Debra Prinzing

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Inspiring garden centers and outdoor living retailers

August 25th, 2010

This was my first visit to the IGC Show in Chicago - the 4th Annual Show was impressive

I had a great gathering of "indie" retailers for this presentation.

After presenting to a welcoming audience at last week’s Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago, I’m more convinced than ever that there is a huge passion and vitality among the “indies” of horticulture. 

These are the women and men who adore plants, love to share their knowledge about growing things, don’t mind getting dirt under their nails, and who understand that connecting with other gardeners is what it’s all about. 

If you can run a business like that, well, then you are blessed. I’m not saying it’s easy. These are hard-working plantswomen and men; some of them are from longtime nursery families who grew up growing and selling plants. Others come to garden center life through different paths. But people find their way. And in the face of competition from big box retailers, the “indies” are almost as threatened as small-town booksellers (Although I just read an article in New York magazine about the return of independent book stores.) From what I saw last week, with the aisles of Chicago’s Navy Pier teeming with thousands of trade showgoers, I’m convinced the “indie” garden center and outdoor living retailer is a force to be reckoned with. 

My talk highlighted some of the successful participants in this movement. I promised to post an excerpt of this talk and some highlights here for my audience members to read. I”m also interested in comments and suggestions for other “indies” who are doing things right in their own community. Please let me know where you gain inspiration and make a “connection” with the local garden center in your community. I really do want to know! 


Style-makers & Trend-setters: 

  • Lifestyle garden centers meld interior and exterior design
  • Smart specialty retailers, garden emporiums and boutiques combine plant sales with other home & garden merchandise
  • They take a curatorial approach to plants, art and accessories
  • By Trend-spotting, they stay one step ahead of the consumer, creating the inevitable Aha! moment that delights and surprises.
  • Travel, research and discover – and bring home those ideas to your own store
  • Masterful Merchandisers: 

  • Use color, form, texture and materials to unify products in an eye-pleasing way
  • Create a narrative in which the consumer sees herself or himself as the central protagonist (like set design/theatre)
  • Give everyday basics a special twist (moving from commodity to value-added)
  • Portray high-end, luxury goods in an easy-to-access manner
  • Consumer Connectors: 

  • Give customers and shoppers a reason to visit, stay and return often – almost ritualistically. They know and nurture their “regulars.”
  • Create moments that invite lingering. Think like Barnes & Noble (comfy chairs) and Starbucks (free WiFi, cool music, places to perch and converse)
  • Become a Third Place with programs and events that create community (garden-themed food, music, art, health/wellness)
  • Offer event space for like-minded groups and associations (fee-based or in-kind)
  • There isn’t space (or time) for me to post all 107 images from my talk, but I wil go through each of the above points and feature one or two examples. At the bottom of the talk will be the names and links of all the garden centers and outdoor living retailers I’ve included in the lecture. 

    Melding interior and exterior design.

    Above: Pot-ted Store in Los Angeles created a hipsterish outdoor textile line of their own using color-blocking and an interior palette. 

    Combining plant sales with home and garden merchandise.

    Above: Swansons Nursery in Seattle sells $200 Fermob French café chairs among perennials and meadow plants, color coordinated for a stylish presentation. 

    Taking a curatorial approach to plants, art and accessories.

    Above: Botanik in Summerland/Santa Barbara presents wall pottery and plants as a gallery-like installation. 

    Spotting trends and finding ways to express them visually.

    Above: Flora Grubb Nursery in San Francisco planted this dazzling wall tapestry of succulents and sedums, and as a result, it became the hottest editorial “green wall” image around. 

    Travel, scout and research - get out of the store!

     Above: Gillian Mathews of Ravenna Gardens in Seattle hits local flea markets and antique shows for “found objects” that inspire merchandise displays, products and the unique, one-of-a-kind vibe of her store.  

    Set a stage with texture themes, color-blocks and vibrant vignettes

    Above: Simple yet effective, this edible-themed display at the Atlanta Botanic Garden caught my eye. These are unrelated products but they tell a story when displayed together. 

    Chicks, hens, exotic poultry . . . take many forms from figures to books to artwork.

    Above:  Here’s another example of what I mean, from Swanson’s Nursery in Seattle – a Poultry-themed vignette. 

    Be a storyteller and build a narrative around your customer and her (his) lifestyle.

    Above: Who wouldn’t want to be submerged in a tub filled with spring flowering bulbs? It’s a romantic notion – one that expresses this idea perfectly. I discovered this display at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in 2010. 

    Involve your customers as co-designers and co-creators of their own plant projects.

    Above: Rolling Greens Nursery in Los Angeles has an interactive “Arrangement Bar” where customers can sit on stools and collaborate with staff in a theatre-like experience to create their own floral designs and container plantings. 

    Give everyday basics - even bags of compost - a special twist.

    Alternate colorful rows of salad greens for a pleasing edible display.

     Above: At Living in the Garden in Pullman, Wash., bags of compost are displayed in a pretty-in-pink outhouse. At Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, Calif., red and green lettuces are used in an alternating pattern. 

    "Luxe" items are portrayed in an accessible way.

    Hand-built pottery designed especially to contain a nursery's cactus collection.

    Above: The tiny porcelain vases by Idaho artist Farmer Julie are arranged on a bed of turf; the one-of-a-kind vessels by Arizona artist Mike Kon are displayed with the cactuses and succulents for which they are intended. 

    Make it fun to be a "regular" for adults and kids alike.

    Atlanta Botanical Garden's "Highballs and Hydrangeas" are a big after-hours draw on a weekly basis.

    Above: A happy shopper enjoys Bowood Farms in St. Louis, while grown-up garden lovers attend and return to Atlanta Botanical Garden’s fun summer soirees. 

    Create moments that invite lingering, like Terrain's cafe in the greenhouse.

     Above: Encourage customers to “make a day of it” and combine shopping with social destination. . . the ultimate one-day getaway for stressed consumers in search of sanctuary.  

    Garden-themed food classes at ABG are among the successful community-building programs.

    Become a Third-Place with programs and events that create community, such as these cooking classes at Atlanta Botanical Garden.

     Above: Culinary events, as well as music, art, health/wellness-oriented activities involve customers in your own “community” of gardeners. 

    Become a venue for activities and events. Support your customers' interests and causes.

    Above: At Flora Grubb, this Mother’s Day hands-on floral design course was a huge hit with customers wanting to learn new techniques in a sustainable way. 

    The Bottom Line:

    Let the beauty of what you love be what you do ~ Rumi

    Garden Centers featured:

    Atlanta Botanical Garden Shop


    Bowood Farms

    California Cactus Center

    Flora Grubb Gardens

    Inner Gardens

    Laguna Nursery

    Living in the Garden

    Pot-ted Store

    Rolling Greens Nursery

    Ravenna Gardens

    Sprout Home

    Swanson’s Nursery

    Terrain at Styers

    6 Responses to “Inspiring garden centers and outdoor living retailers”

    1. suzanne st pierre Says:

      Oh, how I wish I could have heard/seen this talk! I am inspired from the few photos you did post. I would love to have seen them all.
      Thank you for the work you do! Inspiration abounds in this post, I’ve already found 2 ideas to ‘steal’.
      Of course I love the “bottom line”. Did I tell you that this spring one of my customers came in and recited the
      whole Rumi poem to me….magic!

    2. Carol Says:

      Fabulous post; I too wish I could have heard your presentation, but this has given me several ideas on which to build. We’re going to IGC next year, can’t wait.

    3. Lydia Plunk Says:

      Thank you for the tour! And Rumi.

    4. Lorene Says:

      Dear Debra – you’ve perfectly captured the wonderful world of owning and running an indie nursery (OK, maybe you left out a few cash-flow, employee, weather woes!) It is a hugely creative act and the good ones are making a tremendous contribution to their neighborhoods and communities. How good is this post? You’ve made me miss my tiny little nursery! THAT’s how good this post is!!!

    5. Sherman Unkefer Says:

      My wife recently studied with the county to become a master gardener. We find our inspiration in shops just like yours – where great design and ideas always spark her creativity. Thanks for the inside look at how it all happens!

    6. Debra Prinzing » Blog Archive » More from the 2010 Independent Garden Center Show Says:

      […] can see some hightlights of that talk here. I had a wonderful audience of engaged and energized nursery owners. And I am encouraged by the […]

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