From its humble origins as a small roadside stand, Homestead Gardens has grown to become one of the largest garden centers between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. With more than 174,000 square feet of retail space at its main location in Davidsonville, Md., and another 35,000-square-foot store in Severna Park, Homestead Gardens boasts a wide selection of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, garden accessories, furniture and more.
During its 45-year history, Homestead Gardens has cultivated a knowledgeable staff with strong expertise. Now, the IGC is more committed than ever to sharing its knowledge with the rest of the community. Under the second-generation leadership of president and CEO Brian Riddle, whose father founded the company in 1973, Homestead Gardens keeps building on its reputation as a resource and destination.
“There is a world of opportunity for IGCs to become the authority,” Riddle says. “Providing knowledge and resources is a crucial part of developing new consumers. There’s a tremendous void in horticultural competency, so the interaction of being around other gardeners is really important.”
Academy of learning
As part of its ongoing commitment to educate and engage customers, Homestead Gardens launched HG Garden Academy earlier this year. Workshops and classes cover topics ranging from pollinators and edibles to patios and grilling. The educational series brings in well-known garden writers, guest speakers, and industry celebrities like Martha Stewart’s gardener — supplemented by Homestead’s own in-house experts.
Regardless of the topic, Riddle says success boils down to timing and planning.
“During slower months, the participation and attendance was very strong,” Riddle says. “I think preseason and off-peak times are preferable for customers, because it’s more difficult to tap into their time during peak season, when all the gardening is actually occurring.”
One of the keys to the academy’s financial success has been coordinating each session with the purchasing team. Riddle says his category managers are responsible for making products available that tie into each session’s topic, creating the potential for increased sales at events.
“You have to organize your buying team with the educational component to make sure there’s sales opportunity,” Riddle says. “We still feel strongly that it’s important to charge a fee for these programs, in the $10 to $20 range. I think it increases perceived value and drives commitment for customers to invest their time.”
By bringing customers in during slower parts of the season, these classes and activities have helped Homestead combat the third consecutive year of unusually challenging weather. After one of the coldest Aprils that Riddle remembers, followed by excessive rain and flooding in May, he says this past spring was “one of the hardest we’ve seen.” That’s why he’s looking to bolster summer and fall activities next year.
“It’s very difficult to offset the major segment of our business that comes in April and May, but there’s opportunity to pick up incremental dollars in the slower months,” Riddle says. “We’re actively looking at ways to enhance our events and diversify our income streams by exploring how we can leverage our space to create other attractions that complement the business and build on our destination model.”
There is a world of opportunity for IGCs to become the authority. Providing knowledge and resources is a crucial part of developing new consumers. There’s a tremendous void in horticultural competency, so the interaction of being around other gardeners is really important.” — BRIAN RIDDLE, CEO, HOMESTEAD GARDENS
While he can’t yet share all the details about Homestead’s plans to enhance events next year, one area where he sees growth potential is the Homestead Barnyard, which is home to several alpacas, donkeys, goats, pigs and chickens, as well as 50 beehives. The animal attraction offers a unique party rental experience that’s been popular for birthdays, but Riddle sees opportunities to expand it into other uses, too.
“The value of having that animal attraction is priceless, especially if you’re neighboring urban markets. It’s a huge opportunity for the public to get exposure to agriculture,” Riddle says. “We have a full-time farm manager whose challenge is to develop some events to create a more interactive experience with the animals, so they’re not just neat to look at, but they’re more hands-on.”
The barnyard will play a critical role as Homestead “doubles down on agricultural education initiatives,” Riddle says. The garden center has been an active supporter and sponsor of organizations like 4-H, FFA, and other youth ag programs. Now, it’s looking for opportunities to host ag groups and events on its grounds — offering both the expertise and the experience that sets Homestead apart.
Looking beyond traditional garden categories into the animal arena has helped Homestead stay relevant year-round through events and product sales.
“America’s attraction to animals, and pets in particular, continues to be a strong trend,” Riddle says. “We’re seeing sustained growth in pet food and supplies, even through some challenging weather patterns. The number of customers who bring their pets into the store is fascinating, and I don’t see that turning around anytime soon. There’s nothing but opportunity for us to build relationships with our customers and their four-legged friends.”
Homestead’s support of local agriculture is also impacting its product selection. As the demand for locally sourced food became more obvious, Homestead started exploring new ways to market herbs and veggies to customers.
Homestead’s marketing team came up with the brand name, Chesapeake Harvest — only to discover that the name was already trademarked as an initiative of a neighboring county’s economic development corporation. The organization was established to help Eastern Shore farmers brand, market, and sell their goods, providing a local alternative to larger, more competitive distribution channels.
Riddle saw an opportunity to partner with Chesapeake Harvest, resulting in a new starter plant program that launched this past spring. Through this licensing agreement, Homestead introduced a line of Chesapeake Harvest-branded basil, parsley, tomatoes, peppers and other edible varieties grown by nearby Tidal Creek Growers.
“People like to buy local when it’s convenient, but they don’t have time to go to six different places,” Riddle says. “So at some point, you’ve got to have a market system to move things around. That’s what Chesapeake Harvest does; it’s essentially a mini distribution network that will bring an assortment of local products to farm stands and places like Homestead Gardens.”
Homestead is currently the only retailer that offers the Chesapeake Harvest brand, but Riddle says the plan is to expand into other IGCs throughout the Chesapeake Watershed region.
A portion of proceeds from each sale will help Chesapeake Harvest fulfill its mission of sourcing local foods to promote Maryland’s agricultural economy. Plus, eco-conscious customers love the products because they come in environmentally friendly, plant-able pots made of biodegradable fiber.
The Chesapeake Harvest brand “gave our herbs and vegetables some substance, whereas the old branding was just a package with nothing behind it,” Riddle says. “The perceived value went up significantly, so we were able to raise the price while lowering the input cost.”
These programs and partnerships bolster Homestead Garden’s business while embedding it into the local community as a market leader.
“Our community engagement has been a cornerstone of our entire company history,” Riddle says. “It’s one of the strongest attributes that propels our reputation as the leading IGC in our marketplace.”