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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


The Doctor is In

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 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 I say they want solutions to the problems. Sometimes customers will have four or five baggies, each with different things going on. Usually there will be some camellia leaves with scale on them, black stuff on a ligustrum, bright green weeds pulled from their dormant lawn or an iron deficient leaf from a gardenia.

People who work at garden centers are trained to be able to identify the plant material, identify the insect, fungus or deficiencies and have a bottle of something to put into the customer’s hand that will cure these host of problems. 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 can’t be too expensive.

In all my years I have scratched my head as to how the independent garden centers in America have allowed low prices to be the norm when it comes to diagnosing and curing problems when it comes to 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 experience in gardening and a degree in chemical use. To have that many years experience in this industry is rare enough but all those years usually means the plant doctor is an adult which usually means they have more bills to pay which usually means they get paid quite well to be standing there for sometimes an hour in order to educate someone in the science of chemicals. All of this to put the magic prescription into someone’s hands for about $15.

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 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 and fill out papers so insurance will cover the costs, but it does make me wonder what the difference is. The yards we prescribe these dangerous concoctions to are connected to the biggest investment most people will ever have. Is $15 enough to make the yard of a $100,000 to $2,000,000 house look perfect? That’s where us garden centers have allowed it to go. We never quite made that transition from the fruit stand/hardware store garden centers started off being to the boutique plant information centers we’ve become because of changes in shopping and expectation changes have evolved over the past 10 years.

HAVING SAID THAT I am not going up on our chemical prices, I’ll have to live with an entire sector of our business being a lost leader where my most experienced and knowledgeable people will spend most of their time. Can’t get over that.

What I do know is that you, the customer, want to walk out of your favorite garden center with something so the list of things to do can be checked off. I have done a lot of experimenting with safer ways to arrive at the end with a fix for the problems. Safer 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 whether or not that finding and identifying the pests merits killing them.

There is an acceptable population of pests we and the host plant can live with. We want to break out the deadly stuff as little as possible. We can have 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 correctly, 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 the old ways of shotgun approaches to all things chemical. They have seen significant improvements in their soil and water quality and it saves them money in the long haul.

Us gardeners can take the same approach by getting serious about improving our soil we plant in. I believe the root of most of our problems associated with gardening starts with the soil not draining well enough and not being rich in slow release nutrients. It’s really that simple for us in Mississippi. We have the climate for gardening. 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 taps. There is plenty to go around. Our growing season is perfectly long while still not so tropical that we do get four distinct seasons. It’s pretty perfect for providing us with the opportunity to use our healthy environment we’ve been blessed with.

After experimenting with ways to help people start their new and existing beds and lawns and to be able to maintain health while dealing with pest issues that will arise, I have found what I think will be the best line of organic products on the market. The good news is this brand seems to be available everywhere. I think the earth friendly movement started a little sooner in some of the other states which has given this company more time to concrete their brand more widely. 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 they have not addressed. The name of the product is Espoma. You’ve probably seen it at the garden center 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 sells at a price that is doable. We are going to retrain 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 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 the time with inquiring 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 can’t 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

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