Norbert Lazar was ahead of his time when he first tapped the demand for vegetable gardening and turned it into a growth opportunity 28 years ago. It was back then when he got his start planting edible gardens for second-home residents in Rhinebeck, NY, two hours north of New York City. “There were all these people who had big estates, and they wanted vegetable gardens even though they were weekend homes,” he says. “I was trained in vegetable gardening and fruit trees, and I was selling at the local farmers market at the time. I had studied organic gardening in college, and organic was the only way I was going to do it.”
Lazar became known by his customers as The Phantom Gardener, a name that has stuck with his business through the years. “That’s who I was - the phantom. I was there gardening when the homeowners were not. They never saw me.”
After eight years of installing gardens and landscapes, The Phantom Gardener got into retailing. By then, he was installing more than vegetable gardens; he was specializing in native plants.
Today, The Phantom Gardener’s retail store sits on 6 acres, with a greenhouse and an indoor retail area of about 1,000 square feet.
Educating about Natives
Lazar does not sell exotic invasives, and has been promoting native plants more and more. “I feel strongly that the green industry has given up some of its leadership in green products,” he says. “We should all be at the forefront of promoting environmental stewardship. I’m one of the very few garden centers doing all organics, and most garden centers are still selling exotic invasives. It’s irresponsible. Most of the invasive plants that are in our environment are coming from garden centers.”
Lazar’s passion for natives is an important part of his garden center’s eco-friendly message. “Part of my mission is education,” he says. “If someone comes in looking for Japanese barberry because the deer don’t eat it and they like the color, I try to show them some alternatives. I do sell plants that are exotics, but if I’m convinced that they are invasive, I won’t sell them.” The Phantom Gardener is always working on improving his signage to market native plants in better ways and encourage people to buy them even when they are out of bloom.
Independent garden centers should take on the challenge of getting a more eco-friendly message out to gardeners, Lazar says. He teaches classes at the garden center, and gets the word out about organic gardening through ads and community outreach.
Advertising strategies start with e-mail blasts, including to customers who participate in the store’s loyalty program. He also uses Twitter to announce new plant arrivals. On the radio, he voices the store’s ads, centered on story telling. “I talk about how I got started, or about my kids being involved in the business - and I remind people that their eyes won’t sting from chemicals when you walk through my garden center ... but you might smell a little manure.”
Employees are trained to educate customers one-on-one, and the store’s website has been redesigned to offer more useful information. Lazar also invites sales reps from Coast of Maine and Dr. Earth to come in and teach staff and customers together. Other eco-friendly events include a harvest festival that involves local community supported agriculture.
Even the store’s gift selection shows conscience, featuring locally made crafts, fair trade items and sustainable wood products.
Next year, Lazar plans to expand his demonstration vegetable garden, which he hopes will appeal to the 40 percent of his customers who are second-home owners looking for new ideas and an escape from city life. “My kids grew up with a vegetable garden, but so many kids these days don’t,” he says. “It is wonderful to expose people to it at any age - you see a light go on.”
The garden center’s organic vegetable and herb starts are all sourced locally, with a focus on heirloom varieties. “We’re looking to be the go-to place for organic starts,” Lazar says. “People are really interested in the old heirloom varieties.” He also focuses on fall vegetable starts, something no one else in the area does.
Seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Hudson Valley Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange and Renee’s Garden are all popular. “I’m not fanatical about organic seeds,” he says, “as long as they’re not treated. I believe that if you put a conventional seed in the ground and grow it organically, that’s an organic plant.”
Fertilizers and pest control products sold at The Phantom Gardener are all organic. Lazar prefers the Dr. Earth line because the resealable packages make it easy to store them outside. He also appreciates the fact that the company is truly dedicated to organics. “The Owner, Milo Shammas, really walks the walk,” Lazar says. “They are dedicated to this the way I am. They’re not just trying to make a buck.”
Espoma Plant-tone is another top seller. The store also sells Organica’s four-step lawn program and Neptune’s Harvest and Earth Juice liquid products, as well as Organic Plant Magic products.
Pest control starts with prevention, including good soil preparation, Lazar says: “I want customers to create an environment where the plant will thrive and not worry so much about the bugs. I tell people not to run for a pesticide, organic or not. If you have aphids, just hose them off.” He also encourages diverse plantings to attract beneficial insects.
Selling organics has to be about more than marketing, Lazar says: “I believe in it, and it’s good that it’s selling well.” He advises other garden center owners to follow suit. “Somebody’s got to believe in it. If you’re just doing it to increase sales, that’s not the way it works.”