Green lawn care is growing faster than a weed. It seems nothing can stop consumer desire for child- and pet-friendly yards.
A study by the National Gardening Association predicts that products labeled organic will make up 50% of the inventory in the lawn and garden sector by 2012. That's up from 10% currently, and way up from the one-half of 1% found by shoppers in 1995.
To meet this expected demand, food retailers with lawn and garden sections have stocked up on environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional fertilizers and weed killers. That's when they discover the problem, said Paul Tukey, author and founder of SafeLawns.org.
“People are taking home organic products expecting them to work the same way conventional products do,” he said. “And they don't.”
Tukey, a landscape company owner who left the business after becoming allergic to lawn chemicals, cited a tremendous educational gap among manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
“It's not that the products don't work,” he said. “They just work a different way.”
Green lawn care creates products and techniques that treat the soil, rather than the plant. It's an important distinction many people overlook.
“The traditional products being sold appeal to the quick-fix mentality of the average American,” noted Tukey.
Organic products are effective because they feed earth dwellers and microbes that ingest the food, and excrete waste. It's that end product that actually fertilizes the plants above. The process takes more time and is more subtle, though the results are longer-lasting — and chemical-free.
A number of lawn care initiatives around the country have captured the public's attention and are driving their interest. Last October, SafeLawns began converting portions of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to organic; the state of Connecticut has banned the use of conventional lawn care products around schools and day-care centers; and 10 states have regulations restricting the use of phosphorus-based fertilizers after studies showed they cause wildlife-threatening algae blooms.
For retailers, merchandising sustainable lawn care items is no different than any other wellness product. They must meet demand and educate consumers.
“Whether you're a supermarket that dabbles in organic lawn care or a legitimate garden center, you have to understand that you just can't do a product-for-product swap and expect your customers to be satisfied,” Tukey said.
For superstore operators with a staffed home and garden department, employing knowledgeable associates is fairly straightforward. Smaller stores with seasonal displays might have to rely on signage or how-to sessions hosted by outside agricultural experts. More basic merchandising methods exist, too, Tukey said.
“Play the fear card. Look on every bag of lawn chemicals currently sold in the store. It's either going to say caution, warning or danger. That's scary enough.”