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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Do plants reflect lifestyle trends?

I expected to be unimpressed when the keynote talk at the huge Tropical Plants Industry Expo (TPIE) was "Where Plants and Lifestyle Trends Connect." OK, I thought, we know this already: The younger set - the millennials — need to be brought into gardening. They are our future. They want everything to be instant, easy and healthy.

Then the keynote speaker, Jane Lockhart, opened my eyes wider. Trend spotters do know things that plant producers, landscape designers and garden center professionals should understand in order to compete in 2017. Consumers might also want to know how they are being influenced. Consumers tend to absorb trends and styles unconsciously but we do integrate what’s "in," whether we intend to or not.

When I lived in New York City, I simply knew, effortlessly, how to dress, what plays and movies to see, and where to dine. My input was constant: ads and billboards on the subway, buses, on streets and in windows educated me, even before I opened the New York Times or walked into Bergdorf’s.

Are lifestyle trends and demographic changes influencing us even as gardeners and plant shoppers? Probably. Let’s consider how the trends drive what we find in our garden centers, and what we are likely to prefer in plants, containers, hardscape, furniture and designs.

Who has the money?
Jane Lockhardt has an interior design firm in Toronto, where she is a TV personality and author known for branding, color forecasting and trend-spotting. Some good news she told the industry: Green is this year’s color. Your plants are the story! Good news. But businesses need to know who’s buying the green.

She showed us a picture of a packed living room that looked quite like mine. Plants draped from the windowsills, bookcases and end tables - which were mostly from mahogany and other dark hardwoods. That was a "boomer room" and we baby boomers (born between 1944 and 1965) don’t own the buying power any more. Some of the roughly 76 million boomers are still upsizing —getting the house or garden they always wanted — but many are simplifying and letting go of the house where they raised their kids.

The next generation—Gen Xs (about 41 million born 1965 to 1984) may have large and growing incomes. But it’s not theirs to spend: They have children with expensive needs, mortgages, college costs ahead, often kids who came home after college, and aging parents as well.

It is the millennials group (born from 1981 until 2000), about 83 million strong, who are beginning to buy homes, that include a landscape and indoor plants. They are the nation’s largest living generation. Their buying power has recently surpassed that the boomer generation. We all know some millennials, but how much do we know about them?

Attributes of millennials
Here is some research-based miscellany about the now-powerful millennial group:
● Brands speak for them; they identify strongly with Whole Foods, Tom’s, Uber, Amazon, Starbucks.
● 61 percent said that parents are their strongest influencers.
● 40 percent said they would rather lose a car than their smart phones or laptop.
● 29 percent are disruptors -  likely to be entrepreneurs or inventors
● A single phone or laptop replaces as much as 62 cubic feet of items formerly owned: music systems, televisions, telephones, clocks.
● Make most purchases online
● Watch three times more television online than prior groups
● Highly approval oriented; wanting reassurance
● Average 1.8 hours per day in social media

What media reaches them? Eighty-two percent respond to word-of-mouth (vs. 52 percent boomers); 62 percent respond to ads on mobile devices (39 percent boomers); 19 percent respond to print ads (38 percent boomers).

Where research comes from
It is important to know our information sources. We’re battered daily by unsubstantiated claims from all directions, but valid research exists. In horticulture we look to science-based sources such as land grant universities. The IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida) for instance, researched and produced bulletins such as Consumer Interest in Pollinator Plants and conducted other studies about consumer preferences for plants. ( At the TPIE, I too became a lab subject, and sat down before a computer to look at pictures and answer questions. The study was how trade show attendees react to the look of a booth (colors, simplicity or complexity, signage, layout): Would we approach it, enter it, consider it professional and its information trustworthy? The equipment measured my eye movements and length of visual attention to the images, as well as my answers. It was similar to the methodology for studying plant or landscape preferences, and one way the green industry can get insights into what consumers want.

The trends we’ll be seeing
Like all those posters on the subway, many signals coalesce to influence our preferences today. You’ll see the results in living rooms but also in plant containers, shelves, lighting, and the plants themselves. Here are some trends:

● Retro colors: gold, dusty rose, turquoise, olive, pale pastels
● Modern Gothic: black is the new white
● Bold contrasts: black and white, red splashes, broad stripes
● Water and light to produce movement and reflection
● Coppers and shimmery metals; some high gloss finishings
● Negative space: as in laser-cut and 3D printing
● Rustic texture, raw materials (baskets, rock, rope, weaving) mixed with metals

In The Buffalo News, Jan. 27, Home & Style editor Susan Martin wrote about houseplants trending in interior design — all observations completely in sync with industry messages. Plants used as art will be huge in interiorscapes. Green walls are important. Containers are simple, with geometric patterns and in black, white, and trending colors. Live Trends Design sent me home with succulents in metallic refrigerator magnet pots, and displayed sleek examples of plants as wall art ( Devron Live Solutions displayed Live Pictures with interchangeable plants in frames (

I won’t be giving up my old living room and kitchen filled with plants — but many of yours (and certainly the millennials’) will look different. Homes and yards will still, however, include plants.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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