Plant parenting
Garden Center columnist Leslie Halleck explains how IGCs can help inexperienced customers at Cultivate'19.
Kate Spirgen

Plant parenting

Cultivate your customers’ relationships with their plants to create a lifelong love of gardening.

July 17, 2019

The zeitgeist of thoughtful collecting, nurturing ownership and creative display is in full bloom in the plant world, according Leslie Halleck, Garden Center magazine columnist and founder of Halleck Horticultural.

“It’s a lot more about relationships with this product now than it used to be,” she said during her session “Plant Parenting: Connect & Cultivate Plant-Keeping Trends and Marketing” at Cultivate’19 in Columbus, Ohio.

But the popularity of houseplants isn’t a new trend. Halleck said she sees a lot of jaded negativity because people have seen the popularity of houseplants come and go. But Halleck said you have to give people what they want, even if they’re plants that aren’t exciting to you

“So what? Don’t you want to make money?” she asked. “Who here thinks they can exist on the customer base they have right now?”

She stressed that IGCs have to continue to attract new customers, no matter what they want. “If they want ferns in macramé planters, do it,” she said.

Forging relationships

Halleck reminded IGC owners that they have to think back to their first plants. Halleck got her first houseplant when she was just 6 years old, and now, at 47, she still has vivid memories of caring for it. She said it was her first experience with nurturing.

“Think back to your first experience with plants and how excited you were,” she said. “And also how much you still needed to learn.”

The rise of smartphones

While the trend of houseplants isn’t new, the prevalence of smartphones is. “There’s a whole new way in which people can build community and have community online,” Halleck said. “It’s news now because everybody can see it. And you have to be where your customers are.”

But many garden centers have refused to adapt to the technology. Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest are the main channels IGCs need to be focusing on, she said, but houseplants are making real headway on Instagram.

“Whether you want to do this or not doesn’t matter. It’s non-negotiable now,” Halleck said.

Halleck said this trend picked up steam when interior designers were using plants as sculpture. You’d start seeing them in magazines like Architectural Digest, but then people started to really develop feelings about the plants they cared for.

“They realized that nurturing these plants made them feel good and started treating them like pets,” Halleck said.

Once that happens, the plant addiction sets in and people become incredibly attached to their plants.

Leading trends

Halleck noted that the industry tends to follow trends rather than leading them. But IGCs can’t do that if they aren’t engaged in online channels, where so many people are living their lives.

Most of the shops where shoppers can buy plants online are not growers or horticulturalists. They’re collectors or entrepreneurs. And Halleck pointed out that the industry is struggling to create a direct distribution system online and online knowledge.

And in brick and mortar stores, urban plant shops are popping up everywhere and it’s not going to stop. “But this is what many people think is a garden center now,” Halleck said.

But garden centers also have the chance to start trends instead of following them. “We already know what the cool things are so why don’t we tell people what the cool things are?” she asked.

Teaching the basics

There is a huge ocean of people, especially the younger generation, that have no knowledge of plants or how to care for them. But people want to know how to grow. They used to not care what was on the plant tag but now they want to know exactly what it is.

“Generic plant tags are no longer cool. If you’re selling plants with a generic plant tag, you’re going to lose them. And you could spread misinformation,” Halleck said, since people can get on Instagram and incorrectly identify a plant to all of their followers.

“Ask yourself, “Who is educating your customers? Is it you? Is it someone else? Is it someone qualified?” she asked. “There’s a lot of guilt out there around killing plants so when you allow misinformation out there it hurts everyone. People want to learn plant science, they want to learn the language of botany so don’t talk down to them. Tell them what they want to know.”

The pros of propagating

Another old trend becoming new again is propagating. And while many garden centers are wary of losing plant sales, propagating doesn’t stop people from buying plants, it feeds their passion. Using herself as an example, she noted that people who propagate also buy the most plants.

You should never be afraid of teaching people how to propagate, she said. There are also a lot of hard goods you can sell around propagating, so make sure you’re selling that as well if you buy what people want.

It’s a great way to grow your collection, stretch your budget and be more sustainable. “If you guys aren’t talking about this, you’re missing out in your marketing,” Halleck said.