Coccoloba Chapter @ Lowes

Back row: Mark Miller, Pat Moyer, Lowe's employee Sandra; front row: Suzy Callanan and Barbara Wallace.

This was a fun event on Saturday, July 5th from 10am-2pm at Lowe's in Estero (southwest Florida).  Coccoloba Chapter representatives, along with UF/IFAS Lee County Master Gardeners, set up a table at Lowe's on Corkscrew Road to explain the importance of native plants, low-impact landscaping, Lee County fertilizer ban, etc.

The morning started off rather busy.  The local News-Press ran an article informing readers the volunteers would be at the store to answer gardening questions.  Several customers indicated they came to Lowe's just to talk to volunteers and get information!  One man walked in with a list of questions on a small sheet of paper explaining that his wife sent him down.  When they saw the Slime Monster poster several commented they had seen the commercials and enjoyed them.  One gentleman was really happy (somewhat stunned) to see the volunteers and display in the garden center providing this type of information.  Capable volunteers on hand leapt into action providing information, handouts, advice and conversation.

1-on-1 with the Lowe's staff

Then, about 11:30, a thunderstorm rolled into the area and cleared out the garden center.  However, this gave the visiting volunteers an opportunity to chat with the Lowe's staff for awhile without interruption.  They learned that the staff really didn't understand what the fertilizer ban meant and which products their customers were allowed to use during the ban.  So, volunteers literally walked them down the fertilizer aisle to explain the numeric values and how to interpret them.  Then, they walked the soil aisle and discussed methods for using mushroom compost and Black Cow.  Of course, when everything grows like crazy in southwest Florida summer and lawns can be saturated during our wet season, the notion of adding fertilizer at all was discussed.  The volunteers felt that working directly with the staff in the garden center was a huge benefit of the day.  They were able to leave some fertilizer ordinance and slime monster brochures and promised to check into aisle signage on the fertilizer ordinance/slime monster for the employees.

Slime monster!

As the customers started returning to the garden center, the volunteers were able to discuss the importance of attracting insect pollinators to Florida yards.  Two of the three orange geiger trees they had in stock were scooped up by customers and they were not even in bloom!  (The third was in our display.)  Once customers learned about them, they wanted them and bought them.  It was also helpful to have excellent examples of alternative ground cover in the area.  The Estero medians on US-41 north of Corkscrew Road have wonderful examples of sunshine mimosa and the Florida-friendly perennial peanut.  Although not native, the scarlet milkweed was moving out the door.  The milkweed was worked into the display where volunteers were able to demonstrate the life cycle of the monarch caterpillars and butterflies.  During the event, a caterpillar even climbed from the milkweed onto the nearby clusia in the display area to eventually form a chrysalis!

Caterpillars were a bonus!

Kids coming in with parents squealed with excitement when they saw the caterpillars and butterflies.  Volunteers were able to explain the goal of the caterpillars eating the plants and the plants growing back.  City of Bonita Springs native plant coloring books, CHNEP reusable tote bags, WaterWise guides, butterfly brochures and other materials were given away.  The garden center employees were delighted to receive a WaterWise book for reference.  Volunteers showed them how to use it and the books were referred to throughout the day.  At one point, a young garden center employee named Joe rattled off the page number from memory for the orange geiger in the book!

The basis of this event was to show off what Lowe's does right and to help educate their customers on creating a balanced ecosystem on their real estate.  Along those lines, volunteers could explain ways to nurture "bugs" and micro-organisms in the soil and on the native plants. Volunteers could explain the importance of insects to the songbird population and to humans.  Homeowners learned that improperly applied fertilizers impair our waterways and cost us all money, disrupt the ecosystem, etc.  They could also learn how native plants in the landscape can be beautiful, thrive and save them money.  If Lowe's customers start to ask for native plants and are willing to buy them, hopefully Lowe's will expand their selection. 

This event was a great experience and will hopefully be repeated at this and other Lowe's stores, Home Depots and other garden centers around the area ... and throughout the state.  It was wonderful for the various organizations to work together on this outreach project.

Chapter perspective

From a Coccoloba Chapter perspective, the event was less work than a plant sale because we did not "create our own event," but were able to take advantage of a place where people were shopping for plants and gardening materials anyway.  This meant we could just show up and get to work (although we did put out a brief press release to the two local newspapers -- News-Press and Naples Daily News).  Quite frankly, this reduces the event organizer's stress level tremendously by not having to worry about making sure people show up.

Perhaps the most important aspect is that we were able to develop a relationship with this Lowe's store.   The staff seemed to love learning more information to help them do their job.  The direction of the volunteers was to help educate customers and staff while being a benefit to Lowe's.  So, if certain plants were not in stock, we simply explained that we would make a note of it and ask Lowe's to get them.  It would be rather rude to send customers elsewhere.  Also, the more native plants are "mainstream," the better the demand for ALL native plant nurseries.  Additionally, the Estero store has a resource to contact for more information or assistance.  (I already received an email thanking us from the live nursery specialist.)

Overall, from the perspective of Coccoloba Chapter and Master Gardeners, the event was a success.  Lee County Natural Resources should be ecstatic, too.  This was huge event promoting the Lee County Fertilizer Ordinance and the slime monster campaign.  (And many thanks for creating the Monster poster in time for this event.)

Demographic information was tracked, but not yet received at the time of this report.  Truly, the quantity is much less important than the quality of the contacts from this event.

Respectfully submitted,
Marlene Rodak

(Thanks to Marlene for sharing this creative outreach effort. We can't always be preaching to the same choir--we must find new audiences to become more effective. What outreach has your chapter done lately?)
Edited and posted by Ginny Stibolt


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