Remembering the past, building the future

Features - Cover Story

Two young professionals share their thoughts on how to keep the next generation engaged in the horticulture industry.

Horticulture runs in the family for sisters Christa (Walters) Steenwyk and Karin Walters, whose grandparents opened Walters Gardens in 1946. Their father, John Walters, still serves as CEO of the wholesale perennial growing operation based in Zeedale, Michigan. But Christa, 35, and Karin, 31, are already shaping how Walters Gardens will look under third-generation leadership. Inspired by their grandfather’s appetite for risk, the sisters are stepping outside of their respective roles as creative director and marketing director to push the company — and the industry — forward.

GM: How did you end up in the family business?

Karin: We’ve both technically worked here since we were 14 — weeding, cleaning offices, collecting seeds off baptisia, digging out daylilies in the field. We’d done a little bit in every department before working full-time in marketing.

Christa: I think part of my dad’s strategy was to instill work ethic by having us do jobs that weren’t so fun or pretty, to encourage us to go to college and find careers for ourselves. I went to school for graphic design in Chicago. After a while, I decided to move back to Michigan, and my dad said, ‘Try working here between jobs.’

Then I found the fun side of horticulture. You’re working with one of the best products: plants. Another big draw is how friendly people are. I was hooked, but it wasn’t something I thought I’d pursue when I was younger.

Karin: I had no plans of going into the family business when I went to college, either. I majored in English, and when I had to start looking for jobs, I wasn’t sure where to begin. There was a position open in the marketing department so my dad said, ‘What do you think about working for me?’

Karin and Christa both went to college and contemplated other careers before coming back to the family business.

GM: Why is this business important and exciting to you?

Christa: My dad will be at Walters Gardens for a long time, but as he starts to transition, it’s important for us to carry on the tradition and keep an enjoyable work environment. We respect the generations above us, and want to continue that legacy.

[To grow the Walters Gardens family], we have to help people who are new to the industry feel included — mentor them, encourage them, help them figure out what they want to do in their career. It’s top-of-mind for us to keep young people passionate about gardening.

GM: What are the biggest challenges facing the industry, and how are you overcoming them?

Karin: The industry isn’t really expanding; it’s staying the same. Maybe there’s a little growth, but if you have a success story, it’s probably because a competitor went out of business. You have to be creative and aggressive [to grow in this industry].

Christa: Our grandpa offered us some advice about the struggles he went through during his career: Stay ahead of the game. He’s always taken risks; he was one of the first to establish a tissue culture lab — which we now use to initiate plants that come out of our hybridizing program.

Karin: He was also one of the first to introduce a patented plant. When we interviewed him for our 70th anniversary, he said a lot of people told him he was crazy for his choices — having certain plants or buying a farm he couldn’t afford.

Christa: He jokes that some chances he took didn’t work out, but a lot of them did. So our challenge is [deciding] what to take chances on, because we always want to be doing something new. If we didn’t make some changes during the recent economic downturn, if our company just stayed how it had been 10 years ago, would we be here today?

When they're not in the greenhouse, Karin and Christa enjoy traveling to trade shows and visiting other greenhouses to expand their knowledge base.

GM: Why aren’t more young people excited about this industry?

Karin: Honestly, I don’t think it occurs to people that there is a horticulture industry. If you’re in FFA or 4-H, you’re thinking about agriculture, so usually we get overlooked by ag. They don’t understand the opportunities here.

Christa: There are so many types of jobs in this industry, but people don’t see all those jobs when they think ‘greenhouse.’ We should do a better job of offering internships to show students what all this industry has to offer.

A lot of people who are interested in growing want to start with vegetables. I love industry professionals like Brie Arthur, who grow vegetables but also talk about the importance of growing perennials, shrubs and annuals with those vegetables.

A lot of companies outside this industry are talking about connecting with influencers, like bloggers that talk about fashion or food. How can the horticulture industry partner with people like that? Gardening is a lifestyle, and those partnerships could help us engage with customers.

The skills Karin and Christa learned during their college years have been useful at Walters Gardens.

GM: How could the industry be more supportive of young professionals?

Christa: New horticulturists — whether they’re young or just new to the industry — they’re looking for opportunity. They don’t want to be stuck in a job. They want flexibility to work from home or take an afternoon off and make it up later. They want opportunities to travel, to attend trade shows, to go to seminars.

Karin: If you’re in a position to send a young person to an industry event like Cultivate, but you’re sending the same people every year, take a chance on someone who’s never been before.

Christa: And if you go every year and they’re not giving someone else a chance, offer to stay back. Someone did that for me and it meant the world to me.

Walters Gardens grows and breeds a wide variety of perennials at its Michigan facilities.

GM: Speaking of traveling to tradeshows, describe your trip overseas earlier this year.

Christa: One of my friends, Bob Blew from Centerton Nursery [in Bridgeton, New Jersey], and I have been talking for years about how to bring together industry professionals our age. We both like to travel, and we run into each other at events. We ended up traveling to IPM Essen [in Germany] with about 10 next-generation business owners and other industry professionals our age, which gave us great perspective. We went on two days of tours to various nurseries, and there was something for everybody — a wholesale nursery, a finished grower, a retailer.

This was our first trip with this group; we wanted to keep it as unorganized yet organized as possible. Anyone who wants to travel with us is welcome. We’re hoping to do IPM every other year, and a couple of us are going to the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) Symposium this year.

Karin: We each get excited about different things, so it’s really interesting to hear what people got out of the trip. Plus, once you become friends, you can ask them questions about the industry, like, ‘Are you noticing this trend in your business?’ You’re more interconnected.

GM: Does the industry need an association for young professionals, or are small grassroots groups more effective?

Christa: We’ve talked about that in depth, and I don’t think we came up with an answer. Some people can be turned off by something too organized, and they like more easygoing get-togethers. But it would be cool to have a group that would have speakers and panels and idea groups.

Karin: This generation is eager to make some changes, but [their perception] is that associations don't get anything done.

Christa: They need to start fresh to make [the loosely organized group that] we’re looking for. But in addition, existing conferences like PPA should have a night or part of the event where young people have a chance to get together. And I notice a lot of [association] boards are always industry vets. Get some perspective from the younger generation, because both perspectives are important.

GM: What can the industry do to remain more relevant to young consumers?

Christa: You’ve got to keep your mind open and try as many things as you can to reach that consumer. Encourage people who aren’t necessarily into gardening to come to events by doing butterfly exhibits or having bands play. We’re continuously thinking about people that are into decorating their homes or cooking local food, and how to encourage them to get into gardening. How can we reach them with what they’re already doing? Don’t just focus on gardeners; expand beyond that.

Karin: I don’t think we need to totally revolutionize the horticulture business, but we need to find a way to appeal to those people. [Look beyond] our industry, to general trends like same-day delivery on Amazon — is that feasible for us? For example, when I want to find specialty plants, I first look online. That’s the mindset [of our generation].

Christa: Even though Target is five minutes down the road, I’d rather go to and order in-store pickup so I’m not spending as much time at the store. Could more local garden centers put their inventory on Google Shopping results, and offer in-store pick-up?

Karin: It’s good to keep tabs on those trends, whether we can do it or not, because we’re kind of an old-school industry. Our natural inclination is to stick our head in the sand and ignore what’s going on, and that’s a mistake. But I also think it’s a mistake to jump on every single trend.

Christa: We have to continuously educate ourselves on what the home gardener is doing to stay relevant.

Brooke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, and a regular contributor to Greenhouse Management and its sister publications.