Getting outside your comfort zone: New niches from necessity

Departments - Hort Truths

At winter trade shows, attendees talked about staffing issues, how new is not enough anymore and niche parts of the industry.

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February 27, 2019

Winter is the time all you folks from cold states hold your statewide nursery and landscape shows. I suspect it’s to huddle together for collective warmth. Inevitably I’m called upon to leave our balmy 70-degree January weather here in Texas and head north to speak at a few such shows. This winter I hit the North Carolina Green and Growin’ trade show and The Western show in Kansas City. Luckily, I made my escape before the polar vortex moved in.

In general, I’d say that the common thread I observed running through the shows was that business owners and employees were looking to push a bit outside of their comfort zone — out of necessity. What I mean by that is, we all know we grow good plants. It’s the how we grow our businesses that is getting more challenging, forcing attendees to be more open-minded about new strategies and tactics.

Staffing struggles

I gave talks on this topic at both shows, as I have many others over the past year, and it’s always a room-filler. Staffing is a hot button for most businesses in the industry, and the audiences are always made up of a full cross section of industry segments.

Sarah Bibens, president of Woody Bibens & Associates, and executive director for The Western Nursery & Landscape Association, agrees. “From a business perspective, trucking, labor and weather continue to be what keeps folks awake at night. The business side of running a horticulture company is more challenging than the plant side for plenty of companies,” she said.

Hannah Singleton, manager of professional development for the North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association, echoed that sentiment. “This year at NCNLA’s Green and Growin’ 2019 the most popular topics seemed to be labor — where to find it and how to keep it — [and] sustainable practices,” Singleton says.

A major staffing frustration expressed to me by attendees, which is often the case, is the ongoing disconnect between older business owners and managers, and younger people coming into the industry. The generational disconnect still seems to cause a great deal of discomfort.

Heather Byers, owner and manager of Great Plains Nursery, speaks to a crowd at The Western show.
Photo courtesy of Taylor O’Donnell, Woody Bibens & Associates

New isn’t new anymore

New plants get a lot of attention from within the industry, and this year’s winter shows were no exception. That said, there were audible rumblings among attendees at these shows that purpose is gaining priority against pretty. Just being new isn’t good enough anymore. Growers, retailers and landscapers alike are narrowing their focus toward plants that offer more sustainable and Earth-friendly characteristics. There was also a bigger interest specifically on native plants.

“New plant introductions continue to be one of the driving forces in the industry,” Bibens says. “However, I’m seeing real interest in identifying those new plants that are truly better or different than their predecessors — that bring new or improved disease resistance, are non-invasive, have improved cold hardiness, offer benefit for birds, pollinators and other wildlife, and the like.” Singleton also noted there was an increased interest in programming at the Green and Growin’ show on protecting pollinators.

I had the pleasure of being invited to the Native Plant Geeks Gathering while at The Western show, a networking event held in conjunction with the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative. I met many attendees, both young in the industry and experienced, actively seeking new strategies for incorporating natives into urban landscape design. “There is a real recognition that plants that help consumers to be good stewards of the environment is an increasingly important priority in plant selection — in addition to beauty, low maintenance and garden performance,” Bibens says.

Jennifer Schamber, general manager at Greenscape Gardens, and current president of The Western Nursery & Landscape Association, sees a scale-tip in the direction of a greater understanding of what plants and landscapes can do for our communities.

“There’s a lot of excitement stemming from new research about the benefits of the products and services of our industry,” Schamber says. “There’s an overall sense of empowerment as we know we are collectively creating the next generation of horticulture which focuses less on the ornamental and more on the function.”

Niche networking

Speaking of networking, there was a focus on face-to-face time between industry members at the recent shows I attended. Networking is high on the priority list of many younger employees, who are seeking meaningful connections and mentorship. Schamber, who was instrumental in organizing the native plant networking event, reinforces the importance of creating more opportunities for people to meet face-to-face. “This is especially true for students coming into our industry,” she says. “We acknowledge the power of social media but having drinks and dinner with colleagues can spark amazing conversations that can lead us to our next great idea.”

Niche growing

The number of attendees who attend my talks on indoor growing, which I typically gear toward garden center retailers, is growing. Given this is a topic much of the mainstream horticulture industry perceives to be very niche, those looking to the future are showing up. At the North Carolina Green & Growin’ show, a good percentage of the attendees were landscapers and designers. These adventurous folks know that interiorscaping and living installations are making a comeback and they were looking to create new business opportunities indoors.

Overall, the vibes were positive for the spring 2019 season. Attendees seemed energized and eager to learn and a bit more open-minded than usual about new ideas. Willing to get out of your comfort zone is always the best way to learn.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com