The desire to connect with nature through plants and wildlife is influencing the buying habits of generations of independent garden center customers. Habitat gardening, biodiversity and even pollinator plants have gone from fringe trends to integral parts of mainstream consumers’ identities as stewards of their natural worlds. Independent garden centers are uniquely positioned to help strengthen this beneficial connection for customers and communities. A regional Missouri-based initiative known as BiodiverseCity St. Louis may provide ideas and inspiration to help your IGC build business while doing good.
Creating a focused coalition
Like many urban areas, metropolitan St. Louis is often defined by its geopolitical boundaries, demographics and crime statistics. But the region that surrounds the city has a history of programs focused on nature-rich living and biodiversity. Even so, the assortment of programs historically led to fragmented results.
Sheila Voss, vice president of education at the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG), puts it this way: “There was a sense that there were a lot of parallel efforts that just weren’t breaking through to be foremost in people’s minds.”
In 2012, that changed when about 30 organizations — ranging from independent garden centers to governmental agencies and nonprofits, including MBG — rallied around the idea of urban biodiversity. A regional coalition, BiodiverseCity St. Louis (BiodiverseCitySTL), was born, with a goal of working together to improve the region’s quality of life through actions that protect, promote and enhance its biodiversity.
BiodiverseCitySTL now comprises more than 100 organizations working in increasingly collaborative ways to celebrate nature, influence policies and practices, and activate community change through projects as varied as invasive species removal to tree planting events and community gardens.
Voss emphasizes that nurseries and garden centers, “literally at the table” since the coalition’s beginning, have been key partners of successful public events and action projects. “Retail centers that interact with people throughout the year can reinforce these concepts that every single person, at any scale, can make a difference,” she says.
St. Louis-area garden center Sugar Creek Gardens became a BiodiverseCitySTL community partner about five years ago. For owner Abby Lapides, the move was a natural extension of the nursery and garden center’s mission: Gardening to Grow ... Community, Environment and Yourself. “The changes BiodiverseCity is trying to promote will have positive, lasting effects on the region,” she says. “We need to be proactive in preserving our ecosystems.”
Finding nature in neighborhoods
One pivotal aspect of BiodiverseCitySTL’s success has been helping citizens see their backyards, neighborhoods and the St. Louis region in new ways. The program’s wide-reaching embrace provides a framework for viewing projects — from edible school gardens to backyard birding — as parts of a bigger whole that speaks directly to enhancing the region’s diversity of plant and animal life and the quality of human life.
Through “Nature in our Neighborhoods” activities, citizens are urged to “find somewhere to love” in their own backyards or places where they live, learn, work, play or pray. Extensive print and digital materials suggest project possibilities, offer guides and resources, and list nurseries, garden centers and landscape designers to help citizens “beautify, biodiversify and better” their communities.
Jennifer Schamber, general manager of BiodiverseCitySTL community partner Greenscape Gardens & Gifts, stresses that IGCs can help people make the nature connection. “Getting people to value it, whether through monarchs or migratory bird stories or turning it into a human health and wellness story, people make connections between what they do in their yard and how it affects the world around them,” Schamber says.
Giving “citizen scientists” new purpose and productivity
November 2018 marked the public launch of a new citizen science component of the St. Louis regional initiative. Known as BiomeSTL (Biodiversity Metropolitan St. Louis), the project’s goal is to document the region’s biodiversity through observations by average citizens to create an atlas and, ultimately, an action plan to guide policy and practices in ways that promote biodiversity and quality of life.
A map shown at the launch for this “living resource” emphasized natural connections over county lines. “The human-drawn lines are literally and figuratively faded in the background, because we want people to see the natural assets of our region and start to think of it as natural corridors and create an identity for themselves that they live in a nature-rich region,” Voss says.
The project relies on a free, simple-to-use app called iNaturalist that any person (or IGC) can put to use for projects, big or small. All it takes is a smartphone and the desire to connect with the natural world.
As of Dec. 27, 2018, BiomeSTL’s iNaturalist project page includes more than 38,000 non-casual observations from 3,027 observers documenting 3,666 plant and animal species in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Through iNaturalist.org, you can access the project — or information specific to your own community — and see the public results.
Schamber says that teachers are especially excited by this development, noting one school that is planting native echinacea species and echinacea cultivars to study pollinator preferences — and this was the school’s own idea, without any suggestion from Schamber or others. Schools have really zeroed in on biodiversity, she says.
“The citizen science component is probably one of the most enticing things. The technology is now accessible to anyone to connect into this greater message,” she says. “As a garden center, there’s definitely been a tremendous increase in projects going in, especially in the schools. They’re planting not just a plant, but an idea.”
Reinforcing the importance of regional results
National programs have an important role in promoting public awareness of biodiversity. As this issue goes to press, the National Pollinator Garden Network is poised to announce that the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge has reached its goal of one million pollinator gardens nationwide. But region-specific efforts have additional power to change backyards and entire communities.
In addition to being a BiodiverseCitySTL partner, the City of St. Louis has extensive biodiversity programs of its own, including nationally recognized monarch habitat initiatives. Sustainability Director Catherine Werner suggests the regional focus of programs, such as BiomeSTL and the city’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, may be paramount to success. “It’s for the people as much as the butterflies,” Werner says. “This isn’t just for environmental activists, it’s for everyone. It’s localized, tangible and personal.”
Lapides agrees that regional focus is extremely important. “Though I think national organizations that are trying to sway policy are vital to conservation efforts, we need to start at home,” she says. “When people see their friends or neighbors working on these initiatives or see tangible benefits locally, they become strong motivators to join in.”
Help biodiversity-focused customers
As nature awakens and takes center stage this spring, your garden center can be ready. Concerns for nature and biodiversity can transcend traditional gardening trends. Consumers want to be good stewards of nature, get involved, be informed, make purposeful plant and product choices — and shop at businesses that share their concerns.
“Projects like BiomeSTL or the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, [these are the] greatest gifts our industry has ever been given, except maybe victory gardens — that was the last time we’ve seen something with such collective impact and call to action,” Schamber says. “Make it really easy for people. Figure out those top 10 plants for pollinators and always keep those on hand.”
She suggests partnering with local nature- or native-focused organizations, curating your plant offerings carefully, recruiting staff passionate about biodiversity, and educating customers. Greenscape’s spring plans include BiomeSTL signage, citizen science seminars, and a small-scale iNaturalist project on their own property.
“Plants with purpose create people with a purpose and, all of a sudden, your business has a purpose,” Schamber says. And purpose pays off in many ways.
The National Pollinator Garden network reports that 92 percent of garden centers have seen an increase in demand for pollinator-friendly plants and services since 2015, when the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge started. Initiatives like BiodiverseCitySTL and the City of St. Louis’ Milkweeds for Monarchs program have impacted regional plant sales, as well.
“There has been a massive increase in demand for Missouri native perennials. I have seen efforts to save the monarchs become a gateway for new gardeners,” Lapides says. “Once people see what sort of effect they can have just in their backyard, it opens up this idea that nature isn’t just hidden away in our parks, but is everywhere and it needs to be nurtured.”
Through BiodiverseCity St. Louis, coalition leaders have seen the impact that a garden center can have when the message of biodiversity is shared with intention. “I can’t emphasize enough the role that they can play,” Voss says. “By [selling plants] in such a way that connects it to something bigger, that really resonates with customers because it makes them feel really good about the plants that they’re buying.” Echoing that message can create demand and position your IGC with nature-loving customers and communities.