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Into the Garden: Industry must cultivate customers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jeff Warschauer of Nexus Corp. (a greenhouse manufacturer) is worried about the future of the plant industry: "The green side of our industry isn't growing. We can blame the economy -- and that's part of the problem -- but there are bigger issues we need to address, too."

Warschauer is part of a plant industry panel that's taking a hard look at where the industry is headed. He points out that the customer base is changing.

"The 80 million people in the Baby Boomer generation have fueled the greenhouse industry over the past couple of decades. But now they're moving into retirement. They're not gardening like they used to. Generation X is barely half the size, so even if we can interest them in gardening like the Boomers -- which is debatable -- we're going to have to get twice as many of them buying our plants just to break even. Generation Y is bigger, but they're years away from being a market driver," Warschauer said in an interview in Greenhouse Grower magazine.

The greenhouse executive said many of today's homeowners have run out of time for a beautiful landscaped garden -- they just want to get a couple of $50 containers and put them on the front stoop. Add a couple of hanging baskets, do the same for the back patio, and voilà! They call it finished.

Hiring Gen X and Gen Y into the plant industry work force is one way to help with this issue. They can advise the "old-timers" about what their generation is looking to do in the yard.

Kristine Lonergan of Garden State Growers said in Greenhouse Grower magazine she attends trade shows that revolve around fashion, design and gifts. Why? For inspiration and ideas. She sees convenience as an important attribute for many of the products promoted at many of these shows.

In the gardening industry, Lonergan said there are many ways to apply the idea of convenience. First, most gardeners today don't have time to research what will work. Giving new (and old, for that matter) gardeners all of the information about the plants and how to plant them makes for an easy trip to the garden center.

Last week, I wrote about the hot new color of the year, Pantone's "Tangerine Tango." Lonergan said the garden industry must connect consumers with the colors they see in fashion and home décor to make the plant offerings more relevant to the buyer.

She adds that recycled is in with the new generation of homeowners/gardeners, so using recycled products hits a note with these consumers. Add the promotion of locally grown, made in the USA and other concepts that are near and dear to the new gardeners, and the industry hits a home run.

I found it interesting that one member of the panel suggested partnering with new groups to promote the gardening industry. Isn't that called networking in every other industry? Why should this be new to the plant folks? The panelist said they should meet with garden clubs, Master Gardeners and so on. That doesn't seem like rocket science to me -- it just seems obvious.

I think, in the past, greenhouse growers didn't have to do much marketing, but now that the tide has turned, they will start visiting with the local and state chapters of the landscape architects, home builders, real estate agents and nursery folks, as well as with homeowner associations and beautification groups.

Here's an interesting new packaging idea from Burpee Home Gardens. They are marketing the BOOST Antioxidant Collection. Ads in gardening magazines recently promote these vegetable plants as "meeting consumers' craving for higher nutrition ... has built-in marketing ... and will build the biggest buzz in vegetable gardening in years!"

Smartphone users can "snap the tag" to check out how these vegetables will improve their lives if they plant them in their gardens. What does that mean?

It's using the QR Code that is on the plant's tag. A QR Code is that little square of black squiggles that's on many products in the stores today. Scan it with your smartphone and you'll be rewarded with a plethora of information about the product. The industry is rewarded because they can track how many customers are engaging with their product.

Wenke Greenhouses is using the new technology to help gardeners become more confident. Natasha Marback, of the John Henry Co. (leading manufacturer of inventory and custom-made tags, signs and other marketing materials for plant growers and garden centers) said that based on its early success, Wenke is now leveraging its partnership with John Henry to combine AllRecipes.com and an entirely new section on BloomIQ.com to edibles.

Manna Meal garden

All volunteers, past, present and future are invited to attend the 2012 planning meeting for the Manna Meal Community Garden 10 a.m. Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 1105 Quarrier St.

The group will begin planning its fourth garden season and they want help. Last year the garden produced 3,000 pounds of food that supplemented the soup kitchen and allowed guests access to fresh produce to take home. The East End of Charleston is classified as a food desert, and the only fresh produce that a lot of Manna Meal's guests receive is what they grow in their garden.

The group wants help with all aspects of garden planning (construction of another deer fence, soil preparation, planting design and rotation, flower garden planning, fundraising, communications and more).

Call 304-345-7121 with questions.

Small-fruits workshops

West Virginia State University Extension Service is launching a five-part workshop series about small-fruit production targeting homeowners and small-farm applications. Workshops will start Tuesday and run through April at the Pumpkin Park in Milton. All workshops are scheduled from 10 a.m. until noon and are free to attend.

"We want participants to learn the basics of fruit production in a manner that can be implemented in their own backyard," said Scott Byars, program leader for agriculture and natural resources.

West Virginia State University Extension Service and Agricultural and Environmental Research staff members will provide instruction on how to successfully grow small fruits in the region. Here is the schedule:

Tuesday: Blackberries and raspberries

Feb. 21: Strawberries

March 6: Blueberries

March 27: Grapes

April 3: Fruit trees

Workshops are made possible by a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. To register, contact Jeanie Sutphin at 304-204-4305 or at extension@wvstateu.edu.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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