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Planting Smarter

Report From PIA – July 6

A recent post on a garden writers listserv asked people to weigh in on an article about statements made by the Royal Horticultural Society’s new president. It seems she thinks that the BBC is “dumbing down” their garden programs, and she wants it to stop.

While most of us on the listserv don’t watch the BBC, we are garden communicators and have strong opinions about our profession. Miriam Young, whose website Plant Concierge is dedicated to bridging the gap between those who understand gardening and those who don’t, said that “Gardening terminology, Latin names and minutia details about plants are a complete turn-off for the general population.”

I experienced this reaction last week during the garden tour; people would ask what a plant was, and when I gave them a botanic name they’d wrinkle their nose instead of writing it down. Virginia garden writer Donna Williamson thinks the problem goes beyond botanic names. “I think we focus on the difficulty of Latin, and forget that people don’t know real basic gardening,” she wrote. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

While pondering this discussion I read Seth Godin’s blog of the day, “Betting on Smarter (or Betting on Dumber)” His point is that marketers have a choice, and he thinks the majority chose not to educate the consumer but to keep them easy to manipulate. This got me thinking: What role do garden product marketers and plant breeders play in the dumbing down of gardeners and garden communications?

Are they working to make the general gardening public smart or keep them stupid?  I recently got a sample of a product, and the PR person who sent it to me asked me twice if I’d received it, used it and liked it. When I responded that I couldn’t figure out from the label just what the stuff is made of, and could she help with that, there was no response.  It could have slipped through the cracks, or there might be a reason that the manufacturer/marketer doesn’t want me informed.

I know that as a garden writer/speaker/radio host, I need to take my readers/audiences down a path that is informative and entertaining. If they don’t have fun listening or reading about plants and gardening, why would they think that they might enjoy actually doing it? For me, this means being honest, funny and from-the-heart. Am I dumbing down by using the common name (if there is one) first, but using the botanic name in all articles and handouts?

The larger issue here is that each of us, gardeners and non, need to realize is that as consumers it doesn’t seem to always be in the manufacturers/marketers agenda to keep us informed.

The shampoo companies aren’t going to tell you that it isn’t necessary to “rinse and repeat” and the plant food companies won’t tell you that not every plant needs fertilizer. They want to sell more of their product.

Seth ends his blog by saying, “…the inevitability of information spreading works in favor of those that bet on it.”

I hope he’s right, but in the end we’re all challenged to work/buy/live more thoughtfully.

There is a point when too much information might be a bad thing. If the garden center that planted this raised bed display garden put a list of all the possible problems those young lettuce plants might have, no one would want to try growing their own salad greens! The success of these plants, however, (and they did grow well) showed their customers that it is possible to grow a great deal of lettuce - and lavender, strawberries, cabbage, and herbs - in a small area.

4 comments to Planting Smarter

  • Hi CL,

    I found the garden writers listserv discussion very interesting, particularly because one thought generates another and pretty soon we’re all over the map. Going back to the original article, the RHS president was lamenting the dumbing down of what’s left of gardening shows on TV.

    TV and those of us who write “content” on the internet have the capability to target specific audiences, be they beginners or folks who have been gardening for 40 years. From a strict liability standpoint, pesticide manufacturers must assume that everyone who is not instructed to the contrary will drink its product. While lamentable, it’s necessary.

    I’m disappointed that there are no gardening shows “for the rest of us.” By that, I don’t mean garden writers, but rather gardeners who are knowledgeable enough to run their own space intelligently. There could be other types of garden shows. There are plenty of interesting gardens (not just great ones) to visit on virtual tours; fun events like Buffalo that we can’t all travel to see; botanical curiosities; historic plant melodramas such as orchid poaching; interesting historic figures, such as John Bartram, Frederick Law Olmsted, Martha Brooks Hutchinson, etc.

    Then there is the whole other branch 🙂 of sustainable landscaping, habitat restoration, environmental issues connected with land management — an endless array of possibilities.

    Contrary to repeated surveys that demonstrate that married couples 50+ spend the most on their gardens, TV sponsors seem to believe that the biggest market with the most money to spend are beginners. Until they look at the data, we’re unlikely to see higher quality garden programming.

    I for one, prefer to seek out those in my micro-niche who want something “more” from their gardening experience.


  • Hey, Lois! I like your last sentence about seeking out those who want something “more” from their gardening experience. That’s what this blog is all about, but most of the time “something more” is closer to “something whole” or “wanting it all.”

    I agree that the manufactures must assume that people do not read the labels, but am I naive to think that an honest enthusiasm for the product and the garden might sell more than assuming the public to be lazy, uninformed dolts?

  • Joyce Jenks

    Regarding your response to gardeners “planting smarter”, your caption under the accompanying photo struck home: Too much information sometimes is not a good thing. After gardening for 35 years and being amazed at all the triumphs and surprises my gardens presented, I was accepted into the Master Gardener program. I was enthused about each class, but during the classroom segments pertaining to insect damage and disease, I thought, “If I knew all this could happen, I never would have initially been inclined to plant ANYTHING!” Fortunately I’m way past fearing bugs and slime, and I persevere with as much knowledge as I can absorb…and as it becomes available. Recently I Googled a manufacturer in order to learn the ingredients in a garden spray. It seems that there is either a tremendous amount of overkill information in fine print on labels, or little, if any, important information at all.

    I appreciate “listening to” and learning from your experiences and also the way you describe how gardening reflects off of and through your daily life…usually for the better. I relate to much of it and smile.

  • Thanks, Joyce. Yes, if we read about all the possible problems a plant can have we’d be tempted to use Astro-Turf on the entire landscape! I appreciate knowing that people enjoy this blog – writing daily has been as interesting as planting a garden.