How Flora Grubb and an Airport DJ Saved My Soul by Allen Bush

images-1I never saw it coming. Flora Grubb, the pioneering urban gardener and style maven, convinced me—to my great relief—that the Millennial Generation is beginning to shop for plants. Meanwhile DJ Juice proved that airports needn’t be a gauntlet of unending insult.

I’d never heard of Flora Grubb and might have missed her talk, if a perplexed friend hadn’t grabbed me in the Vancouver hallway at the Perennial Plant Association’s Symposium. “You’re not going to hear Flora Grubb?”

I wandered into the hotel auditorium with no idea of what to expect.

Nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers have been closing at an astounding rate for the last ten years. There are some obvious reasons: the owners of mom and pop businesses are reaching retirement age, have no interested heirs and thus decided it was time to cash out, close their businesses, sell their land.

Most of us in the nursery and greenhouse trades long imagined that Boomers would go on gardening, and buying plants, until the end of time. There were a few unforeseen problems. Some Boomers decided they preferred Pilates to petunias; some downsized to condos; still others are burdened with elderly parents or kids that haven’t left the nest.

USDA figures proved that plant sales are not going through the roof. Gardening was long thought to be recession-proof. When hard times came, homeowners typically scrimped on vacations, stayed at home and worked on their gardens. Not this time.

To make matters worse, there seemed to be little hope for a rising generation who had a small stash of walk-around money but no plans to spend it on plants. These Millennials had logged a lot more time online than they had hiking logging trails. How could shut-ins be convinced to dig into the soil when they’d never dirtied their hands?

Flora Grubb, to the astonishment of a packed room of 350 worried professionals, explained how she had cracked the code. Grubb (and what better name for a gardener?) is leading by design to a younger demographic. She has the mojo and moxie of a Martha Stewart but in a genuine, personable way that makes you believe in her.

Many of the youngsters Grubb inspires have no gardens at all but do crave a piece of plant kingdom for their apartments.

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Now, of course, there is a kicker. Grubb admitted that San Francisco is not representative of most of North America. There is little garden space, and there are lots of rich 30-year- olds with wallets fattened from Silicon Valley. But in many ways, they’re no different than 30-year-olds anywhere. They don’t watch TV; they communicate with one another on social media; they are drawn to “visual moments” and authenticity. Flora’s rise has a lot to do with simple word of mouth but via social media. They love the architecture of their gadgetry and have a preference for hot colors and succulents crammed into pots.  Indeed, succulents may be an important “gateway drug” to further gardening experimentation.

Grubb, a youthful breath of fresh air, in a room full of aging hot air, confessed that she sells, among many stylish products, “bags of dirt that hang on walls.” Many of these wall hangings of air plants (Tilandsia) will die. (This was an inside trade joke: They will need to be replaced. The garden center operators in the room liked that.)

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The audience was buzzing afterwards as if they’d seen the light at a tent revival. Grubb has good instincts and marketing savvy. But it was her easy, unforced charm that gave us all hope for a new generation of gardeners.

A Suitcase of Perennials and Dirty Clothes

A Suitcase of Perennials and Dirty Clothes

I was delayed the next morning, at the Vancouver airport. For 45 minutes, the USDA scrutinized my suitcase, packed with my dirty underwear and 13 plants from my friends Marjanne and Lambert Vrijmoed of Free Spirit Nursery in Langley, B.C.  (When I travel, I almost always carry an extra suitcase to satisfy my plant lust.) The USDA officer wondered why I didn’t buy phlox, Solomon Seal, black bugbane and an alpine willow in the U.S.  I showed her my Canadian phytosantitary inspection certificate and replied, “The cultivars aren’t available in the U.S.”   The questioning proceeded: “What are you going to do with these plants?” This must be a trick question, I thought. “I’m going to plant them in my garden,” I answered. She rolled her eyes and sent me on my way.

I couldn’t have imagined what would come next.

Besides a shoeshine and a cup of coffee, there’s nothing along airport concourses anywhere that has ever moved the meter from dreadful to tolerable. But suddenly, in Vancouver, I heard Bill Withers singing. I followed a trail of curious travelers, drawn to the music. Lovely Day is a beautiful song.

Bill Withers

Bill Withers

DJ Juice was working two turntables. (What an enlightened airport authority, I marveled, to hire a DJ.) Soon there were a dozen people smiling, bobbing their heads, and tapping their toes. I won’t tell you much more. Try it yourself:

Download his playlist, put it on your IPod and take it with you, so you’ll be ready the next time your jaw starts to tighten up as you approach Homeland Security.

  • Bill Withers Lovely Day
  • Stevie Wonder Sunshine of My Life
  • The Supremes I’m Coming Out
  • Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  • Sly and the Family Stone Hot Fun in the Summertime
  • Van Morrison And It Stoned Me.
  • James Taylor How Sweet It Is To Be Loved by You
  • Jason Mraz I’m Yours
  • Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  • James Brown I Feel Good
  • Elvis All Shook Up
  • Aretha Franklin Respect

DJ Juice’s playlist will make your travels a whole lot easier. Combined with gardening, it might save your soul.

Photos at Flora Grubb Gardens by Susan Harris.

How Flora Grubb and an Airport DJ Saved My Soul originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 31, 2013.

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