Soil composition is likely an area of knowledge your staff could use additional training in.
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When Ryan Hartberg talks to independent garden center staffs about the importance of soil health, he likes to begin with an analogy everyone can understand.

As humans, if we ate the same three items every day for a year, sure, it probably wouldn’t kill us, but we wouldn’t be very healthy, Hartberg says.

“We’d be alive, we’d have some sort of sustenance, but would we be productive? Would we be susceptible to illnesses?” he says. “It’s the same thing with plants.”

Despite his role as the director of sales and marketing for Purple Cow Organics, Hartberg says he spends most of his time educating instead of selling.

Independent garden center employees without horticulture backgrounds are usually trained on things like proper watering techniques, plant identification and sun versus shade plants, but they often know very little about soil microbiology, Hartberg says. When customers ask about what they can do to improve their soil, many times, an easy answer is “put fertilizer down,” he says.

“What we really focus on is how do we make this soil sustainable and take care of itself. What can we do to the soil so the soil can take care of the plant more naturally, more organically, more sustainably,” Hartberg says. “That way, it doesn’t require as much human input as an environment where you’re just fertilizing and the plant becomes dependent on that fertilizer.”

Hartberg again uses human examples to explain why this matters, personifying the plants.

“I’m (the plant) going to get a complete set of foods, a well-balanced meal from the soil. You can get what you need when you need it, and I’m going to make you work for it,” Hartberg says. “I’m not going to give it to you in an IV. When [plants] have to spread their roots a little deeper to find water and nutrients, that makes them stronger.”

The elements of soil

There are three main components that Hartberg emphasizes when discussing soil health: physical structure, fertility and microbiology.

“Those three aspects of healthy soil are all interdependent and all work together symbiotically with the plant to do what Mother Nature intended to do,” Hartberg says. “If you walk into a forest, no one is aerating soil, fertilizing or irrigating, but the forest is still very fertile. There are things going on, with leaves falling, being broken down. Worms are very prevalent, and the smallest things that people can’t see, bacteria and fungi, are part of this very rich growing environment. A garden doesn’t have a canopy, there are no dropping leaves that can be broken down, so what can we do to replicate that?”

Healthy soil doesn’t only produce healthier plants — it makes food more nutritionally dense and taste better.

“A tomato you raised in the garden should taste better and be better for you than what you bought in the store,” Hartberg says. “People are often willing to invest more in their food than their flowers.”

The challenge for Purple Cow Organics and other soil-focused companies, like Good Dirt, is explaining to consumers the difference between their products and those at a lower price point.

Al Newsom, who co-founded Good Dirt with his wife, Suzy, says another important element of quality soil is probiotics, something people tend to overlook.

“We’re not the only company that has beneficials in our mix, but that’s a key to plants [having] a good start,” says Newsom, who has been a sales representative at Ball Seed for 18 years. “It makes plants more efficient in taking up nutrients.”

When he talks to consumers about soil, he talks about the importance of creating a “living soil.”

Ryan Hartberg of Purple Cow Organics helps IGCs plan and leads workshops on soil health.
Courtesy of Purple Cow Organics

Both Hartberg and Newsom agreed that in-person workshops and seminars to communicate this to independent garden center customers are beneficial for all involved; the garden center and supplier can sell more products, and consumers will have more success in their gardens.

“Maybe they are hosting a seed-starting seminar or a vegetable seminar, but they can publicize their [soil products] and get people who are invested in that component,” Hartberg says.

Sometimes soil-specific discussions can also be successful, especially when it’s tied into organic vegetable gardening or environmental stewardship.

“Garden centers can invite their soil reps. They don’t have to rely on their own staff,” Hartberg says. “They can bring in a soils expert or a gardening expert who can do that seminar for them.”

Garden centers can also teach their customers about the importance of quality soil by running a looping video near the department and including educational articles in their regular newsletters, and they can ask the soil companies for help.

Beyond soil health

Newsom says that no matter how good the soil is, customer (and even staff) education has to go beyond soil health. The No. 1 mistake he sees from both employees and consumers is overwatering. The second is poor planting techniques.

“If there’s a new independent garden center that wants to pick up the Good Dirt products, we pretty much insist that they allow us to come in and train their staff,” Newsom says. “We are also developing POP material for the IGCs that will hopefully give the consumers some basics and have it where the employees at the garden center don’t have to be there to talk about the product necessarily. The next thing that we are working on is instructional videos.”

Being in the industry so long, it’s easy to take knowledge for granted and assume people know more, so Newsom tries to consider the perspective of a new gardener.

“Someone bought our soil conditioner, and he didn’t mix it in or know it was a soil amendment. He spread it right on top,” Newsom says. “That’s the challenge we’re up against.”

Newsom says he was inspired to develop Good Dirt because of his frustration with products on the market and losing plants in his garden. He knows many first-time gardeners get fed up easily and quit gardening if they have one bad experience.

“I want everyone else to catch that same gardening fever that I have and experience the enjoyment of the gardening lifestyle. It is my therapy. If I need a break, I go out in the yard and pull weeds. We entertain our circle of friends,” he says. “People need to be successful when they are gardening to catch that fever. When you’re building a house, the most important aspect is the foundation. And if you don’t have a good foundation, you’re going to have problems. It’s the same way with growing plants; you have to have that good foundation.”