We can grow that!

Back on September 4th I wrote a post titled, “You Can’t Grow That”. It concerned Scotts/Miracle Gro, and its trade marking the phrase, “You can gro that!” The problem was it was a phrase thought up by CL Fornari, nursery women and author. I wrote, “According to her website, garden writer CL Fornari decided last October to start a campaign titled, ‘You Can Grow That’. Once a week any garden writer who wished to participate would write an article under that heading… Long story short, Scotts/Miracle Gro applied for a trademark on “You Can Gro That!”, after she had broached the idea on The Internet.” Actually, the idea was first broached by C.L. in a "closed" garden center/nursery trade group on Facebook, and not just put out for anyone to see on The Internet.

The good news today is Scotts/Miracle Gro has backed off from the trade marking, leaving CL with her phrase to do as she pleases. Here is the story. It’s quite a turn around and something I wouldn’t have expected from the company. Something tells me it was social media and the avalanche of bad PR Scotts has received over the last year. Whatever the reason it’s nice to see Scotts/Miracle Gro do the right thing. It’s also fun to be a part of something that is changing for the better how we do business in the world of horticulture.

Organizing by not organizing

I read in the latest edition of “Today’s Garden Center” magazine an article titled “Slow Down”. Written by Sid Raisch of The Garden Center Group, it’s an interesting read concerning the changing garden retail landscape. What caught my eye was this. “Slow Retail Is Not Organized. There is no single controlling organization to the Slow movement. Its momentum is created worldwide by individuals who endorse and spread their passion that the Slow way is the better way.” This is the way it’s going to be going forward. Groups of like minded people connecting via The Internet and creating the change necessary to achieve their goals. Often the groups form without any real motivation or goals, but rather a shared interest. Soon themes may emerge that strike the groups fancy, and the group takes on a more proactive role. I see this in our trade group, Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries. Started as a place to just “talk shop”, it has morphed into a dynamic, action oriented group that is literally changing how business is being done in the horticultural world.

So rather than try and come up with a “plan of action”, such as the trade’s current fixation on creating "campaigns", use the “slow down” idea. Using “slow movement” thinking themes and ideas emerge through collaboration that can help the individual nurseries and garden centers who take part. Help the individual nursery do a better job, the customers will follow, and the “trade” will benefit. Actionable ideas that have a direct impact on the business, rather than a campaign which will have little or no effect on individual business. Guess I am just getting a bit tired of campaigns. So often it’s a forced movement that has no real underlying passion.

“Slow Gardening”, that’s something I can relate to. Our customers might ask, “I am already hungry for change in my life; show me how the garden can help. Help me slow down, and reconnect with the natural world. “ We ought to show the customers the benefit of doing business with us. That will really do something for our businesses.

If you’re an owner or employee of a independent garden center or nursery and want to join us go here.

To join our other trade group for nurseries, vendors, and garden media. Go here.

Honest dialogue

One of the goals with starting our Facebook page for retail garden centers, their vendors, and media was to foster open dialogue. So often it seems that the trade news we hear is a bit watered down. You don't get the feeling that your hearing what people really think. Much of the time it seems that traditional media has to walk a fine line between open dialogue, and their advertisers. Not at our Facebook page. When you wake up and check out the site you just never know who will be involved, and what is going to transpire. Today is one of those days. If you a garden center owner, employee, vendor, or garden media (this includes garden blogger's) you can join.  You will need a Facebook account. It is changing the trade as we know it. Don't miss out. Go here to join, and make a difference, and don't forget to make sure that somewhere on your Facebook page it indicates how you are involved in the gardening trade.

Building the virtual trade show

While it would be nice if everyone could attend trade shows like The IGC Show in Chicago, the fact is not everyone can. To help those who cannot make some of these trade shows we developed a Facebook page, IGC Marketplace for vendors and buyers to connect. Have  a service or product you would like to see sold at Independent Garden Centers? Are you a nursery person looking for ideas and products that will differentiate your store from the rest? Our page might just be the answer. The future of independent garden centers is being built in forums and pages just like this.  The IGC Marketplace is the only member run marketplace for the garden trade in the world. Why not give it a try? Go here to check it out. Kind of like a virtual trade show. Plus, we have that really cool logo.

Success by thinking small

Finding businesses and people who have become successful by thinking and staying small is a pleasure of mine. "Small is cool" is about people and business who have found success by traveling  a different path. The competition in the nursery trade is fierce, with the box stores bringing in the very suppliers that at one time we're exclusive to the independent channel. Trying to compete on their scale is impossible for most  smaller garden shops, so we need to find a different way. I see examples of different businesses who have achieved some success, however they define it, by staying true to their beliefs and staying small. Today in SFGate an article titled, "Wine shops find success in thinking small"caught my eye. Wine merchants have many of the same concerns as garden centers might have. We read that, "of course, great wine boutiques have been here all along. But in recent years, those who deliberately chose the small path have seen customer loyalty survive even when the recession pushed a $60 splurge down to $20." It continues with, "supermarkets and large retailers like BevMo have always offered ease of shopping - although at times it feels like I'm staring at a long row of wines that came from the same big spigot. But buying wine is becoming more intimate. Customers are willing to pay for expert curation."

So while the big suppliers like BevMo and Costco will always have a market, these wine merchants in the SFGate article have found a way to survive and thrive by, "...downsizing. Similar to what happened on Bay Area wine lists, buyers decided they didn't have to be all things to all people. Stores could be smaller, which meant lower rents and the chance to do one thing really well."  Some garden centers are starting to see this, and are headed in that direction. Should you?

Monrovia branded plants to be sold in Lowe's stores

According to Today's Garden Center Magazine, "Monrovia will begin selling its branded plants in Lowe’s stores in 2013. As a result of an exclusive agreement with Lowe’s, Monrovia plants, currently sold in Home Depot in plain pots, will pull out of Home Depot." In the article David Kirby, the new vice-president of sales say's , "that Lowe’s agreeing to maintain the premium brand image, partly through pricing, was key to Monrovia making the agreement. Until 2010, Monrovia had sold exclusively to independent garden centers." Not sure what "premium brand" image they are talking about? It's the one independent garden centers worked many years to help Monrovia build. Oh well...

We have covered Monrovia at this blog over the years, and there is a lot of background info here. I always thought they would end up at the box stores even after they asked their independent customers to buy more, or else. I even met with Monrovia executives in 2011 who told me they would never let their branded plants go to the boxes.

They might do o.k with the Lowe's deal. Really, what other choice do they have? Many independents have stopped buying from them as they have begun their move into the box stores. In addition, many of Monrovia's independent customers have closed, or gone out of business. The only place that offers any growth for them in the short term is the box stores and chains. Even there, it's likely to be muted as the consolidation of the horticultural businesses continues and economics work against some of the larger wholesale operations, like Monrovia.

Capitol Nursery in Sacramento closing it's flagship store

Capitol Nursery in Sacramento will be closing it's original retail outlet on Freeport Blvd. this Labor Day. According to The Sacramento Bee, "The chain's longtime owner, Chuck Armstrong, whose father and uncle founded the company in 1936, will retire at the end of August." Capitol Nursery has two other locations which will remain open.Over 40 part and full time employees will lose their jobs. Capitol Nurseries problems can be traced to a couple of obvious reasons. As Farmer Fred Hoffman said in The Bee Article, "It's the economy,...with the foreclosures, all those empty homes don't need landscaping." Also important, when gardening changed Capitol didn't change with it. According to owner Chuck Armstrong, "the closure of his flagship location indicates a disappointing culture change. Gardening no longer holds the old-fashioned allure that it did in the past. He said, "Years ago, on just about any block on a spring day, you would see dozens of people out in their yards, gardening. You just don't see that anymore."

This is why I feel staying small and nimble is the best bet for garden centers at this time. The changes come faster and faster these days, and large operations like Capitol have a difficult time turning the ship of commerce when necessary. When we went from selling mostly ornamental plants to selling vegetables there we're just too many gardening places still in business for the need. According to The Bee, "Since the start of the recession, nurseries around the country – including a half-dozen in the Sacramento region – have closed." There are plenty more to come.

What many people don't see are the suppliers who get hurt when this happens. Klupenger's Nursery, which has been supplying garden centers for 60 years just announced the closure of their Aurora, Oregon business. Between Capitol and Klupenger's there is 100 years of nursery experience being lost. While it's easy to say this or that is the reason these places are closing, it's a shame to see so many good nursery people out of work. Best of luck to them all.

I received this press release from Capitol Nursery after this post was written. Thanks to Keith Miner for forwarding this to me.

"Capital Nursery Freeport is Relocating All Operations to Elk Grove and Citrus Heights Stores. After 76 years, the Freeport Boulevard store is closing. The Elk Grove and Citrus Heights stores are under new management.

Capital Nursery, Northern California's premier choice for plants, landscape products, and garden services for more than three generations, is relocating its Freeport Boulevard operations to its Elk Grove and Citrus Heights stores at the end of this month. Under new management, the Elk Grove and Citrus Heights locations are ready to reclaim their long-held position as the number one trusted retail nursery in Northern California.

The Raley's supermarket chain, which for years has been interested in purchasing the nursery's Freeport property, recently made an offer that Capital Nursery could not turn down. A store closing sale will commence this weekend, offering a great opportunity for customers to stock up on gardening and landscaping needs. With the consolidation of operations into two locations, Capital Nursery is positioning itself to vigorously reestablish itself in the market, reconnect with longtime loyal customers, expand its customer base, and recreate the special quality garden center environment that Sacramento families have enjoyed visiting for decades.

About Capital Nursery

Founded in 1936 by the Armstrong brothers, Eugene and Charles, family-owned Capital Nursery has served multiple generations of Sacramento gardeners and homeowners. For decades, it had been the preeminent nursery in Northern California—with a reputation for the finest plant material and quality landscaping."

The indispensable garden center

Native lilies The closest hydroponic shop to us is selling plants now. They are also touting the “local”, as in “your local garden center”. Fortunately for us, they don’t know what they are doing, but the trend is clear. Here in California the hydroponic market is beginning the great unwinding we predicted. Also as predicted, the forward thinking garden centers are starting to capture some of the formally exclusive hydroponic market, which includes the coveted “non-gardening” younger generations. You see, they are super enthusiastic about gardening, but on their own terms. Don’t patronize or talk down to these customers. They just want to know the “why” and “how” and “where from” more so than our older customers.

Today a trade magazine representative asked how we feel about our future as a garden center. The future is as bright as it can be in these uncertain times. In this particular northern California location my customer base is likely 50% under 30 years of age. So we have an interested younger group of potential long term customers. The separation of the hydro business and conventional garden centers is blurring, allowing us a larger customer base who just want to “grow their own”. Growing organically is huge and getting bigger. This is perfect for separating our business from the chemically heavy competition of box stores. They don’t carry three types of bat guano, brew their own compost tea, or sell “veganic” nutrients. The uncertainty in the economy, especially here in northern California continues to drive people to grow their own.

The challenges we face in the future should not be discounted. Yet, on this first day of summer I feel like some of what we have discussed and implemented over the last few years is paying off. Stay small, accessible, and enthusiastic. Drop lines and companies that don’t work. Carry stuff the competition doesn't, and be able to explain why it’s better. Go organic, and encourage your customers to do so by having what they need to accomplish it. I foresee a time when the local garden supply store may very well take its place once again as an indispensable part of the community. Be bold, and remember “small is cool”.

Will you be at The IGC Show in August?

In August the largest trade show for Independent Garden Centers takes place in Chicago. The Independent Garden Center Show website say's,  "...210,000 square feet of vendor exhibits stretch far out toward the stunning blue waters of Lake Michigan at Navy Pier, where more than 1,000 exhibitors meet face-to-face with thousands of IGC buyers – just like you – from all over the country and around the world. The flower-filled streets framing downtown Chicago’s stores, restaurants, attractions and sights, plus spectacular Navy Pier, lakeside Chicago’s No. 1 destination (and proud home to the IGC Show, its largest annual event), add to the excitement." Until last year I had not been to Chicago since the late 70's, passing through on the "old grey dog" (Greyhound). That was a epic trip! Last year I was quite taken with the beautiful shoreline, as well as downtown Chicago. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much fun walking around downtown Chicago can be. I look forward to returning in August. Our Facebook group, Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries receives special pricing for the workshops, as well as a discounted rate for attending the garden center tour. When your a member of our group you also get to hang with us in "the VIP balcony lounge" upstairs – along with a open free beer & wine bar. We'll enjoy the performance of Dennis DeYoung of STYX.


If your a owner, or employee of a independent garden center or nursery go here to join our group.

Disclosure: I am a guest of the IGC show, and and as such receive compensation for my attendance.

Doing what's important

This was the year we decided to close the garden center on Sunday’s for no other reason than it’s the day we decided on. Sure, in the past Sunday's we’re busy days, and I am sure we lose some business. Still, it gives me a chance to spend time with the people that matter, and it gives the nursery some rest time. We also set the phone answering machine to “on”, all day. If we are busy with people in the store, we will let the phone answer. “Hi, if you reached this message during our operating hours we’re out helping a customer and will return you call, just as soon as we’re done”. Now, instead of that frustrated look the in-store customer sees, they see a person who is focused on their needs.

“Hi, is the person in charge of (whatever) available to hear how we can save them money”?  No, they are not. We are a retail store and our phone is for retail business, however you can  e-mail us. “But, can I just have a few minutes…” At that point we hang up. In addition do not call this number again, only e-mail. If they do call back they forfeited their opportunity to sell to us.

When you a small business owner you are the sales department, marketing department, administration, etc. Oh, and we are also nurserymen, which sometimes plays second fiddle to these other needs. I believe much of the burnout and frustration we feel is we allow these other responsibilities to overtake what was the original reason we started in this business, to grow and sell plants.

What if you performed your craft so well that people made it a point to come to the store when you’re open, even if it wasn’t the most convenient time for them? What if you could be relaxed when talking to that customer, instead of stressing over the ringing phone? What if sales representatives actually didn't keep calling you back wondering why you don’t “jump on this deal”?

Just wondering what would happen if we considered our health, peace of mind, and craft as our number one priorities?

Saying one thing, doing another.

An interesting moment on Twitter today when a garden media personality got excited about seeing a certain plant brand in their local Lowe's, and decided to Tweet their excitement. A couple of independent garden centers decided to Tweet their displeasure to the personality. You see, they also carry that particular brand of plants, and are not too happy about being left out of the marketing.

You will see more of this as smaller, locally owned garden centers realize that they have the ability to answer back. It's also going to get a whole lot harder for "media" people and branding companies to claim they want to support independent, locally owned business all the while promoting the box stores instead.

Exciting times in gardening

I have been remiss in cultivating this blog, and thank a long time reader for reminding me to do just that. We have been busy at the nursery with a spring not dominated by cold and rain, like last year. The weather has cooperated and people continue to buy edibles like there is no tomorrow. I enjoy the edible crowd as they have put a lot of effort into their garden, and they will do what's right to keep it productive. When you hear that generation x or y are not into gardening, check the source. No sign of that here. My customer base is at least 50% under 30 years of age. They are excited about growing the stuff they consume and want to patronize local business, if you have what they want. They don't want synthetics! Get your organic groove on, because they want to know how to do it all! I disagree with those who say we are not in the job of education. I think that's exactly what is needed, and what we should do. Teach a person how to garden...

Small is cool! After thirty years in this biz I can say, keep it small and keep your cool! It's so easy when everything is riding on your decisions to work yourself to exhaustion. If it feels like it's getting out of control, slow down. Take the time to focus on the person in front of you at the moment. That's what it's all about. Not saying we don't need to "make hay while the sun shines", but we can only do so much.

There is no better time for the smaller garden business. Being small means you can react to changes that come faster and faster every day. Being small means you can excel at your craft, and command the price for your work that you need to stay in business. The future of garden bio-diversity rests in the hands of gardeners, and small garden businesses.

How great it is to be alive when so much is changing. In the garden trades we get to help guide people in their efforts to live better.It's a trade that is perfectly suited for the world we live in. Did I say these we're exciting times?

Know Your Local Garden Pro

We had a new neighbor and customer come in yesterday all jazzed about growing their first vegetable garden. It seemed she was thankful to find someone to talk with about the local conditions. It seems that while The Internet has all the answers, it’s almost impossible to find the right answer for the right geographic location. You get info from all over the world, how do you narrow it down? Many if not most new gardeners would love to have someone local they can ask questions of. If you just moved to a new area, or are gardening for the first time the best advice you might receive is, “Know your local garden pro”

In some communities it might be the local Master Gardeners, garden club members, or neighbor that take on the role of "Garden Pro". In most places however it can, and should be the local well run garden center. They are the ones who deal day in and day out with the peculiarities and advantages of where you garden.  Here in the foothills and mountains of The Sierra we have folks all the time who see plants for sale way too early down in the Sacramento Valley, or our local box store. It falls to us, the "Local Garden Pro" to explain why they should wait to put those tomatoes in until May. Some don't like to hear that, and plant too early. After a year or two of disappointment, they finally realize we we're right.

We deal daily with younger people just starting out with their gardening. They have all the savvy and knowledge to look this stuff up on The Internet. I sense they are also looking for a trusted adviser to bounce ideas off. “Hey Trey, I just saw tomatoes for sale down in Folsom. Can we plant them here now?” The answer will save them time, money, and a huge amount of frustration. That’s where the locally owned garden center can really shine. What we said about The Internet is true in the neighborhood. Honesty and trust will, in the long run, trump the quick buck. The solution? Get to "know your local garden pro".

Garden Centres Having Trouble in Britain?

Those of us in the garden center trades have been told for years that we needed to look to Great Britain for the future of  garden retail.  We we're told that the British, with their love of all things gardening somehow had unlocked the secrets to gardening retail.

All is not well with garden retail in Britain. In Garden Center Magazines,  "Reflections from across the pond" author Ian Baldwin say's, "British operators seem to have put gardening 'on hold...'" WHAT!?! The British nurseryman putting gardening on hold? Yes, it seems the British have the same issues we are dealing with here in many parts of North America. According to Ian, who visits Europe regularly as part of his consultation business, "many places had a tired look from the front of the 'Car Park.' Some outdoor sales areas had simply been allowed to go backwards without even a screen or fence to hide them. Only one or two centers had continued the creative standards of merchandising, POP (point of purchase) and even cleanliness in the plant areas that we took for granted in the past 20 years."

This is a profound change!  Nothing could stop the motivated British gardener from pursuing their craft, or so we believed. In addition The British have their own box stores. Ian say's, "many stores we saw on our yearly tours were no longer owned by the original family, having been acquired by small chains of investment companies or, in one case, by Tesco, the U.K.’s biggest retailer. "

In "Finding Mr. Flowerdew?"  written in 2006, I quoted Sir Roy Strong, historian and former longtime director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sir Roy said, "Gardening is one of the few things holding British society together". If that is the case it sounds like British society is going through much the same angst our own society is experiencing.

In October 2007 I wrote, "This can be a lonely profession".  I said, "we read the trade magazines, listen to the consultants, and go to the trade shows which only confuse us more. People only want flowers in color, they don’t want to garden themselves (DIFM), drop the Latin Names (we’re told the consumer just doesn't care), put a coffee shop in, basically just try to make gardening as work free and instant as possible. " Glad we didn't follow that advice.

In the same 2006 article mentioned above the nucleus for our current garden center groups was formulated. I said, "the solution is communication within the individual garden centers. I enjoy reading other nursery peoples experiences with these important subjects. Since we are generally separated by distance, the idea of talking to the 'competitor' changes to talking with a fellow nursery person. There seems to be a freer exchange of information and experiences."

The post continues, "I would like to hear from more of you in the trade. Many of us are like Teresa who says, 'This article has finally gotten me to step out of my silent reader status' and comment. I think many of us don’t speak up because we are afraid of rocking the boat. We’ll its time for the boat rocking to commence. We independents must speak up to the wholesale concerns that supply our plants, we need to speak up to the large retailers that continue to dumb down gardening and attempt to convince people that gardening is problem free (two year guarantee?)."

That was the catalyst to starting my LinkedIn group, "Garden Centers, Nurseries, and New Media", which as of today has over 2800 members (anyone with an interest in gardening businesses can join). Our Facebook Group, Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries has over 355 of the most forward thinking nursery people as members (you should be there!). Finally, our newest group, Retail Independent Garden Centers, Vendors, and Media now has 180 members. Did I mention we have members from across the pond now, too? In our interconnected world we are more alike, than different. We can all learn from each other.

Social Media Workshop for Garden Professionals

This February 8th I'll be holding a workshop on "Social Media is the New Village Square-Where Do You Fit In?". The workshop is held at The Pro-Green Expo in Denver, Colorado. We will discuss the use of social media in your marketing. Most importantly we discuss how to get your customers to spread the word of your wonderfulness. That's really the key to social media, make or do something wonderful and give your customers a method to spread the word.

This is the latest is a series of workshops and talks I have been holding for the trade. If your interested in having me put on a workshop, talk at your event, or train you or your staff on how to use the available social media platforms, contact me.