Where’s the Wow? The Green Industry Takes Stock.

, Tunein

Garden suppliers’ sights are set on next spring. Last month, representatives from nurseries, greenhouses, independent garden centers and even Big Box Stores loaded up their cars, vans and trucks, heading to two vastly different Ohio trade summer shows.

Cultivate ’14, in Columbus, is the biggest North American trade show, attracting more than 10,000 attendees. The Perennial Plant Association’s (PPA) symposium, in Cincinnati, drew 400. At Cultivate ‘14, Jelitto Perennial Seeds (my employer for nearly twenty years) is a small fish in a big sea of annuals, woody plants, plastic pots and new equipment. At the PPA’s symposium we are among our people—growers, gardeners, academics and enthusiasts of every stripe—all crazy about gardening. Perennials play a big part in that.

Jelitto’s Mary Vaananen at Cultivate ’14.

P .T. Barnum once said, “Without promotion something terrible happens…Nothing!”

Many of the 2015 wholesale catalogs were freshly minted before the shows began, so the annual glorification of new introductions could flourish.

The ground is shifting underneath the Green Industry. It may no longer be enough to sing the praises of untested plants and hope the public buys the hype. The current logic seems to be: If many of the plants don’t perform, then next year there will be more new introductions that might.

To wit, Tony Avent, of Plant Delights Nursery, during one of his two PPA talks, said, “I don’t trust breeders, and I don’t trust marketers.” Avent trials hundreds of new plant introductions before he can say, with authority, that they will grow in Raleigh.

Tony Avent at the Perennial Plant Symposium. Mary Anne Thornton photo.

How long will it take before the retail gardening public becomes gun-shy about gardening and moves onto Pilates and yoga?

Wait a minute. Many of the Boomers have moved on.

While Baby Boomers downsize and pursue other hobbies, growers and retailers struggle to figure out how to make room for Millennials (young adults, aged 18-35). While consumer sales have recovered from the bottom of the recession, plant sales have flat-lined.

There are, according to Kelly Norris, 7,000,000 more Millennials than Baby Boomers. The Millennials have different expectations from the Boomers.  It’s no longer business as usual. (Note: There’s never been anything usual about growing and selling plants. It’s a tough business.)

“Why can’t there be a new experience?” Kelly Norris wondered. Norris is a creative, horticultural dervish. The 27-year-old is the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Manager. He is tireless and on a mission.

Kelly Norris sports a BÖ, by Mansouri, the innovative wooden, bow tie. Jason Oelmann photo.

Norris asked, “Where’s the wow?

What did he mean, where’s the wow? I don’t want to brag, but my longtime employer, Jelitto, offers over 3,700 different seed items—the bulk of them perennials, yet there are lots of ornamental grasses and herbs, too. We have very loyal customers but are constantly thinking of ways to grow the business. I’ve long thought we’ve got something for everyone.

Norris said, “The dumb aren’t into gardening.”

OK, maybe we don’t have something for everyone.

Norris explained the percentage breakdown: “The target retail gardening audience equals those that are interested (20%-30%) and those that are not—the overwhelming majority.” It’s foolish to try and grow a market with those who are not interested. “We chase after those that are not…like a foodie restaurant trying to lure fast food junkies,” he said. It’s a waste of time. Norris, wise beyond his years, urged retailers to focus on the 20-30 %.

“Brand spanking new,” in recent years, has taken on new meaning with a proliferation of horticultural marketing brand names. And year after year it’s always more petunias, heucheras, echinceas and “stuff.”  Millennials, most of whom are new to gardening, are not as brand-loyal as the Boomers. They’re savvy with social media and skeptical of hype.

Norris asked an estimated 50 conference-goers in the early morning on the last day if they had seen anything at the show that they thought was truly innovative. Not a hand was raised. There was a lot of good “product” on the show floor but nothing that knocked anyone’s garden boots off.

Norris always seems to encounter plants that “wow” him, wherever he goes, but he’s not your average gardener. The white flowering Silphium albiflorum, a rare species endemic to three Texas counties, came into bloom in late July.  Norris said in an email, “I bought a 2-yr old seedling from Ellen Hornig [owner of the former Seneca Hill Perennials] back in 2010 and it bloomed this year. Some days it seems like it was twice that long—the anticipation!”

But Norris is not typical. He’s an avowed plant geek. He gets it and doesn’t mind waiting years to get a bloom. The young Millennials don’t get it, not yet. They want color now.

Photo courtesy of Organic gardening and D.L. Anderson.

(Read Ken Druse’s Organic Gardening installment, Next Generation 2.0).

Jelitto’s North American Manager, Mary Vaananen, and I pressed the flesh, talked the talk and handed out Jelitto Perennial Seed catalogs left and right.

But Norris said there’s a stumbling block: people, plants and passion don’t automatically translate to sales… We are a passionate, talented industry and there’s an audience who want that.”

So what do we do?

Norris said we cannot be complacent. “We must be revolutionary, we must be stylish.” Offering examples, he said, “Green roofs, vertical walls and outdoor rooms have become transformative.”

Spreading the word in Sydney, Australia. Jimmy Turner photo.

“Inspire an audience to want what they do not need,” Norris urged. For example: a wooden bow tie. A wooden bow tie?

Norris discovered BÖ, by Mansouri, the innovative wooden, handmade bow ties online. He was fascinated and ordered one with a couple of clicks. “How many of you can order plants this easily?” he asked. (I ordered one the next day.)

“The Millennials are visual and environmentally conscious,” Norris preached. “Excite and innovate.”

A Chihuly glass exhibit, currently at the Denver Botanic Gardens, has been exciting and innovative. Nurseryman Brian Core of Little Valley Nursery in Brighton, CO, visited the Denver Botanic Gardens in late July. He commented on Facebook, “Installing Dale Chihuly’s art was sheer genius. It couldn’t have been more spectacular!  The gardens have an energy this year that I’ve never felt before. The crowds are huge, obviously with many people who have never visited the gardens before.”

Chihuly at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Panayoti Kelaidis photo.

Every plant has a story, and Norris knows that “marketing is storytelling.” We underestimate the “essentiality” of plants and gardens. He is convinced that gardeners have an opportunity to be canonized like today’s top chefs.

“People need plants. People need gardens.”

Posted by

Allen Bush
on August 13, 2014 at 6:37 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People, What’s Happening.

Comment List

  • admin 01 / 06 / 2015

    I keep reading that millenniums want to live in the central city. Not much scope for gardening except on a small scale. My own personal theory is that gardening is an every other generation thing. My grandma big gardener. Mom not so much. Me, crazy gardener. My daughter not much, turned off by my avid gardening. I’m waiting on grand kids.

  • tara dillard 12 / 09 / 2015

    You do not mention, at all, the current layer of ornamental horticulture industry being ‘attacked’.

  • Sid Raisch 09 / 05 / 2016

    I agree and disagree with Kelly and with great respect for him.

  • greg draiss 12 / 06 / 2016

    Excellent on most point. However to call millennials environmentally focused which include LOCAL LOCAL LOCAL they are the first to shop the box stores.
    So until we get over the fact that Gen X Y Z and millennials are fad oriented as the article says they WANT IT NOW we cannot pretend they are into local.

  • Rachel 12 / 07 / 2016

    WoW! I would really hate to meet all the millenials that you have met, and I am thankful to know the ones that I do. I see a lot of millenial bashing going around, and yes they are different from the boomers just as the boomers were different from previous generations.

  • Sid Raisch 16 / 11 / 2016

    You took Greg too serious Rachel. He has a way of irritating people that way to make a point that in this case I also don’t agree with. You are much more correct in your assessment. He must have woke up on the wrong side of the bed when he wrote that. He’s a good guy overall though. Give him another chance if you get a chance.

  • Saurs 18 / 11 / 2016

    Wow, what a lot of hateful, content-free dogwhistles. I guess that’s a “Boomer” thing, too, isn’t it?

  • Rachel 21 / 11 / 2016


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