I have lost count of all the people who have walked into our garden center holding a bag of weed. I always jokingly tell them that they had better be careful driving around and openly flaunting the baggie full of weed. Some quickly tuck the bag into their purse, hiding the evidence. Most customers get the joke and lay the evidence out on the table. They want answers or should say they want solutions to the problems. Sometimes customers will have 4 or 5 baggies, each with different things going on. Usually, there will be some camellia leaves with scale on them, black stuff on a ligustrum leaf, bright green weeds pulled from their dormant lawn or an iron deficient leaf from a gardenia. People that work at garden centers are trained to be able to firstly, identify the plant material, and secondly identify the insect, the fungus or deficiencies and thirdly, have a bottle of something to put into the customer’s hand that will cure the specific problem. The cure needs to be easy to use, safe on the plants that are in trouble, safe for the homeowner, who most likely has not been trained to respect chemicals, and it can’t be too expensive. In all my years in this career, I have scratched my head as to how the independent garden centers in America have allowed such low prices to be the norm when it comes to diagnosing and curing problems of landscape plants. For a garden center employee to be able to correctly get all that right without doing damage to someone’s yard, or worse, to someone or their pets, they have to have many years of experience in gardening and a degree in chemical use. To have that many years experience in this industry is rare enough, but those years of experience and education means that the ‘employee plant doctor' is an adult, meaning they have more bills to pay. This usually means they get paid quite well to stand there with a customer for sometimes an hour in order to educate someone on the science of chemicals and then the application method. All of this goes into placing the magic prescription into someone’s hands for about fifteen dollars. Chemicals are the category with the lowest profit margin in our business…boy, we messed that up. The big box stores set the low prices and then have the nerve to not even try to tell you which is the right or wrong chemical or how to use it. I’m not trying to say we need to make appointments and sit in a waiting room to fill out papers so insurance will cover the costs, but it does make me wonder what the big difference is. The yards that we prescribe these dangerous concoctions for are connected to the biggest investment that most people will ever have. Is fifteen dollars enough to make the yard of a $100,000 to $2,000,000 home look perfect? That’s where the garden center industry has allowed it to go. We never quite made the full transition from being the fruit stand / hardware store that garden centers started off being, to the boutique plant information centers that we’ve become due to changes in shopping and customer expectation that have evolved over the past ten years.
Having said that, this is not a declaration that I am not going up on our chemical prices. I’ll have to live with the fact that the sector of our business, where my most experienced and knowledgeable people will spend most of their time, is basically a lost leader. …Can’t get over that. What I do know is that you want to walk out of your favorite garden center having checked off all the things on your to do list.
I have done a lot of experimenting with safer ways to arrive at a fix for your problems… safer solutions for the people using them and safer for Mother Nature. When chemicals are applied, they cause a ripple effect that can lead to more harm than good, For instance, when we apply insecticides to plants, the insecticides will kill the targeted insect but will also do damage to the fragile beneficial insects. We have to weigh out wether finding and identifying the pests merits killing them or not. There is an acceptable population of pests that we and the host plant can live with. We want to break out the deadly stuff as little as possible. To make this possible, invest in pest control by focusing more on the health of the environment around the host plant. If the plant is not overwatered, underwatered, in the wrong place, pruned incorrectly, deficient in soil minerals, toxic in soil minerals or generally neglected, the plant will need less help.
I talk to farmers in the delta who have modernized their practices by focusing more on the health of the fields rather than waiting just to use a chemical shotgun approach after pests appear. They have seen significant improvements in their soil and water quality, and it saves them money in the long haul. We gardeners can take the same approach by getting serious about improving our soil that we plant in. I believe the root of most of our problems associated with gardening starts with soil that doesn’t drain well and is deficient in slow release nutrients. It's really that simple for us in Mississippi. We have the climate for gardening. Just look at our neighbors in the delta proving that every day. We have good quality water, readily available, whether we catch rain water in barrels or use city water right out of the tap. There is plenty to go around. Our growing season is perfectly long, while not so tropical, that we do get four distinct seasons. It’s pretty perfect for providing us the opportunity to use our healthy environment that we’ve been blessed with.
After experimenting with ways to help people start their new beds, amend existing beds and lawns, and maintain health, while dealing with pest issues, I have found what I think will be the best line of organic products on the market. The earth friendly movement started a little sooner in other states, which has given this company more time to concrete their brand. That’s a good thing for us, because over the years, they have become totally customer friendly with their packaging and information, and their coverage of solutions has become much wider. I can’t find a common Mississippi gardening problem that has not been addressed in this product line. The name of the product is Espoma. You’ve probably seen it the garden centers, but it may not be what they put in your hand when you asked how best to handle a garden issue. The same people with all that experience, including myself, were raised on the old, synthetic chemicals. We know how to use them. We know it will do what you want it to do, and we know it sell at price that is doable. We are going to re-train ourselves to educate you about a better way to handle our everyday issues without harming nine other things in the process.
We want gardeners to think of their yards more like their pets, or better yet, the way we treat our own health. We know how to eat right, hydrate properly, exercise for benefits, protect ourselves from harsh weather, and we know that we should do things in moderation. If we begin to treat our gardens in the same way, it would amaze you how similar these concepts can be. I guess, if my best plant doctors are going to spend so much time with inquiring customer minds, we might as well be educating those minds with methods that work in the short range and in the long range. These methods aren’t new, but they are just now getting easier to use and easier to understand. This is the moment we’ve been waiting on. The complete line of Espoma will include plant fertilizers with beneficial Biotone microbes, PH adjusters, protection from pests, organic lawn fertilizers and weed control, soil conditioners and more. In my next article, I will walk you through the simple process of changing your thinking about how to achieve a healthier gardening lifestyle.
I’ve used these products over the years, but I really concentrated on what I was doing this past year, so I can more easily pass on my experience to you. We are beginning to use these products where we grow your bedding plants, so the plants you bring home will already be in the program. I cant make it any easier! Until next week, I hope you’ll have time to consider what health practices you are already doing to keep yourself strong and healthy and how those same practices can relate to your little space in the world. Hopefully, this may lead to a day when people are bringing us fewer bags of weed to pick through!