Armitage Rants

Gardening is a four-letter word: the education of a plant guy

Here is the inaugural column from our new contributing ranter, Allan Armitage

Garden_with_colocasia_smallI attended a terrific retail seminar a while ago to hear about the state of the retail plant industry.  Well-known and highly competent speakers were orating, and I was soon being gently embraced in marketing and promotion.  I had heard a rumor that people in marketing were not interested in plants, only lifestyles and other such twaddle, so, with an open mind, I thought I would go hear what the other side is saying about plants.  The short answer is “nothing.” The long answer is the same, but a little more educational.  Turns out I was in serious denial, so here is what this plant guy learned.

The good news is that this thing we call gardening is popular; we have an 85-90% participation rate of homeowners in the country (the entire other 10-15% must live in my neighborhood).  Those are enviable numbers for any industry.  However, it also turns out that few people out there want to work anymore.

I learned that the DIYers (do-it yourselfers) are a dying breed, quickly being gobbled up by the DIFMers (do-it-for me-ers).  Thus, the only people who are making decisions on which plants to put in the McMansions and subdivisions are the landscapers (having at one time been one, I can testify that we are in trouble).  Yep, the percentage of DIFMers rose from a reasonable 22% in 2000 to a whopping 46% in 2007. I see why the box stores are vigorously promoting their landscape services.  The market gurus insist that the trend will continue, fewer and fewer people will do less and less gardening, and plants will more marginalized than ever.

From the perspective of the market folks, the plant itself does nothing more than fill a function: be a hedge, fill a container with color, hide the grill, or feed the butterflies.  It really could be anything, the name is unimportant, and the cultivar … well, that is simply Greek.  Is it not ironic that the last five years that have seen the greatest increase in new plants are the same five years that have seen people care less about them?

I learned as much about acronyms as I did marketing. Turns out that in market speak, a new group has emerged: the DSOIFMers (do-some-of-it-for-me-ers).  I think the DIFMers can’t stand all these helpers running around the place.  Actually, we all can use some help, so this one makes sense.

One of the most enlightening remarks I heard defined the differences between two words we use almost interchangeably: landscaping and gardening.  I learned that according to recent marketing surveys, people now have the perception that “landscaping is sexy; gardening is work.” It used to be the other way around.  And do you know the main reason the guy with the shovel and red pick up truck has become popular?  It is because of … Home Improvement TV!  Good grief, do people actually believe that stuff?

Anyway, I hear this gloom and doom all the time now.  “Gardening is a four letter word; gardening is dead,” “The demand for new crops will slow considerably,” “Young people are horticulturally incompetent,” yadda, yadda.  I believe some of it, of course, because it’s true.  Heck, my lovely, bright, happily married daughters—both with fine homes and green lawns—don’t own lawn mowers and don’t know a coneflower from a daylily.  But I don’t fret; at that age, I had no interest either, and if I could have found somebody to cut the grass, I would have done so in a heartbeat.  I have heard the same gloom and doom about attendance at movie theaters with the arrival of the DVD, the same moaning about church attendance with malls opening on Sundays, but theaters and churches are managing to survive.

Every time I am asked to speak to groups around the country, both gardeners and industry people still want to hear about plants—and gardens.  Times are changing, absolutely, and yes, there is trouble brewing.  People are aging, style is more important than substance— which is to say “lifestyle” is more important—the Internet is everywhere, and we have to market our products differently than we did 10 years ago.

But every industry is going through the same changes. We can read anything we want on a computer monitor today, but it will never replace the feel and comfort of turning pages in a book.  As for me, I am getting older, slower, and want fewer plants, but my daughters will be buying more in a few years.  And they have 6 babies between them, so, though I expect some wobbling, I am convinced plants and we plant sellers will all be around for many years.

Posted by on October 30, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Armitage Rants.
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26 Responses to “Gardening is a four-letter word: the education of a plant guy”

  1. No I do not think that gardening is DEAD on the contrary. I think it’s growning stronger all the time. I think we are going to grow more things ourself and be proud of it. Buy more local produced food, more enviromental friendly products etc. etc. / LOL Tyra

  2. Dave M says:

    I think people are just intimidated by what they don’t know about plants and gardening. I’ve found that if I give my clients photos of what I’m proposing and talk them through it, they become more into plants than they ever thought they would be.

  3. While gardening for me is a lifestyle, it’s not for everyone. That’s not to say folks don’t want beautiful gardens. As a Garden Coach, I’m gratefully seeing the effects in the jump of DIFmers. We don’t all marginalize. Landscapers – yes, gardeners for hire – no. As homeowners become aware of options in service providers, diversity will prevail. Susan Harris has done a great job communicating the services of a Garden Coach and organizing us as group. Knowing there are options of being able to hire a Garden Coach to help homeowners reach their gardening potential, whether doing it themselves or knowing who to hire, will help maintain diversity and define the difference between a landscape and a garden. I predict we will see the 46% continue to rise – and not just due to landscapers, but for gardeners-for- hire as well. I also want to add that exposure is paramount. What continually surprises me is how few experiences homeowners have with real gardens. Let’s encourage garden tours, trips to arboreta, lectures, and events. Once exposed, trading up will occur. With increased exposure, desire welds.

  4. trey says:

    I just zoomed in on your last sentence. “my daughters will be buying more (plants)in a few years. And they have 6 babies between them”. This is exactly why my wife is opening a new nursery, a preschool and daycare, right next to our garden center. You daughters will most likely need some daycare and while they have some extra time they can visit the garden center.

    More importantly Monica is going to develop in her curriculum an emphasis on gardening and learning about the outside world. We realize Generation x and y want their children to learn about the environment, yet many don’t know where to start. We’ll be the place, hopefully helping raise children that are interested in the outside world and gardening.

  5. Michele Owens says:

    I agree with Trey. Get those babies out there into the yard, Allan! After all, you share a common enemy: those lovely daughters who are not terribly interested in plants. Given the slightest opportunity, their children will rebel by getting dirty in the yard.

    My mother and I are both living proof that few forces are more powerful than a parent’s taste and the chance to reject it. My mother, who grew up on a particularly charmless Bavarian pig farm, has spent 50 years putting the greatest possible distance between herself and a shovelful of manure. Me, I got the farmer gene.

  6. gardenmentor says:

    Maybe I only see a specific segment, but I’m seeing that segment grow rather than die. The DIY population and the DSOIFM group gets bigger and bigger each year — at least according to my frantic work schedule and business accounts. How does DIY make my biz grow? I empower them. And there really is a population of people interesed in getting the education that allows them to start out as a DSOIFM and become a DIY..or increase skills as a DIY…or figure out what they want to DIY and when they really require a DIFM.

    Why do I think this is happening? Economic changes = people want power to DIY when they can’t pay for a DIFM. Those crazy kids getting in the garden and encouraging their parents to get their hands dirty. Retirees that may have gardened at one point or other wanting to get back into it. Awareness growing about industrial food leading folks to want to grow it at home. The new green movement trendiness. Increased awareness through the press and all of us that garden coaching is an option. And those are only a few reasons.

    Okay, so maybe I wasn’t serving gardening clients during this past “boom” I keep hearing about in gardening marketing lectures, but at a time when I talk to my “sexy” landscaping friends about their DIFM businesses declining and watch my rapidly expanding client list “work” at becoming or improving as gardeners, I have to wonder how much “hooie” these marketers are really selling to us.

    Am I right coaches? Or am I just growing in a rose-colored world?

  7. ‘The marketers’ say that gardening is dead ?
    Did they do their polling in California ?
    And if a marketers aren’t interested in plants , yet lifestyles seems to be more up their polling alley, aren’t they going into their research with a predetermined eschewed bias ?
    Does this ‘group’ even know how to define gardening vs. landscaping ?
    I believe herein lies an important question, which I would wager would garner an Palin-esque answer.
    Hubba da hubba da habba da duh.

    It will be interesting to see how the current and long lasting economical crisis will impact the DIY’er , DIFMers and Do it for me Sometimers.

    My forecast is that Babyboomers of middle income economic status will be reaching for a few less albeit nice perennials to garden with and those who have always had money to spend on landscape designers and landscape contractors will continue to employ these services, though some may not elect to install the waterfall or pool house and instead go for a trendy potager garden.

    So in the end I guess I concur, ….”plants and we plant sellers will all be around for many years.”

  8. mj says:

    How can children raised with parents that enjoy the DIFM mentality ever expect their children to know HOW to dig, or more explicitly, WORK at something? Ya know, get sweaty in the garden during the heat of the day? In pictures of garden coaches and their clients, I dont ever see a bead of sweat. The garden just doesnt appear suddenly looking like the magazine pictures without the dirty word called WORK. I suspect the next edition of Herbaceous Perennial Plants should be bilingual. The only bright spot is the surge in interest in veggie gardening.

  9. vicki says:

    Perhaps the culprit is the marketers of gardening…and publishers who have misled beginning gardeners…and made too many feel inadequate if we couldn’t produce and maintain a garden that looked as pristine as Martha Stewart’s.

    As my colleague Ken points out, life on earth cannot exist without plants. I personally feel that it is ridiculous to expect everyone to embrace the notion of creating and maintaining a “showcase” garden. Gardening should support, sustain, and enhance our lives–not burden us.

    It should be fun! And if that means a few pots of herbs and flowers, or a vegetable patch…so what??

    I remember seeing a marvelous episode of Lidia Bastianich’s PBS cooking show where she talked about herbs and shared with us how she had, as a mother, introduced her babies to fresh herbs in very simple ways–and is now doing the same with her grandchildren. How thrilling it was to watch her with those infants and toddlers as they sniffed a pinched basil leaf in Lidia’s fingers! (I’m not a parent)

    The “real” experiences have been so over-hyped, so blown out of all proportion by marketing firms–no wonder young parents feel that they don’t have the time.

    Enjoying plants is a “natural high”…and I believe that the hort industry has put too much pressure on everyone and created faulty expectations all in an effort to sell more rather than engage their customers and encourage all levels of participation. The industry need to sell more is, in my opinion, at the root of the problem. They sold too many people a “bill of goods,” omitting too much of the truth along the way–about plants, about how gardening really fits into a busy life. It doesn’t “pay” anyone to promote the idea of young, sleep-deprived parents, or physically challenged senior citizens to enjoy a few plants they can maintain…no…we tell them they “need more”. Is it really a surprise that we are now experiencing a backlash?

    And many of my fellow journalists must shoulder a huge portion of the blame as well.

    But I don’t feel that gardening is dead or dying…maybe the marketing and publishing glut is dying (I hope so). I think we are merely in a transition period…and we have yet to see what companies, products, media, and services the population is willing to support.

  10. firefly says:

    I really enjoyed ‘Smart Gardening,’ the program produced by Oregon State University, that Allan did segments for, but unfortunately the ‘Create’ network either changed its air time or stopped airing it where I am. (see smartgardeningtv.com)

    I thought it was an intelligently done program that went at gardening as a DIY thing but also explored places like botanical gardens that required teams of professionals.

    It’s too bad something like that couldn’t get national play. They never talked down to the audience nor made it seem like gardening was out of reach, like the HGTV “gardens” that require thousands of dollars’ investment.

  11. I think the “Green” theme, and rightly so, will help carry gardening forward as folks will see more in the news about sustainability.

    Landscapers will have jobs as long as there are Home Owners Associations who dictate a certain amount of sod and foundation plantings.

    That said, the landscaper who can move beyond the same old “plant material” and into hardscape of creating walls, water features, arbors, garden sheds, etc…that’s where they can differentiate themselves.

    I think that Garden Coaches are on to a fantastic idea for the next phase. I’ve used all of those Do It acronyms, depending upon my avaiable time while I was working. I see the niche for coaches growing.

    I’m a recently (early) retired babyboomer and I just couldn’t wait to get out of the office and into the garden! I’ll DIY as much as possible, but I hope I also have the good sense to ask for help when I need it! LOL

    Cameron

  12. mj says:

    great post Vicki, well written. I guess I should be a hyper-marketer, thats what they tell me, but at our retail garden center we never really embraced that excessiveness, and I think our core customers appreciate it. Also, the new gareners do appreciate straight talk. “Add some organic compost to your crappy soil and remember to thoroughly and deeply water your new plant/tree 2x a week” End of story. If the new gardener can’t keep their plant alive, they certainly dont care about pruning or soil ph, and if they have to read or digest 5 paragraphs of lenthy planting instructions, forget it. Keep it simple.
    As for the marketing, in the last 15 years at the nursery, I have only ever been asked for Endless Summer Hydrangea and Wave petunias. It seems that those are the only brands that seemed to slightly resonate with the consumer. I’ll bet in the coming years Proven Winners will wonder at the amount of money they wasted on marketing. A good plant usually speaks for itself, and a good garden writer should grow plants themselves and make their own evaluation rather than rely on the press releases of the likes of the Proven Winners of the world.

  13. Pam/Digging says:

    I’m with GardenMentor. As a garden designer and coach who markets her services to do-it-yourselfers or DSOIFMers, I’ve seen an increase in business over the past year. A majority of my clients, by a slim margin, are young couples, some with kids, some without, who want to get their hands dirty but just don’t know where to start. They’re eager to plant, they have plant lists, and they don’t want to hire it all out. They may not call themselves gardeners, but that’s what they are.

  14. Joe Lamp'l says:

    Hi Allan and you sure picked a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Is gardening dead? No, but you’d never know that by trying to find a gardening show on television. Or, even trying to read up on a few gardening columns in your local paper. Many newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal had a dedicated, weekly section for “Home and Garden”, now relegated to just a few pages within another section.

    Unfortunately, many of the television networks, i.e HGTV and DIY, have all but dropped gardening for two reasons. According to an HGTV exec-producer friend of mine, “gardening” isn’t on any network’s radar anymore. Landcaping maybe, but only if it’s a makeover show. Please not another one of those! The young network execs, don’t relate to “gardening” and their advertising-driven clients don’t see us as a lucrative target audience for their product.

    Similarly, those same big money advertisers don’t seem to want television hosts over 30 hosting “their” shows since the viewers they want to attract are late teens to mid 20′s; sadly, a group not yet viewed as a target demographic for gardening, too busy to do it themselves and who doesn’t identify with “more mature” experts.

    When I was picked to host Fresh from the Garden on DIY Network, they were looking for a “Real”gardener between 35 and 45. Perfect, and it made sense. Now, 25 is pushing the upper limits! Just ask former “mature” TV Gardening hosts Joe Washington, Erica Glasener, Rebecca Kolls and most recently, Paul James. Not only did I learn a lot by watching these and other shows, they made me want to garden. Sadly, we have less of those opportunites than ever. And Allan, even with PBS,the show you were a part of was too short-lived and the one I host now, constantly struggles with funding support. Advertisers we’ve relied on for years aren’t putting the money towards gardening.

    So, maybe my perspective is a bit different, but I’m out there as much as anybody and I can tell you, although gardening is not a four letter word, we are having to work harder than ever to convince people of that. As avid gardeners, educators, and communicators, I believe we all need to cast a spotlight on the “importance of gardening”. We already know what it does for us mentally and physically, but done properly, it helps the environment, promotes nutrition and health, teaches our children, unites strangers and nurtures our souls.

  15. Anna says:

    I wrote an article similar to this but did not say it as well. I agree with this post. I have worked at small family owned nurseries all over the country due to my husband’s career in the Air Force. But more recently tried my hand at the big box.

    I had to quit that job because it was so disturbing to see what landscapers do to young homeowners. I would have several young folks a day bring in some dead plant that had no business being planted in such poor conditions. The only thing landscapers want to buy are Nandinas, Otto Luken Laurels, Leyland Cypress, and annual grasses. Oh yea–and azaleas by the truck load that bloom in the spring and the cool weather but burn up in our hot summers.

    They plant them in our clay soil to bake or drown depending on the weather that year. And here come the homeowners wanting to stretch their dollar but have a beautiful yard. It broke my heart.

    The other thing that discouraged me was that half these folks had been to a small private nursery and sought the advice of a skilled nurseryman–then drove on down to the big box to make a purchase.

    So here is what I am doing…I am an educator who is reaching out to these neighborhood homeowner associations and lending a helping hand. My niche is not landscaping but I know more than the folks who planted their yards in the first place. I have convinced some people not to weed, feed, and seed all at the same time.

    So Bravo to the next generation and let’s get them fired up!

  16. bev says:

    I’ll never forget Andre Viette telling me many years ago that his father started his original nursery on Long Island in 1929 and was successful! Perhaps current economic times will provide a resurrection of sorts. And ps I, a serious though amateur gardener, never watch TV – so I wouldn’t count TV shows as evidence of how gardening is doing.

  17. Jim says:

    Oh, save us from those unnatural little mediation gurgling waterfalls, garden doohickeys and ceramic gnomes surrounded by unrealistic out of zone plantings that proliferate in these artificial Monet tapestries. A new wave of residential stone wall building and grade changes over planted with a myriad of competing perennials and annuals, these constructions rob the senses of what nature intended.

    Ecological balance is both complex and simple. We mask it all with our desire to be masters of our universe often creating an unmanageable and unnatural palette of personal expression that requires only one season of quiet oversight to experience it reverting back to its natural order.

    Kitchen and flower cutting gardens aside, landscape and residential planting should reinforce the indigenous climate and microenvironment and should always be subtle. A meditation garden is designed to draw inspiration from within not the other way around. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t look at a Medici and say, “I see a waterspot!” Perhaps we should save the kaleidoscope expressions for Disneyworld and learn to experience nature at its best.

  18. Layanee says:

    I’ve read that many seed companies actually ran out of seed this past season. Hmmmmm…..there is hope!

  19. kim says:

    I really enjoyed this post and all the comments. There is a lot of food for thought here, and I agree strongly with Vicki’s comments. I suppose it’s true for gardening just as it is true in most arenas – where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit (your role or occupation). I don’t work in the industry; I’m just a consumer. But I remember playing, as a small child, in my grandparents “garden” of galvanized washtubs of soil set up on blocks (to aid their old backs) above the Florida sand, which wouldn’t support their garden anyway. The basil, garlic, peppers and tomatoes were my first introduction to gardening. My mother’s half acre garden, and my conscriped labor therein, had killed any gardening desire I had, or so I thought. Now, I’m growing some food and eagerly embracing the new plants being introduced. The world of gardening may be dying elsewhere, but not on my half acre. I guess the $50 question is whether or not MY child will garden one day . . . . .

  20. What a delight to see one of my Gardening Heroes on Garden Rant! I quite enjoyed this. I work in a Garden Center, and I am seeing some folks who push the “landscape” “DIFM”er syndrome, but we have alot of folks who genuinely enjoy the plants for their own selves. Young folks, not just us Oldsters! I am seeing alot of folks spending time to ask questions, and spending time trying to learn what questions to ask. All I can say is, I Have Hope. Gardening cannot be dead, we will not allow it!

    >^,,^<

  21. Germi says:

    Allan – you are really sexy.

    Which is GREAT, because sexy is what it’s all about with the ‘kids’.
    Soon, they’ll learn that plants are total perverts, having sex all the time via bees and flies and moths; they’ll find out that digging around in the soil is good dirty fun, and that nothing is hotter than getting all sweaty while making things grow.

    I have hope that there is a new consciousness being raised, one that is a little more earth friendly. I know lots of people in their 20′s who are pretty passionate gardeners. They are all savvy consumers and mistrustful of ‘marketing’ … they tend to buy directly from growers and at farmers markets, or trade cuttings and buy seeds. They can’t yet afford to be blowing wads of money at specialty nurseries. So maybe the heirs to our gardening zealotry are planting and weeding and composting under the radar, waiting to take their place as garden center consumers.
    Or not. They might create a new paradigm, one that has less to do with a gardening ‘marketplace’ and more to do with a gardening community. Wouldn’t THAT be great!
    And sexy!

  22. greg draiss says:

    great column……….. I HATE THE TERM GARDEN COACH!!! but if you can call your self a coach and take money from peole good for you shame on them……

    the response about new gardeners not knowing enough and being scared off is reason enough for writers to continue to write seasonal columns explaining what new gardeners need to know.

    if you are too good to read the “putting the garden to bed” advice year after year then don’t read it…………
    there are plenty of new gardeners who like to know how to plant seeds, mulch their beds etc who are put off by high brow garden wrietrs who are too good to give basic advice.

    The (TROLL)

  23. TC says:

    “As for me, I am getting older, slower, and want fewer plants…”

    I’ll take writing over garden “work” any day. But I have typed with dirty hands on more than one occasion.

    Lots of pertinent comments to match Mr. Armitage’s very astute piece.

    (And hey! Joe.)

  24. OldKim says:

    Have lived off my little retail nursery for 12 years. I can’t sleep at night sometimes wondering how I’m gonna pay the bills. I’ve got good credit so I use credit cards to get by.
    I live in an area where most people can’t afford to pay DIFM.
    My only do it for me client has a million dollar place that likes the way I plant her seasonal big pots.
    Last spring when I was working there I left to pick up my kid from school. They invited him to use the swimming pool.
    My 13 year old was so appalled with my labor that he sat in my truck and berated me.
    He was going to have a better place than that!
    And he’d rather work at McDonald’s for minimum wage rather than 10 buck’s an hour at his Mom’s nursery.
    I’m at the point I really don’t care. Some stupid man comes in looking for Burning Bush. So I show him some luscious one gallon plants at 5.99 with our 25 % discount off that. He did nothing but complain. I felt like saying in hindsight just take it I don’t care.
    Gardening is more than money.
    I think you are born with it. I was!

  25. An excellent rant, but I expected nothing less. I’m also encouraged that I, once, cared very little about gardening either. It is now my passion, and my children would say, my obsession.~~Dee

  26. susan harris says:

    thanks to our young and hip friend, the Germinatrix, for mentioning Allan’s good looks. Yeah, we got lucky!

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