Where is the Love? Revitalising the Consumer’s Passion for Plant – Liam Kelly


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Garden retail consultant, Liam Kelly articulates a problem undermining the future of Irish horticulture and presents some creative solutions for how we might collectively address it.

WhereIsTheLove

Once, not too long ago, there were gardeners. These were people who worked the soil, understood the seasons, rarely confused hydrangeas with rhododendrons and knew which way up to plant daŸodil bulbs. These people are now getting scarce both in the general population (and also among those employed in the broader gardening sector in which we all work). They are literally dying away and the newer generations have neither the interest nor the grá for gardening of those that went before.

I guess this sounds a little like an overly dramatic fairy story but unfortunately it is the reality of where we are today. Most consumers are no longer gardeners. They buy plants by budget, colour and impulse, not by knowledge, so tree and shrub sales are on the decline compared to bedding plant colour sales. Look at the front gardens of most estates and you might see a few pots at the front door with pansies or cyclamen but most gardens that have any amount of planting were either done years ago or if done recently, by a landscaping company, or by that rarest of plant buyers, a gardener.

Many would argue that this is not an issue. The same thing happens in any consumer driven environment. It’s ‘retail Darwinism’, where businesses that adapt to customers’ needs will survive. I agree with that, and it’s what I help retailers to achieve.

Good retailers and nurseries who adapt will still survive, so what’s the problem?

Well I for one don’t want to see every garden around me with the same plants in the same pots supplied by the same retailer and grown by the same nursery. Not to mention the catastrophic aŸect it would have on the smaller nurseries, garden centres and the industry as a whole.

Perhaps there is still a small bit of one of those elusive gardeners still lurking inside of me but I feel that this is not the way it should be. Consumers should at least be given the opportunity to become gardeners but their exposure to plants and knowledge, and their chance of developing that passion for gardening is somewhat limited these days.

Perhaps in a few years time there will be just two or three wholesale nurseries supplying plants to few large destination centres and some chain stores. Choice may be a thing of the past, as fewer plant types will be grown, albeit more varieties of these types – but do we really need a couple of hundred varieties of mophead and lacecap hydrangeas?

“Do we really need a couple of hundred varieties of mophead and lacecap hydrangeas?”

So what went wrong? Well lots really, from economic distractions for consumers in recent years, to people having less time to garden due to work pressures. We became frantic people, rushing from home to crèche and then work before repeating the cycle backwards. We lost focus on learning and practical knowledge; there was always someone you could pay to do the job in the boom time, and there was no disposable income left to spend on luxuries like plants when the bust came.

Generally speaking, the current generation of homeowners knows much less about DIY and gardening than previous generations. They buy with theirs eyes and budgets, and depend on retailers for information. But it’s an ever-decreasing circle. Consumers just want instant colour as they don’t know what else to buy, so garden centres only buy instant colour as that’s what sells, and growers only grow instant colour as that’s what garden centres want. Choice becomes less so consumers see less variety and buy less variety. And so the cycle continues…

Lack of choice equals lack of knowledge equals lack of passion – that’s the equation in its most simplistic form.

So how can we change it? To stop this cycle we need to break it somewhere, and the logical place is with the consumer. We need to drive knowledge in order to instil passion (and I make no apologies for using the ‘p’ word so often).

It probably starts with the fact that there is no all-encompassing coherent, business focused group to drive Irish gardening as a whole on a promotional, educational and government level. There are various groups for landscapers, wholesale nurseries and others, plus there are some stirring now in retail too, but as all of these share the same general goal – to raise the knowledge base and profile of gardening – then should they not all work together? Not forgetting to include gardening writers, colleges, magazines and other related groups that earn their living from this sector.

Existing government bodies need a greater level of communication from those within horticulture, as we are the ones at the coalface, in order to be able to do what we require of them. No group means no plan means no communication, and therefore we can have no complaint if we’re not happy with what they do.

THE MEDIA CHALLENGE

One of the other challenges facing horticulture is the lack of any media hype around gardening. When you compare how cooking focused TV has evolved, gardening looks to be in the dark ages. The diversity of food centred programming is vast; from straightforward practical ones, to travel cookery, to bake-oŸ competitions, to semi-reality series. There’s something for everyone. All of this has raised the profile of cooking as a pastime and has instilled that passion back into what was seen as mundane drudgery by many.

Gardening is not going to be as easy a sell as food, but surely we need to try harder? For example, we need a knowledge based television show that is both practical and fun. Hosted by a gregarious non-gardener perhaps, with a team of gardeners and plantspeople giving their ideas and examples of how to garden. Personality and charisma would be the key of course, as well as the content, as no one wants to hear some horticulturist drone on about Molybdenum deficiency for ten minutes. We need to implant knowledge in an entertaining way, and this would complement the quasi-reality gardening shows that already exists.

WRITERS BLOCK

Also, there are some very good gardening writers in this country, but they need more exposure and help to raise their profiles. There was a time when gardeners and writers were household names, not so anymore. Embracing social media will help, as it’s where many people now get their news, communicate with others and find out about new product and ideas. But everyone will need to know what’s being discussed and talked about so that nurseries and retailers can be prepared, so it’s back to the coherent, communicative group mentality I mentioned above.

YOUNG MINDS

Gardening, or perhaps the principles of horticulture and cultivation should be taught in schools in a more structured but fun manner. It’s being done so in the UK. Many tried this when the grow-your-own movement was in full swing, but I would wager that there are many abandoned plots in schools around the country now. I’m not convinced that it was fun and ‘wow’ enough to encourage kids to garden anyway. For example, would it not be simpler to talk to – and show – children about plants that attract butterflies? Or those that help feed birds? What about scented, tactile and exotic looking plants? Surely we need to push on from growing just sunflowers and cress.

“Garden centres only buy instant colour as that’s what sells, and growers only grow instant colour as that’s what garden centres want”

YOUNG MINDS

Gardening, or perhaps the principles of horticulture and cultivation should be taught in schools in a more structured but fun manner. It’s being done so in the UK. Many tried this when the grow-your-own movement was in full swing, but I would wager that there are many abandoned plots in schools around the country now. I’m not convinced that it was fun and ‘wow’ enough to encourage kids to garden anyway. For example, would it not be simpler to talk to – and show – children about plants that attract butterflies? Or those that help feed birds? What about scented, tactile and exotic looking plants? Surely we need to push on from growing just sunflowers and cress.

THE LANGUAGE OF PLANTS

Even the language and terminology used in horticulture scares oŸ potential gardeners. Surely it’s better to use common names, comments about the main attributes or simpler descriptions to sell a plant? Latin names and remarks about low ph or pollination just scare people away. We need to entice them first and then let them learn these ‘scary’ terms and names in their own time.

In fact there is no end to the number of things we could do to raise gardening’s profile and turn consumers into garden lovers again. Think pop-up gardening displays in shopping centres to ‘wow’ people, guerrilla gardening in abandoned town areas (with PR information leaked to the press of course), impromptu garden classes in public buildings, more inspiring and professional planting of public areas and better promotion of our open gardens. This is happening in Ireland but like many things, it’s localised, ad hoc and lacks strategic vision and direction. We need to take a holistic approach to the problem and all work together.

Bloom in the Phoenix Park and other shows have shown us that the there is interest by consumers but there needs to be a year round focus on gardening. And not just on display and colour, there needs to be a focus on imparting knowledge and re-educating the consumer in order to break the cycle we find ourselves in and make gardening sexy again. The worst case scenario is that knowledge and passion will disappear completely and all we will have left at this time of year is cyclamens, pansies and gone-over hydrangeas. So, at the risk of sounding a little hippyish, let’s spread the love.

 

LiamKelly

LIAM KELLY was general manager of one of the largest garden centres in the country, where he was instrumental in transforming it into a large lifestyle store. He established Retail Services & Solutions in 2007 and has since worked with many garden centres, nurseries and hardware stores in Ireland. He has experienced every aspect of garden centre work from maintenance to sales, and purchasing to management. This combined with his problem solving ability, honesty and hands-on work ethic make him unique in his area. He can appreciate the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day running of a garden centre better than most, as he knows the products, mindset and ethos of the Irish garden retail sector.

Contact Liam at 086 822 1494/ 059 913 0176 or via lksolutions@eircom.net and www.lksolutions.blogspot.com