Leading the Eco Evolution

Jennifer Polanz
People of all generations are looking to become more eco-friendly and there’s no reason why garden centers can’t lead the way. According to a 2018 Nielsen study, 81% of global respondents said companies should help improve the environment, with the younger generations skewing higher on the scale (though older generations weren’t far behind).

So what can you do? I talked to a couple of garden centers that have been talking about their environmentally friendly ways for years and what they’ve found. Read on to see if there are ways you can incorporate these ideas into your operation.

Native Plants

Of course, garden centers are uniquely positioned to provide the very thing that helps make the environment tick—plants and trees. It’s our bread and butter, and the garden centers I talked to have really positioned themselves as leaders on this front.

“It’s about resilience,” says Jennifer Schamber, general manager of Greenscape Gardens in Manchester, Missouri. Her operation separated natives into their own department in 2005 and haven’t looked back. “What can we do to create a more resilient environment and that can start in our yard. We can lead as an industry talking about resilience—we have to be able to survive outside the comfort zone for the good of the next generation.”

Natives use less water, require fewer pesticides (if any) and, once established, can survive many of the fluctuations we see now in weather patterns. This year, Natives Manager Sue Leahy created a plant guide of natives readily available in the trade for Greenscape Gardens, which has been very successful both as an educational and marketing tool.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than when a customer pulls a list from the Internet of natives that attract hummingbirds, but most of the plants aren’t available,” Jennifer notes. “We have already published a second edition of this guide and we bring it with us to all outreach events.”

Ryan Van Wilgen at Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford, Connecticut, also is highlighting native plants.

“We do have an American Beauties store-within-a-store,” he says, adding, in the perennial department, customers can shop by category, and native plants and pollinators are dispersed throughout segments like cut flowers and others. They also held a special event in June to celebrate pollinators. “Last weekend we did a butterfly release where we had hundreds of butterflies.”

The store gave away small pots of pollinators to all the kids that showed up as well, promoting eco-friendly options to even younger generations. They also hosted a bug walk around the farm so kids could find cutouts of beneficials like butterflies and praying mantis.

Pot Recycling

This has long been a difficult issue in our industry. With the general public becoming more aware (and wary) of plastic waste, our industry has to figure out a way to navigate this issue. Both Greenscape and Van Wilgen’s have done that by setting up pot recycling programs that allow customers to bring in empty pots.

Ryan helped the program get started at his garden center almost 10 years ago after seeing it work at Al’s Garden Center in Portland, Oregon, where he worked for a time. He partnered with a local refuse company to designate a 20-ft. dumpster for plastic pots.

“It gets emptied 10 to 15 times a year,” he says. “They ask that we try to keep the plastic that goes in there as clean as possible.”

The best part is the only fee is to haul it away like a normal trash fee, and because of the recycling program, the retailer has saved about half of its trash bill since so many pots are going into recycling instead of trash.

Greenscape Gardens also works with its local municipality to run a plastic pot recycling program that’s been going on for many years now.

“It is a huge commitment on our part because we host this large recycling trailer and then it’s our responsibility to take it to the recycling place to trade out for an empty one,” she says. “It’s just a big expense—a lot of time and effort goes into that.”

There’s also manufacturers and growers in our industry that take empty pots back, Jennifer notes, including companies like East Jordan Plastics and Wenke Greenhouses, among others.

Plant Care Options

Greenscape Gardens has gone all in on offering alternatives to conventional herbicides, including more natural options like Pulverize. They also focus on what they’re calling “Smarty Plants” that may not be native, but work well in the environment to reduce the need for interventions.

“Everybody is aware of the fact that we need to change, but we’re still pretty far from letting go of our current mindset of what a beautiful yard should look like,” Jennifer says, noting that consumers are still trying to maintain a level of perfection, possibly at the expense of the environment. “As an industry, this is our biggest responsibility and yet our biggest challenge is to change the definition of what a healthy yard is.”

Ryan agrees. “I think it is our responsibility—we are the green industry,” he says. “People want to turn to us for the right thing to do. In our plant care department, we have an organic option and synthetic option so people have the choice.”

Van Wilgen’s also offers beneficial insects and uses them on the growing side to reduce pesticide usage. He says he’s surprised at the level of interest recently in beneficials from customers and they’ll continue to promote that aspect. He’s also heavily focused on soil health and they double the warranty on plants if customers buy their “success kit” of planting mix and either the Van Wilgen’s Organic Root Boost (which has mycorrhizae) or Jump Start products. Those efforts are designed to make the customer more successful so they require less intervention later.

A Good Example

Retailers also can set a good example for customers by incorporating eco-friendly and energy-efficient options into their business as it suits. Van Wilgen’s is an example of how to do this, as they have an electric car charging station at the garden center and farm.

“I don’t know if someone will come there to plug in and shop randomly, but we do have a lot of Teslas in our area,” Ryan says. “A lot of people are plugging in.”

They don’t charge for usage and Ryan says a full charge typically costs the retailer $1.30, so it’s more of an added benefit for customers. And while Ryan doesn’t drive an electric car (it’s awful hard to haul stuff in an electric car), he does have a fleet of biodiesel trucks and farm equipment that runs on 20% biodiesel fuel (a mix of renewable resources like soybean and corn oil, and recycled feedstocks).

Van Wilgen’s also made the leap into geothermal heating when renovating and adding on to the main location, as well as investing in the most energy-efficient lighting options.

“We added 6,000 square feet of retail and office space and have not increased our fossil fuel usage from that,” Ryan says, adding they’ve also been looking into solar and possibly a wind turbine, but those are still in very early considerations.

There are other opportunities for retailers that we haven’t talked about here, too, like starting the conversation with customers about composting and using rain barrels to collect rainwater. Drip irrigation is another topic that can be intimidating to customers and might need more education to get them comfortable with the idea.

If you’re working on some of these eco-friendly ideas, drop me a line and let me know what you’re doing at jpolanz@ballpublishing.com. GP