facing a changing world (plus the power of houseplants): garden trends report, with katie dubow
I HAVE TO CONFESS that I have weeded out and discarded a lot of press releases and new product announcements that I’ve received each week as a garden writer all these years, touting this new gimmicky gadget or other. But there’s one announcement I look for each year, as I have for the 19 years it’s been issued—because it’s fun, but it also makes me think. It’s from the specialty public-relations agency called Garden Media Group, and it’s their annual Garden Trends Report.
Katie Dubow is creative director of the Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based company, a women-owned and run public-relations firm specializing in the home and garden industry, celebrating its 30th year in business. She’s author of the agency’s annual trends report, and we discussed the 2020 forecasts—most of them related to sustainability, both in what the report calls “cities of the future” with evolving “circular economies,” and in terms of a more regenerative approach to agriculture, horticulture and especially the crisis in soil management. Then we talked about some obstacles gardening is having gaining traction with the next generations (unless you’re talking houseplants!), and why that, too, concerns us both.
Read along as you listen to the October 28, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
garden trends report 2020, with katie dubow
Margaret Roach: I’m not kidding when I say I look forward to it because it makes me think—that this report each year kind of makes me think. We should probably say right away, it’s not like this is some scientific-based, enormous research report from some governmental agency or something like this.
Katie Dubow: Correct, right. We’re a group of people in Kennett Square who put our heads together, and we talk to leaders in the industry to figure out what’s trending. I think, like you, a lot of people look for it, but it’s just fun. We have a lot of fun doing it, and we don’t expect everyone to just go out and change everything they’re doing. Just like you said, we want people to think, maybe make a few changes, but just what do you think about it?
Margaret: That’s from garden center owners to product manufacturers and even the public, yes, to think?
Katie: The public, yes, growers and media, such as yourselves, and everybody who … We also look at outside of our industry, too. We look at the fashion industry, we look at the home industry, because I love gardeners, but we’ve never said that we’re a group of trendsetters, I think, so-
Margaret: [Laughter.] True.
Katie: … we look outside of our industry to see what are some of the changes happening out there that may affect us.
Margaret: Let’s backtrack for a second of sort of a quick “What’s Garden Media Group?” question because I feel like if I recall correctly, the story sort of begins with your mother, Susan McCoy-
Katie: It does.
Margaret: … and an early client of hers I think was like the American Mushroom Growers or something.
Katie: You got it. The way she tells the story, and she’s my mom, so Susie McCoy is my mom and she started this business when she put me on the bus to kindergarten, which is, especially, an important year for me as I put my daughter on the bus to kindergarten this year also.
Margaret: Oh, wow.
Katie: It’s really coming full circle, but she worked here in Kennett Square with the mushroom industry because Kennett Square is the mushroom capital of the world. From that work, she met the Conard-Pyle Company, who bred the Knock Out rose. They’re also here in our backyard. They saw the work that she did and they said, “We’re launching this little rose, it doesn’t have a name, and we think it could be a game-changer, but we’d like your help with it.” So she worked on that for the next 10 years.
Margaret: From mushrooms to the Knock Out rose success. All this time really, I’ve been a garden editor for 400 or 500 years [laughter], but you’ve done the Garden Trends Report for what, 19 years I think it is now?
Katie: Yep, this is our 19th report.
Margaret: Trends: So even the casual garden shopper will have noticed trends like one year you go into the garden centers and there’s a million orange-flowered things that the year before there wasn’t so much orange or whatever. There’s that or like Calibrachoa, the little miniature-looking petunia-ish things. Well, you know, maybe 10 years ago or so there were one or two, and then suddenly, it takes up a whole giant area of the garden center.
Katie: I know.
Margaret: You know what I mean? There’s those types of things that even us who are not doing analysis could say, “Oh, I don’t remember that having that much real estate before.” But, you’re looking at, as you said before, kind of input from a lot of different places. What are some of the things over the years? I mean, I think in your first report, in 2001, you really correctly forecast a growth in so-called “outdoor living.” Do you remember that?
Katie: Yes. Well, I wasn’t working here then, but I do remember. I mean I’ve read all the trend reports. The fascinating thing was at that time, it was the era of the McMansion, and so people had TVs outside. They were installing literally outdoor living rooms. Their kitchens outdoors were magnificent.
I think, luckily, we have shifted a little bit, and we still have outdoor living rooms, but it’s because our spaces inside are maybe a little smaller, and so we can expand our life outside by having extra rooms. But, that was the new living room.
Margaret: The trends along the way, the sort of headline trends, you know, the “buy local,”—that was one that you talked about in, I think, 2008. And obviously, the native plant interest kind of coming around, and the related one about pollinators. I mean something like pollinators and natives, it seems like they’ve gone from trend to like a permanent fixture, right, do you think?
Katie: It’s true. When Cheerio’s is talking about them, but you think they’re mainstream, right?
Margaret: Right. This year, in 2020, the table of contents to your report … We’ll give the link so people can browse through and whatever, and see the whole thing … But, a lot of the topics had an environmental bent to them even though it’s not, again, this is not a report from the department of whatever on climate change or something. But a lot of them had an environmental thought in them, yes?
Katie: They do, absolutely. That’s not something that we even were quite aware of until someone brought that up to our attention, and they said seven out of eight of them, and they missed that even the color trend [which is the color indigo] has a little bit of a sustainability emphasis to it.
Margaret: It does. It does.
Katie: It’s not that that wasn’t on purpose, it’s just that that’s the way, that’s the trend, that’s the way the world is going.
Margaret: Let’s kind of go through the table of contents a little bit. Let’s kind of give everyone a little sense of what you’re forecasting.
Katie: The way that we do our trends and the reason that they’re listed this way is because we start more on what’s happening on a global scale, and then it kind of goes down into how it affects your backyard. Some people might not be seeing our first trend, which is called Cities of the Future. It might not be something that’s so close to home, and as we get deeper into the trends, they’re really, really close to home.
Our Cities of the Future one is just that, right now, more than half of our world lives in cities, but that’s expected to change by 2050 to 70 percent. With the number of people that are moving into our cities, things are going to have to change about our cities, not just to accommodate those numbers of people, but to be a city that attracts the kind of person who wants to move to a city. How are you changing your city to be more green-facing? That really is the big change here.
How it affects our industry is the rise of this thing we call the Central Recreational District. I’m sure you’ve heard of the CBD, a different kind of CBD that maybe is trendy right now [laughter], but the Central Business District. It’s the general downtown. Well, this is a new area that cities will have to have that includes greenery. It’s parks, historic places, and, dare I say it, Instagram-able places that will attract this younger person to move into this area and to live in this city. It’s just going to be an element that a city must have to attract people to it.
Margaret: Urban trees kind of have to be reinvented in a way, too, the old sort of street tree system may not work as well. We have to have some good, sustainable urban trees for a future in a changing climate and, as you say, these green spaces that are accessible—not just one park in the outreaches, but more integrated.
Katie: I’m glad you brought up trees because there’s such an … I think that, oftentimes, we have tree blindness; we think they’ll always just be there. So it’s important to plant the right tree and the right plant. There’s not a lot of research done about what trees and plants work in this kind of urban environment, so what will work?
Margaret: Then, after, the sort of Cities of the Future, the report talks about a circular economy.
Katie: Have you heard of that term before?
Margaret: It was funny, I had not so that interested me.
Katie: I hadn’t, either, as we started researching it. As our cities grow, we need to envision our cities as a place that things do not leave it as trash, it keeps moving around and around. A circular economy, the definition of that, is that basically, you’re taking your trash and instead of throwing it in a landfill, you’re being able to reuse it. The reason that we need to do that is because as a society, I don’t know, Margaret, did you ever darn your socks?
Margaret: [Laughter.] Now, I’m not that old, Katie, but, no. Right, get a hole in your sock, and you throw it away. Exactly, and this is our mentality.
Katie: Only 9 percent of our materials now, globally, are reused so that is our mentality.
Margaret: Only 9, it’s terrible.
Katie: Yes, 9 percent, terrible, terrible, so we need to make a change, and that change starts, it starts with us, but it also starts with our big companies. Some might think that according to, that because we’re reusing things, that it would be a detriment to companies. But according to one study, it actually says we could generate trillions, $4.5 trillion in new output by 2030. It’s not that we’re just going to be … we still are going to want to eat peanut butter, we’re still going to use toothpaste; it’s just about how those packages are created for us.
Margaret: With just 9 percent of the materials globally that we consume being reused, and I think in the report it says that like global consumption overall has tripled since 1970, I mean something’s got to give.
Katie: Something got to.
Margaret: You’re talking about that in the report, and then you’re moving on to, we can just quickly mention sort of there’s going to be in this economy also a need for more “green-collar jobs,” as you call them in the table of contents.
Katie: I love that term, green-collar jobs because it’s not looking down upon the segment of the workers that maybe don’t need a PhD in our industry, or any industry for that matter. In fact, I just read a study that really hit home with a lot of people. I shared it on my Facebook page, from PBS, that said that right now, our country has put this generation in millions of dollars of debt, of college debt, and for what? For what? We have 30 million jobs in our country that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. A lot of them are in our green industry.
So it’s really just about kind of shifting that model on its head about looking at education, diversifying the way that we look at education, and really fulfilling the need. Because in our industry, the number of jobs outnumber the number of candidates 2 to 1. There’s a great organization. Do you know Seed your Future?
Katie: It’s a great organization that just encourages younger people, elementary and middle school students, to garden. That age group are so interested in pollinators, they’re so interested in growing their own food, but when you ask them “What’s horticulture?” they look at you like you have two heads, they are “What is horticulture? I don’t know.” It’s just a little bit about education.
Margaret: Probably the next group of things in the table of contents were the ones that appealed to me the most as a gardener because they’re a little, well, a little closer to home, maybe. The next one you call “Endangered Soil,” and there was some pretty shocking thoughts in that about really where we’re at with how we treat soil and where the soil situation is at on the planet right now.
Katie: The endangered soil one is probably, if I can say, it’s my favorite, but it is the most dire, the one I like to talk about the most because it’s something that you can make a change in your own backyard today. We really can do something about this. The statistics, as you said … As we know, prior to the 21st, the 20th century, our farming was different. We didn’t develop as much. There wasn’t as much of these climate catastrophes that were causing this erosion and deforestation. I could probably go on and on and on, but the statistic is that it’s wiped away one-third of our world’s topsoil, and that if we continue with these trends, that our soil, this topsoil that we so need will be gone by 2050, according to the UN.
Margaret: Literally, all the whole entire food chain is based on the soil life and health. As you say, we can make changes in our own backyard and we can also, I think, and I think is important, is we can make changes with our pocketbook. We can give our dollars… we can support and shop from players who support soil health as opposed to conventional farming, products created in conventional farming and so forth. I mean, I think in a way it supports supporting organic farming and proponents in the industry who manage their soil better-
Margaret: … and putting your dollars there. I mean, I think of that as from starting with where I get my seed, to where I buy my food, all the way along the line, so not just my own backyard, but that, too, can help with that.
Katie: So true. Apparently in the United States, only 10 counties in the U.S. grow more than 10 crop varieties, so we really … Like you said, it’s about that starting at the seed, to moving to the farmer that you’re choosing to buy from, to growing in your own backyard. You really can make a difference.
The real trend that I’m seeing here is called regenerative gardening. It’s, like you said, organic, it’s building on organic gardening, it’s doing all of the elements of organic gardening, but just having the idea of putting the nutrients back in the soil, it’s adding that extra layer of regenerating your soil because that will also help sequester carbon.
Margaret: I mean there is evidence that there are companies now who are onto this, even large corporations that we’ve heard of, who are realizing and who are making a contribution in this direction, that are alert to it.
Katie: They are. Sometimes, I look at some of those and I think it’s just lip service, but it does seem like there are some that are actually… I mean even General Mills has committed to regenerate a million acres and fund farmer trainings, and that’s really what we need is … we know how stressed our farmers are, so to be able to give them the resources to make the right choices.
Margaret: We go from there, in the report, we go to sort of beyond—it’s almost like a new form of organic certification that you’re kind of talking about or that came up, I guess, at the Natural Products Expo and elsewhere this year. People have been talking about sort of going beyond just the plain organic standards. Is that the idea?
Katie: Yes. This is a little controversial because do farmers and other supporters and growers need another certification? But, this helps people understand that your farmer that you’re choosing is not just practicing organic, but they’re also dedicated to rejuvenating the soil, also fair trade, and animal welfare practices. So it adds a couple things to that organic label, which is great. But, again, do we need? Now we’re non-GMO, we’re organic and we’re OMRI. It’s a little controversial, but I think it’s important because it’s consumers, they say, according to Nielsen, half of U.S. consumers would buy a brand if it’s committed to the environment. We as consumers, as you said, vote with our wallet.
Margaret: A couple of the next things in the report I loved because some of them, in one case, it wasn’t so much environmental. You called it “Thinking Outside the House” and kind of about houseplants and beyond. We could talk about that in a minute, but there were two more that were kind of environmental. One you called “The Frog Whisperer,” and one, “Not Just Some Fungi.” Those, just sort of quickly explaining, talking about these sort of helper creatures that we also have to help and support, like the frogs, the animals closer to the base of the food chain.
Katie: You were a big trendsetter on that frog trend. Basically, you could call Instagram Frogstagram, for you, right?
Margaret: [Laughter.] Right. I know, right. I’m a frog lady. I’ve appreciated them. People have asked me for decades, every year I get the same questions. At one point every year, it’s, “How do I get rid of the slugs eating the holes in my hosta leaves?” or whatever plant. I’m like, “Get a snake, get a frog.” I don’t mean get one; I mean make a supportive place where they’re welcome, and that goes back to regenerative gardening.
Katie: Yes. I was presenting this trends talk to a group of garden center owners, and one of them asked me, “How do I attract frogs? How do I get frogs? Where do I get them?” I said, “Well, it’s just like pollinators.” Frogs, as you said, are indicator species.
Katie: If you don’t have them, you need to plant for them and provide habitat for them. If you build it, they will come.
Margaret: Stop using store-bought chemicals and other things, too.
Margaret: The fungi one was in there and I love that. We can talk about that if we have time, but I want to get onto one thing that it kept making me think about, that I think you and I have in common. I go out and gave lectures either to large Cooperative Extension groups or smaller garden clubs or whatever; and I look out into the audience and everyone’s my age or older.
I’m concerned and I wonder how these trends or trends, in general, that you see because you go around the country and you talk about this to people and even beyond that. You talk about what you see, the pulse that you see, and so forth. But, I wondered, do you feel also that gardening is not being handed down to the next generations?
Now, you’re a young mom, yes? You’re much younger than I am. You’re a young mom. You love it. I think you’re a judge at Philadelphia Flower Show, is that right?
Margaret: You obviously have… the bug has bitten you. [Laughter.]
Katie: It has.
Margaret: But I wonder how are we doing and, which of these trends or what trends. I mean they used to say, what, windowsill herb gardening was the gateway to gardening or something?
Margaret: I mean, what’s really the case do you think? What’s the hope?
Katie: Well, I used to say that too, herbs are the gateway drug to gardening, but it seems that they are not, and that it is houseplants. It really is fascinating to see the change in … I don’t know if you’ve been to a houseplant swap, one of these new meetups.
Margaret: No, nobody in my remote town of 300 people has invited me to one, Katie. [Laughter.]
Katie: Well, maybe you should start one-
Margaret: I will do. I will do.
Katie: … in your free time. But, I think what is so interesting is as you said, listen, garden clubs, the African Violet Society, the Orchid Society; these things are, they’re starting to wane. But, it was the concept of these tribes. We got together with people who were like-minded. We were able to talk about things that we all loved, and it just created that sense of community. You’re right, we have moved far, far away from that, until … That’s why this is another trend this year. Houseplants are trendy, but the real trend here is the way that they are creating and cultivating this sense of community. If you look in our trends report, we have a few pictures of plant swaps, and there are people doing them all over the world. But, the group of people.
Not only are they young, they’re still majority women, but not only are they young, but they’re extremely diverse. That really excites me about this future generation, is that houseplants are attracting all types of people, which to be honest, our industry was a little exclusive in the past. Not on purpose, but it just didn’t attract a very diverse group of people. It is a diverse, young group of people who are attending these plant swaps.
What I love about that is that it’s interesting to me, these are unique varieties of plants. They want to know the family, they want to know the species, they want to know all the things, they want to speak Latin. They want to know all the things they can about these plants, how to grow them, exactly what kind of light requirements they require. They want to fertilize them organically.
This is really exciting. I see this as really the big shift that will happen. It’s not going to happen tomorrow because right now this group of people, as we’ve studied millennials, right now, they’re living in smaller spaces, they don’t have a ton of money and they are a little bit stressed, which is one reason they’ve turned to these indoor plants. But once they do move up, and they get their own little slice of the earth, they have a little yard to cultivate, I strongly believe that they will—that this houseplant trend will cultivate to the outdoors.
Margaret: I mean it’s fascinating. On Instagram, you’ve mentioned Instagram, and I love seeing… and I follow a number of people who really their entire expertise and stream is about houseplants. You see them talking about Monsteras, and this one and that one, these different plants that when I began gardening were rarities, relatively speaking. Now, thanks to big changes in technology with micropropagation and the ability to multiply plants, rare plants, faster, in many cases, into almost not big-box [store] but almost big box, and in some cases, big-box proportions, numbers. These things are available, there are things that are available. If you know what you’re looking for, they look really cool, and as you say, you can get the information on social media from someone who seems like you; then you want in.
Whereas the old way, those herbs never quite worked on a windowsill of an apartment, did they? I mean it was a good idea, but it was really still for backyard growers.
Katie: Exactly. You couldn’t really get enough to make it worth your while. It’s kind of creating that circular economy, where people are finding about them online, they’re getting together in person, and then they’re sharing them again online. It’s just this, it’s spinning and it’s spinning really beautifully. I would say out of control, but it’s true. I do believe that it is fueled by social media, because people are connecting online and finding their tribe, but they are also meeting up in real life.
Margaret: Give someone young, someone that you know and love, who’s young, give them a houseplant this Christmas and spread the word of plant parenting to them.
Katie: Exactly. In fact this one new plant, well, this one rare plant, string of hearts, do you know that plant?
Katie: It crashed a plant company’s website because when they said they were going to launch it, so many people came to the website, it crashed.
Margaret: It’s funny. As succulents are really, really hot, yes, yes?
Katie: Succulents, yep, string of dolphins—there’s a lot of different kinds of things, but you’re right, if you give someone, give them a houseplant and then give them a couple of Instagram influencers to follow, and they’ll be hooked.
Margaret: Any trend, Katie, that you feel like you’ve missed since you’ve been doing the report?
Katie: Well, the one famous one, as you said, we started this off, you walk around garden centers, one that everyone I’m sure has seen is the fairy gardening trend.
Margaret: Yes. [Laughter.]
Katie: We didn’t. Since I’ve started working here almost 10 years ago, we missed that one. We missed that one. We thought as it started-
Margaret: Margaret missed it, too, Katie. Margaret missed it, too.
Katie: [Laughter.] Well, then we can agree on that.
Margaret: That’s one. Well, that’s O.K., I’m going to forgive you for that one, but as I said in the introduction, Katie Dubow, I really enjoy when the report comes out. It gets me thinking and it gets me thinking about things, like I just said, about young people and how we can invite them in. I think that’s one of the really big important mission statements for your company, for the garden industry, for me as a communicator in the garden world. I appreciate that you’re stimulating those kinds of positive thoughts.
Katie: Well, thank you.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the October 28, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).