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Originally published on April 12, 2019.
You’d never know it, but garden centers and daily newspapers have a lot in common. 25 years ago, they were effective and ruthless gatekeepers for the general public, arrogant in the knowledge that they were the only game in town and you either paid their rates or went without. Now, with innumerable online resources for information and retail, independent garden centers are hanging on by the skin of their teeth the way daily newspapers are. Some are acknowledging that times have changed and that they need to cultivate new audiences before their old audiences leave forever, and others…well, others figure that if they just hold out a little longer, the calendars will all switch back to 1997, that horrible Interwebs thing will just go away and leave them alone, and all of their old clientele and sponsors will come rushing back to their rightful places. And it will, any day now. Any. Day. Now. Just you watch.
This all tied in with a conversation with friends about the Independent Garden Center show, a big three-day event in Chicago every August. Now, you can make jokes about how the air in Chicago in August is “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on,” but I’d made tentative plans to attend one of these days, just to visit Chicago for the first time since I moved from there forty years ago. Admittedly, part of the appeal was the excuse, quite popular with conference and convention regulars, that “I’ll see old friends who live near there” when you know damn well that you’ll be lucky to see the outside of the conference hotel, but I was actually enthused to see what’s going on with garden center distributors and vendors. One of these days, I hope to turn the Triffid Ranch into a full-time venue, and comparing notes with others in the field might impart wisdom that save me a lot of aggravation. And if one of the big draws at the IGC is the annual free concert by a musical act whose playlist shifted from “Classic rock” to “golden oldie” on the terrestrial radio dial in the last ten years, well, I look at that the way I look at chocolate and wine and demur with “More for everybody else.”
Well, that was then. Chicago friends had already related how the IGC was a bear to enter and leave, but the finale for me was the announcement that one of the keynote speakers wasn’t someone with actual horticultural experience, but a stand-in for Rush Limbaugh whose entire schtick was alleged comedy about millennials. Now never mind the political spectrum: many of my dearest cohorts in the horticultural community are diametrically opposed to my political leanings, and we set rules up front that discussions of politics are only on subjects that directly affect our business. (Discussions on cannabis production and distribution, for instance, go wonderfully awry when everyone realizes that, appearances notwithstanding, I’m a complete teetotaler as far as marijuana is concerned thanks to various respiratory issues. This just makes the conversations about industrial hemp, of which I’m a passionate advocate, that much more interesting.) However, listening to the same people crying about how younger generations won’t get involved in gardening, then attending lectures that come off as parodies of the District Attorneys’ Convention in the book and movie Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, seems, a little, I don’t know, counterproductive. It’s like listening to the old guard in science fiction literature kvetching about how to attract new readers while mocking them at the same time: considering the costs of air travel and hotels, if I wanted to listen to a herd of seventysomething xenophobes cry impotently about how the universe dared change without their express written permission, I’d go to Armadillocon.
Because of this, it might be time for a new garden center conference, for those who want to blast into the middle of the 21st Century instead of pining for the 20th. The interest is there, especially with garden center employees desperately trying to convince their bosses that maybe buying a half-page ad in the local daily newspaper isn’t the best expenditure of their advertising budget. The vendors are out there, especially the ones who’d like to move from Etsy to a proper distributor. Certainly, the musicians are there. What I wasn’t expecting was the enthusiastic response from garden center managers and employees looking for something Different. This may be easier than I thought.
As anybody who has spent any time on Facebook will tell you, enthusiasm without commitment is worthless, so the next big hurdle is creating programming that speaks to the newer generations of garden center owners and employees. A few minutes of brainstorming came up with a few ideas for panels and workshops:
“Smartphones and Dumbasses”: With the expansion of custom phone apps to help identify garden plants and bugs, creating phone apps to handle other vital garden center functions is both easy and inexpensive. In this two-hour workshop, learn how to use machine learning technology to identify customers screaming “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?’, prove that your garden center has never offered unlimited free landscaping services, demonstrate what happens when you try to plant tomato plants outdoors in Chicago in February, and confirm or deny that the owner automatically gives a 70 percent discount to his/her elementary school teachers. Spend a little money now and save innumerable hours on arguments with idiots and grifters!
“Gravestones In the Garden”: The under-50 gardening crowd is looking for unorthodox garden decorations, and your standard distributors offer the usual endless line of twee. More importantly, YOU’RE sick of carrying the same mediocre birdbaths and wall hangings, and want to spice things up a bit. Find out where to get the best concrete dinosaurs, Daleks, kaiju, and gargoyles, how to shut down complaints about how “these are COMPLETELY inappropriate” from fussbudgets, and how to brace the customer who wants
Dom Perignon-quality black granite tombstones but only has a Dr. Pepper budget.
“Electronics and Your Uncle Who Lives In A Tree”: You spend thousands of dollars on a digital signage solution to display specials, calendar events, and plant information, only to have it regularly damaged by occasional customers trying to switch the feed to Fox News. Learn how to use parental locks on remotes to stop Fox News Grandpa hijackings during busy periods, strategic mounting brackets to prevent their reaching the monitors or signage servers, and cattle prods to move them out the door after the inevitable temper tantrums. Discussions also include restroom paint that resists Infowars stickers and methods to recycle Jack Chick pamphlets.
“Mommy Will Be Right Back”: with Toys ‘R’ Us and Borders gone and shopping mall pet shops as obsolete as daily newspaper delivery, more and more soccer moms are looking for free babysitting and petting zoo options for their toddlers and preteens, and your garden center is a tempting target. With signs reading “Unescorted children will be given six shots of espresso and a free puppy” making less of an impression, our panelists and the audience discuss methods to keep your garden center child-friendly while preventing non-customers from draining your liability insurance policy. ($25 workshop fee, $75 for optional wood chipper.)
“Fan or Smartaleck”: With the current boom in science fiction/fantasy/horror fandom and fannish interests, it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between actual plant species and cultivars and ones created for books, comics, movies, and television. Do YOU know how to tell the difference between the bladderworts “Asenath Waite” and “Mrs. Marsh”, or the traits that define a “Violet Carson” rose? More importantly, can you tell the difference between a wiseacre asking about purchasing Whomping Willows and Pink Bunkadoos and the individual who honestly thinks Day of the Triffids is a documentary? Learn what to watch for, and be able to laugh politely when asked “Do you carry Slaver sunflowers?” (Guest lecturers: Dr. Dr. Pamela Iseley and Dr. Alec Holland.)
“But It Looked Different In the Video”: Sick of explaining to customers that those rainbow rose or blue Venus flytrap seeds offered for sale on eBay aren’t real? Tired of people arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay your prices for rare plants when Some Guy on the Internet is offering legitimate, guaranteed seeds directly from China for a pittance? Soulhurt from trying to explain the vast difference between fruit trees with multiple varieties grafted on and that “Magical Fruit Salad Plant” seed they saw advertised on Facebook? Nearly homicidal from having 1300 customers pointing to the same Pinterest post that not at all saw any Photoshop manipulation, no sir, we wouldn’t lie? Bring your phone, because we bought one of everything, and you’ll want to take photos of every last weed you’ll see when that customer comes in and asks “So what are WE going to do to get my money back?”
“Stand-Up Up Fight or Bug Hunt”: Apply the power of artificial intelligence to solving your customers’ greatest question: whether that blurry phone photo really shows a dangerous, venomous, or invasive insect that’s going to eat the neighborhood. Finally: the one tool to prove to skeptical customers that not every spider is a brown recluse, not every flying insect is an emerald tree borer, and that the scratchings in the new garden bed are from cats and not armadillos.
“Every Day is 4/20“: Whether or not your state allows recreational use of marijuana, your workweek will be filled every April 20 with stoners looking for their next distraction, and most guides to psychoactive plants are at least 40 years old. Learn the difference between garden plants that actually have some of psychotropic effect, ones which stretch the meaning of the term “placebo,” and ones with an effect but will make the user regret the day they were conceived.
Musical Guests: After a long day talking with vendors and fellow garden center owners/staffers, you’re going to want a break. Please join us all for a musical maelstrom that sums up the new generation of gardeners, with One Eyed Doll and Ministry opening for headliners Gwar and Rob Zombie. No Winstar Casino leftovers for THIS crowd.
So…Dallas in 2020? We’ll even try to schedule it for spring, so nobody melts in the heat. What say?
In separate developments, many thanks to everyone’s celebration of my late cat Leiber, and because Alexandria was mourning harder than we were, we adopted a new cat to keep her company. Considering how badly she wanted to play with Leiber toward the end, it was a matter of finding another cat as enthusiastic about tearing through the house at Mach 4 as she is. This is how we got Simon, a kitten found abandoned near the University of Texas at Dallas campus. He’s almost as quiet as Alexandria: he chirps and murmurs, but he has yet to make a single meow. The best adjective we can use for him is “goofy”: he’s sweet and definitely intelligent, but he remembers to forget that he can’t run through furniture and up walls, to spectacular effect. As of this morning, though, he picked up on Alexandria’s wonderful habit of bushwhacking me in the dark first thing in the morning, so now I have two cats who love my Bill Paxton impersonation screaming “I’m telling ya, there’s something moving and it ain’t us!” Oh, when the days start getting shorter in August, getting ready for work is going to suck.
Not that it hasn’t received justifiably rave reviews from much better reviewers than I, but go out and snag Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady From The Black Lagoon, on Millicent Patrick, the actual creator and designer of the monster suit from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s not just a matter of recognizing that an exceptional talent was cut off early due to managerial jealousy (this hit a chord, as I watched a lot of this same behavior in weekly newspaper and magazine publishing), but it’s also a matter of noting that an obscure talent can become an inspiration to a whole new generation of artists given half a chance. As someone studying prop and set design in the hopes of finding new techniques and references that apply to enclosure construction, this matters more than you can know.
The Texas comedian Bill Hicks once described his annual trips to dance clubs as “filling my hump of hate,” and I share that sentiment about going to most music venues. I love catching up with friends and thoroughly enjoy the music, but can’t get past the behavior of the typical showgoer, especially the dolts who feel compelled to capture whole performances on their phones and tablets…held up so that nobody behind them can see a thing. (This is right up there with getting a good location early with an unobstructed view of the stage, only to have last-minute dolts climbing up into my armpit and insisting “we should all share, right?”) Only the right band can convince me that my hump of hate is sufficiently depleted to deal with that, and the news that the band Doll Skin is on tour this year as a headliner, with a stop in Dallas, means that my hump capacity grew four sizes that day. I was lucky enough to catch the band opening for One Eyed Doll two years ago, and a dear friend practically uses the song “Furious Fixation” as a daily soundtrack, so seeing what the band is doing as a followup to the album Manic Pixie Dream Girl is worth a few attacks from the armpit trolls.