Making gardening easier

Features - Cover Feature

Working mom Jen Kurtz of Kurtz Farms designed the Urban Gardener program to give time-starved consumers like herself the opportunity to be gardeners and decorators.

Subscribe
January 21, 2011

       Jen Kurtz. Photo © Julie Brown PhotographyLike a lot of working moms, Jennifer Kurtz of Kurtz Farms in Cheshire, Conn., doesn’t have the time to garden.

“When my son Christian, who is now eight, was born I didn’t have the time to garden, but I still wanted to be a gardener,” Kurtz said. “At the same time I wanted to be a decorator. I wanted to be able to decorate my outdoor living space.”

From Kurtz’s desire to continue to garden and the time constraints she faced, came the Urban Gardener program. The program was initially designed for those people who didn’t have the time or the space to do traditional gardening. Kurtz said the program, which began in the winter of 2005, benefitted from consumers’ interest in container gardening.

  “The container garden market was still relatively new at the time,” she said. “I thought it was a good opportunity to showcase new products and to allow us to standout from other growers.”

The first product in the Urban Gardener program was a vegetable cage that allowed people to garden with 1-square foot of space.

“At the time we were selling a lot of 10-inch tomato pots with the plants supported by wooden stakes,” Kurtz said. “The plants would fall over or a consumer would try picking up a plant by the stake and the plant would break. The cage that I designed was a self-supporting unit. We patented the cage design and a plant clip. We were also doing some vine crops, like mandevilla out of Florida. These plants were supported with a redwood trellis. People would pick up the plant by the trellis and damage the plant. That was kind of the start for the whole program. It just exploded from there with ideas.”

Kurtz said she began to look for ways to offer gardeners solutions for every season.
“When I first started working here in 1996, we were busy for three months out of the year in the spring,” she said. “Sales slowed down and didn’t pick back up until mum season started in the fall. Our goal was to make this a full functioning year-round business. At the same time, I saw that even though most consumers did their gardening in the spring, there was still an interest to continue gardening during the summer.

“I designed a decorative pansy bowl for the early spring. As growers here in the Northeast we can only sell so many plants in the month of May. The pansy bowl was aimed at grabbing some additional business earlier in the season. Consumers are kind of starved for color in the early spring. The pansy bowl is aimed at helping people get out of their winter doldrums.”

For the summer season, Kurtz designed a Patriot Pot that she said can be sold from Memorial Day through the 4th of July. For fall sales, she designed a Pumpkin Pot. The newest addition to the program is a strawberry pot with a hanger.

Kurtz said the strawberry pot was in development for three years.

“I may have an idea, but I will tinker with it,” she said. “My Urban Gardener job is secondary to my job with Kurtz Farms working with our wholesale customers.”

She expects consumer demand for container gardening will stay for a while and that more of the changes will be a result of which plant varieties are popular.

“With the strawberry jar, I was tired of having my clay pot crack and break,” she said. “I saw the need for an alternative jar that wasn’t blow-molded plastic. I wanted something that didn’t look cheap and had some weight to it. I also wanted a container that gardeners could do more with than just strawberries. I thought about themed herb gardens like a tour of Italy or a salsa jar.”

Kurtz said she has been particularly pleased with the extended sale of garden mums that has occurred with the Pumpkin Pot.

“Halloween is the second biggest holiday for decorating next to Christmas,” she said. “We need to extend the selling season into October. Last year we stopped shipping mums in mid-October. That’s totally unheard of to go into October. Previously we limped to the end of September.

“We haven’t come close to tapping fall market sales. People prefer to do container gardening in the fall. They don’t want to get down on their hands and knees and dig in the ground. They have to be able to do something that is quick and easy and makes their homes look nice.”


Friendly feedback
Kurtz said she gets ideas for new products from watching TV and reading home décor magazines. She bounces a lot of ideas off of her friends who aren’t involved in the industry.

“About four to five years ago I started looking at Pantone colors and tracking the hot colors and matching them up with pansy varieties,” she said. “My friends were tired of having to go to the store and match up flower colors with containers. They wanted to be able to buy the finished container ready for their doorstep or patio — instant color.”

Kurtz has started a Facebook page for the Urban Gardener program for consumers to post photos of their containers.

“Initially I started to randomly drop off products at friends’ houses and then I would ask them to post pictures online of how they use them,” she said. “I provide them with the finished container and ask for their feedback.”

Kurtz said she will also ask her friends what they will pay for a particular container.

“What my friends perceive as value is a lot different than what you and I would perceive as value,” she said. “I have been surprised at what they would pay for plants. But if you actually look at what we provide by combining all of these components, we are providing a great value. Their feedback also helps me in making suggested prices for products for our Home Depot and independent garden center customers.”

Kurtz said she will also run ideas past her son to find out what he thinks.

“How do I get Christian interested in gardening? I want to be able share the passion my husband Gary (Nyberg) and I have for gardening, especially the satisfaction of growing his own vegetables.”

Kurtz wants to design a kit for kids’ gardening along with kits for the other products in the Urban Gardener program.

“In addition to selling the products separately to growers, we are looking to sell them as kits to retailers,” she said.

Urban Gardener products are available nationally to both Home Depot and independent garden centers. Rush Creek Designs assists in the design and manufactures the containers, and MasterTag produces the program’s point-of-sales material. The line is available through Rush Creek, MasterTag and several distributors.


Retailer, grower input
While Kurtz has a passion for the Urban Gardener program, she calls it her second child. Her “real job” is selling and merchandising the plants to 28 Home Depot stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and captaining the annual container program nationally for the home improvement retailer.

One of the advantages of introducing a new Urban Gardener product is that Kurtz can trial the item with the company’s own independent garden center customers as well as in the Home Depot stores.

“I have a great father and brother who indulge me with all of my projects,” Kurtz said. “With the exception of the tomato cages, where we initially did 2,500 pieces, for the rest of the Urban Gardener products we started with 10,000 pieces. That is the level where we feel it’s worth the investment.”

Kurtz said the regional and national buyers at Home Depot have been great to work with.

“I have worked with them on their projects, helping to pick out the pots and hanging baskets and container manufacturers,” she said. “When I set up a new SKU with Home Depot, they let me set the price. I will show them how many retail dollars I have generated for them for the various products that I selected. They have allowed me to try out the pots and plants in the stores I service to see how they will work. Then they have the choice to try something regionally or nationally.”

Kurtz also receives feedback from the other 30+ annual growers who service Home Depot stores throughout the country.

“We work together to come up with the strongest program to benefit all of us,” she said. “We bounce ideas off of each other. And these guys don’t hold back. That kind of feedback is great for developing the Urban Gardener line. Since we sell the Urban Gardener line, I can tell them what worked, what it cost us and what we are selling the containers for.”

For more:   Urban Gardener, (203) 272-2996; jen@kurtz-farms.com; www.urban-gardener.net.