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On Feb. 6, 2019, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed what many have suggested: The years from 2014 through 2018 were Earth’s five warmest years since modern recordkeeping began in 1880. But, as these reports also pointed out, what you experienced at your IGC depended in large part on regional weather dynamics.

Despite your specific situation, one constant rings true across the garden center industry: Being in tune with your region’s weather — on everything from inventory and staffing to marketing and events — can make or break a season.

Understanding weather, climate and variability

Dr. Jeffrey Andresen

To comprehend weather and climate reports, it helps to understand the terminology. Though laypeople may use “weather” and “climate” interchangeably, Dr. Jeffrey Andresen, Michigan’s state climatologist and a Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientist and professor, stresses the distinction is important.

“Weather and climate talk about the same variables, like air temp or wind speed, but weather looks at these elements over relatively short periods of time, like seconds or hours or days, and climate looks at decades or centuries or even longer,” Andresen explains. “Weather is that noise, that variability, around the long-term changes.” It’s that variability and what Andresen sees as increasingly “erratic” weather extremes that he says affect garden centers most significantly.

Melinda Walton

Melinda Walton, third-generation co-owner of Phoenix, Arizona’s Berridge Nurseries, didn’t need a NASA report to be concerned about warming trends. 2018 brought the full-service garden center the region’s third longest stretch of 100-degree-plus days on record. Precipitation, in an area reliant on rain from seasonal monsoons, is also down. “We always hope for a good monsoon season, but what we’re getting, unfortunately, is more of the big ‘haboobs’ — the big dust storms,” Walton says.

For IGCs in the upper Midwest, Andresen says warming trends are affecting winter most. “In some parts of the Midwest, summer temps are actually decreasing,” he says. The region is also becoming wetter, a trend tied to both more days of precipitation and more heavy rain events like those behind 2018’s catastrophic flooding in Michigan and Wisconsin.

One similarity between Michigan and Arizona is the extended warm season. For Michigan IGCs, Andresen says the warm season is progressively occurring earlier and running longer. However, frost dates in spring and fall haven’t kept pace, so IGCs and gardeners face greater risk of freeze damage.
At Berridge Nurseries in Phoenix, Arizona, the store has changed its product mix as growers have shifted away from water-thirsty plants to more sustainable options like cacti and succulents.
COURTESY OF BERRIDGE NURSERIES

In Phoenix, Walton experiences a flip side. “In general, the days have been warmer and it’s staying warmer longer, into what we call our fall season,” she says. September to Thanksgiving is the biggest planting season of the year. Plants are ready, but customers aren’t. “They’re still hot and miserable,” Walton says. “So we wait on the weather to break.”

Moving from reactive to proactive

Bill Kirk, CEO and co-founder of Weather Trends International, specializes in year-ahead weather forecasting — by week and precise location. Some may scoff at forecasts a year out, but it’s interesting to note that many Fortune 1000 companies, including several big-box competitors and lawn and garden suppliers, fill his client list.

Bill Kirk
COURTESY OF BILL KIRK

Kirk says that businesses often fall short when it comes to weather-related plans. “Most businesses plan off last year. The problem is the next year’s different,” he says. “They’re reacting. Many have a gauge of if the weekend is going to be a washout, but you can’t do much at that point.”

Jed Lafferty echoes this sentiment. “If you plan for every year to be better than last year, you’re going to be wrong a lot,” says Lafferty, who is managing director, life sciences for Planalytics, which provides analytics, online tools and services to help companies measure and manage the impact of weather throughout all facets of their organizations.

In fact, Lafferty says weather only repeats about 15 percent of the time year-to-year.

“As bad as last year was, being one of the wettest, coldest Aprils, still having snow on the ground at the end of April in Minnesota, the probability of that occurring [in 2019] isn’t very high. If you plan on this year’s season to be eight weeks because that’s how long last year’s was, you would be making a grave mistake.”

Jed Lafferty
COURTESY OF JED LAFFERTY

Kirk advises IGCs to push beyond reaction and short-term weather forecasts. “I think climate cycles are more oceanic cycles than anything,” he says. Though most people know El Niño and La Niña, his company monitors 24 similar cycles. He also mentions AccuWeather and NOAA produce long-range seasonal outlooks that can help you get a broader weather perspective for your IGC.

Playing historical odds helps, too. As an example, Kirk refers to 2016’s record-hot March. “In the case of the Northeast, when that happens, there’s a 91-percent chance that the next March will be cold, and a 94-percent chance that it will be snowy,” he says. “If you planned business to be good in March 2017, you probably had a problem.”

Most weather models are based on 30-year normals that are updated every 10 years. Planalytics uses a model based on 10 years of data.

ADOBE STOCK
COURTESY OF BERRIDGE NURSERIES
COURTESY OF BERRIDGE NURSERIES
COURTESY OF BERRIDGE NURSERIES

“The collection and quality is better. In the past 10 years, temperatures have been warmer than the previous 30,” Lafferty says. “Seasons have gotten shorter and they’ve started later.”

To underscore the importance of staying in sync with weather, Kirk shares a sales model called “The Power of 1 Degree” created through long-term analyses of sales categories and weather relationships. According to the Kirk, one degree Fahrenheit warmer translates to an 8-percent increase in bedding plant sales, plus increases of 5 percent in mowers and sprinklers, 4 percent in grass seed, and 3 percent in bird seed and grills. The kicker is that the effect works both ways.

“A garden center needs to think: What am I going to do differently? Think about the simple changes you can make,” Kirk says. One example of strategies used by his clients is running markdowns on patio furniture during great spring weather — when the summer forecast is cold and wet. It may seem counterintuitive at the time, but it moves inventory that will sit once weather weakens sales.

Going forward as weather and climate trends evolve

Discounting patio furniture in spring may make sense if the summer forecast is cold and wet.
SAW BEAR PHOTOGRAPHY, ADOBE STOCK

In the Southwest, Walton keeps a close eye on the National Weather Service and NOAA, especially as it relates to wet El Niño years. The industry consensus in the region is that it’s staying hotter longer and change is inevitable. “We have to offer the products that can withstand that type of environment,” she says. “We will have to make that shift. It is only a matter of time.”

In some cases, growers are making that choice for IGCs. “We haven’t seen any price increase due to water restrictions or constrictions, on our California growers, for example. But what is coming out of it is a change in product mix,” Walton shares. Many growers have shifted away from water-thirsty plants to sustainable options, and cactus and succulent options have exploded.

“We have to continue to educate our consumers and encourage them to make the shift to lower water-use products and water properly and be conscious of that. Living in the Southwest, we have to make that change. We have to continue to reduce and use lower water-use plants for the future,” Walton says.

Year-to-year weather patterns repeat only 15 percent of the time. If last May was unusually wet, chances are this year will be different.
EARLWILKERSON, ADOBE STOCK

Andresen views the Midwest’s warmer, wetter trends as net positives for IGCs for the next few decades, as drought events become less frequent and less severe. “With warm-ups, [IGCs] need to be ready to go earlier, but prepare your business for bumps. Weather challenges will continue,” he says. And stay on the lookout for new pests, in the form of exotic insects, diseases and weeds.

Kirk’s advice is simple: Be proactive and focus on things you can change. He also offers a spring forecast for IGCs east of the Rockies. “It’s going to be a much better mid-to-late March through April than last year. April could be an off-the-charts month,” he predicts. “If you plan off last year, you’ll miss an opportunity this year.”

Jolene is a freelance writer based in Southwest Wisconsin, where Jan. 31, 2019, brought early morning temps of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills of minus 57. On Feb. 2, daytime temperatures there hit 40 degrees above zero. Garden Center Editor Michelle Simakis contributed to this story.