Come see Liz speak at the Garden Center Conference & Expo (Sept. 28-30) in Orlando, Florida, for her can't-miss panel session, Story-Telling Tips From A Theater Nerd: How Retail Is Theater And It's Time To Play!

The first time I wrote this article, it was in PC (pre-COVID) times. I wanted to talk about how we as IGCs must focus on becoming a dynamic as possible to remain relevant in people’s lives. These days, if you’re anything like us, you’re finding that you are suddenly more relevant than ever. Between being stuck at home, looking for things to do with the kids and fewer places to safely spend leisure dollars, people are flocking to the gardens — many of them for the first time. And we would be foolish to not to realize that the big guys are paying attention.

And this started before the pandemic. PC, I received an unsettling email from Denise, my marketing coordinator. She had been to Walmart and reported that they had a really nice display of very cool/rare houseplants for sale. She proceeded to tell me that they must have a similar display at Lowe’s because people all over the houseplant social media groups she follows were going nuts over them and included a screenshot of a user post of a Raven ZZ plant captioned “Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants. I repeat, Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants!!!!!! This is not a drill!” You read that right. Seven exclamation points in that post.

After a quick look at Lowe’s and Walmart’s Instagram feeds, I can see that each of them feature a post within their most recent nine referring to houseplants as “babies” jumping right on that #houseplantparent train pioneered by brands like The Sill and Porch Therapy.

Customers visit Florida’s Rockledge Gardens specifically to talk to Norman, whose expertise they’ve seen in the garden center’s series of how-to videos.

So if Lowe’s and Walmart are creating social media buzz for their houseplants and carrying more than the run-of-the-mill easy-care houseplants, where does that leave us? How does the IGC stay relevant and what can we offer that those places can’t? And more importantly … for those who HAVE found US rather than Walmart or Lowe’s for the new plant addition … how do we stay relevant to their lives once they aren’t spending as much time at home?

For us at Rockledge Gardens, the answer is experience. We’ve found that continually creating fresh local experiences for our community while capitalizing on the experience of our staff is crucial to maintaining relevancy. And it will be crucial to keeping all these new baby gardeners! If you read Garden Center magazine or you’ve attended an industry event or seminar in the last five years or so, I’m not telling you anything new. I don’t have ground-breaking insights to share here but what I can talk about is what we specifically do to stay relevant and how you might do likewise.

1. We capitalize on the experience of our staff using video. Often I’ll walk by our main entrance and greet a customer walking in who will say “I’m here to see the big man!” They’re referring to Steve, an employee of more than 20 years who’s manned our info booth since before the dawn of social media. He’s become a bit of a celebrity for his knowledge and frankness.


But he’s not our only employee with expert advice to dispense and so we’re making efforts to highlight and celebritize other staff through our YouTube channel and IGTV. Staff like Norman. He’s in his late twenties; he’s a burly guy with a big red beard and he’s obsessed with flowers, particularly roses. In one of my favorite videos we’ve done so far, Norman, in all his manly glory, delicately shows our viewers how to harvest flower seeds to propagate what’s already in their gardens. What sets this particular video apart (other than the delightful juxtaposition of Norman’s beard and the lullaby-like background music) is that we’re not trying to sell anything. In fact, if they follow Norman’s advice, folks will learn how to harvest their own seeds rather than buying them from us.


But selling isn’t the immediate objective of the video. We are offering something of value, for free, and we’re positioning our staff as experts. How altruistic of us! Don’t you want to shop somewhere staffed with experts who offer advice for free?

2. We create in-person and virtual experiences for our guests, using the experience of our staff. Now that we’ve whetted our audience’s appetite for knowledge from our staff, we invite them in for more in-depth experiences. Social media connects us, but it also keeps us apart, fooling us into thinking we’re up-to-date with all our friends but some deeper part of us knows that we’re only seeing the highlights reel and that human connection happens in real time. In prior years we would host several in-person seminars a week, both paid and free. These days, our events are primarily virtual, both paid and free. But they are always LIVE.

This is crucial because when there are thousands of gardening video tutorials online, the engagement of live events is what will set you and your expert staff apart. For free seminars (like October’s Spooky Plants talk) we host them on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. Anyone can tune in and join the conversation, and they are archived on our page so that anyone can watch them in future. We host paid events (like September’s three-part virtual pollinator series) on Zoom.

Participants receive a gift certificate to the gardens as well as a copy of the recording via email. We want our customers to know (especially the new fledgling gardeners) that we have resources to support them.

Consider using your space for other events like birthday parties .

3. We welcome those trying to create experiences for their families. By default, our businesses are beautiful. We are the luckiest industry in the world in the age of social media, video content and blogging because there is no shortage of Instagram-worthy content everywhere. For many years we’ve noticed families, recent grads, prom-goers, newly engaged couples and brand-new parents with newborns come to Rockledge Gardens to use it as a backdrop for their photos. And now more than ever, families will want to be photographed in wide open spaces rather than confined studios.

Photographers often message us on Facebook asking if there’s a charge to use the space. We tell them all they need to do is tag us when they post to social media ... that way we can repost and get even more photographers and families to do likewise.

Most often these families come and go without spending a dime on the day they come in for their photo session (nice clothes don’t mix well with dirt). But what happens when those photos get printed? When they’re framed or shared on Facebook and Instagram? Those families think of us. Consciously or unconsciously, we are now a part of their milestones and memories. We are literally framing their captured joy and togetherness.

4. We create opportunities for people to experience community. In my original version of this article I talked about the popularity of our big annual events: our Fairy Garden Festival in May and our Fall Festival in October. These have served to draw thousands to us over a weekend for festive family fun. This year, the Fairy Fest was cancelled entirely and our Fall Festival looked considerably different than it has in years past. Rather than confining the event to one weekend and drawing massive (and unsafe) crowds, this year our Fall Fest lasted the whole month of October with our signature Scarecrow Scavenger Hunt, a pumpkin patch, treat trucks on Thursdays, live music and food trucks on Saturdays, and a free fall-themed photo booth with professional photographers on Sundays.

Kevin Riley wearing one of the plant pun T-shirts Rockledge sells at the garden center and online.
The outdoor space at the Harry and Mary Witte Learning Center has been booked for weddings since 2017.

If you are like me, you’re are craving fall comfort, a change of scenery, and somewhere to take the kids so you don’t lose your mind, but you want to feel safe and your favorite restaurants and movie theaters will not cut it. We IGCs, with our beautiful wide-open spaces, have an opportunity to entwine with the lives of our community and to be there for them when they really need us. We are positioning ourselves as a place to stroll, connect and breathe in the beauty of nature.

5. We actually sell experience. You may be thinking this is all well and good but how does this help my bottom line? Becoming and staying relevant is a long game.

In 2017 we launched a new aspect of our business: weddings. We have the advantage of land to spare and so we were fortunate in the win-win of solving the need to shrink our retail footprint so that our rows look fuller and become more compact and easier to maintain, while creating an entirely new revenue source with the space. Eight thousand square feet of retail space was made over into The Harry and Mary Witte Learning Center (named for our founders), a site for our educational workshops, and to date, more than 125 weddings. We certainly are seeing couples postpone or cancel but we’re also seeing couples who are cancelling with indoor venues and booking with us because we’re 100% outdoors.

The long game begins like this ... we advertise on social media and on sites like The Knot and Wedding Wire, and young local couples reach out to schedule a venue tour. The couple arrives and seven times out of 10 says, “Wow, I drive by here every day and I never knew any of this was back here!” They book their wedding for a year or so in the future and over the course of that year they come back several times to peek at the venue, dream about and plan their wedding, and pick up a few houseplants along the way for their indoor jungle.

The wedding day arrives and 50-120 of their nearest and dearest are invited to our gardens to share in their joy ... many of them are experiencing the gardens for the first time ever and the couple has paid us thousands of dollars for the privilege of bringing all these new potential customers through our doors. After the wedding takes place, we continue to see the couple come in to purchase houseplants or visit our farmers market. Then we learn they’ve bought a house, and they are ready to landscape their yard. They’ve got to talk to Steve or Norman or Victoria, because they trust us. After a year or so we might start to notice a baby bump, then they come with the baby in the stroller. Eventually the little baby is old enough for Little Bugs Club or our Self-Guided Learning tour for families and we begin to reach a generation that hasn’t even been named yet.

So maybe Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants and maybe Walmart has finally figured out how to be Instagrammable. And our customers may need to go there anyway for toilet paper or wing nuts, but they can’t talk to an expert human about caring for that ZZ plant. And you better believe they are going to take that plant home before they post it, they won’t take photos in the store (overhead fluorescents are not a good look for the ‘gram). We as IGC’s can do what the box stores never can. We can become a member of the family. We’re in all their wedding photos, we’re in the newborn shots, we’re in the family portraits. We are relevant to their lives. It’s a long game, but it’s so worth it.

The author is Managing Director at Rockledge Gardens in Rockledge, Florida.