatever else, “if it’s on the internet, it has to be true!” I swear, they take anything on the internet as smoking holy gospel.

  9. I agree. I have so many people try and tell me how to do my job because they read something online that said they need to use rubber mulch or they will have insects all over their house. I get that we live in the tropics but there are plenty of natural ways to accomplish this. Nobody does any research these days and just take what they find off google as fact..

  10. This is a fascinating topic. The internet is great for so many reasons, but it does have the risk of empowering some with false or partially untrue information. I think sometimes there is just so much noise it’s difficult to determine the sources of truth.

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