Plants are like rabbits

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Whether it’s a plant or a pet, consumers need plenty of instructions to be successful.

Gardening is hard and dirty, but rewarding. This is the message we should be sending.

My 10-year-old daughter wants a rabbit. We found a nest in the garden and it was love at first sight. She’s been obsessively researching and learning all she can about the types of rabbits, as well as selecting, naming and feeding them. I’ve had just about every small mammal you can have as a pet in my life, but never a rabbit, so I too wanted to find out what was involved.

Apparently, rabbits are not easy pets. We went to look at the rabbits at the SPCA and asked about care and how they would meld into a home with two cats, a bird dog, a herder and a working-class dog, one of which one has killed a garden variety rabbit. The news was not positive, and certainly not in favor of bringing a rabbit into our pet-hectic lives.

What do pet rabbits have to do with plants? Hear me out…

I’ve written before about the small, uninformative tags we put on plants. Plants can be complicated. Some plants want to be alone, some want to grow in a pack, some don’t play well with others, and some can be downright difficult. I did not get to take home a rabbit because my situation was not conducive for a pet rabbit, so why can consumers take home a plant that may need special treatment or be a tad bit difficult at times, with little to no instruction?

For decades, maybe longer, we have been telling people how easy gardening is. We’ve been breeding and marketing plants that need little to no care, no pruning, no nothing. We have been sending consumers home with tomato plants, but we have not been telling them to plant them at least 6 inches deep into the soil. Heck, that’s the complete opposite you’d do with any other plant. Yet, it’s the only way a tomato can hold itself up and bear delicious tasting fruits all summer. Is that on the label? I don’t think so. We assume they know. We have got to stop assuming people know how to garden and care for plants.

Look at all the complicated meals people are cooking today with subscriptions to weekly “curated” boxes of ingredients. Do you think it ever crossed the minds of Blue Apron and Hello Fresh to just put a bunch of groceries into a box and send them to people without explicit instructions? They knew step-by-step instructions where necessary to help consumers make the meals, enjoy them and then come back for more. If the meals tasted bad or didn’t turn out right, do you think people would buy more boxes? No, they would cancel their subscription and go back to packaged, boxed meals of Hamburger Helper.

So, why do we send people home with a car full of vegetable starts, a bag of “garden soil” and a box of “blue juice” and assume they know what they are doing? We are snobs to our craft. People who work in the field of horticulture know a lot about plants. We get paid to know a lot about plants. I can hear you all saying, “Consumers don’t think our knowledge is valuable and we never get paid what we are worth as professionals.” Perhaps it’s because we have been telling consumers how easy it is to garden for decades, so they are thinking, “Why should anyone get paid a lot to garden? It’s so easy!” It’s our fault and the fault of many green industry companies who have tried to get more people to garden by telling them how easy it is.

We all know it is not easy. Gardening is hard work. It is terribly dirty, yet so dang rewarding. That is the message we should be telling people. Get dirty. Be rewarded. People are willing to get their kitchens dirty and make complicated suppers using one of the curated meal boxes, so why not do the same in their garden?

How can the industry put together curated collections with step-by-step instructions for every plant in the “box” to ensure there are no failures and that the people who buy them succeed, and enjoy themselves caring for them, and then come back wanting more?

It sounds like a lot of work. It will be, but once the instructions are written, they can be used forever. No one ever said any of this would be easy, but it will be rewarding once consumers are given the tools to succeed.

Angela Treadwell-Palmer founded and co-owns Plants Nouveau LLC., a company that specializes in introducing and marketing new plants to the nursery industry. She’s been around the world, experiencing world-famous gardens and remote areas looking for new ideas and exciting plants.