Ah, Springtime. I’ve spent this Spring investing in our garden. You know - new gardens are like young love -- from the outset, it’s all you can think about. Suddenly your optimism is boundless and your heart is bursting open with all the possibilities the future holds. You’re slightly concerned your friends are growing tired of your chatter but you can’t help it. Everyday something grows a little taller or blooms and it’s a wonder to behold.
My family and I began gardening in earnest several years ago and with each growing season our ambitions, well, grew. Last year we went all in on vegetables and enjoyed a bumper crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, corn, zucchini, green beans and so much more.
We’re far from alone in our enthusiasm. In 2018, GardenResearch.com reported that gardening reached new heights in popularity, thanks to all the younger people who took it up. And it doesn’t matter that grandmillennials lack outdoor spaces, plant parenting is now a thing. The global indoor farming market (the industry term for plant parenting) topped $435.8 million in 2016, and grows 14.4% annually. Today, grandmillennials are the fastest growing cohort of gardeners.
Then came the pandemic and stay-at-home orders and the gardening sector just exploded. Our partner, Klaviyo reports home and garden online sales going through the roof since March of 2019 (wonder why).
I’m not surprised. At our house we have become positively obsessed with gardening. Over the past two months we’ve doubled the size of our gardens, digging new beds and creating additional rows of vegetables and flowers.
Then we put a picnic table right in the middle of it all so we can spend as much time as possible in our gardens. It’s where I sit as I write this article.
Much of the money we would have spent dining out, going to the movies, -- not to mention our long-planned trip to the UK -- went into the literal ground and frankly I’m happy to put it into creating a beautiful space outside our home.
This isn't just a blip in consumer trends; something more profound is going on, and it will have far reaching implications into the way we consume, recreate, seek gratification and even work. Let’s look at some of those implications.
Deeper Connection to the Earth
Shopping has long been a favorite American pastime and it took up a lot of our energy (shopping is basically our job). But now that stay-at-home orders have temporarily shuttered brick-and-mortar retail we’re realizing just how anesthetized we’ve been to our deep-seeded desire to be connected to the earth. Spending time outdoors is incredibly healthy. It reduces stress, improves short-term memory, reduces inflammation, along with all the other ills that a too-sedentary and too-indoor lifestyle imposes on us, including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cancer.
Gardening also gives us hope. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of so many unknowns but getting our hands dirty allows us to be a force for good in small yet meaningful ways. When the National Wildlife Federation issued its Million Pollinator Garden challenge, Americans stepped up to plant 1,040,000 gardens. Backyard composting is on the rise and even all-clover lawns are making a comeback. As a favorite author of mine, Wendell Berry, notes:
“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has his mind precisely against what is wrong with us... What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of earth, but also the earth's ability to produce.”
Getting Back to Nature
One of the more interesting aspects of “The Q” is the way it has given the earth a relatively short moment of rest and peace in a long day of modern pollution. Smog has all but disappeared in many cities. Wild goats romp freely in some Welsh towns and black bears in Yellowstone National Park are having parties -- all because we humans are producing less, commuting less, polluting less.
Fittingly, the great outdoors will be the first place we’re allowed to return to as quarantine restrictions are lifted. All of those parks, hiking trails, biking circuits, beaches and fields -- newly pristine thanks to our behavioral changes -- become an extension of the gardens we’ve been nurturing these past few months.
Prior to the pandemic, Americans spent 87% of their time indoors and 6% in their automobiles. Only 7% of our lives was spent outdoors. Post pandemic, many of us will find that lifestyle intolerable after spending all of that time outdoors working in our gardens.
I expect to see office workers demanding outdoor workspaces, like the treehouses Microsoft has built on its campus. I see local governments wiring municipal parks with WiFi access so that we can work outside.
And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new crop of WeWork-type companies offering outdoor shared workspaces.
Changes in Consumer Behavior
Traditionally, home and garden is lumped into a single category which masks a shift in expenditures I think is occuring nationwide. Twenty years ago stainless steel kitchen appliances and granite countertops became the must-haves for American consumers; today it’s raised vegetable beds and greenhouses.
What’s interesting to me is the way gardens challenge the way Americans view ourselves. We have a reputation for demanding instant gratification, something a garden can’t provide given the months and years it takes to offer up its rewards. Still we’re sowing our seeds in greater numbers.
Gardening is changing us in other ways too. When you start trying food out of your own garden, you naturally seek out other locally grown and produced items, even if it costs more or you need to work a little harder to find it. Also, gardens are the absolute opposite of set-it-and-forget-it. With the exception of the dead of winter they need constant care. To stop gardening you literally need to decide to abandon it and watch it die. Gardens are a long term commitment - and with that - so is spending on them.
Implications in Commerce
To be sure there are dominant brands in the garden market -- Miracle Grow and Scott come to mind -- but I think there’s a ton of room for disruption. A growing minority of consumers are eschewing chemical fertilizers in favor of locally produced lawn care products like aged cow manure or plant compost. And there are plenty of local and employee-owned nurseries for consumers who wish to avoid plants that have been treated with bee-killing neonicotinoids.
This all sort of screams DTC to me. The sector is absolutely ripe for a bunch of values-focused entrepreneurs to offer a set of products that speak directly to our need to nurture our gardens and allow us to spend a lot more time out of doors working, dining, nurturing and playing. The DTC opportunity is huge, but still largely untapped.
As it stands, there are a few more modern brands in the market. Lettuce Grow sells self-watering, self-fertilizing hydroponic farm stands that enable people to grow their food from seeds. Bloomscape, a DTC plant company announced this past January that it formed a partnership with West Elm. Sunday offers organic lawn care. Bower and Branch is working hard to capture the millennial market. The company takes online orders for its member garden centers so they can capture those late night sales without building and maintaining an ecommerce site.
But the market is far from saturated. Traditional retail big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s account for 80% of plant sales. I’d like to see that change, and I think it will once more entrepreneurs and investors begin to realize just how much the garden sector is growing. And it’s not just seeds, starts, soil and mulch. It’s all the equipment, furniture, and accessories that allow people to enjoy their lives outside.
Last week we harvested our first radishes. Nothing can compare to the experience of eating veggies you’ve grown yourself and picked -- literally -- minutes before they’re on your plate. This is addicting.
Add it all up: gardening is an at home activity that fulfills deeper human instincts and has massive health benefits. The increase in garden spending is here to stay. If you layer on the predictable purchasing habits, then how could we not see more investment in DTC brands to capture this market? I believe we will. The gardening industry is about to blossom.