An important component to running a thriving and profitable independent garden center is the ability to stay plugged into the overall marketplace and stay ahead of trends. One must continually pay attention to the evolution of consumer preferences and behaviors, as well as design and environmental trends across the outdoor and indoor landscape. As consumer concerns about water conservation and wildlife preservation grow, they are driving a growing demand for native plants.
The demand for native plants is coming not only from homeowners, but also landscape designers, landscape architects and public space planners. Each are not only looking for plants that require fewer inputs, but also those that will provide resources for local wildlife and pollinators. The concept of restoration ecology is now moving from the prairie into our urban spaces and backyards.
In the 1980s, restoration ecology emerged as both a formal scientific field and a layman’s movement that spurred the need for access to native plant species. Researchers were looking to return cultivated spaces back to their so-called natural plant habitat.
Make the match
As the practice of restoration landscaping has evolved and continues to become more prevalent in our urban spaces, it’s become more sophisticated. With a focus on sustainability and low-maintenance strategies, progressive horticulturists and landscape designers are aiming to match habitat with plant. The result of such a match brings a soft, natural and informal feel to the landscape.
For the homeowner and urban dweller, the ecological application of landscape restoration has evolved into what is commonly referred to as habitat gardening. But I suggest that we could take the application a step further and characterize a new movement as “backyard landscape restoration.”
Less is more
As low-input habitat plants become more popular with gardeners and designers, less formal spaces are becoming a more dominant trend in contemporary landscape design. Spaces that were once anchored with formal rows of shrubbery and highly manicured lawns are being traded for a more natural and loose feel.
As this trend continues to evolve, there is a great opportunity for herbaceous plants and perennials to recapture spaces now dominated by woody plants, lawns and hardscape. Plants such as ornamental grasses, succulents and wildflowers are taking the place of high-maintenance, non-adapted specimens. Essentially, we’re bringing the prairie, and its look, back into our cities. The High Line park in New York City, built on a historic, elevated freight line, is a great example of such a space. Filled with soft grasses, perennials and trees, it’s a place that is influencing and informing how urban dwellers think of public spaces and their own landscapes.
A major factor contributing to declining wildlife and pollinator populations is an obvious and impactful one: habitat loss. As human populations expand their reach, consuming more resources and land, wildlife struggles.
According to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement, 60 percent of the human population live in urban areas. That’s about double the percentage of urban populations in 1960. Considering that urban life is getting denser, and human activity has fragmented a majority of the planet’s wilderness areas, tackling habitat restoration one urban landscape at a time seems to be both a logical and accessible approach.
By supplying and planting more native or resource-providing plant species within our urban gardens and public spaces, garden centers, designers and homeowners can each help in the effort to provide much needed food sources and habitats lost to development.
As pollinator health continues to command much of the consumer consciousness at the moment, many customers want to know that the plants they buy will feed and house local bees, birds, bats, insects and other wildlife. Overall, the public is shifting toward a preference for wildlife friendly plantings. In order to meet this demand, garden centers need to take a close look at their current plant offerings and how they are marketing them.
Many native pollinators, which also happen to feed your local birds, fish, and toads, often can’t recognize cultivated and non-native plants as a food source. In essence, many cultivated ornamental plants are taking up space that could be supporting wildlife.
Controlling the conversation
Growers know that not all native plants respond well to potted cultivation; retailers know many natives don’t show well in a retail container and can often fail to meet the customer’s expectations of aesthetics. Retail customers and contractors typically expect these low-maintenance plants to look as instantly attractive as cultivated varieties once planted in their landscapes. It can be difficult to meet all of these expectations. How many times have your customers turned up their noses once they actually saw what the native plant section looked like?
Thus, there has been a tendency within the industry to move the consumer conversation away from natives and instead toward non-native and cultivated adapted plants. From a resource usage and maintenance perspective, it’s a logical approach. However, as customers have become savvier about pollinator and wildlife needs, they’ve started pushing back, questioning the usefulness of such non-native adapted plants.
While using native plants in the landscape is considered a sustainable practice that’s beneficial for wildlife, not all natives are equal. Some are such successful competitors that they become downright invasive. Take caution when selecting native species for production or sale at your garden center, as you’ll want to make sure they are non-invasive and beneficial in your particular locale. This is when the use of nativars of such assertive species can really come in handy, as many are less aggressive than their parent species.
A newer shift within the plant breeding world is that of creating appropriate cultivars of native plants: selecting improved varieties of native plants and breeding native with native to boost aesthetics while maintaining adaptability and resources. I like to refer to these plants as nativars. Nativars are seen as a better alternative to non-native adapted plants as they should, conceptually, better support local wildlife.
However, it’s important to know that not all nativars contribute to wildlife support in the same way their parent species do. In addition, biodiversity still takes a hit from nativars, as many are reproduced vegetatively, which limits genetic diversity. Biodiversity is key to successful urban landscape restoration. The more diverse the plant life in a landscape, the more useful it is to a larger cross section of birds, pollinators, insects and other wildlife.
Desperately seeking natives
The trick, for many homeowners and designers alike, is finding the native plants or nativars they want to accomplish their urban wildlife garden goals. Again, what is native to West Texas, for example, may not be particularly useful to me in Dallas. Identifying new growers, or working with your existing ones, to better round out your local native offerings is key.
Even if you do have a great assortment of wildlife friendly plants at your garden center, they may not be easy to identify for the less-experienced consumer. Have you clearly identified good wildlife plants for your local environment with good signage? Do you provide educational materials your customers can use to find the right plants useful for specific pollinators?
Remember that your customers are being trained and influenced by what they see around them every day. You may not provide landscaping or design services at your garden center, but that doesn’t mean your customers won’t take their gardening and shopping cues from the evolving public spaces they visit.