Spring at last

Redbud in bloom at The Vineyard House, Coloma, Ca. On this first day of spring let’s enjoy the changing season. Here in northern California the sun is shining and hope springs eternal. At the nursery we are selling the cool season vegetable starts, flowers, seed starting trays, and lot’s of seed. The number one question this year from our customers is, are your seed free of GMO? Yes they are. I imagine most folks truly don’t understand GMO’s, but the term and “idea” certainly has caught their interest.

We are in drought here in California, and likely won’t see too much relief rain wise in the near future. Our rainy season is fast coming to a close, and after a few years of drier than expected weather, we will likely see more water restrictions. We are currently in a “Stage 2” water alert. The local water authorities are asking us to cut back 30% on our water usage. It’s doable, and an opportunity for us to teach and guide our customers.

I look forward to being a place where people can come to learn more about how to feed their families, and bring beauty into their lives. While the ornamental side of the business has shrunk over the last few years, the edible side had grown exponentially. We seem to be doing better than in years past, and the customer is engaged in their garden like never before.

So it’s it a positive note that stands above the rest this first day of spring. While there will be challenges going forward, we are entering a new age in horticulture. While not all is shinny and bright in the trades, I have never been happier, or more proud to be a nurseryman. Our goal here is to stay small as possible, while making the largest impact in our world. We can change our world more easily, one customer at a time.

Cheers to spring!

Monrovia Nursery's latest scheme

Monrovia Nurseries has come up with yet a new scheme they hope independent garden centers (IGC's) will jump on. According to Garden Centers Magazine,“Monrovia Nursery is launching an e-commerce website by mid-January 2014, and consumers will be able to buy plants directly from the company. But Monrovia won’t ship the purchased plants to gardeners’ homes. Instead, the California-based nursery will deliver the plants to participating independent garden centers, which will then distribute them to customers.”

The customer chooses the plants at the Monrovia website. The plants are pre-priced according to what Monrovia feels is an “appropriate retail price”. The plants are then shipped to the local IGC for pick-up by the end customer. According to David Kirby, vice president of sales at Monrovia,“The plants will be delivered directly to the stores, and the garden centers will receive the normal retail markup from the sale. Once consumers purchase the plants, they’ll receive a message indicating that Monrovia will ship them to the local IGC once they have finished growing and are in prime condition. The plants will be delivered between March and May, have a label with the gardener’s name, a thank you tag and a fresh, clean container.”

Of course Monrovia hopes IGC’s will jump on board with this. It was IGC’s who tried to help Monrovia out of a jam just a couple of years ago, but to no avail. Monrovia threatened to go out of business or into the chain and box stores if IGC's didn't buy more plants. Many IGC’s did buy extra plant stock, but to no avail. Turns out Monrovia had been planning on going into the chain stores all along, and used the IGC’s long standing relationship of support to sell a few more plants. Monrovia eventually headed to Home Depot. These day's they sell their plants through Lowe's.  Why wouldn't Monrovia eventually just sell and ship the plants directly to the end customer, keeping all the profit?

I have followed and reported on Monrovia for years. Monrovia is doing exactly what is to be expected these days as the horticultural trade continues to fragment, and shrink. It's the future, and it would be unwise of them not to at least look into it. However, expecting the (IGC) to help them out again? Seems a bit of a reach. How does that saying go? “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me”.


img_1184.JPG What does a person interested in horticulture see these days when they look to the nursery trades for work? How different is it from the late 70’s when I stepped into the field? I know that when I began my journey on The San Francisco Peninsula independent nurseries dominated the landscape. There we’re no “box stores”. The only chain store completion was “K-Mart” and their hideous garden department.  We didn't even think of them as competition. The competition was independent in nature and included “Peters & Wilson” in Millbrae, “Burlingame Garden Center”, “Golden Nursery” in San Mateo, “Taylor Nursery” in Belmont,” Redwood City Nursery”, “Half Moon Bay Nursery”, and “Rogers Reynolds” Carriage Shop” in Menlo Park. I worked at “Christensen’s Nursery” in Belmont. Have I missed any?

If these places we’re competition, we didn't notice. There was camaraderie of sorts that even included meetings together with The Peninsula Chapter of The California Association of Nurserymen. There were also the meetings held by another trade group, the 49’er association, which is the precursor of today’s Master Nursery Association. There was no drug testing back in those days. I can’t even imagine where they would have found workers if they did. The meetings we attended we’re “quite the scene”. However most of us survived, even if the nurseries we worked at didn't. I believe all of the above named nurseries with the exception of Golden Nursery, Half Moon Bay Nursery, and Tyler’s are gone. I left for inland California in the late 80’s and have lived here since. What’s the scene like there now? Is it just as active, only different? Do most shop for garden supplies at Home Depot and Lowe’s now?

The bedding plant department was dominated with very young seedlings and cuttings sold in small “6 packs”. Rarely we’re they blooming. I remember when the first “jumbo packs” with blooming flowers arrived. Those we’re for the impulse buyers, while the more serious gardeners bought the younger plants.  Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seemed these younger plants grew better, and bloomed longer?  Does anyone other than “Annie’s Annuals” still produce these younger, non- chemically treated bedding plants’ anymore? Seems so many now are treated chemically, and breed to bloom younger, so as to sell and ride in the trucking racks better.

There was no organic gardening department. I will say this is one area I am glad to see now. We sold stuff that has long ago been banned, and for good reason. There was really just no other option at the time. Rodale’s was the only publication I can remember promoting organic gardening. We lived and breathed Sunset Magazine. Our Saturday meetings included an advance notice from them on what they would be publishing that month. That way we could handle all the questions we would get concerning some article in the magazine.  Time magazine finally bought out the Lane family who had owned the publication for decades. Never was the same after that.

Monrovia Nursery was only located in Azuza, California. Their logo, which hung on every plant, was a man wearing a fedora, smoking a pipe. I would love to see if anyone still has one, or a picture of one. Customers would come in smoking pipes, cigars, or cigarettes. Shrubs and trees we’re gown in metal cans which we had to cut down the sides so they could be removed. “Would you like us to cut those cans open for you? Talk about a liability! I remember one customer cutting their hand and bleeding on the seat of their Bentley. We gave them a towel and band aid, and off they went. People didn't sue as often back then, or these things we’re handled out of court.

I don’t think things were better, or worse back then. It was just a different time and place. I do know we had lots of pride as nurserymen and women. Becoming a Certified Nurseryman was an honor, and at Christensen’s the uniforms we’re green and we had matching green pants. We looked like forest rangers, except for the long hair and ponytails on the guys. I thought we looked cool. I remember when we finally convinced our boss Jack Christensen to get with it, and allow us to wear shorts.

Never regretted my career choice.  It is an honorable profession, and one that is even more important these days.  I pretty much work by myself now, so interactions with fellow trades people is often only through The Internet. Since much of the above predates Silicon Valley, there is little recorded on The Internet concerning that general era in the nursery trade. I have connected with others after posting these history trips, so hence the purpose of my trip down memory lane today. It doesn't matter whether it was The Bay Area, or “across the pond” so to speak.  How has the trade changed since you first became involved?


Roger Reynolds Nursery in Menlo Park is closing

Roger Reynolds Nursery Roger Reynolds Nursery, located in Menlo Park, has announced they will be closing shop after September 28th. Roger Reynolds has been serving the mid-San Francisco Peninsula for 97 years. I remember working at Christensen's Nursery, just north of Roger Reynolds 30 years ago.  They we're California Nursery Association members, and the various Peninsula based nurseries would get together regularly for chapter meetings and dinner.

Did you notice where Roger Reynolds is located? Menlo Park is the epicenter for Silicon Valley wealth. Actually Menlo Park has been the epicenter of wealth on The San Francisco Peninsula for over 100 years. How is it a fine garden center such as this can't even make it there?

Here is what Sally Halstead, owner had to say, "It is with a heavy heart that I announce that after 97 years in the same location serving the residents of Menlo Park and the surrounding communities, Roger Reynolds Nursery & Carriage Stop has closed its doors for the last time.

This has not been an easy decision. Despite all our efforts since the severe economic downturn of 2008 our business has been unable to adequately recover.

I thank the generations of loyal, faithful customers who have supported the Roger Reynolds tradition these many years. On behalf of my family and staff, I thank each and every one of you for being with us. Your patronage and support has been most valued and appreciated. Thank you!"

It's a shame to see these old garden centers going out of business. If you can't make a garden center work in Menlo Park, then you know the trade has changed even more fundamentally than just the economic downturn. The modern gardener just does not support the garden center business in numbers great enough to prevent this from happening. Like so many  businesses, you don't realize how special they we're until they are gone.


After 50 years, Yerba Buena Nursery has moved.

After over 50 years at their location on Skyline Blvd., Yerba Buena Nursery is moving! The California native plant nursery is headed to new digs in Half Moon Bay along Hwy. 92, near Pastorino Farms. Anyone who has visited their Skyline location can attest to it's beauty, yet it is a bit out of the way. Only people looking for the place would likely have ended up there. With this new location on a heavily traveled road they will have a chance to draw in more casual visitors.

I have only been to Yerba Buena Nursery a couple of times. It's been quite a awhile since I can remember being waited on by the founder, Gerda Isenberg. Gerda was a pioneer in the California native plant world.  I was working at Christensen's Nursery in Belmont, just over the hill from Yerba Buena. We took the drive up Skyline Blvd. searching for the nursery, as it was at the time the only native plant nursery around. This must have been the early 80's, and I can remember driving down a long dirt road to a nursery carved out of the surrounding redwoods. Gerda was there doing nursery stuff, and tea was being served. It seemed like a magical place.

Even though the Skyline location was where it all started and has the memories, it will be easier to visit the new location. It's also nice to see Half Moon Bay continue it's reputation as a nursery town.  We will make a point to visit the next time we're headed coast side.

Horticulture Magazine now a part of "Living Ready"

If there was any doubt in your mind about peoples interests in self-sufficiency or survival subjects this is for you. “Horticulture, The Art and Science of Smart Gardening” magazine is becoming a part of “Living Ready”.  Here is what Living Ready say’s they are all about.

"You will love being a member of LIVING READY if you are honing, or want to begin honing, life skills such as: • growing your own food, and canning & preserving that food • hunting for food, and then preparing and storing the catch • using herbal remedies to save a trip to the doctor's office • creating non-toxic cleaners for your home • raising small animals such as chickens, rabbits, pygmy goats • beekeeping • bartering and networking to meet the needs of yourself and your family • training to be suitably armed to survive threats against you and your"

According to Living Ready Community Leader Patty Craft Dunning, " Horticulture: The Art & Science of Smart Gardening will continue to be published in print just as it always has. Nothing has changed there, and Living Ready 's magazine and website will be able to share similar info as what you read in Horticulture (for example, edible gardening topics like what Peter Garnham writes for Hort, understanding pest management, how to plan and plant edibles for canning, etc.)" Patty adds, "our parent company, @F+W Media, also publishes Gun Digest. And, yes, there will plenty of info in Living Ready about how to be suitably armed to hunt-and-gather food as well as how to protect yourself and your family in threatening situations."

Smart move on this companies part. The interest in these subjects will only grow as we continue to see the poor response of our government when it comes to situations like Hurricane Sandy, and other natural and man made disasters. It’s seems only wise to be prepared where ever you live.

In addition, people are just interested in learning some of the skills that we have forgotten over the last couple of generations. Growing your own food, protecting your family, and being able to deal with the various natural and man made disasters that pop up. This interest is especially strong with the younger demographic like Generation Y, who we in the horticulture trades want to attract. For some there is a "doomsday" type feel to this, but for most people it's just exciting to be able to take charge, and see if you can do it. It's about living better, and closer to the land.

Interesting times in the horticulture field these days. If you have followed this blog you know I encourage garden centers to become the local source of information and tools to help people reach those goals. It’s one way for smaller independent locally owned garden centers to stay relevant. Become indispensable to your community by providing them the tools and services they are most interested in. It would appear being prepared, and self-sufficiency are two of them.

The kids are all right

A fellow nurseryperson in Missouri posted this photo on her Facebook page. She came home to find some kids that live in the same building decided to construct an aquaponics system in the basement. According to many in our trade, the young just don’t garden like their parents and grandparents did. This has affected the bottom line of many garden centers and nurseries around the world with many going out of business.

If you owned a garden center and some people came in wanting to build an aquaponics system, could you help them? What if they asked about growing lettuce hydroponically? What if they wanted to grow lettuce in soil inside under T5 lights? Where do you send them if you don’t carry this stuff? Why?

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.

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?

Bridging the generation gap

Watching a customer yesterday struggle to get out of their car reminded me of how precious our time here is.  In our rush to embrace new technology and the youth market I hope we don’t forget our older customers. It reminded me that the simplest things for you and me to do might very well be a struggle for others.  Our society can be measured by how we treat our elders. Do we look to them for wisdom, or shunt them off to the “old folk’s home”? We know the answer, and it's not good. So much is changing and for older folks it can be quite frightening. While you or I may say we want to “embrace change” often it’s our way of being “brave”. Author Bruce Sterling put it best in his closing remarks at Reboot 11, “Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there.”

As the societal ground shifts beneath our feet keep in mind the older folks who may be looking for something to hang their hopes on. The garden provides continuity and hope for us all, and is a place where young and old can come together. With the decline in garden clubs it’s an opportunity to create new clubs filled with hope and fun. This is where the local garden center can become involved. Create your own garden club and invite old and young alike to join. While garden clubs have always been places to learn from one another, they are also community building.

It’s difficult these days to get everyone in one room, at one time anymore. That’s where social media can be a benefit. It can provide a way for people to “meet” virtually. If you’re older, less tech savvy membership is confused by social media; maybe you could hold classes on how to use it. Teach people how to use these new tools. Show them how it can foster community even while sitting at home looking at a screen. Once you have built your “club” his way, it will be easier to gather people up physically for meetings and events.

This post was inspired by this drawing. It’s by author and illustrator, Maira Kalman and reminded me of a customer we had the other day. Every time someone of a certain age walks through your door keep this picture in mind. It helps keep things in perspective.

Are blogs relevant in today's social media world?

I was asked the other day what non-horticulture attributes, or classes have helped me in my blogging. Really, there are few classes that helped with my writing. Looking back, perhaps a journalism class or English class where I paid attention might have been helpful. I find English a more enjoyable subject now, as I am interested in cleaning up my writing a bit. The most important attribute however is passion. You have to want to communicate with others, which was the impetus for this blog. Really, that’s where we stand with all of social media today. To be effective you have to reach your intended audience. At first my blog was geared towards my customers, but it has since shifted to a trade blog. This is important as it has put me in contact with others in our trade that care, and can make a difference.

We are entering uncharted territory. The future is wrought with potential pitfalls, as well as tremendous upsides. The trade is changing before our eyes as unsustainable practices are dropped, and new methods are employed.  The public will be continuing its interest in becoming self-sufficient as the economic conditions continue to deteriorate. We are winding down from 30 years of unsustainable growth in this country, and the winding down is/will be challenging.  That’s where a blog can come in useful for a garden center. People will need information, humor, and a feeling of connection as they traverse this new world. While Facebook and Twitter offer a way to communicate to the customer, its questionable how they will be able to continue as competition and economics come into play. Your blog can be a “home” that folks can come back to again, and again. You can “own” your website and blog, you cannot "own" your Facebook Page.

Turn off and tune into the garden

Gardening in the near future may well be seen as an escape from the insanity that seems to have gripped much of our world these days. What of the person who finds herself overwhelmed by too much information overload? Sitting at the local coffee shop in Placerville we watched as one person after the other walked along the sidewalk with their “smart phones” glued to their ears. Tourists who had traveled far to see the “old west” in real life, we’re today more attuned to the sights and sounds of data bits coming to them through the ether. We are entering a time when many will find themselves searching for a way out of the madness of always being “on”. Where will people go to find refuge? Let’s hope they discover the therapeutic qualities of gardening.  Why can’t we find a few hours in the day to “turn off, and tune in” to the messages being sent to us by the plant world?  Our wireless devices are preventing us from hearing those messages.

This can be our mission in the field of horticulture, especially those of us who deal with the gardening public directly. I know some in the trade don’t feel it’s their job to educate, or inspire. They just want to sell some plants and fertilizers, and hope for a profit at the end of the year.  There is more going on this time around though. Today I believe we have a real and important opportunity to change the world for the better. If we can help show people that by entering the garden a whole new world emerges, many of their anxieties will fall away.

You don't need government funding to sell plants and flowers.

According to Garden Center Magazine, "Nursery, greenhouse and garden center operators in New York are joining together to promote and market their nearly $400 million industry in the state." According to the article, "Sunnyside owner Ned Chapman is president of the New York State Independent Flower Growers Marketing Council." He say's "We need to market the industry to government officials. We have to convince them that we are a worthwhile industry. Hopefully, this will lead to state funding for marketing that’s our goal.” This is what we have become? Promoting our trade to "government officials" so we can get state funding for an ad campaign, like one that have been used to promote other products like, “Apple a Day,” “Got Milk?” and “Pork: The Other White Meat.” You remember those? They came from a distant time when mass media ruled, and you just might be able to pull off promotions like that. Never mind that those kind of promotions likely wouldn't work these days. Never mind "The Internet" that changed everything and made those types of promotions "old school".

My advice to a garden center would be, ignore the cries for more government funding! Promote yourself to your customers using your own media. It's cheaper, more effective, and puts the message where those who need to hear it, can. Tell you state association about it today. It's called social media, and requires no government funding.