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!

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."

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.

Does anyone care?

There is a guest post at Garden Rant by James Roush titled, “Japanese Beetles for Sale? Really?" James relates a story about his day at “a large regional nursery about 60 miles east of Manhattan, Kansas.” He says, “This nursery sells each spring, among other plants, the largest variety of potted roses in a 100-mile radius. I could not help but stop to view the few remaining potted roses on sale, hoping particularly to find a ‘St. Swithun’ marked down to a price that even a curmudgeonly rosarian would accept.  And there, I saw them.  Japanese beetles!” The nursery is at fault for not letting its customers know about this up-front. Rather than educate, they sell the plants infested so you can deal with it at home. This is what can happen with large nurseries and growers that ship all across the country. You get diseases and insect pests being spread faster than they would on their own.  I am sure they will have some pesticides you can buy later to get rid of them. See, everything will be better.

Where you choose to do business does make a difference. Not all nurseries, or nursery people are as uncaring. I work with nursery people from all over, and they would never allow this to happen in their businesses. They watch as these large regional stores, their suppliers, and customers continue the long slow march to the bottom.  See if you can find a garden center in your area that cares, and then show you care by supporting them. If you can't find one, it could indicate a need (business opportunity) for the community. It appears the local regulatory agency has done a poor job of alerting the public, and the “large regional nursery” could care less, so who are you going to call next time a pest or disease threatens your garden? It's kind of scary when no one cares.


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”.

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?

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".

Is this nursery catalogue insensitive?

It appears that Plant Delights Nursery (PDN) as sparked a bit of controversy over their new catalog cover. So much so that Tony Avent who owns PDN, has had to remove comments from PDN's Facebook page. It appears it's upset some Penn State fans and others.  So many comments that Tony started a new Facebook page just for people to say (vent) what's on their minds. PDN and Tony Avent have created covers that have always been satirical, and controversial.

I post the cover here for you to see, and comment on. I have been at the center of controversy before, and it's not easy thing  listening to people say and do the darnedest things.  I guess it's the price we pay for allowing comments, and encouraging people to participate. It's OK to disagree and say what's on your mind, but before you do take a deep breath. Now, do you still want to say what you we're going to say? If so, OK. I think some people have let their emotions influence their better judgement.

So what do you think?


How are your up-cycling efforts going? Do you find much of your recycling efforts go towards down-cycling instead? Do you have any idea what either if those terms mean? Neither did I until yesterday. How many of us in the "green knowledge" fields do?

When often use terms that we're more appropriate to the past. Terms like "garden center", "nurseryman", or "recycling" are somewhat archaic. How many places that sell horticultural supplies are truly the "center" of most peoples gardening efforts anymore? 20 years ago there was only one place to buy horticultural supplies, the local garden center. Not today. The term "nurseryman" really doesn't describe what most people selling garden supplies in retail do these days.

I am wondering if semantics may be a larger impediment to the survival of the "local garden center"  than we think. Do the younger generations just entering into their love affair with greenery even know what we mean when we say, "garden center"? I don't know. It caught me, and a roomful of Sacramento "Master  Gardeners" (another outdated term?) by surprise when the term up-cycling was used last night.  None of us knew, until someone online looked it up for us.

Words are powerful symbols. Maybe it's time to be more imaginative, and update our terminology to reflect the world we live in today? I am not suggesting we rush into making any huge changes yet. We should however open our minds to the idea that how we describe ourselves  or our offerings, may not relate in tomorrows world.

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.

A game changing trend

With all the talk about how to use social media one trend has emerged that has the potential to change the garden center trade more than any other. It's not the use of social media by the garden center as a tactic in their marketing efforts. It's the use of social media as a business to business tool.

This instant communication between garden centers has the potential to completely disrupt the way things are currently done.  Most recently The Dig, Drop, and Done campaign was "dropped" on us by the the Royal Trade Association for Nursery Stock and Flower Bulbs headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands. This 1.9 million dollar effort was designed by a PR Media company to promote the use of bulbs in the  garden. In the past it would have rolled out with great fanfare and never received any critical feedback from garden centers or nurseries. This time it was rolled out, and immediately critiqued by the trade.

This posses great problems for businesses that have in the past played the role of  "information gate keepers". What happens when the gates have been thrown open? Suddenly ideas that in the past would have been rubber stamped "approved" are put under a critical microscope. Money that once would have been thrown at advertising campaigns is now questioned. Companies that operated in  less than desirable ways are now exposed for all to see. Treat one customer poorly and all your other customers find out. The reveres is true. Treat your customers great and the next thing you know, others want your services.

This is exciting, as it has the potential to create marketing campaigns that actually work, since they have been designed by the very people they will most affect.  Is that wholesale company treating you differently than it's other customers? Now you can find out from your fellow nursery people. What do you think of selling plants online? Ask, and next thing you know your hearing from people who have been selling plants online and know the ins and outs. Is that gross margin on Christmas trees inline with the rest of the trade? QR codes really that big a deal? "We're all bombarded with being 'green' and 'sustainable'. How are you responding in your business practices? What education do you offer your customers/staff/suppliers?" Within two days 25 responses from fellow business people.

Get on the one trend that has the most potential to really change your business. It's the use of social media between like minded businesses. It's also a great training ground for your forays into customer based social media.  The only place for this type of interaction is here. It's on Facebook, and it is The Independent Garden Center and Nurseries (IGCN) page. You need to be an owner or employee of a Independent Garden Center or Nursery. Ask to join and usually within a couple of days your in. IGCN Group.

A magical day

Today is a magical day. Science, and Wikipedia would tell us it's the day when, "the axial tilt of a planet's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star that it orbits." Yes, we are that planet, and the star, our sun.  It's the Winter solstice and the beginning of winter.

Back in the day, and even today in many regions this time is, " immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months...most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time."

As a nurseyman who leaves work at the end of the day in the dark, it means everyday will be just slightly brighter at closing time. Just that thought is enough to raise ones spirits! You look forward to spring when the days will finally start becoming longer, and business begins to pick up. There are not many trades that are tied into the seasons quite like horticulture.

We underestimate the importance of the season.  We feel immune from such seemingly trivial information as the changing of the season. We work and live inside where lights turn night into day and our only connection to the season is the call by desperate businesses to "shop, shop, shop".  I guess the shopping thing harkens back to our need to hoard stuff to get us through the "famine season" (winter).

It's a mistake for our trade to abandon so much of the magic that horticulture entails. We use to speak of plants using a language long thought dead, Latin. We use to encourage people to plant fruit trees in the winter (bare root season)when they are dormant. Now we pot them so people don't have to think ahead, but rather pick them up while spring shopping. Latin? Too much for customers to deal with. We seemingly don't have to worry about how we are going to feed ourselves during the upcoming winter. Someone else has done that for us. Hungry? Head to the grocery and pick up some asparagus flown in  from Chile, where it's the Summer Solstice.

We have reached the depths of darkness and now we begin our slow return to light.  To those who garden or deal with the weather and seasons daily, enjoy the magic that is today. It gets brighter from here. Cheers!

Wanted: "Change Agents"

Are your in the garden center business? Are you interested in becoming involved with other "change agents" in our trade? Do you find some organizations to "top-heavy" with no real interaction amongst the members? I do, and have found the solution. It's the most active garden business page I have found on Facebook, Independent Garden Centers & Nurseries. To join you need to be working at, or own a retail garden center or nursery. The size of the nursery is not important, but rather the size of your ideas that matters. You'll get more information, in a quicker format than any other place, or event. No top down hierarchy to water things down. No advertising. No mass merchants. No vendors. No wholesale growers. Cost? Your time. Results, usually within minutes. We are now an international group with members from Europe joining in.

Just yesterday someone in our group asked, "How are Christmas Tree Sales so far?". This morning there are 22 comments. Real time results. Another member the day before asks, "Have any of you relocated your business from an out of the way location to a better location?" 16 comments by the end of the day. Again, nowhere is there this kind of interaction in our trade on any other trade media page.

Why do we get results? The people on the page WANT to be there. It's not about "being a member", but rather seeing results. Many of our members have mentioned how the ideas that have been discussed on the page, when implemented have produced positive outcomes.

If you feel like your just not getting the results you would like from your current efforts, join us and make a difference. Go to our Facebook Page, ask to join, and be patient. It takes three days to be accepted, but it's worth the wait. You'll be amongst others who see things a little differently than the mainstream.