There’s a movement underfoot in Asheville — literally. The city’s garden suppliers say that, over the past several years, they’ve seen their customers become more concerned and knowledgeable about what goes into their ground. That’s been good news for these purveyors of plants and the know-how needed to make them thrive.
Chris Smith, marketing and communications manager at Sow True Seed, says his company’s customers have increasingly embraced a back-to-the-land ethos since the business opened in 2009. The store specializes in seed-starting supplies and has over 500 varieties of seeds on display. “There’s a lot of interest in seed saving, open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties, and the knowledge and skills to grow them,” he says.
Gardeners have also embraced more holistic approaches to the land such as permaculture, which seeks to create sustainably productive systems that don’t rely on external additions such as fertilizers. “Today, we see agriculture as an ecosystem, not just as inputs and outputs. People care more about farming the soil and having vegetables as a byproduct instead of just trying to get the vegetables,” says Smith.
“Our customers find our store because they are trying to learn about how to grow their own healthy food,” says Grigg Sheffield, owner of L.O.T.U.S Urban Farm and Garden Supply. His shop specializes in hydroponics — growing plants without soil — and aquaponics, a format of growing that marries hydroponics with aquaculture, the farming of fish. L.O.T.U.S. is also a full-service feed store.
Sheffield opened his shop six years ago and says that the biggest trend he sees is a more educated, curious and knowledgeable consumer base. “There’s a big move towards understanding what’s in your food and how it’s grown,” he says.
Kristin Weeks, co-owner and managing partner of Asheville’s Fifth Season Gardening, says that her customers also recognize the importance of growing their own food, whether they have a small backyard garden or a microfarm. “As Asheville has grown, we are seeing more people leave their homes in metropolitan areas and retire here,” she says. “Customers tell me they just needed more space where they could grow their own food. Being able to garden and grow adds value to their lives,” Weeks says.
Conquering the calendar
One obvious struggle for garden supply retailers is that the outdoor growing season has a start and end date, and the cold months of winter can be hard to endure. But retailers are finding a way around the slow season by catering to indoor gardeners, holding classes in their shops and selling products that are useful at any time of year. “If you take any one of our departments, it is very seasonal in nature,” says Weeks. “By having all of these departments, we can capture the whole year.”
Fifth Season Gardening was founded back in 1999 as Asheville Agriculture Systems, with a focus on products for indoor gardening. Today, the company still carries hydroponic and aquaponics equipment, as well as supplies to support beer, wine and mead production; cheese making, canning, preserving and kombucha. The store also carries tropical varieties and houseplants, pottery, yard art and home decor. “We consider it everything you need for the 21st-century DIYer and backyard homesteader,” says Weeks.
The business’s biggest area of growth, says Weeks, comes from a product line not dependent on the seasonal cycle: tropical plants. “People are incorporating them into the decor and recognizing the happiness quotient when it comes to having plants in offices and homes,” she explains.
Sheffield notes that indoor growing is also key to the L.O.T.U.S. business model. “Hydroponics and aquaponics are large trends because they are more sustainable, in the sense that they can use less water and pesticides and can be grown year-round,” he says. “That allows people to have more control of their food supply instead of having to buy Florida or California produce.”
And Sow True Seed’s recent move to Haywood Street has given the business four times more retail space than its original location on Church Street. “That has allowed us to become much more than a seed store and move into [being] a garden supply store,” says Smith.
Food for thought
These local garden retailers point out that education is critical to both the success of their stores and the success that their customers have in the garden.
Back in 2015, Fifth Season Gardening moved into a new location by the Asheville Mall to place a greater emphasis on educating customers. “The whole reason we moved into a 15,000-square-foot building is because we wanted to have space for education,” says Weeks. “Education is integral to what we offer.”
Her business offers classes throughout the year, some led by staff and others by experts from the community. Weeks says customers are hungry for the knowledge: “The feedback we are getting is people just want more,” she explains.
Education is a focus for Sow True Seed in the coming year as well. “We’ve always had an ongoing tea, biscuits and gardening monthly workshop series,” says Smith. “But going into 2019, we are going to expand our workshop series dramatically and offer many more classes,” he says, including more sections on seed saving.
L.O.T.U.S. also regularly holds classes on hydroponics and aquaponics, and Sheffield does commercial consulting for larger-scale projects. Educated consumers, he says, move the market forward and encourage the development of indoor growing technology.
Gift of growth
Although the outdoor gardening season has passed for now, Asheville’s garden suppliers are ready with a host of fun and creative gift ideas to please those with a green thumb.
“We are creating kits using supplies we already sell,” says Weeks. “For example, we have air plants and air plant hangers — that’s a great $10 gift for your teacher.” Fifth Season also sells kombucha kits, terrarium kits, fermentation starter kits, orchid kits, bonsai kits and fairy garden supplies for little gardeners.
“Everybody comes in and wants a gift for the gardener in their life,” says Sheffield with L.O.T.U.S. “It’s hard to do that when you are rolling into winter. Indoor gardening gifts like small hydroponics setups and lighting systems allow that gardener to continue to have fun year-round.”
And Sow True Seed has created 23 different themed garden collections this holiday season. “These are our normal seed packets and a planting guide collated into beautiful tins,” says Smith.
“You can do anything from a tea garden to a medicinal plant or pollinator garden, a rainbow vegetable garden or a salsa garden,” Smith adds. “If you want to give a gift, why not say, ‘Hey, start a garden?’”