Down to earth – on plant marketing

Originally published on February 4, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Avoid marketing shtick when plant-shopping”

In between staring out of windows dreaming about my garden and scraping scale off my houseplants, I have spent time lately reading catalogs cover to cover. Seed catalogs, plant catalogs, tool catalogs … If it’s about the garden and they’re selling stuff, I want to know all about it and I might even order something. Sight unseen if necessary because some of the catalogs, Chiltern Seeds for one, don’t even have pictures. What they have are great descriptions written in a way that makes me want everything.

That got me thinking about plant shopping. I know I’m not alone in ordering from catalogs. It’s one of the most gratifying ways for gardeners to spend an ugly winter day indoors. And as much as I’d rather spend money locally and probably you do too, there are plants available elsewhere that sound pretty great. And like you, I’m perfectly willing to take my chances on a plant destined to arrive on my doorstep either half dormant or still in its seed. But everything changes when we visit nurseries in the spring. Faced with tangible choices we’re much more likely to buy something in bloom than something that’s not. I’ve been seduced and so have you. It’s OK to admit it because those plants have been forced into bloom, unseasonably sometimes, on purpose. But it’s a marketing tactic aimed more for non-gardeners than you and me.

I learned recently, in a PowerPoint lecture full of pie charts given by a marketing executive from “The No. 1 Plant Brand,” that I am not their target customer and neither are you. She (they know she’s a she because their research says so) has a new favorite color every year. So far we’re the same. She is busy. Yup, me too. She wants a beautiful garden. Ditto. But she doesn’t want to actually garden in her garden. Say again? She wants a no-maintenance garden. Where’s the fun in that and does such a thing exist? (No.) She’s also afraid of botanical nomenclature and thinks we’re snooty smarty-pants for ever using Latin for clarity’s sake.

But I don’t think she’s a lost cause. She simply doesn’t yet know that gardening is a great way to work up a sweat on Saturday mornings or decompress for an hour after work. She doesn’t know that plants aren’t furniture, and that insects aren’t fascinating. She still marks time by a calendar, rather than by snowdrops, bees, pussy willow, daisies, daylilies, Joe-Pye weed and frost. Clearly, she needs us.

I like to think that the marketing executives hope that she will be bitten by the gardening bug and become as plant-geeky and into it as you and me. But evidently it’s more lucrative to validate and cater to her lack of interest because every year more plants are introduced that “bloom all summer!” and are “no-maintenance!”

plain old sweet alyssum

The problem is, I’m as taken in by catchy trademark names and promises as she is. A sweet alyssum (Lobularia) called “Snow Princess” that blooms non-stop? Bring it. And it’s true — that alyssum is sterile and pushes out flowers through heat and well past frost. But it lacks the delicacy of the seed catalog varieties. (Those might burn out mid-summer, but you can expect their self-sown seeds to germinate and pick up the show as soon as environmentally possible.) The same goes for “Knock Out” roses: They bloom all summer without deadheading! But they’re ungraceful plants and the flowers have no fragrance. Sometimes a rose is not much of a rose.

I figure it’s up to us to show this gal the alternatives and turn the industry on its ear. To persist in buying plants that aren’t in bloom yet but will be when the time is right. To put at least as many Rhody Natives on our cart as Proven Winners. To show everyone that a healthy garden buzzes, hums, lives and dies and is more gorgeous for its process and our hand in it. And that winter days are better spent reading about and ordering rarities and oddities from catalogs than not.

What I didn’t mention in the column – but I will now – was how offensive the marketing exec was. His prime directive was evidently to convince an auditorium full of industry professionals to dumb it down and make it extra shiny. He suggested that nurseries and garden centers should be reconstituted as “Life-Style Centers,” and that plants should be displayed by color rather than alphabetical order because “she” doesn’t speak Latin. But I do and so do you and we open our wallets for plants too. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is. I see nurseries struggling and I know they need to keep reaching out to a broader market. But anywhere my choices are limited to what some marketing dude thinks “she” wants, I’m outie.