Was reading a post over at The Blogging Nurseryman where Trey discusses what gardeners really want to see in independent garden centers. (Go read it, I’ll wait. You don’t want to miss Amy Stewart‘s rant on the topic.)
She brought up that Garden Rant’s reader survey indicated overwhelmingly that passionate gardeners want to see more “fabulous, interesting, and unusual” plants.
But is that really what most customers at garden centers want? I think plant geeks are a fairly small proportion of the people who shop at garden centers.
When I worked at a small independent nursery (eons ago…) the majority of people coming in didn’t know enough about gardening to know what was interesting and unusual. The majority of people cared much more about getting something that would survive, flower, and look fantastic year-round. Something that would still look good if they forgot to water it, or if they were wrong about their exposure and actually had part shade instead of part sun.
Us passionate gardeners forget that this is where most people settle in gardening. Many people just want something pretty that won’t die on them. While many die-hard gardeners mock this kind of approach, I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing for people to want, nor do I think it shows poor moral character for people to be happy with tried-and-true varieties that actually function in the garden.
You know what really makes me unhappy? When I go to the gardens of people who have the gardener’s spirit – they love to nurture plants – yet nothing they’ve planted is working for them. And why, you may ask, do these delightful people have a graveyard of perfectly-planted premium plant carcasses?
Because they bought all the “interesting and unusual” stuff on display at the nursery.
They had no way of knowing that Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ would rot and die at the first hint of fall moisture. No way of knowing that ‘Lime Rickey’ Heuchera just gets sicker and sicker over a few years until it finally dies from lack of winter cold (vernalization). And their disappointment at spending $55 on an elegant speckled Colocasia that never did anything and eventually died was almost enough to make them turn in their shovel and take up knitting instead.
Because us plant geeks are around plants all the time, we get bored and think that “new and different” is an attribute most people care about. They don’t. WE care about it because we’re jaded from hitting up the nursery a thousand times in the last ten years.
What most garden center customers really care about is having helpful staff at the nurseries who are enthusiastic, can assess their needs and give them good recommendations, and that they get to come home with plants that will thrive for years to come. They do NOT want to buy a $15 annual that wasn’t marked as such.
I’m not saying garden centers shouldn’t stock the new and interesting. In fact, I think mindfully promoting sturdy, under-utilized varieties is one of the key ways independent garden centers can set themselves apart from the big box stores. But for the majority of customers, “new and interesting” only counts when it’s paired with “performs beautifully with imperfect care”.
As professionals – and I’m including landscape designers, garden writers, and nursery staff in this – it’s our responsibility to be brutally honest about what we do and don’t know about a new plant’s performance, so that inexperienced gardeners don’t end up thinking that you or your nursery is at fault when their fancy un-tested plant dies in the winter.
My advice to the independent garden centers?
Pay your people well. It’s impossible for your staff to be enthusiastic about anything when they’re worried about how they’re going to pay for their next oil change.
Provide incentives for your employees to learn more about the plants and products you stock.
Act as a champion for your plants, and put out colorful signs and information to help people know if a plant is right for them, and be honest about it if a plant is short-lived or needs special care.
And put out general how-to flyers on the most commonly-asked questions, like “what’s the difference between full sun and part shade”, “how do I plant on a slope?”, and “what plants are deer-resistant?”. Then if people are shy, they can get their questions answered in a way that feels comfortable to them, and your staff can continue watering plants and raking gravel and helping all the other fine individuals who come into the garden center.
If customers can come in, get fired up about plants with some enthusiastic plant geeks, and go home with an armful of cool stuff that actually stays alive – that’s how you attract and keep customers. The fabulous, the interesting, the new – they’re meaningless without the support to help people use them effectively.