Rise of the edibles: Is your garden center on board?

Rise of the edibles: Is your garden center on board?

Features - Cover Feature

Why independent garden centers should take note of the connection between gardening and healthy living

June 29, 2012
Karen E. Varga

Over the past 20 years, the obesity rate in the United States has steadily increased; the most recent statistics show that more than 35 percent of adults and about 17 percent of children ages 2-19 are obese. Michelle Obama has drawn attention to this epidemic through several healthy living programs that she has coordinated, including the installation of salad bars and vegetable gardens in schools. The USDA changed its dietary guidelines a year ago from the infamous food pyramid to a dinner plate divided into food groups; half of this plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables at every meal.

Several documentaries, including “Forks Over Knives,” “Food, Inc.” and “Food Matters” have focused on the importance of eating healthy, fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, to achieve optimum wellness. More families are making conscious decisions about the foods that they are consuming, and many have started to grow their own produce, for the lower costs and the ability to control how it is grown. Others visit local farmers markets for their weekly produce needs. New exercise programs seem to come out every day, each purporting to be better than the last, and bicycle borrowing programs are starting to become more popular in health-conscious cities.

All of these programs, efforts and trends share a common goal — to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle through exercise and the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables as a part of a balanced diet. Gardening, especially edible gardening, can contribute to a long, healthy life.

For the last three years, IGCs have seen an increase in revenue from edibles sales, possibly due in part to this healthy living movement. Are you marketing gardening in that way at your garden center? Many garden centers already sell fruit and vegetable seeds, seedlings or plants, but selling seeds and plants isn’t the only step you can take to increase sales. Here are some tips for keeping the baby boomers and Gen Xers coming back to your garden center as part of their healthy lifestyle.

Keep the baby boomers gardening
The baby boomer generation has long been one of the biggest populations visiting garden centers. However, this group is getting older, and some are not able to garden to the degree that they used to. Also, baby boomers are not typically re-landscaping their yards or buying bigger homes. They tend to be more concerned with maintaining what they have, without spending too much money on it. The question remains- how can garden centers continue to entice boomers to garden, and consequentially, come back into their stores?

Tip: branding your store as a “healthy” place

One concept that Raisch has seen at several garden centers is putting a sign out front that both draws attention to gardening as a source of exercise, as well as attracts potential employees. The sign says “Now hiring: free exercise!” or simply “Free exercise!” Another possibility is a sign that says “Eat fresh and stay fit.” The ambiguity of the signs will pique customers’ curiosity. When they ask employees about the sign, employees should be able to explain some of the physical benefits of gardening to them, and offer them a job application if they are interested.

“Definitely with the aging population, and the baby boomers, longevity and staying healthy are important factors to them, and, so both the exercise and the mental/physical/physiological aspects, they’re important to them,” affirms Sid Raisch, garden center consultant.

Gardening has been shown to be an excellent source of physical activity, and it’s important to share these facts with baby boomers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends at least two strength training activities a week to combat obesity and other health problems, lists heavy gardening activities, such as raking or digging, as a potential source of this type of exercise. The CDC also includes pushing a lawnmower, and other outdoor activities that elevate your heart rate (such as carrying loads of dirt in a wheelbarrow) as part of a good weekly aerobic exercise plan. Why not post a sign stating these benefits?

Elizabeth R.M. Diehl, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, knows the physical and mental benefits of gardening firsthand, as a horticultural therapist. Diehl suggests that garden centers bring in a horticultural therapist to educate both employees and customers on alternative gardening methods for physically impaired adults, such as straw bale gardening. Research has shown that the mental benefits of gardening are also significant. Gardening can help lower stress levels, increase cognitive stimulation and reduce some symptoms of depression. “No matter what your ability or disability,” says Diehl, “there is something that you can do, a way that you can benefit from interacting with nature and the garden.”

For the local, young foodie crowd
Gen-Xers are frequenting garden centers now more than ever, many times with their young children in tow. These young families want fresher, healthier, safer food. “Younger families are more interested in better food and their shopping habits go beyond the grocery store in that way,” affirms Raisch. “They’re asking questions related to food production; they’re growing vegetables and experimenting with that to a pretty high degree.” The Xers also want to know how their food was produced, including what kinds of chemicals were used; growing their own food assures that they will control all of these aspects.

Diehl also weighs in. “Maybe this is because I’m a mom with young children, but I feel like people are recognizing the value of having their children start to garden, and having kids understand where food comes from, especially in inner cities, where kids don’t necessarily have any concept of what farms are, or how food comes to be.”

When marketing to this group, place more emphasis on any efforts you are making to be local, as well as the health benefits of edibles gardening. Do you currently host or participate in a farmers market? In 1994, there were just 1,755 farmers markets in the USA. In 2011, the USDA counted over 7,175 markets across the nation, which was a 17 percent increase from 2010. Gen Xers are flocking to these markets in search of fresh, local food.

If you have the space and resources, host your own farmers market, and involve the community and other local businesses. Put up signage throughout the store touting the benefits of gardening and consuming fresh produce. In fact, even if you don’t host a farmers market, you should still hang signage promoting these benefits throughout the store.

Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, Mass. has had such success with the farmers market that they host, that they have one both in winter and summer. If hosting a farmers market isn’t a possibility, you can rent a stand in an existing market, where you can sell plants, basic gardening supplies, and talk to new customers about what makes edibles gardening (and your garden center, of course) so great.

As the outdoor edibles harvesting begins, and you reflect back on the spring and summer, consider whether or not you were one of the garden centers who took advantage of the healthy living movement, or opted to focus your energy and attention to other, larger-revenue areas of your business than edibles.

“It’s a pivotal category that gets people in and keeps them coming in,” reflects Raisch. However, edibles sales are not predicted to equal other annuals and perennials sales anytime in the near future. Even so, there is great potential for growth in the category, and opportunity to distinguish your garden center from those who do not place as much emphasis on gardening as a part of being healthy. Raisch notes that if you already have strong annuals and perennials sales, you should focus more attention on edibles, and the health aspects of gardening, as a way to enhance your business in the future.