The Independent Garden Center Show took over Navy Pier this week -- and though I am but a humble local garden blogger, I thought it worthwhile to stop by and check out what the area garden centers would be growing, promoting and teaching in the upcoming year. The show has educational sessions and speakers, but the main action seemed to be the giant hall full of vendors. There was row upon row of garden product vendors, including my favorite seed companies, like Renee's and Seed Saver's Exchange.
In terms of trends, I was impressed by the amount of vendors who were marketing various systems for urban gardening/raised bed gardening. There were a lot of innovative systems and prepackaged kits, including one from the original Square Foot Gardening man, Mel Bartholomew. There was a definite focus on edibles, from seeds to fruit trees. Finally, there seemed to be a lot more rain barrels than composters -- it made me wonder why composting is not a hotter business for garden centers.
Due to my work schedule, I couldn't make it to the speaking session by the ladies of Garden Rant as planned, but I was able to go to a fascinating talk on marketing heirloom vegetables. The lecture was given by David Cavagnaro, who worked for eight years at Seed Savers Exchange. It made my heart leap with joy to hear his advice to garden center owners:
- Encourage your clientele to be stewards of living genetic diversity with heirloom seeds
- Educate your clientele that there are specific heirlooms for specific uses (i.e. sauce tomatoes versus stuffing tomatoes, or cider apples versus pie apples). Sell both early and late maturing varieties.
- Grow what you sell so that you can speak to consumers from authentic experience. If you can't grow it yourself, enlist local gardeners who can test and advise.
- Sell heirlooms suited to your region. He brought up the excellent example of the over-exposed Brandywine: it has become the reigning queen of heirloom tomatoes despite being quite a challenge to grow successfully in certain areas.
He also discussed some heirloom varieties that are his particular favorites -- I am definitely going to try the Feher Ozon pepper next year!
I encountered many a booth hawking mulch, pots and hardscaping items -- all fairly standard garden center fare. Proven Winners and their ilk abounded as well, with the usual big-box perennials, including a plant with a breast cancer tie-in. Sigh. Then there were the booths promoting the garden-center-as-boutique idea, with table upon table of "presents for the mother-in-law": soap, sachets and wire tchotchkes. I don't begrudge the garden centers these items -- they are shelf-stable, and probably help fill in the retail slump-times when folks aren't picking out their spring transplants. But still, it chafes me when I go to a garden center and there is one or two seed racks tucked in an out of the way place to make room for the carefully displayed herbal perfumes and garden trowel charm bracelets.
There were some real gems, however: vendors with high-quality products that made me want to whip out my wallet right there! I hope some local centers checked out the tools by Clarington Forge, or the canning and gardening tools by Burgon and Ball. I salivated over the modular chicken coops by Creative Coops and longed for the cold frame by Maine Garden Products. One of the cooler things I saw was a bulk seed display by Livingston Seed -- it works in the same way as buying rice and nuts at the health food store. Just scoop, weigh and pay for the desired amount. Why haven't I seen this before ? (Here's a guess -- there's a bigger profit margin in selling seeds in a pretty paper package). Anyway, such a good idea, especially for urban gardeners who only need a small amount of each seed.
The IGC Show was overall a much more heartening experience than the springtime Chicago garden show....and now I hope local centers start carrying some of the cool products that were featured and promoting the ideas espoused by David Cavagnaro!