How Fabulous, Interesting and Unusual Plants Keep People From Becoming Gardeners

In Humboldt County, two of these plants will be dead by 2013. Do you know which ones?

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.

7 responses to “How Fabulous, Interesting and Unusual Plants Keep People From Becoming Gardeners”

  1. Good post.

    I am not in complete agreement with Amy on unusual plants. I do agree that passion and enthusiasm are most important. After all, a plant you don’t consider unusual may be just that to someone else.


  2. Well said Gen! Count me as one who can get bored with the everyday plants, but finds endless delight in a client that gets excited upon seeing the same.

  3. Gen, What a well thought out and thought provoking post. I agree that as professionals, we can sometimes forget how jaded we’ve become. That’s one reason why I use my garden as a test garden before planting anything too new or unusual in a client’s garden. Making ‘regular’ gardeners successful should be one of our primary goals. We also have to keep in mind, their view of success is often very different than ours. And that usually starts with the tried and true offerings which as you say “performs beautifully with imperfect care”.

  4. Trey, thanks for stopping by. I just loved Amy’s rant. So refreshing to hear what someone really thinks. It’s hard to even start a discussion if everyone’s afraid to talk about what they want to see, and what they DON’T want to see. Kudos to you and Amy for keeping the discussion rolling.

    Thanks, Scott! What a wonderful way to put it.

    Debbie, I’ve been so inspired by the way you use your own garden to test plants. I usually use other people’s gardens to test them, but I’m really clear that we are trying something new and cool and that they can choose this tried and true one, or try this unusual one. I usually share the cost of replacement or just eat it if the unusual things die. I think communication is critical.

    So many of my clients are just thrilled that they haven’t yet managed to kill the garden I designed for them, because that was pretty much their gardening experience before having a design done. Buy-plant-kill. Not a fun cycle.

  5. Geneviene –

    I enjoyed reading your post and I agree with you that most customers just need the basic information and a plant that they will be successful with. Regarding your comment about Diamond Frost Euphorbia, we pride ourselves in having tags that have tons of valuable information on the back – in which it states that this is an annual euphorbia, not the perennial type that most hard-core gardeners are familiar with. We also list it on our website as being an annual euphorbia. So we try our best to make sure that these customers are aware of this prior to buying it.

    Thank you,

    Danielle Ernest
    Public Relations Coordinator

    • Hi Danielle, thanks so much for stopping by! I think that it is wonderful that you guys are working so hard to educate your customers on what realistic expectations they can have of your plants. Kudos to you! I wish every other wholesaler were as conscientious.