San Juan Nurseries: Tough decisions

Features - Cover Feature: Top 100 IGCs

San Juan Nurseries has moved toward organic products and education, and hopes its loyal customers will, too.

September 23, 2015
Brooke N. Bates

Donnie Pigford runs San Juan Nurseries, near The Four Corners in New Mexico, a little differently than his grandfather did when the garden center opened in 1952.

When the third generation owner bought the business with his wife, Myra, 10 years ago, he phased out landscaping services to concentrate on retail and wholesale. Since then, he has expanded the outdoor living selection to cater to a full range of lifestyle needs — not just plants for gardening but also fire tables, kitchenware, water gardens, patio furniture, pergolas and patio stone.

He also started removing synthetics and bringing in more organics, along with beneficial insects like ladybugs, earthworms, mantids and nematodes.

“I hit resistance like you wouldn’t believe. People were not happy with me,” Pigford says, remembering customers who wanted the same synthetic weed killers his grandpa sold. “But it’s about doing the right things for the right reasons.”

More recently, for example, San Juan Nurseries installed beehives to educate consumers about pollinators. Was Pigford afraid of losing customers who were scared of getting stung?

“Every time you make a decision in your business, you have the potential to lose customers who would rather spray Diazinon on their plants or kill the bees,” he says. “We might get some resistance, but we’re going to put up banners and signs and tell people about organics and beneficial pollinators. As stewards of nature, it’s our job to teach people why these are important.”

Beyond printed materials and seminars, Pigford embraced another toolset his grandpa didn’t have: the Internet.

San Juan’s website and social media networks have played a prominent role in educating the new generation of customers. Myra manages online channels including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Within a day after posting about a new plant or a batch of ladybugs, dozens of customers flood in to buy, some only after 20 minutes.

Thanks in part to social media, sales of items like organic fertilizers, heirloom seeds, and ladybugs have increased steadily over the past five years.

But the main reason social media has been so effective is because San Juan uses it to teach, not just to sell. It provides a forum where customers connect by asking questions and showing off their own backyards.

“Social media is all about getting your name out there, getting people to interact and gaining their trust,” he says. “It’s not about making a sale every day. It’s about helping people enjoy their backyards.”