Historically, there has been a hierarchy of places people have gathered. The first place they did so was home. The second place was where they worked.

In the past, third places were churches, civic organizations and even bowling leagues, according to Katie Elzer-Peters, owner of Garden of Words LLC, a digital marketing firm that specializes in marketing, web development and business development for green industry clients. But those places no longer have the influence they once did. Why not offer your farm, greenhouse or garden center as a third place in 2024?

“Get a couch – if you can create a gathering space, people will gather,” Elzer-Peters said. And that’s especially important now, as U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued a warning about the epidemic of loneliness in America.

“We’re in the middle of a social crisis – people need people,” Elzer-Peters added.

They also need a good reason to visit a third place. She listed the enticing characteristics of a gathering spot as playful; it has “regulars”; it feels like a home away from home; it’s stress-free and relaxing. It’s a place where conversation is encouraged. The goal is to be a place “people like us” go to.

Easy activities to lure people in include hosting a book club or a kids’ club; leading recurring classes or being a venue for someone else’s recurring classes; and even having trivia nights. “Anything you do at a bar you could do at a garden center,” Elzer-Peters said.

Joining her to talk about her successful third place was Liz Hughes, co-owner of Groovy Plants Ranch in Marengo, Ohio (between Cleveland and Columbus). She was an art teacher for 10 years before joining her husband Jared at the ranch. They are growers and retailers on 15 acres who have something of a cult following.

“I think what keeps people coming back is that we are experts and have skilled staff. People need substance,” Hughes said. “We have also pushed past campy into full zany. It’s a fun place to visit – and become successful with your plants.”

To entertain non-gardeners who visit, they have “relics” placed throughout the property, including a Volkswagen bus, a Beetle, a hobbit house, an airplane and old tractors. For those with green thumbs, there is the Potter’s Saloon, with free “self-serve soil” to place in purchased pots.

Groovy Plants Ranch set up tables and chairs everywhere for visitors to gather, but especially for their aging population and parents with kids. They also invite food trucks to set up shop at the ranch from March through October.

“Being a gathering place is a big part of our business,” Hughes said.

Make your green industry business more than a place for people to shop. Make it a place for people to gather.

Also welcoming to all is Pat Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Hardware and Garden, one of Indianapolis’s largest independent garden centers. His business, however, encompasses four stores, all focused on something different. “We picked five things we could be the best at,” he said, listing plants, patio furniture, grills, fireplaces and artificial Christmas trees, “to differentiate us from the big box stores.”

What set them apart was also their events. Their first one was a Turkey Fest, which was free and took place right before Thanksgiving. Then they added their Big Green Egg Fest, which they decided to charge admission for. In addition, they host what Sullivan believes to be the nation’s only celebration of cole slaw with Slaw Fest.

“If people pay, it elevates the experience,” Sullivan explained. “It adds value and revenue.”

Come autumn, the Sullivan Express train ride (with non-stop service to PumpkinTown) runs until almost Halloween. The winter Sullivan Express (with access to the North Pole) now sees 50,000 riders every year – plus sales from visitors too large to ride the train.

Classes are another way they bring people together, including grilling classes at their restaurant, Sully’s Grill. (“I highly recommend selling beer and wine to customers,” Sullivan joked.)

He added that becoming a place people gather is really just about creating fun. “You have to invest and match the facility to the experience,” he said.

Business owners could always go the opposite direction and decide to only be welcoming to a very specific set of customers as well, creating a plant haven for them. That’s what Amanda Tomsen, author of “Kiss My Aster” and owner of Aster Gardens in suburban Lemont, IL. She describes it as a small indoor plant shop in a town that’s historically very blue collar (but shifting to become more diverse).

“My demographic is cool tattooed people with depression,” she joked. “It’s not a shop for everyone, but that’s the goal.”

Taking the advice of Elzer-Peters, she put a couch in her shop and it’s actually one of her biggest draws. Tomsen changes the seating space’s theme every month – past examples include “John Waters’ patio” and “Tropi-Goth.”

She makes her business family-friendly by hiding stick-on mustaches around the store for kids to find (and wear) and offers Matchbox cars for babies to hold on to. She also hides tiny plastic king cake babies around the store for children to search for while their parents shop for plants and supplies.

For the community at large, Aster Gardens is part of a town-wide Wine Walk and offers classes involving both unique crafts and plants, including mushroom wreaths and succulent jewelry.

Another way she involves others? “I take stupid quotes from people and use them for social media,” she said. One of her favorites is “Wow, there’s a lot of plants in here.” A customer said that after walking in to her plant shop.

Third places are community spaces that serve as fundamental supporters of our psychological wellbeing. People feel a sense of influence and identity when they find a third place that matches their needs. Help them find that space with your green business.

by Courtney Llewellyn