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Interview with Green Gardener’s Guide Joe Lamp’l

February 20, 2009


Joe Lamp'l (aka joe gardener)

Joe Lamp’l is the guy behind the popular joe gardener brand.  You may have caught him on the DIY Network as the host of Fresh from the Garden,  or Garden Smart on PBS, or as a guest expert on The Today Show and Good Morning America.  Joe’s latest book, The Green Gardener’s Guide, focuses a lot on smart, easy-to-understand, sustainable garden practices that help preserve our planet (stay tuned for a book review).  I recently had the opportunity to interrupt Joe’s speaking schedule at the Cleveland Home & Garden show and ask him a few questions about his mission to cultivate the passion for sustainability in the garden, the future of the garden industry, and how technology can influence Gen X and Gen Y’s curiosity for gardening.  Thank you Joe for sharing your thoughts, and helping the rest of us live a healthier, more eco-friendly life.

I see that you have a new book out called Green Gardener’s Guide.  You stated on another blog that your motivation for writing the book was to raise environmental awareness of uninformed gardeners and to offer real solutions in becoming more sustainable.  Your motivations for writing the book seem to play right into the interests and concerns younger generations have about the environment.  Do you feel that the garden industry connects well with Gen X and Gen Y gardeners?

Not well enough.  I think they are trying to, but a lot of people who are in the garden industry are from the the Baby Boomer generation.  They don’t really get Gen X and Gen Y as much.  Old habits are hard to break and too many people in the industry are playing off the old habits.  Now we’ve got Terrain coming into the scene.  Are you familiar with them?

Yes I am.  I’ve been following them for a while now.

I don’t know a whole lot about them yet but I know their parent company and the target audience they’re going for.  If  Terrain succeeds with their hip style and hands-on destination garden center, they are going to be our first chance at succeeding with Gen X and Gen Y.  They already have an audience through Anthropologie they connect with so it’s a natural link.  I think they’re going to get the attention of Gen X and Y, whereas the baby boomers have no real idea who Terrain is.  I don’t know that Terrain is really after the baby boomers.

I think the younger generation is interested in gardening but you gotta look at more contemporary ways to get their attention, such as social media.  We have to create the garden, not so much as a safe haven, but that place to entertain and socialize.  Gen X and Gen Y evolve into gardening because they want to be connected to the environment.  They want to be environmentally responsible because they get it more than anybody.  Gardening is approached differently by younger generations than older generations.  I think they’ll get there but we [the industry] have a new set of challenges that we didn’t have before.

We are competing more than ever with time demands and we access information completely different.  The baby boomers took the time to go to the garden shows and to hang out at the nurseries.  Today, Gen X and Y are on the internet, using their iPhones and Blackberries to get information, which is cool, but we’ve got to find cool ways for them to get plant information.  Unfortunately, television is becoming less and less of a medium for connecting with younger gardeners.  Television isn’t supporting the garden industry anymore.  A lot of that has to do with the advertisers not seeing garden consumers as their target audience, and therefore, the garden shows aren’t attracting advertisers to gardening.  It’s a terrible thing that’s happening, but it really just comes down to a financial decision.  The retailers, or the people who buy adds, don’t look at the gardening industry as their target market.

In one way that’s good because it forces people like you and me to blog, to create TV quality video’s online, which is where Gen X and Y are anyway.  So when they Google ‘organic herb gardening’, hopefully a YouTube video comes up or something that speaks to them in a style they can relate to.  That’s where I’m focusing.  I agree with you, if we don’t get Gen X and Y on board early, we are going to lose them and maybe the generations after them.  We don’t have a lot of time to get their attention and we’ve gotta do it online more than ever.

Podcasting is a big thing for me, because as busy as we are, we can’t always watch a video, we’re commuting in the car or traveling across country.  However, we certainly have our iPods with us.  My approach is to use modern technology in an inviting way to get to younger generations.  I’m certainly not the only one doing it, but we need more people like you and me focusing on them.  So I’m glad to hear that it’s apart of your focus.

I’ve been following Terrain very closely.  Although some people feel very threatened by it, I find it very encouraging that Urban Outfitters has found a market that can attract Gen Y.  This provides many opportunities for the garden industry to change their focus on how they connect with new gardeners.  I read a recent statistic that only 17% of Gen Y are even aware of IGCs (Independent Garden Centers).  This is a huge red flag to me but also a huge opportunity to get the word out about IGCs to younger generations.

That doesn’t surprise me.  It’s the first time I’ve heard that and I got chills listening to what you’ve just said.

Joe proceeds to tell me about a professor from one of Cleveland’s local universities showed him where a local garden store was just turned into a CVS pharmacy after 10 years of business.  IGC’s are losing business to the big-box stores and their land is more valuable when sold than as a retail garden center.  Profit margins have become too thin and IGC owners are left with the financial decision to sell their business to larger retail companies like CVS Pharmacy.

So it doesn’t really surprise me, now that you mention it, that many people are not aware of IGC’s.  There are fewer and fewer of them, and more big box stores are opening with nurseries right beside the entrance.  I grew up with IGC’s everywhere but I can certainly see why Gen X and Gen Y are thinking, “what is that little store over there selling some plants? Ah, I’ll just wait ‘til I go to Home Depot to pick ‘em up because I’m too busy to make an extra stop.”

I have read articles stating that younger generations have the show me mentality as opposed to the teach me mentality.  Do you agree?  If so, how has it impacted the way you write and connect with gardeners.

Okay, that’s a great question.  I would agree with that statement to a degree.  I believe that with the availability of information these days, including the access to the information, it’s not so much a teach me situation, it’s just show me.  Whereas before we had all this instant access, we needed to be taught and we needed to have people spend more time with us.  You know, if we had that person in front of us to take the time [to teach us] we were a sponge because we knew that we had few opportunities to get that information.  So we were all ears and our attention was 100% devoted to the teach me mentality.  But now, it’s just like, “show me the basics, give me the cliffs notes approach, and I’ll know where to go after that to get the rest of the information when I’m ready.”

For me personally, I’m a teach me guy.  For some things I’m a show me guy, but for something that I’m really passionate about, like gardening, teach me, teach me, teach me.  I want to know everything you know and I will take as much time as you’ll give me to learn.  Unfortunately, I think I’m the exception to the rule.  As far as my communication, I’m a teacher not a show-er.  I don’t believe that people learn as well when you just show them.  Yeah sure, people are visual learners, and when they see something they pick up information, but I firmly believe the best way for people to understand the steps in doing something is to explain why.  My first book, Over the Fence with Joe Gardener, focused a lot on the why do behind the how to.

There are no shortages in information on how to do something, but not enough writers go into the details of why you should do something.  Why do you amend the soil?  Yeah, you’ve been told to amending the soil is important, but I don’t think there is enough people saying why you should amend your soil.  The more I feel people understand that how-to thing, they can then apply that information to other applications in the garden.  They’re smarter because they understand the back story.  They understand [the concept of] dig a $10 hole for a $1 plant, and 90% of your time should be spent making your soil healthy.  I think it takes more than just saying, “hey, amend your soil and stick your plant in the right location.”  Do those statements really teach gardeners anything?  I don’t think so.  I think that gives them enough information to be dangerous.

You make a great point.  If you don’t teach people how to be successful in the garden, and they don’t do the necessary steps to amend the soil, then they’re going to think gardening is too hard when their plants don’t survive and thrive.  They’re going to think, “I keep killing my plants so this isn’t the hobby for me.”

Exactly.  You finished what I wanted to say.  They don’t have the information they need to know how to fix the problem.  If you spend more time on the front end working with people and teaching them the possible scenarios they can get into, then they’re going to know more about how to get out of them.  So I totally get what you’re saying.  I agree 100% with that.

I feel like what you’re saying is that you have to convince people to invest a little bit of knowledge so they can be more successful in the future.

Yes, I would agree with that.  One of my business partners who travels with me to listen to my lectures calls me:  part teacher, part preacher.  I firmly believe in my message of sustainable gardening and I love to teach.  My mother was a teacher so I guess it’s in my blood.  I really want people to understand the science and the art behind gardening, not just dig a hole and stick a plant in it, but the why you do what you do.  I guess it’s my passion for teaching sustainable gardening that makes me seem like a preacher.

In regards to promoting environmental awareness, do you feel there’s a fine line between encouraging people to make a change and turning people off?

Yeah.  I think the problem is that a lot of communicators, not just gardeners but also those in the environmental movement, have jumped on this campaign too much.  Unfortunately, there has been a lot of green-washing as well.  It makes it sound like every company wants to be green and that everybody should be green.  The message has come out so fast that it’s become diluted, people are becoming numb to it, and they’re sort of tuning it out a little bit now.  That’s a concern for me.  This is why I’m focusing on the gardening aspect of it.  There’s a study I’m involved with through the Garden Writer’s Association.  I’m on the trends committee and we develop the questions that go out to the public four times a year on what are people thinking about gardening.  What I know is that 70% of the gardeners out there, at whatever level, want to be more environmentally responsible.  Of that same 70%, only about 55% of them are willing to do something about it when it costs more money.  There’s another group that says they are only willing to change if it’s as effective and doesn’t cost more money.

The truth of the matter is, that’s the wrong attitude, because natural and more sustainable choices don’t work the same as synthetic products do.  For the most part, they don’t work as fast, you have to put more of it down, and you may have to put them down at a different times of the year.  At the risk of my turning a few people off, I feel that it’s incumbent upon me to get gardeners to understand, in an encouraging way, that sustainable gardening is the better way.  It’s not my intent to turn people off or offend them, however, it is my intent to make them aware.  If I have to wake them up by shaking them a little bit, then that’s my job.  I don’t think there is enough people out there painting a clear picture about sustainability.  I do know that people are very confused still.  Sadly, as many people that say they want to be more sustainable in the garden, very few of them have done anything about it yet.  The reason for that is they perceive the products to not work as well, they cost too much, they’re confused on what to do, and when they do decide to do something about it, they can’t find the right products on the shelf.  I feel exhausted in all the work we have to do to change the course of the tide.  I get tired sometimes.

I bet you do Joe, but you keep trying.  There is a huge paradigm shift that needs to take place, unfortunately, people are resistant to change.  I feel very grateful for people like you trying to make a difference.  You’ve been so generous with your time, just one last question.

I have a 23 year-old coworker who made fun of me when I told him I was attending the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.  He has this image in his mind that gardening is what his mother and grandmother used to do.  How much of this generation gap we are seeing can be attributed to the image factor?  How much impact do you feel gardening can have on someone’s self-image with their friends, family, and co-workers?

That is an excellent question.  I feel like we need to reach younger generations through their interest in doing things that are good for the environment.  We didn’t think about why we garden in the Baby Boomer generation, but I think gardening today is connected to what Gen X and Y are thinking about the environment.  As we try to help them see gardening as a way of trying to be more environmentally responsible, they will discover gardening and fall in love with it.  I think we need to lead them down a different path to discover gardening by focusing on the issues that are important them:  buying local, eating local, being organic and more sustainable.  My hope is that younger generations discover gardening in this way because the issues are so interconnected.

They are going to feel good about contributing to the health of the planet, and gardening will be apart of that.  So the image that we need to create is that gardening is a cool thing, because it’s something we need to do in order to help the planet.  Gardening absorbs carbon dioxide, releases oxygen through the plants and trees we put in the ground, provides peace to our souls, and provides a safe environment to raise children that is chemical free. Whether it’s a lawn or a food garden, younger generations will be more conscious of how the garden is nurtured.  There’s going to be an evolution, where they discover the joy of gardening, because they have a bigger mission they’re trying to accomplish.  Hopefully, they are not so selfish that they are blind to what they need to do.  I think the future of gardening for Gen X and Y will be more than just doing something for personal satisfaction, but they’ll also get fulfillment out of doing more for the environment.

I love that your making that connection Joe and I hope it really works.  Thank you for your time in completing this interview and getting the word out about the benefits of gardening for younger generations.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 6:39 pm

    Man oh man, what a fabulous “conversation”. So thankful that you posted this. Am a Gen X’er and gardening gal… “taught” by elders as a kid as part of “family time together” mixed w/some “showed” by others later on and now (at 40) back to being “taught” via the Master Gardener certification program here in Portland area. Have been marching for the “healing garden” movement for so long – feeling like it falls on deaf ears – no wonder my generation isn’t necessarily “getting it” – they may not yet get gardening as a whole… This post offers a valuable “ah ha”. We need to teach/show the coolness (read: goodness) of caring for our earth, each other, our health and our collective well-being – the basics tenants of working the earth. There is a “soul” to this garden passion – that’s where the connection is to be made – and social media offers a different way to express that “soul”. Thanks so!

  2. February 21, 2009 9:16 am

    Excellent and insightful questions, @nestinstyle and thanks for sharing @joegardener. Lot’s of very good information in this post and extremely educational. Joe, it’s funny that you are “part preacher” because when I was sitting in your seminar this weekend, I told the lady next to me that you should have been a preacher. =) But of course, you are a preacher for a good cause. Keep up the good fight!

  3. February 21, 2009 9:17 am

    Just wanted to say “thanks” for all the information above. Good stuff. I remain hopeful that we can turn the tide with the younger generations.

  4. February 21, 2009 10:46 am

    Thanks for your excitement and passion for the “new” garden movement. I agree with Joe, the concern for the environment and desire for chemical free food will lead Gen Y to gardening.

    As a Gen X’er myself, gardening is part hobby and part chore. Recently, my emphasis has evolved from “pretties” to “necessities.” Time has become my garden’s enemy this past year. I neglected some plants and they didn’t survive even our mild winter. I plan to introduce more natives and more edibles this year. Keep it simple is my New Year’s resolution!

    Thanks for the nice comments and the encouragement! I’m sure Joe will appreciate knowing that readers are learning a thing or two from what he had to say.

    Your are “welcome” for the information. Like Joe, I hope that younger generations will set aside their own needs for the needs of our environment. Gardening just seems like a natural connection.

  5. February 21, 2009 2:16 pm

    Wow! I didn’t realize I talked so much but I’m glad you took the time to listen and catch it. Thank you Jayme for asking such great questions and then recording this interview in a place where it will be forever accessible. You clearly asked questions that keep me thinking about how to reach the next generation of gardeners. Indeed this is a challenge as we have never had the same dynamics at play before from which to draw from. However, I still feel there is an intangible about gardening that transcends generations. It just needs to be discovered and we all need to think of more contemporary ways to introduce gardening where people are today…and tomorrow.
    Thanks again Jayme for taking the time to not only ask such forward thinking questions but to then document them here. Well done!
    Joe Lamp’l

  6. February 21, 2009 10:35 pm

    So great to hear your feedback. Thank you for providing our readers such thought provoking content. Best of luck to you and stay in touch!


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