Garden Centers need to be the connection

While writing an article on “Fall is for Planting” for our local paper I came across this quote from Don Hinkley. He says “The usual approach to horticulture, if written in equation form would, sadly, read something like this: {long colorless winters} x {lack of connection to natural world} + {visits to nurseries exclusively in spring} = gardens that stop entertaining much too early in the season.”

We have been trying to encourage people to check out the garden center and its offerings during the other seasons for years. The problem is spring planting is a “biological” urge. The warmer weather returns and you just “feel” like planting where as fall is “intellectually” a better time to do planting, especially here in California. The cooler fall weather doesn’t seem like planting time, but rather a time for storing our nuts for winter.

Here, fall is really our second spring. I would feel more successful if we could get people to shop and garden in fall. We don’t get any rain all summer so the return of fall with upcoming rains and cooler temperatures is an ideal time to plant and garden. The CANGC (California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers) for years ran a somewhat effective campaign called “Fall is for Planting”. I don’t know if they still do it as I don’t belong to this organization any more.

So the problem is how do we get people interested in the year round garden? How do we get people to visit nurseries during the three other seasons besides spring? How do we help people connect to nature so they can have an appreciation of our gardens in winter? There is no excuse here in California for gardens to not have interest and beauty the year round. It certainly isn’t the climate.

Part of the problem is we in the nursery business sometimes seem like where closing down for the fall. We’ve talked about this before and its one reason the fall season doesn’t garner as much attention. Of course the reason there is not more to buy in fall is there are not enough people coming in the nursery to warrant having so many plants available then. What doesn’t sell in fall will have to be overwintered at the nursery, where it just sits. Inventory sitting around all winter is not good.

Hinkley is right! The “lack of connection to the natural world” part of the equation is the most important. Here in California it’s especially prevalent since our “natural world” is very different than the rest of the world. A real connection to the “natural” here would involve the realization the fall is a better time to do major landscaping. Spring should actually be the second garden season here. Living here and being connected to the natural world would bring the realization that plants from other Mediterranean climates where no rain falls in summer are a better choice than the plants we see in many of the garden magazines from other regions.

This is a huge opportunity for the garden center. Where as in the past we thought of ourselves as places to buy plants, we should now see ourselves as places to connect with nature and learn how to work with it. For some people the garden center is the closest thing to “nature” that they will experience. Our job now is not just to sell plants but also be a place to ask questions and get answers. We need to be the place to explain and share in the joy of gardening in the “off season”. We need to keep communicating with our customers via newsletters and e-news all year. We need to have fun events like our Creekside Festival that is not about gardening, but enjoying the ambiance of the garden and connecting with others.

Let’s quit selling plants and start selling a more natural lifestyle. The more we can be seen as a “nature connection” rather than a “store” the better. Many people are interested in learning to live closer to nature but don’t know where to start. How can I garden with the wildlife? How can I garden using less water and more in tune with the Mediterranean climate we enjoy? I want to cut down on the chemicals I use in the garden, show me how. The box stores aren’t doing it so those of us with smaller garden centers should step up to the plate. With all the interest in eco-logical issues right now we are in an enviable position of becoming the nature experts if we want. Get people in tune with nature and the garden center business will thrive. Maybe not in the way it use to, but in a new and different way we are just starting to imagine.