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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.


  1. Brilliant Allen… this is a timely and desperate topic. The horticultural industry has been in the toilet for a long time now and the industry ‘leaders” seem to have no other ideas than plant patenting and marketing blitzes on plants that haven’t been sufficiently trialed and are so choked with superfluous plastic packaging that you would never guess that this is the “green” industry . In Atlanta we have only one small, sad, independent retailer and a couple of corporate big box nurseries and most of the wholesalers and re-wholesalers went away with the great recession.
    The ones who have survived have been hanging on by a thread.
    But the industry is frankly comical on Laurel and Hardy levels… nurserymen barely scraping by who won’t do absolutely anything to adapt and survive.
    Recently a grower who shut down told me that they just couldn’t keep selling plants for 3 dollars. They’d been doing that for 20 years and the cost of the production had increased dramatically. When I asked if they’d ever thought about raising their prices they seem dumbfounded… they had never thought of it. The excuse – well no one would pay more for a plant.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Greetings, Rachel, apologies for any confusion. Yes, my comment was directed at greg draiss. I’m in utter agreement with you, and appreciate your more thoughtful commentary above mine. Thank you for taking the time to address him, point by point; I really didn’t have the stomach to take on that amount of self-righteous, self-serving blarney.

  7. I so often take things wrong in the comment section, I really wanted to clarify and not be flying off the handle in the wrong direction. I almost deleted my response to the previous poster, but I just couldn’t let that fly along with ALL the others.

  8. Greg, congrats on enticing me to comment. I normally don’t because I don’t want to be sucked in to the cesspool of cheap shots and vitriol that appears too frequently on this site, but I pretty wholeheartedly agree with Rachel and I hope Sid is right about you just waking up on the wrong side when you wrote that. You often make good points in Rant discussions but you’re way off base this time. I hope you have better encounters with our generations soon and that you you’re not actually as bitter as you sound. Good luck, sir. And thank you Rachel.

  9. The facts are people NEED gardens, landscapes and trees. Reality is that most people do not realize that they need gardens, landscapes and trees. The challenge is how do we convince people that their priorities should change to include more gardens, landscapes and trees? I do agree that the Annual side of our industry seems to be stuck in a PVC mode, (petunias, verbena, calibrachoa) It is hard to inspire a new customer with more of the same especially if that customer grew up with those plants at Mom’s house. Do you really wear the same style cloths as your MOM or DAD? Perhaps this is why someone here suggests that gardening is an every other generation activity. Perhaps our industry should pull a couple of dozen new plants that have not been used before out of the millions of species of plants available and offer something new to the next generation. We are already seeing upticks in interest in foliage plants, perhaps this is just reinforcing this notion that the new generation is looking for plants they can call their own. Or perhaps it is because the next generation sees foliage plants for sale at the box stores and not at the IGC’s and it is something that they did not see at home growing up. Where will this industry be if we allow the box stores to be the source for education of the next generation of gardeners? I suggest that allowing the box stores to participate in our industry is doing irrevocable harm to the industry at large long term. The majority of first time gardeners start at the box store. And these companies are least prepared to deal with new gardeners. And yet somehow the industry needs to educate these new gardeners. A task everyone agrees is best done by the IGC’s so if we allow the box stores and the internet to train the next generation of gardeners is there any surprise to the logical conclusion of that journey? Or industry is one of the few industries that would allow the Devil himself to sell our products if he paid cash for them. If you don’t believe that go call Ford motor and tell them you want to start selling Ford cars and trucks at your location and offer to send them a check for the first two semi loads of vehicles and see what they say… LOL! The Box Store participation in our industry along with the internet has interrupted a vital function that the IGC’s have always provided, training those new gardeners. The important question is how do we address this issue?

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