7 Things To Know About The Modern, Urban Gardener

The Modern Gardener April Cover Image

To gain insight on how the sustainable lifestyle has changed and how garden retailers should respond to the modern sustainable consumer, we asked three consumer garden editors and writers about what they have observed among their readers.

Mariana Greene, garden and home editor of the Dallas Morning News, Justin Hancock, garden editor of Better Homes & Gardens and Susan Harris, a blogger for the popular GardenRant.com paint a vibrant portait of the green-minded gardener.

We then spoke to Jamie Mihalcik with Buchanan Native Plants in urban Houston and Roger Zinn of American Plant in Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area about how their well-established sustainable garden centers are meeting the needs of the modern gardener.

Living Walls: Still The Next Great Thing?

Over the past couple of years, green walls caught the industry’s attention as the next big thing. Jamie Mihalcik of Buchanan’s Native Plant and Roger Zinn of American Plant have mixed feelings about the trend, however.

“The green wall has not been perfected. The cost is high, it’s tricky to water,� says Mihalcik.

“Living walls are a little slow out of the gate,� says Zinn. “Elaborate displays at both our stores, doesn’t seem to be taking off like lawn replacement. It’s a neat idea, aesthetically wonderful, but I guess people who would be down with it don’t have a house yet.�

“On the green wall concept, I think it is more important to think about growing vertically,� says Mihalcik. “With many consumers having limited space, it makes sense to grow upwards. I think we need less emphasis on a pretty, vertical blooming wall and more emphasis on trellised vegetables and espaliered fruit.�

She has seen that play out at Buchanan’s. “People are more interested in tomotoes or strawberries in hanging baskets than pretty plants in a vertical wall. They also like sweet peas or beans on a trellis or herbs in containers. Space is an issue, and they want edibles, so that’s the focus, not creating a living wall.

“Customers love using a rose trellis for climibing vegetables. We sell a lot of them for malabar spinach or sweet peas,� Mihalcik says.

Together, they identified seven traits of today’s green-minded gardener.

1. They’re Younger

“Five years ago in North Texas,� says Dallas Morning News’ Greene, “consumers concerned about chemical use and organic practices were middle aged and older. Gen X and Gen Y were not even gardening. The local food and safe food movements have gone a long way to attract the interest of these younger generations. If they are growing food for themselves and their young families, they want nothing with chemicals to touch it.�

Mihalcik is seeing the same trend several hours south of Greene’s Dallas base. “We’re seeing a lot more young families. It has a lot to do with our neighborhood, which attracts a younger crowd. We have a lot of first-time homeowners who don’t know what do to with their gardens,� Mihalcik says.

“A lot of customers want to teach kids where food comes from,� she says. “I see them buying heirloom varieties that are are pricy in the grocery store, plus ghost peppers and other unique varieties like lemon cucumber.�

Both older and younger customers at American Plant want down-sized gardens, although for different reasons, Zinn says. “The classic ’80s gardener is aging — older folks want smaller containers, something that’s easier to manage. The way the housing market has been, young folks are in condos and rentals, and they want container gardening.�

American Plant is making an effort to reach up and coming gardeners with eMail blasts and a look that should appeal to this group. “We’re almost looking like a Pottery Barn,� says Zinn.

2. Food Is The Driving Force

“I think vegetable gardening is the gateway to gardening in general for [younger generations].� Greene says.

Their interest begins not with growing, but with nutrition, she says.

“They barely even look at flowers when I spy them at local independent retailers,� Greene says. “Gen Y-ers are serious about what they are eating and are not playing at being farmers. Growing food, raising chickens for eggs, making cheese — all of these are authentic pursuits.�

That authenticity gives Greene a strongly optimistic view of gardening’s future. “I think Gen Y-ers will be the generation to introduce food gardening to children as a way of life. Schools and PTAs are clamoring for campus gardens and young parents take the kids with them to pick out plants at stores,� she says.

Better Homes & Gardens’ Hancock was also co-owner of Loki Gardens until it closed in 2012. He concurs with Greene’s take on the food-driven interest in gardening, especially for fruit.

“It has surprised me at retail how many 20-something gardeners we had last year wanting to grow fruit, especially in containers. If the folks at Fall Creek do a good job with their Brazelberries brand, that could intensify the interest,� he says.

Buchanan’s is located in an older neighborhood near downtown Houston and does not have a lot of land. Yet vegetable gardening is so important to its customer base that the staff maintains demo gardens to help sell the products. The most popular is a raised, square-foot garden, which is 4-feet by 4-feet, with a different vegetable devoted to each square foot.

And despite its urban setting, fruit trees are a big seller for Buchanan’s, as are butterfly-friendly plants and nectar-creating plants.

American Plant is seeing a similar buying trend. Organic vegetable starts and grafted tomatoes, especially the heirlooms varieties that usually don’t have good roots under them, are big, Zinn says. Fruit trees, berries and bramble fruit have also been winners.

Like Mihalcik, Zinn thinks the demand stems from the unique quality of his community, although its makeup is different. “We have a very diverse client base from other countries, and home orcharding has huge interest,� he says.

To attract attention, American Plant leans heavily on signage, solid information on their website and a staff who grow vegetables themselves.

3 Severe Weather Has Them Worried

Weather patterns across the U.S. have been extreme and erratic, and everyone is noticing, not just garden retailers whose livelihoods depend on good weather. “Concerns about drought, climate change, air quality and water resources are real,�
Greene says.

The Houston area, known for being in a wet climate near the Texas coast, had such a severe drought two years ago, the local paper reported that more than 6 million trees died.

“We’ve sold a lot of rainbarrels, mulch and gator bags since then,� Mihalcik says.

“With these stronger storms, some unexpected summer storms with hurricane intensity and snow events, people are worried,� Zinn says.

Unlike Houston, the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area has seen excessive moisture. “A lot of customers come in for replacement plants from the storms. They’re looking for something that’s tough and practical,� Zinn says.

The environmental concerns are not limited to the outdoors, Mihalcik says. “We also get a lot of office workers worried about the oxygen levels in the office and who want houseplants to help with that.�

4. Get To Know Urban Homesteading

Greene is seeing an interesting trend in the types of classes being offered in the Dallas area. There are events covering vegetable gardening and sustainability, but also classes than venture into unusual territory for urban living.

“Beekeeping, worm farms and backyard henkeeping are still building in popularity,� Greene says.

Worms are the hot trend in composting. “Worm farms are really popular right now,� Mihalcik says. “Customers can buy one that is set up or buy the components to create their own. They’ll buy fruit pills to feed the worms. The worms are sold separately.�

Vegetables are the mainstay, however. “We have an outdoor classroom in a new section of the garden center. We’ve had Urban Harvest [a nonprofit that uses fruit and vegetable gardens to improve the Houston area] out several times to teach classes growing vegetables in a city setting,� she says.

Buchanan’s also offers handouts throughout the store on topics like growing citrus trees organically, olive tree care and how to attract butterflies.

Neither American Plant nor Buchanan’s is selling chickens or their feed, but raising hens for eggs has become especially popular nationwide, leading many cities to lift bans on hens in urban backyards. Websites abound on the topic, debating which breeds are the best layers and have the most friendly personalities.

“We’ve had customers ask for ways to create shade for their freerange laying hens, both as a heat relief and to protect them from hawks,� Mihalcik says. “We had someone out to give a talk on hens for Houston, although we don’t sell hens or feed for hens here. We do sell mason bee kits, screech owl houses, worm composters and bird food.�

“I think its ridiculously cool to have chickens in an urban setting,� Zinn says. “Some neighborhoods are really into that, some are not. It’s illegal to raise chickens in most neighborhoods. Beekeeping isn’t big, either, but growing food, everyone is doing that.�

5. A More Confident, Educated Gardener

“Sustainable-leaning gardeners today are better informed than they were a few years ago, at least many that I encounter are,� says GardenRant.com’s Harris.

“They’ve learned that sweeping generalizations don’t apply in nature — whether it’s about what plants to grow (especially that old dichotomy about native vs. exotic) or what products are best (that organic doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘safe’ or ‘nontoxic’). I credit academia and enlightened expert writers like Rick Darke with spreading the word, teaching gardeners who care about the environment what changes they can make without sacrificing beauty or utility.â€�

Mihalcik sees this development playing out at her store as a desire for plants that have multiple uses. “They want low-impact plantings that require less input (water, fertilizer, chemicals, time) and that do double duty — we can eat them, they provide shade, they provide habitat or a chance to teach something to younger generations,� Mihalcik says.

6. A Broad Product Range Changes The Dynamics Of How Customers Buy

“The biggest differences between sustainable-leaning gardeners now versus five years ago? The ease of access to sustainable products,� Hancock says.

That means the days of greenwashing are long gone. Educated customers trust their own judgement about what makes a product sustainable, so marketers can no longer get away with painting a product in a sustainable light when it isn’t.

In such a well-established field, it takes a lot for a new sustainable product to grab the public’s attention.

“It seems like your big wins are going to be when there’s a wow factor, like when a product has a green feature you’d never expect,� says Hancock.

“In 2007, for example, we launched a program at Better Homes & Gardens called Living Green. While it wasn’t groundbreaking at the time, it still garnered a lot of interest after we showed readers it was more than just changing out your incandescent light bulbs with florescent. Today we’d have to come up with something really special and interesting. With the access to sustainable products we have today, the education level of consumers is so much higher than it was then,� Hancock says.

Another effect of sustainability being so well established is that the cost has come down on sustainable products, to the point they are priced similarly to traditional products, Mihalcik says. “When given a choice between the two, if they are about the same price, customers go for the sustainable version almost every time.� Part of the reason they sell so well is that products are often local.

“We try to buy those products from small, local companies who tend to have great marketing and package design,� Mihalcik says.

7.  Shrink That Lawn

The less-lawn trend has caught Harris’ attention in a big way. In a series of posts on GardenRant.com a couple years ago, she documented her attempt to replace her lawn with ground cover, letting readers know which varieites succeeded and which she had to replace.

“The biggest change people can make for the environment and their own enjoyment of plants is to grow less lawn and more shrubs, trees, perennials, etc.,� Harris says. “In very dry parts of the country, the sentiment is correctly anti-lawn, while here in the East there are plenty of other reasons to reduce lawn. The Lawn Reform Coalition and authors Evelyn Hadden and Pam Penick are teaching alternatives to lawn as fast as they can. Universities are studying more sustainable types of turf grasses.�

American Plant’s Zinn agrees with Harris that customers are shrinking their lawn. “That’s a trend we have seen for a while and that seems to have some legs. Turf grass takes a lot of input.�

“A trend in the Heights is to take out the lawn between the street and the sidewalk and replace it with habitat gardens that have a looser planting. They’ll have native grasses, lantanas and pentas. You’ll also see people beginning to move into public spaces and planting native trees and other tough plants,� Mihalcik says.

The trend has affected American Plant’s inventory. “We’re carrying a larger variety of groundcover. We need a really good mix in groundcover in general,� Zinn says.
The store is also carrying other low lying perennials and shrubs.

The modern green gardener has changed quite a bit over the past few years. American Plant and Buchanan’s Native Plants have responded with more youthful marketing campaigns and plenty of education — a mix that has strengthened their stores.

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