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Winter 2004 In The Garden

People are getting out more these days—but they’re not going far. And they’re concerned with outward appearances. Of their homes, that is. Not just “curb appeal” from the front, but dressing up the back, as well, where they can relax and entertain. And so in the past few years, gardens and yards, porches and patios, decks and even apartment balconies are getting gussied up more than ever.

The momentum started several years ago with a renewed and vigorous interest in plants and flowers. Then to decorative pots. And trellises. And fountains. And so forth, extending to every accessory imaginable, some always apropos to outdoor settings, and some—like mirrors—that were brought outside for the first time. And now everybody’s doing it.

What’s going on? In what’s been called an extension of the nesting and cocooning trends, people have turned to gardening as a pastime, and taken their passion for home décor outside. “These days, people are interested in making their gardens an extension of their homes,” says Jack McGreevey, executive director of the Lawn & Garden Marketing and Distribution Association. “They’re investing more in their gardens and making them more like outdoor rooms,” he says. Susan Wagner, editor of Country Business, a trade publication covering the gift and home-décor market, adds, “Since people aren’t traveling as much, they want a little bit of escape from their home. They can escape to their yard without going too far.”

And so their yards and gardens are bedecked with items like birdhouses, statues, wind chimes, lanterns, benches, sun catchers, shells, stones and pavers strategically mixed in with the begonias, bulbs and bushes. Not only are the gardens looking good, garden-décor products—many of which are affordable—are looking good to retailers.

“As a lawn and garden company, we’re not as adversely affected by the economy as most companies,” says Andy Schleifstein, VP of sales for Opus Inc. (Bellingham, MA), an international marketer of home and garden products. “During difficult economic times, consumers tend to concentrate more on their homes and gardens, rather than take that big vacation or buy that big-ticket item,” he says, and so their sales “have remained strong” even in the current economic climate. But the climate can negatively influence this market. “We’re much more affected by the weather,” says Schleifstein. “This past spring, sales were particularly affected by a
distinct lack of a spring season.” As any gardener or backyard decorator will tell you, you can’t “play” outside if it’s raining. And you’re not going to buy garden toys and goodies if you can’t be out there to enjoy them.

According to Unity Marketing, a market research and consulting firm, Americans spent nearly $40.7 billion on garden-related products in 2001, a 12.1 percent increase over the previous year. In that span, garden hardware—accessories plus furniture, tools and equipment—grew at a much faster rate (18 percent vs. 5.8 percent) than “software”—plants, seeds, trees, etc. The average US household spent $444 on lawn and garden goods in 2001, says Unity. Although decorative garden accessories can cost from less than $10 to several hundred dollars, many hover around $25. “The average expenditure per purchase is $30, which may include one or more items,” says Pamela Katrancha, co-owner and director of operations for Garden Gazebo (Norfolk, VA).

For many marketers, garden products are sold all year but generally peak in the spring and early summer. For others such as Garden Gazebo, sales peak during the holiday season. “Gardening is the number-one hobby in America, so you know people on your gift list will be interested in an item for the garden,” says Katrancha. And women and homeowners are the predominant purchasers of decorative garden products, making Mother’s Day another big garden-gift holiday. But men do some buying, especially during the holidays. “In gift season, there are a lot of male buyers, and they don’t look at the price tag as much,” she says.

Whether as gifts or for the buyers themselves, here are some of the items consumers will be shopping for this spring.

For the birds

imageBirdhouses are hot, with styles as varied as the birds they attract to the garden. “Some birdhouses have become shabby-chic in their look,” says Wagner. “Pastel colors are popular, as are ‘found’ items like old-fashioned glass doorknobs and silverware pieces, both of which serve as perches… In one [birdhouse], an old-fashioned knife and fork are part of the perch.”

Interest in hummingbirds is hot—so much so that “people are planting gardens that specifically attract hummingbirds or butterflies,” says Julie Fischer, sales and marketing manager for the Brass Butterfly (Poultney, VT), which sells attractively packaged plant rooters that draw butterflies. Butterflies, too, have new-found popularity. Says Sharon Flanagan, co-owner of The Bird House of Cape May (NJ), a garden-product retailer and wholesaler, “Black swallowtail butterflies might lay their eggs right on dill, fennel or parsley, which serve as host plants for the growing caterpillars. Hummingbirds are attracted to nectar-producing flowers.”

“More people are discovering they have hummingbirds in their area, and are asking for feeders,” which are in demand right now. They’re often made of blown or decorative glass that keeps the nectar and red feeding tube visible, says Katrancha. Red is key because hummingbirds are attracted to it, she says, but the entire feeder doesn’t have to be. In response to the growing demand, Opus Inc. is introducing the AvantGarden hummingbird-feeder gift set that features a hand-painted glass nectar container.

Focal points

imageIt’s not just trendy but good design to build a garden around a focal point such as a statue, fountain, bird bath or bench. And that makes those items all the more popular with consumers, says McGreevey. “People are replicating Old English or formal gardens, which had a focal point with everything around it laid out in a pattern.” Katrancha points to an increased demand for garden sculptures of animals, flowers and unexpected critters like crabs and ladybugs, made of metal, resin or stone.

McGreevey’s association organizes the annual North American Lawn & Garden Trade Show, which will be in Orlando on July 20-21. At last summer’s show, decorative stained-glass balls were a big hit, he says. Measuring about 9” inches in diameter and resembling large Christmas ornaments, they sit on a pedestal in the garden, reminiscent of the Victorian mirrored gazing balls that have become popular again in the past few years.

Statues and fountains draw the eye to the garden, but finely tuned wind chimes get the eye’s attention as well as the ear’s. “There has been an increase in demand for wind chimes,” says Flanagan, and a lot of attention is being paid to the quality of the sound as well as the look. The Jingle Bird, a chime that features a hand-painted folk-art style bird on a twig with a little bell, is a popular item for Bird House of Cape May.

Outdoor clocks and thermometers, decorative as well as functional, are also big. In the AvantGarden line, Opus Inc. just updated its outdoor clock and thermometer line with new mosaic, stained glass, simulated slate and cast-iron designs. And in the north, rain gauges and even snow gauges are popular, too, according to Patricia Santenello, president of Ancient Graffiti, Inc. (Middlebury, VT), which sells nature-inspired home and garden accessories.

Other popular items are sun catchers in stained glass or other materials. “Garden stones with messages or clever sayings like ‘Gardeners know the best dirt’ continue to be popular,” adds Katrancha. And she says more people are asking for wiggle stakes, those squiggly metal rods with a design on top, to draw attention to the flowers in the garden. Another hot item, according to Flanagan, is the decorative slate that hangs from a wrought iron stand. Ancient Graffiti’s Ceramic Leaf Spirits line of stakes, wall hangers and wall pocket flower-holders all feature leaf “faces” entitled Laughter, Dream and Wonder, to name a few.

Of all the Ancient Graffiti outdoor products, Santenello says, two are leading the pack. Stones that can hold flowers or candles are the hottest right now, and so are their recently introduced cattails. The cattails feature a flamed copper vase atop a brass rod that sits in a natural stone. The stones can hold three cattails of varying heights, which can rise as tall as 50″.

Lighting the path

imageAs with indoor rooms, outdoor rooms need light, too. And as with other garden-décor products, outdoor lighting is more stylish than ever. “More people are using their gardens for entertainment,” says Wagner. “And outdoor entertainment has gone way beyond paper plates and those little bug lights.” Strings of lights with or without decorative or fun shades, metal-and-glass table or hanging lanterns, and true chandeliers (that hold candles, not light bulbs) are lighting up outdoor spaces. Candles—votives, tapers and pillars in all kinds of holders—are perennially popular, and the variety is ever-increasing. Colors and scents are as varied for outdoor use as they are for indoors. Stakes that hold (or are) candles are illuminating more gardens, decks and patios than before.

Many of the trends Wagner sees in home décor cross over to garden décor, and one of them is glass beading. Reflecting the candlelight and adding a little romance, colored-glass beads danglingontwisted metal rods—a look that’s reminiscent of “gypsy chic” in both couture and home fashion—arenow appearing on candle lanterns, stakes and sun catchers, Wagner says.

Also continuing in popularity is the chiminea, the free-standing outdoor fireplace imported from or inspired by Mexico. Mini-chiminea candle holders in stone or terra cotta are in strong demand for the second straight year, says Katrancha. So are the full-size chimineas that inspired them, which add warmth as well as light.

Creatures great and small

Animals big and small are perennially popular motifs in the garden, not least of which are birds. People love all kinds of birds. Because real ones come and go at will and decorative images stay put, the bird motif shows up in gardens everywhere. And not just generic birds, either. “We’re seeing not only general bird motifs, but renderings of birds where you can identify the species [such as] a robin or a yellow-bellied woodpecker,” says Wagner. The Jingle Bird from the Bird House of Cape May comes in 27 species. “How popular a bird is depends on how recognizable it is,” says Flanagan. “The male cardinal, which is bright red, easily recognizable, and the state bird of some states, is the most popular.” The red-bellied woodpecker is second, she says. But the mountain bluebird, “which is from the Rocky Mountains, doesn’t sell well in the east, but does very well west of the Mississippi.” Bird mobiles that hang from a stake in the ground and feature separate dangling pieces that form the likeness of a bird, are also hot, says McGreevey.

Farm animals as motif is big, too, says Katrancha: pigs, cows and roosters sit atop wiggle stakes (as do flamingos, butterflies and flowers). Of the 18 designs of Ancient Graffiti’s flamed-copper outdoor thermometers, the three most popular are hummingbirds, oak leaves and (a nod to the lodge look, perhaps) moose. Katrancha says cats are also extremely popular motifs in various forms of yard art. “There are a lot of cat lovers, and you can do anything with the cat theme.” Not dogs, though: she says dogs “are too breed-specific—people want a dog rendering to match a certain breed.”

But it’s not just about animals. Gardeners who putt as well as putter are showing off their love of golf in their gardens. To meet the demand, Garden Gazebo’s golf-themed items include a birdhouse shaped like a golf shoe, a bird feeder that resembles a golf course, wind chimes that look like a golf bag, and stones that read “Tee Time” and “Golf-aholic.”

Heart and soul

At the other end of the spectrum, another current theme is spiritual sentiment. “We’re seeing more benches, rocks and plaques with spiritual phrases,” Wagner says. “Consumers are more open in their beliefs,” and are happy “to let people know that this is a house where people believe in God.” She says crosses, too, “are very popular decorative elements now.”

Showing one’s patriotism in and around the home is a trend that’s still fairly strong. “The Americana look was becoming popular [even] before 9/11,” says Wagner. “Waving flags,” as she puts it, has waned somewhat from a year or two ago, “but the Americana style—with its good-old days, patriotic kind of feel—is in the forefront now.”

Nonetheless, flags are still waving. Marion Philipsen, owner of Wind’s Edge (Hyde Park, VT), which makes outdoor flags, windsocks and accessories, says people still request the red, white and blue. “Stores that weren’t carrying American flags before are now carrying a lot of them,” she says. Katrancha sees it, too. “American and other patriotic flags remain popular,” she says. “Manufacturers keep coming out with new designs, some with patriotic slogans such as Enduring Freedom, and they continue to sell well.”

Greening up

“We’re seeing that what’s indoors is going out[side], and what’s outdoors is going in,” says Santenello. John Stone, president of Opus Inc., refers to this phenomenon as “home and garden synergy.” “Homeowners want the elements of their indoor and outdoor living areas to work together to create a whole new sense of energy and space.”

This is one category that not only stayed strong through this economy’s ups and downs, but is growing. Consumers have discovered that creating an attractive, even whimsical outdoor space can be easy to achieve, allows for self-expression, and makes them happy. They enjoy dressing up—and spending money on the garden path.

Bernadette Starzee

Starzee, a Long Island, NY writer who covers business, sports and lifestyle topics, is a senior writer for SRR. She can be reached at .

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