The move toward marijuana: IGCs and the cannabis customer

Features - Industry Trends

Independent garden centers in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized share their experiences serving cannabis clientele.

July 11, 2017


Many U.S. states are moving toward state-legalized recreational or medical marijuana. As of June 2017, eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational and medicinal use. Another 21 states have legalized medical marijuana only. Several more have marijuana legislation pending or planned.

Regardless of your stance on the topic, two things seem clear: State legalization is expanding and more home gardeners, medical caregiver-growers and commercial cultivators are seeking sources for growing supplies. The experiences of three independent garden centers in states with full legalization, including home cultivation, provide insights on what your company may see ahead.

Skillins Greenhouses

Three Maine locations

Recreational marijuana became legal in Maine in January 2017. Skillins Greenhouses hasn’t seen much change since then, but the Portland-area stores are well-positioned.

“We definitely had an eye toward that market prior to recreational legalization,” says owner Mike Skillin. The IGC has been mindful of customer requests from already-legal medical marijuana growers, and they’ve responded to the patterns they’ve seen.

Approximately five years ago, Skillin attended an annual trade show of a prominent distributor and was greeted with a theme highlighting marijuana-related opportunities. At the time, he and fellow garden center owners talked and decided on a collective wait-and-see approach. “As a business, we tend to tread pretty carefully,” Skillin says.

Shortly thereafter, the IGC started to see increased activity related to medicinal marijuana growing. Maine’s “caregiver-growers,” or those who cultivate plants for medical patients, were seeking well-known lines of cannabis-specific organic products. Skillins decided to “dip our toes in it” and began carrying some cannabis lines. They’ve added 10 to 12 SKUs in the intervening four to five years.

“When we first talked about this, someone said, ‘Let the customers tell you what to carry.’ We’ve followed that advice,” Skillin says. “They will tell you by sales, but they will also literally tell you what brand and what product.” The primary increase has come in soils, fertilizers and non-oil pest controls – all organic. Requests for hydroponics or specialized lights have been few.

Even with changing laws, customers are not always at ease. “It was pretty hush-hush before. Now it’s become more comfortable, but it’s still a quiet conversation,” Skillin says. The IGC relies on word of mouth to promote their cannabis-related lines. “We have an advantage in that we’re well-known in our market,” he says.

Skillin expects cannabis-related sales to grow in years to come and believes that established, trusted garden centers will have a definite advantage. “Be patient. Listen to the customer and take them seriously. Respond in small steps,” he advises. “It’s gaining steam, but it’s slow steam.”

Native Roots Garden Center

Native Roots Garden Center

Durango, Colorado

When Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, Native Roots Garden Center saw an influx of profit-focused growers looking for quick fixes to insect and disease problems. A smaller of wave of home growers seeking trustworthy advice — but uncomfortable asking about it — came as well.

Owner John Wickman, a long-time proponent of organic gardening methods, was particularly concerned by the lack of knowledge surrounding the hazards of using non-organic products on a crop intended for human consumption, particularly one consumed the ways marijuana is. The situation spurred Wickman to develop a 2015 blog post, “Indoor Cannabis Growing 101,” that answers unasked questions, outlines Colorado marijuana laws, and advocates the use of organic growing methods. Though the post prompted Google to suggest Wickman remove it because of federal marijuana laws, the post remains. It’s the only mention of cannabis you’ll find on the blog.

More Native Roots customers are growing marijuana since legalization, but Wickman says the impact has been negligible compared to surging interest in food production. Even so, it’s not uncommon for people to incorporate one or two marijuana plants into their organic vegetable gardening. Gardeners are often older, affluent individuals growing for recreational or medicinal use and willing to invest in premium, high-quality products.

“We’ve seen an uptick in soils, particularly higher-end soils, and organic pest control products,” Wickman says.

High elevation limits the number of commercial cannabis growers near the IGC, but Wickman says that some garden centers with large grower bases have experienced significant increases in soils and grower products. While some IGCs in urban areas report increased interest in hydroponic equipment for indoor growing, Wickman has not seen that at Native Roots.

“People are still pretty clandestine about what they’re doing, but you have to treat those customers equally,” Wickman says. “Be nonjudgmental, and help them grow safely. Try and direct them toward organic products rather than chemical products.”



Guentner’s Gardens

Salem, Oregon

When Oregon legalized recreational marijuana in 2015, Guentner’s Gardens was ready. Vendors with experience in other recreational states had prepared the IGC. Owner Michelle Guentner and her manager (and daughter) Corie Potthoff embraced the opportunity. New business surpassed their expectations and continues to build.

Mike Skillin, owner of Skillns Greenhouses, poses with organic products he says are popular with customers interested in growing cannabis.

Guentner reports a substantial increase in customers looking for cannabis-related products, especially among what she describes as the 60-ish “Age of Aquarius” group. Many people have decided to grow one or two plants and want premium soils and nutrients. She estimates about half are new to growing marijuana, while the other half have long-term experience.

Guentner’s customers find prominent displays of high-end, organic brands well-known among cannabis growers, along with a hydroponics corner. But cannabis customers aren’t the only ones shopping these displays. Traditional gardeners have witnessed impressive results with regular garden plants, and the lines are winning converts.

“The products are amazing. It’s improved our soil base and planting base for the regular gardener, too,” Guentner says. Potthoff adds, “We’re thrilled that we’ve grown our organic lines.”

The IGC has not advertised cannabis products specifically, but they understand the impact of a social media post showing recognized brands alongside vigorous traditional plants. Potthoff also occasionally uses phrases on social media that she knows marijuana growers use. For example, a Facebook caption may highlight a product for “a vegetative growth push.”

Plans include more cannabis-related products, such as the bulk cannabis soil mix now available for home delivery by the yard. Though the store doesn’t have cannabis signage yet, Guentner expects that will come, too. Even with poor weather this spring, sales are up, and she credits the category for that growth.

Potthoff believes more people are recognizing marijuana’s potential as a healing product and the stigma is gone.

“It’s a growing market for nurseries,” Potthoff says. Guentner stresses the importance of making new customers feel comfortable so they’ll return. “Make it easy for them,” she says. “It’s not going away.”

Preparing for change ahead

Staying informed about marijuana laws in your home state and neighboring states can help you foresee changes that will impact your IGC. The Interactive Marijuana Legislation Map ( from sister publication Cannabis Business Times, a GIE Media publication serving the legal commercial cannabis cultivation industry, can simplify the process. Click on the map or click the “States” link in the website’s menu bar for the latest state-specific news. Time will tell what’s ahead for your state and your IGC, but staying informed and up to date can help you prepare.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional based in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. She’s a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.