The new gardener

As plant popularity grows, a different kind of customer is coming to the garden center with wants and needs outside of the traditional mold.


When consumers started spending more time at home in 2020, they headed to garden centers in droves, many for the first time. A National Garden Bureau report found that 18 million Americans started gardening in 2020, and they got hooked on their new hobby. These customers came with lots of enthusiasm, little knowledge and different needs than the traditional IGC customer. While the gardening momentum doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon, the garden as we know it may be changing due to demands from this new demographic.

“I think [COVID] was the shot in the arm that our industry needed. We’ve talked for a long time about how to get the next generation into gardening,” says Jennifer Calhoun, marketing specialist for Benary. “I think that’s going to continue. I think eventually it’s going to taper off a little bit because people are going back to work. They’re going to go back to travel. They’re going to go back to their busy scheduled lives. However, I think that they’re always going to continue gardening some.”

A mobile survey conducted by Monrovia in June showed that some may even garden more. The company found that 41% of homeowners interested in gardening expect to spend more time digging in the dirt now than they did during pandemic lockdowns.

Another survey conducted by Monrovia found that consumers have been drawn to gardening over the past couple of years, not because they were bored or wanted to entertain outdoors or even to reconnect with nature, but because they wanted to pursue a hobby. “I think that a lot of people got into gardening in the last two years because it was something they were doing for themselves during a really stressful, difficult time,” says Katie Tamony, chief marketing officer for Monrovia.

But beyond COVID hobbies, the housing market is fueling the fire for gardening. Combining numbers from the Association of Realtors and the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 6.5 million homes were sold in 2020. Those 2020 sales were at the highest level in the U.S. since 2006.

“It’s usually when people buy a house that they decide they want to garden,” Calhoun says. “And the housing market right now is hot. People are buying houses like crazy, so people are gardening and people that you would never really expect to garden, they’re putting in plants. And even if they can’t till the soil and have a traditional garden, they’re having a bunch of pots of vegetables or a balcony garden or things like that.”

Informative signage is the ultimate invitation when it comes to welcoming and educating the new wave of gardeners.

Capture new interest

Like any new hobbyist, budding gardeners need help finding their way to success. Guidance and education are the keys, Tamony says. “I think sometimes new gardeners feel like ‘I don’t even know what to ask,’ so I think it’s important to make the garden center welcome.”

Signage is a key way to help new customers navigate the garden center without even needing to ask questions. “Have signage that tells people where to go with their questions or have posters that explain what an annual or a perennial is,” Tamony says. “That makes people feel comfortable and it doesn’t make those experienced gardeners turn away. It makes those inexperienced gardeners feel invited in.”

Being good stewards to new gardeners, capturing their attention and sharing your excitement for plants is key to keeping those new hobbyists coming back, says Katie Rotella, marketing and communications, Ball Horticultural.

“Teach them; showcase the plants that are easy so that they take a chance next year. We had great weather last year. I think people were successful and that’s what we’re seeing the fruition of this year. So regardless of the weather or how people are educating themselves, be part of that system and bring them back. If they feel successful, they’re going to just keep coming,” she says.

To that end, Rotella says it’s important not only to have the right plants to fit new gardeners’ needs, but to showcase that with clear signage. This new group will not only be leaning on an IGC’s displays, but on staff recommendations as well, Rotella says, so educating employees about easy-care plants is a must.

For further education outside of the garden center, videos are becoming more and more popular. When gardeners couldn’t get out to the garden center for advice, many turned to YouTube or even TikTok for plant advice. And after a year of Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings, video is more mainstream than ever before. “I think people are taking videos more seriously,” Calhoun says.

To welcome new gardeners, it’s important to note they aren’t looking at plants the same way your existing customers do, Rotella says. “They don’t consider themselves gardeners. They just consider themselves plant people or plant parents, so how do we service them in the garden center? How do we get them in the dirt?”

To help newer gardeners, offer plants that can take sun or shade for versatility in the garden. Another good option is plants that offer “a lot of instant gratification” with easy maintenance, Rotella says. The idea is to help new gardeners be successful as they learn more about plant care.

Good options for those new gardeners are shade plants, succulents and roses, says Amanda Flint, plant project manager at PlantHaven. “You put it in your garden, it takes next to no effort and it’s covered in blooms and color almost all year round,” she says. “I think anything that can fit into that market is going to continue to trend and do very well with gardeners.”

Foliage is another key when it comes to multi-season interest, Tamony says. She’s noticing that people want plants that look good throughout the year. “And I think that’s one of the reasons foliage is becoming so important and interesting to people,” she says. Houseplants are driving that trend as well, but for outdoor growers, interesting foliage can help extend the life and interest of a plant in the garden for multiple seasons.

Edible gardening

Many new gardeners find their way into the garden with vegetable plants, finding success there first and moving on to ornamentals afterward. Food gardening was the fastest-growing gardening category in 2020, according to the National Garden Bureau.

Even before the advent of COVID, there was a growing trend in cultivating your own food, whether it was for food independence or the increased interest in plant-based diets, according to Dr. Bridget Behe, professor of horticulture, Michigan State University. That movement gained even more momentum during the pandemic. “We need to think about helping people have control by growing fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs,” Behe said during a Cultivate’21 presentation. “It’s about the perception of control. It’s probably not enough tomatoes to feed your family but it gives people a sense of control.”

And it’s not just food security giving consumers a sense of control. Amidst concerns about salmonella and E. coli during recent years (and several recalls), vegetable gardening is becoming even more attractive.

“That way they know it’s not tainted,” Calhoun says. “I think it’s that, plus it’s fun. There have been a lot of studies showing that once people start vegetable gardening, it’s kind of a gateway to flower gardening because then they’re more comfortable. And then they realize, ‘My yard can look as pretty as my neighbors’ and then they start branching into other things and they fall in love.”

Even more powerful than the plant-based diet trend, the organic movement or food independence is the local movement, Behe says. So backyard farming can not only help gardeners feel more control over their diets, but also give them feel the satisfaction of feeding their own families right from their own backyards with great flavor and great nutrition.

And that’s where IGCs can really differentiate from the big-box stores. While consumers can buy vegetable and herb plants from big-box stores, only garden centers will help gardeners be successful from planting to harvest.

“You can’t stop with the plant sale; you have to get them to the plate,” Behe says. And to help customers get their produce on the plate, be the conversation-starter to help gardeners figure out what to do with their bumper zucchini crop or ask what they’re doing with their garden produce.

Mixing up garden design

Gardeners are starting to mix up garden design as well, combining edibles with ornamentals for a new look. “They might mix their vegetables with their flower because they don’t know that they’re supposed to have a vegetable patch and a flower patch or a hanging basket that doesn’t include vegetables,” Rotella says. “So just expect the unexpected with this new group.”

Rotella says she’s doing just that in her own garden as well, mixing petunias in among her spearmint and oregano. “So there’s nothing that says vegetable gardens need to be green or just fruiting. Plant those marigolds in there, get those spreading petunias and other plants in there as well.”

And the same trend is taking over in containers — annuals and perennials are being planted in the same pot, vegetables are being mixed with colorful blooms and herbs are showing up in containers with textured foliage. It seems the ‘less is more’ approach is on the outs right now. Rather than a monoculture, customers are looking for containers full of variety, but still artfully designed.

“I think there’s a kind of no-holds-barred approach to containers nowadays,” Rotella says. “I think mixing vegetables, herbs, flowers and perennials is going to be the kind of the way that people are going.”

Tamony says the ‘Garden of Eden’ look is gaining traction with landscape designers in her area, and monoculture is on its way out. The look is all about layering edibles, perennials, trees and shrubs together.

“You’re starting to see that it’s OK to have your blueberry planted right next to your hydrangea and so just not thinking about these things as separate, but actually it’s a creative garden, which I think more people are interested in,” she says. “You want to mix it up because it’s going to look more natural.”

With veggie gardening on the rise, IGCs can provide expert advice for people who want to try their hand at growing edibles.

Warm and happy colors

Warm and happy colors seem to be taking the spotlight as customers come out of the pandemic, matching the optimism of consumers looking to a post-pandemic future. “People are finding ways to invigorate their lives with color,” Rotella says, whether that’s in the home or in the garden. She’s seeing gardeners gravitate toward warm colors, mixing reds, pinks and purples all together, or optimistic colors like sunny yellows.

“I don’t think you’re going to see as many of those elegant décor items like it used to be maybe two years ago with white and green or soft blues,” she says. “I think people are really going toward the hot, kind of summer colors. They want to feel little energy back in their lives and an easy way to do that is with color.”

Flint says Americans are really loving bright, bold and vivid colors right now as well, adding that reds, pinks and purples are the top sellers. But she has also seen the use of more white flowers among the colors to help make them pop and speculates that we could see more neutral colors in future gardens as a backdrop or complement to those bright blooms.

Contrast is key to make those colors pop, Calhoun says. Homeowners with more muted exterior colors tend to want more brightly colored houses while those with bright houses tend to go more for white for that contrast. The key is to have something for everyone.

The palette for foliage is going far beyond the traditional as well. Variegated foliage plants with pops of color like ‘Pink Princess’ philodendron are selling at incredibly high prices. But anything from black to orange is trending right now, Flint says.

People are growing ornamentals alongside edibles, as well as incorporating warm pops of color throughout their gardens.

Boom or bust?

As pandemic restrictions lift and consumers have more options for their disposable income like travel and dining out, it’s not only their wallets but their watches that the industry needs to be aware of.

Rotella has some optimism that new gardeners will stick around even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. “Once it gets into your soul, gardening just becomes one of those things that you always find time and money to do,” Rotella says.

And while gardening may lose some market share to other interests like pets or travel or going out to eat, there could be ways to tie their gardening interests and their other interests together.

“What are those pet-friendly gardens? What are kid-friendly gardens? What are those plants you thought about on vacation that you can bring into your home? With tropicals and exotic-looking plants, you’re reminding them of their other hobbies,” Rotella says.

The key is making sure gardeners can keep on planting despite life returning to normal. Offering options that can thrive on their own for a week while travelers take vacation or jet off on a business trip is a great way to keep gardeners from getting discouraged. “Something that’s easy to grow, that won’t just melt into a pile of nothing when they go to work or go on vacation. I think those are going to do well,” Calhoun says.

And as North Americans have more options for their time and their money, easy-care, low-maintenance plants (both indoors and out) can help IGCs succeed, Flint says. “Time is something that’s always going to be really difficult to get, especially for younger generations. Where do they want to spend it? And so plants that are going to be easy but still give them the high amount of dopamine or serotonin.”

By continuing to talk about what plants can do to make people happy, feed their families, de-stress their lives and reconnect with nature, the 2020 garden boom just might stick.

August 2021
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