October 15, 2011
Tom Intven
LO President

tom intven In my October, 2010, President’s Message, I touched on the challenge of relevance of gardening to Gen X and Y. I suggested that there seemed to be renewed interest in gardening after the great recession of 2008, especially with the grow-your-own trend. The latest survey on gardening trends in the U.S. suggests otherwise, presenting some disturbing statistics on the challenges our industry faces in the coming years.

Disturbing statistics

The 2011 National Gardening Survey in the U.S. reports on America’s gardening activities, spending trends and attitudes, many of which are reflected in Canada. It is one of the basic tools for manufacturers, growers and marketers to make decisions on business strategies going forward.

Industry consultant Ian Baldwin recently presented an interpretive report on the statistical survey at the FarWest show in Portland.

He said that between 1999 and 2010, the average spending per household on do-it-yourself (DIY) lawn and garden fell from $532 to $355. This precipitous plummet was not just a result of the recession. Even in the boom year of 2007, the 1999 figure dropped more than $100, to $428 per household each year.

This trend means that since 2005, the U.S. has experienced an average drop in DIY gardening spending of 4.2 per cent each year. Earlier national gardening surveys showed that a lot of this business went to design-build landscapers and maintenance companies, in the do-it-for-me surge which was fuelled by the home equity loan boom (home improvement tax credit in Canada), but which has not returned. I believe a similar trend has occurred in Canada. The survey also measures the rate of participation in gardening, as well as spending, and it tells a similar story – 11 million fewer U.S. households participated in gardening in 2010, than in 2005.

The growth trends in the 16 gardening activities are also enlightening. Only two activities, vegetable gardening (hence my sense of renewed gardening interest) and water gardening, show any growth in participation, but they are small portions of a household budget.

Money spent on big-ticket categories in any gardening household — lawn care, DIY landscaping and flower gardening — actually declined by 1.7 per cent, 8 per cent and 2.3 per cent, respectively, between 2005 and 2010.

Demographics are against us

The slide in gardening interest is exacerbated by the demographics of our aging population. Participation in gardening activities, among those under 45 years old, has been in decline for some years. Consequently, the share of the nation’s gardening time and budget spent by those over 55 (baby boomers) is actually increasing. In other words, more garden business is from a group of people who will be retiring, downsizing and living on a fixed income.

In 2010, 40 per cent of the entire gardening industry’s sales were to people over 55 years of age, despite them making up only 32 per cent of the U.S. households. Further, it is the rich who support gardening now, more than ever. A total of 41 per cent of the industry’s sales were spent by households earning $75,000 or more, despite the group comprising only 27 per cent of the total.

Not only are the older, more affluent consumers participating more often in gardening, they are also spending more per year than younger groups. In other words, our industry is dependent, to a worrisome degree, on the affluent, older consumers.

The challenge of relevance

The current model of gardening is clearly not working for householders under 45 (who outnumber the baby boomers), and neither is it working for people of any age with kids, as 70 per cent of the U.S. gardening was spent by homes without children. People who study demographics have warned of these changes for years. This survey should be a wake-up. Baldwin notes, “Gardening is not relevant to under-45-year-olds, nor is it to families with children and in turn, to children.”

Our challenge is to keep our industry and our businesses healthy and growing in an era when the demographics and statistics are working against us.

Let’s work together on the solution

While each of us must answer this question for our own business in our own market, there are some things that we can do together that may help buck the trend.
At the risk of repetition, some of the ideas put forth in the Oct. 2010 issue are more relevant than ever:
  • We need to tell our story: Growers especially are keen to support projects that demonstrate the environmental, social and economic benefits of plants. Supporting National Tree Day is a start, but we need more programs like this to keep our industry top of mind.  
  • We should get involved with schools and encourage gardening activities, projects and curricula. This is our long-term future.
  • We should whole heartedly support Communities in Bloom. This grassroots program is one of the most effective ways to bring recognition and relevance of gardening to communities. Keep up the great work!
  • The single most important event in Ontario for stimulating demand for our industry is Canada Blooms. With the partnership forged with the National Home Show, we can only hope that more members of the public will be turned on to gardening. Let’s all support Blooms in any way that we can during this pivotal year.
  • We need to demonstrate to new home owners that gardening can be easy. Karl Stensson says we must make gardening easy for younger shoppers. The more we can simplify gardening and demonstrate the ease factor, the more readily young homeowners will invest in our goods and services.
  • We should embrace the trends toward outdoor decorating, container gardening and outdoor living that have emerged in the last few years. Our product lines may well have to significantly change.
  • Innovative marketing is needed more than ever. In a world of declining print importance and increasing social media, we need to invest time and resources in re-tooling our marketing programs.  

Our five to 10 year plan should be to improve our appeal to the retiring baby boomers. The long-term plan, however, must include building relevance with those under 45. We need to work extra hard to encourage these people who have never gotten their hands dirty. Developing long-term relevance for our industry is our biggest challenge, and we need to work together, more than ever, to achieve it.
Tom Intven may be reached at 519-631-1008, or tintven@landscapeontario.com.