Where is the passion?

Interesting comment at my post on “The Slow Decline of the CANGC” California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.” The commenter, who’s is from one of California’s “biggest and best known nurseries,” lists the reasons why they feel The Association has declined, many of which I agree with. One passage caught my attention since I had heard the same thing from author Amy Stewart, after her visit to the IGC (Independent Garden Center) show in Chicago.

Here is part of the comment from my post. “Finally, and maybe most significant for me at least, was that all too often CANGC was not about gardening and the celebration of plants and flowers and soil and everything green and alive. I and many others are in this business to encourage gardening – REALLY! CANGC was not (and sadly is still not) led by passionate gardeners. It’s led by administrators and clerks who all too often are more interested in the process than the product.”

Here are some of Amy’s observations from the show, which in many way’s mirror the commenter above. “We told Hort Coture that their handbags-and-high heels marketing was sexist and insulting–that it assumed that women were only interested in plants as fashion accessories. (And that women give a shit about fashion accessories. Have these people met any women?) One funny thing that happened during the panel was that we went on and on about how our reader survey said that what our readers want from their IGC is FABULOUS INTERESTING UNUSUAL PLANTS that they can’t find elsewhere, and the Hort Coture guy actually raised his hand and said, ‘When you say different or unusual plants–what would be an example of that?’ Like he had no idea that there were other plants out there. (in Hort Coture’s defense, this guy was  a regional sales rep, not actually working for HC)”

Amy continues, “here’s the problem with the plant brand people: They all say, ‘Yes, we get it, we like interesting and unusual plants too, but our customers are too stupid to get it. So we have to take this dumbed-down approach because they are not as smart as we are.’ That’s so insulting. If you think it’s cool, you can convince your customers that it’s cool. Look at Annie’s Annuals, for christsake. As you can see from our post-IGC posts on GardenRant, we got very tired of  these vendors telling us, ‘Yes, that may be what you want, but you’re gardeners. What about the non-gardeners?’ To hell with the non-gardeners! Let them play golf!”

See what’s going on here? Both at the CANGC and with the plant brand’s, people who may not be passionate gardeners are calling the shots. We are looking at it from outside, instead of from the inside, as a fellow gardener. We have assumed, just like CANGC and the plant brand’s, that we know best.  Just like CANGC, who thought it important to get the box stores (non-passionate, non-gardeners) into the membership (huge mistake), the big plant brand houses think it’s important to attract non-gardeners , rather than appeal to those who already consider themselves gardeners.

Here is more of what Amy had to say. “As you know, I own a used & rare bookstore with my husband. We don’t cater to non-readers. We cater to passionate book lovers. Our way of expanding our customer base is to MAKE MORE PASSIONATE BOOK LOVERS! After all, nobody is born a book collector. Someone had to get them fired up! If we can’t get them excited about paying $100 for a signed first edition of some rare book, that’s our problem, not theirs. If you can’t persuade people to become passionate gardeners by showing them fabulous plants, beautiful gardens, amazing products–then you’ve given up and you should just go home.  My local IGC has NOT ONE SIGN anywhere in the garden center expressing the slightest bit of enthusiasm for a single plant. NEVER ONCE has anyone at a local garden center been effusive, excited, elated over ANYTHING and attempted to share that magic with me. As one reader said in our survey,’I wish the employees were as excited to be (at the IGC) as I am.'”

I know from experience that you can get burned out in this business, just like any business. The passion and enthusiasm we felt about selling garden plants and supplies when we started is often crushed under the strain of keeping the doors open. Lack of small business credit, customers who are more interested in price than quality, competition with box stores, increasing taxes, increasing regulation, vendors that don’t get it, etc. Amy is passionate about the floral industry and say’s, “… honestly? Most people I meet in the hort industry or at garden centers don’t strike me as gardeners. They might do a little ‘landscaping with plant materials’ around their home, but they are not obsessed, dirt-under-the-nails gardeners. It’s like the floral industry. I met a lot of people who are not total flower floozies. They run warehouses, greenhouses, trucking operations, or retail stores. They do not swoon over flowers. They process merchandise. (The exceptions were the few wonderful independent florists run by people who loved flowers so much they couldn’t NOT open a flower shop!)”

What a breath of fresh air! The whole purpose of this blog has been to bring into the light issues I, and may of you care about. Not always what we want to hear. This blog has never been a cheerleader for “the industry”. The industry has fragmented. Those of us who want to operate small garden centers realize that what’s good for “the industry” may not be good for us.

About Trey Pitsenberger

Trey is a nurseryman, author, and speaker.

26. August 2010 by Trey Pitsenberger
Categories: , , , , , , , , , | 26 comments

Comments (26)

  1. I think there is a certain amount of closed-circle communication among the PR folks for these major firms, the people who write for our trade publications, and some of those who do consulting to the hort industry (not directed at any of those who post here!).
    For example, branding of products has almost no benefit to small independent nurseries. If anything, it is probably somewhat harmful to us as it facilitates price-comparisons, and my observation is that as soon as a nursery product line is branded it becomes a big-box item. But one of those advertising-sponsored trade magazines landed on my desk recently and it contained not one, not two, but three articles about branded nursery products.
    I’m going to repeat something I posted on another thread. At independent garden centers, we still sell about the same percentage of the garden goods in the industry that we sold in the 1980’s (40 – 45%). In fact, our percentage has increased slightly. I love it when a new gardener walks in, but as Amy suggests in her comments we are selling to people who know what a nursery is, who have some experience with gardening, and who want our help: selecting plants, showing them new ideas, and solving their problems.
    I check out the local WalMart Superstore garden department near me periodically. A week ago, more than half of the plants in the outdoor garden area were subtropicals which will definitely die here in the winter. I’m not talking about the marginal plants like Bougainvillea: I mean Crotons, Areca palms, Hawai’ian Elf Schefflera, Mandevillas — all lined out and commingled with normal hardy plants, as if they were suitable outdoor landscape plants in the Sacramento Valley. All from Hines Nursery, most looking tired and unhealthy (somebody needs to water…).
    The people wandering in there wouldn’t have a clue about what they were buying, because there was nobody to help them, and about half of the signs were on the wrong plants (I’m not exaggerating).

    Here are three quotes I’ve heard from customers in the last few weeks that summarize our nursery’s business philosophy better than I can:

    “You always have the most interesting stuff.”

    “I knew you’d have an answer for me.”

    And my recent favorite:
    “Your plants don’t die!”

  2. Where’s the link to something Amy wrote that you’re quoting from?

  3. It is so very depressing to see people equating good garden making with the relentless acquisition of novelty plants (see how it reads when you change the ‘rare and unusual’ which sounds so much better but is no more accurate!).

    How come acquisitiveness is sooo good!?? Seems to me people who want to buy plants all the time and garden centres have to be on the same side – you may depress me but surely you’re into the same thing?!

  4. Susan and everyone, Trey interviewed me by email and I said QUOTE ME! Why, doesn’t it sound like something I’d say?

  5. I think that this is the problem with trying to be everything to everyone. The walmartization. For a while, the way to compete and make money was to compete on price.

    Amazon has thrown price out of the equation. So have the big boxes.

    For industries to survive, they need to identify who their target market is, suck it up, and stop trying to be everything to everyone. Nobody can be everything to everyone. Except Amazon.


  6. Incredible rant. Very passionate. All sides of the question just need to publicize more!

  7. It’s possible for for some grower/retailers to compete on price with their own products, but why bother? If you’re growing good plants, that’s just money left on the table. IGC customers certainly appreciate a deal, but what they really like is the best. The best value (quality counts for a lot), best selection, and best service. There will always be those who want the lowest price period. Fine, they get what they pay for and I don’t need the hassle of those types of customers looking for discounts in the middle of a busy spring day (or any day really).

    As a garden center owner and plant lover I can sometimes get carried away with the latest, greatest, and most unusual when placing orders. The hardcore gardeners certainly appreciate that. However, I am smart enough to realize that there just aren’t enough of those types of customers to really pay the bills. Maybe in a large population area, but not in upstate NY. This isn’t a hobby for me and my employees. While I enjoy discussing the subtlety of differences in Tricyrtis blooms it’s the customer who comes in looking for 10 of the golden daylilies that they saw in the McDonald’s parking lot that we make money on.

    The goal, of course, is to help turn that Stella-lover into a hardcore gardener. One unfortunate by-product is that they then start to do crazy things like save seed and trade perennial divisions amongst their friends.

  8. Susan,

    There is no link to another site, as it was a personal conversation. I asked Amy if she wanted our discussion on or off the record. She said, “you can quote me”.

    My impetus for talking with Amy was two fold. One was to ask how the experience at the IGC show went. I asked Amy, as on the Garden Rant web site Amy is the contact person for the Blog. This is the reason I linked to her personal website under her name. I took what she was saying as her thoughts, not Garden Rant’s.

    I value your thoughts as well. Please feel free to express yourself. I know I have at The Garden Rant blog :-)

  9. Well, you have problems and we do too Down Under. How’s this for the distance between the Big Boys and the suckers )=customers)? There is a large corporation based in Chicago that starts with B who sell potted colour and annuals mostly. What is marketed is decided in Chicago and takes 5yrs to reach these shores after mass micro-propagation, export and quarantine, growing on, bulking up, testing????????? promotion and eventually sales to the gardening public. This is for Australia where is is mostly warm/ dry with summer rain only on the E coast and even there there has been severe water restrictions on garden watering for the last 7 yrs or so. Their damned stuff just doesn’t ‘go’ here and most gardeners won’t go near it. Yet the Big Boy persists in flogging off his stuff and complaining that the market place just don’t understand what they are missing out on. Ggggggrrrrrrrrrrr.

  10. When will the industry see that they need to be leading people to plants, not catering to their ignorance? When I wrote my first book The Undaunted Garden out here in Colorado in the early 1990’s, there was so little in the nurseries that grew well here in the interior west, or was of much interest. I got so much flack for writing about plants that the nurseries didn’t have yet–both from frustrated potential buyers and from terrified nurserypeople. But demand drove supply and now we are one of the meccas of cool and well-adapted plants in the US. Don’t be timid followers or our industry will continue to languish and die. Amy is right, passion is the missing ingredient. With passion, there is little fear and a lot of joy.

  11. LOVE seeing this passion from folks who care. My own biggest worry about ICC that rely on some outside marketing person / plant broker to fill their shelves with plants that won’t succeed in the customers garden, is we will lose the new gardener who fails and thinks it is their fault.
    Easy to blame the store; and maybe they still survive on volume of ordinary plants, their amendments, and tool sales, but I worry for an entire generation of wanna be gardeners who will turn to other hobbies.
    The issue of having “fabulous and unusual plants” is not one that most big IGC can solve if they depend on the big wholesalers and plant “brand” breeders. Either the IGC buys into the PR that the breeder provides, educates their staff about said PR, and pumps that to the customer to create some hype about “fabulous and unusual plants” . . . or they develop connections to local small nurseries who are growing cool plants and don’t have any intention of being an IGC. That might mean buying from an Annie’s Annuals and selling it to your own customer at little profit just to get the customer in the store or working with wholesalers like Native Sons.
    In the end, the real gardener who simply must garden, will find a way to feed their passion, will ask around, will join a club or plant society, and the IGC will go on selling fertilizers, potting soil, and every-day plant starts. They should not expect more, nor should their customers.

  12. Saxon,

    We are trying that here. We have partnered with a small grower of natives for the Sierra Nevada region. Lotus Valley Natives is run by two ladies with a passion for native plants, but with full time jobs outside the nursery. As such they cannot open the nursery to retail on a regular basis. That’s where we come in. They supply us with a selection of the best looking natives that they have available. We are open 7 days a week and easier for the gardener to visit. They remove plants that are ready for transplanting, or not looking their best. It works for both of us. We have the best selection of native plants in this area, and they are able to get their name out to more people, and sell some plants.

    Would love to see more partnering with like minded businesses. This is the future for the smaller garden center. Partnering with business that play an active role in making sure we have the best they have to offer, and taking away less than optimal plants. Yes, somewhat like a pay-at -scan program, but with smaller, local producers who also have a vested interest in the gardening community where we reside.

  13. So many issues, so little space/time. I agree with previous comments that you can’t be everything to everyone. IGC’s best way to boost sales and cultivate new and existing customers is with good customer service and good POP displays. Also carrying good quality plants in bloom. Most IGC’s fall short on some or all of these issues. You can’t compete with box stores price-wise (the selection, quality and customer service all suck) so why bother trying.

    As someone who’s always in search of the cool and unusual, one of my beefs is buying an $11.00 gallon “Picasso” petunia at one store (a rare impulse buy for me at that price) only to find it for $3.99 a few weeks later at another store. But if an IGC has a knock-out new plant in bloom, it’s hard for us hard-core gardeners to resist. Having gorgeous plants in bloom AND in a well-designed display is a huge selling point. IGC’s need to do more to show how plants look in combination with others. Show planted containers for the urban gardener that has little space.

    IGC’s should focus on giving their customers a measure of success, regardless if they are novice or advanced. New gardeners will get hooked if they have a good experience. It’s important to sell quality plants that will do well in your area. The more information available to the gardener, the better. I think the future in IGC’s, particularly to attract the younger gardeners, will involve touch-screen displays, cell phone apps, more social media such as Twitter, etc.

  14. Wow! Interesting bunch of passion represented here. But way too much painting with the broad brush about gardeners, garden centers, and plant brands.

    It’s unfortunate that Amy’s and my closest “garden center” are not meeting our specific needs, (or coming anywhere close), but also important to recognize that as with independent bookstores, not all are passionate and certainly not meeting the needs of their local citizenry who are casual readers, or enthusiasts, let alone experts. I can imagine a world where every independent garden center or bookstore were up there with the best of them. Then the majority of our customers would be passionate, bold gardeners.

    Even in the U.K. where there are more mega-independent garden centers than here, and the average citizen has more garden culture than here, they sell far more promoted plants than rare and unusual. It keeps the lights on, and employs gardeners.

    When I look at the photo of Eureka Books on their website it is difficult to tell: Do they sell mostly the promoted “best-sellers” to pay the bills so they can keep the lights on and be in the rare book business? And if they do, how many successful rare & collector book stores are there in all of California, or all of the US? What can we learn and apply from their successful model? Certainly there are many more Americans who are avid and expert readers than those who are avid or expert gardeners.

  15. As a total plantweenie, true gardener and owner of a new pant introduction company, I struggle with most of these thoughts on a daily basis. I want revolutionary marketing ideas and no one’s got them. No one in this industry, that is. We need to think outside of the plant industry to get the passion back in selling plants.

    IGC’s stink at selling plants. They are great at selling pots and various other plant related sundries because they are pretty and they sell themselves.

    Plants can’t sell themselves unless they are an impulse item. That’s what HD and Lowes do well, but they are catching on and they now realize educating the customer is truly important.

    What is Hort Coutour going to do when the boomers stop buying as many plants and the Gen X/Y become their main customer? They are certainly not the “Coutour” generation the boomers are. What then?? ?Have they thought about that?

  16. I hear this loud and clear and live it daily. we are a specialty wholesale greenhouse in PA, and these products are exactly why we do what we do. We are actually comng out with a collection called ‘The Garden Geek’. Please be careful, though, about always bringing the splendid and exceptional Annie’s Annuals up as your example–it is retail and in an unusual microclimate. Please also understand that it is a stunning example of excellence and passion without limit, but again, it is a retail operation. The crux of what we are talking here is how we ignite this passion at retail outside of Annie’s—and that depends upon the wholesale growers. That is our job at Peace Tree (BTW, the Geeks collection is not listed on the website yet). We are producing hundreds of these amazing, weird and USEFUL plant varieties and putting them out there for retailers who care to be different and unusual. Some get it, but the reality is that they want what THEY know, not necessarily what their customers want. So we grow all the stuff we care about deeply, but we also grow some ‘stuff’ to fill the truck—this allows us to grow the plants we love.

  17. You’re incredible Lloyd. I can’t wait to see it. And you focus like a laser. No broad brush strokes. And that is what it’s going to take to sort through all this and deal with real customers. They’re individual people and every single one is different. Yes, there are common characteristics, and the principles are the same, but they are each different. Trying to figure out what to do when looking at them the same doesn’t work. It never did really.

    I don’t know the people at Hort Coutour personally, but one thing for sure is that the younger generations are much smaller in numbers. Competition for the younger gen dollars will be much more intense. So maybe they’ll go out of business before they’re all the customers, or maybe they’ll reinvent themselves.

    But for now, even those who will be around to survive the smaller gens that are coming on need to sell stuff to boomers now. You can already see that the Loyalist generation (boomer parents) is out of the picture. Yes, they come in to garden centers, but they don’t spend much and its dropping fast, as it is with many boomers as they simplify and get older and less able.

    For the next 10 years there is still plenty of boomer opportunity and it is growing as the economy and weather will allow. Better figure out how to keep it coming.

  18. Passion. It’s come up a fair bit around here in the last few days. But what does it mean?

    Can’t a large grower have a passion for producing millions of low-cost plants so that everyone has the chance to buy a pack of petunias or a mid-winter primula? Don’t tell me that’s wrong. It’s not. It’s just different than what you want to do.

    And be careful: geek-like passion can turn off the neophyte gardener, too. I read a great article a while back about Shimano helping to revitalize the bicycle industry. They did a secret survey of bike shops and found that most were staffed by trim, spandex-clad athletes spouting off about carbon fiber and grams of weight – a total turnoff to a new customer who just wanted a bike they could pedal to the ice cream shop on Saturday. So Walmart gets the bike business.

    To me, the key to success in this business is making gardening FUN! Why does anybody partake in any hobby? For FUN! So whether you sell the rare, or the routine, make it FUN! Personally, I can’t wait to get home to my garden tonight!

    Life is too short to blame some other business for ruining things for you … because only YOU can ruin it for you.

  19. Chris,

    The spandex clad bicyclists that pass by my store everyday do not buy their bikes at Wal-mart. They frequent the spandex clad bike shop. Now those spandex clad bicyclists may have made their first purchase of a bike at Wal-mart, but they have become more passionate about their hobby, and now want to be around other passionate users. There are doubtless many other bike purchasers who are totally satisfied with the Wal-mart bikes, and have no intention of becoming more passionate about the hobby. That’s why the specialist bike shop and Wal-mart exist, to serve two different types of people, and their needs.

    I believe Amy was upset with the plant branding people who seem to focus on attracting the neophyte gardeners, rather than passionate gardeners. The horticultural industry has fragmented into two camps, the box stores and their suppliers, and the independent’s and their suppliers. Sure, a grower who produces a million young seedlings for the box stores can be passionate about their business. More power to them. Does that mean their branding methods should be adopted by the smaller independent garden center whose customer base is made up of more passionate users? Should the advertising campaign focused on the neophyte bicyclist be the one the small specialist bicycle shop uses?

    While generally I think most people find gardening fun, there is a growing group of people who are finding that gardening has become more than just fun, it’s become a passionate pursuit of better quality food for themselves and their family. In some cases it has developed into a small business where production is more important than having fun. Fun is a subjective thing. Some people find it fun to be serious about their gardening. They want results, and the box store is just not going to cut it. They want to deal with people who are passionate, and serious about results. They are not going to find plant branding or merchandise branding that is aimed towards the neophyte appealing.

  20. Thanks Trey, for writing what I’ve been wanting to say. This discussion is good stuff… The “rare” is often now the newly bred plant or selection of variety, that now has a patent, and is now being marketed and released through one of these larger companies. There is not much “rare” to speak of anymore that isn’t coming onto the market through one of these channels. It’s very difficult to differentiate ones self these days. I went on a competitor tour of my area a couple weeks ago here in western NY, and realized that everyone has the same thing. Sure, independents can differentate themselves throught a variety of means like service, etc. but all our plant stock is starting to look the same. A homogenized bunch of independants.
    Its about time we have these discussions. There seems to have been a “we’re all in this together” “dont rock the boat” mentality in our industry about speaking up to these bigger companies on these issues of branding and marketing. A business can make money from it’s customers, and it can also make money by curbing expenses, and when I look at what we have spent this season on tagging/marketing/brand pots charges/fees I wonder/doubt if any of it has made a bit of difference, or if it’s just money out of my pocket and into Proven Winners

  21. It seems like we’ve all patted ourselves on the back and acknowledged that we readers of this blog, many of whom are nursery owners or have significant influence on the home horticulture industry, are all at least fairly passionate about plants and the plant biz. Also, we seem to agree that a passionate employee is better that, all other factors being equal, a less enthusiastic associate. – but what are we doing to cultivate and foster that passion. What are we doing to induct our next all-star player.

    We can see CANGC circling the drain, and some of us would like to hold its head down and put it out of its misery. There is a big opportunity here.

    Oh, and to America’s Most Known Garden — Great post – I feel you pain and frustration, my old friend.

    And thanks again trey for creating such a thought provoking blog.

  22. Big Box stores seem to permeate many if not all of the topics posted for reading and comment. It would be in our best interest to keep on the sunny side of things. The large stores are focused on moving plants and much less so on education. People get what they pay for. We’re in our last day of the Far West Show in Portland and the garden center owners/buyers are looking for new information and new introductions of not only plants but new products that will keep their store “sticky”. I have to guess that there are very few box store employees who are doing the same. In the 7 years or so at this show I haven’t met a Wal Mart employee who was looking for new information. Your edge as an independent is knowledge of your craft and excellent people skills. You deal with plant geeks (they have learned through experience and research and can teach) and plant nerds (those who want to learn and need a plant geek to teach them.) There are those who just want to buy a plant and don’t care.
    There is a ton of “therapy gardening” in this malaise and it’s always a good idea to invite beginning gardeners to learn the garden life that is taught from the humility that gardening has taught us. “Opportunities favor a prepared mind” is the best and only edge you have but it will produce generations of customers that will change your business forever as long as you stay ahead of your students.

  23. JB

    Yes, we must continually be on the lookout for new items and new way’s of doing things. We have implemented that in a big way at our garden center. As many of you know we have talked before on how the hydroponic community has basically taken a lot of the younger crowd’s garden business. We have ignored it because of the 500lb gorilla in the corner, WHAT this hydroponic equipment is being used for by this younger generation! That does not mean we can’t take the ideas and enthusiasm this segment has and use it our business.

    I have garden club member’s buying T5 florescent lights instead of building a greenhouse, starting their seedlings in rock wool cubes, using Smart Pots, etc. There is HUGE innovation happening in the hydroponic and indoors growing community that is being completely missed by conventional garden centers because of that gorilla.

    A friend in the garden center business in Houston told me a year or so ago that he did not think there where any hydroponic stores in Houston. This man is connected and owner of a successful garden center. After talking to his kids he found out that maybe there we’re a couple in Houston. I did a check; there are six hydroponic stores in the area!

    Look outside the traditional avenues for the most innovation! Change comes from the edges, and unless we visit the edge once and a while we never grow.

  24. Pingback: How Fabulous, Interesting and Unusual Plants Keep People From Becoming Gardeners | North Coast Gardening

  25. Love this rant. Don’t agree with all of it (I haven’t seen anything I found insulting from Hort Couture), but you’re right that reading something so frank is a breath of fresh air.

    I was inspired by some of Amy’s rant here and wrote my own blog post about it:


    I think your recent post about Proven Winners is on to something. I think plant geeks want the new and unusual stuff. We bore easily. But most garden center shoppers want things that live. They want success. The new and fabulous varieties aren’t always the way to get there.

  26. I would be happy just to see garden centers group the plants by what is appropriate to plant together to create true plant communities with similar watering, light, fertilizer, etc needs.