This is part 1 of a 2-part series

Water resources will become scarcer as the world population increases, which will have an impact on how and where we use water. If consumer attitudes and behaviors severely reduce or eliminate landscape water use, it will have a widespread and detrimental effect on the green industry. Now is an ideal time to discover the role of consumer attitudes and perceptions of water use and source with regard to landscape plants. These discoveries can be used to better inform educational and marketing efforts to help sustain the green industry during drought periods and changes in water availability and consumer attitudes.

Given the increasing importance of water-related issues across the U.S., it is imperative to increase our understanding of how consumers view water conservation, especially related to the lawns and landscapes surrounding their homes. However, the evidence to date in the literature has been limited to a few states. In addition, we know relatively little about consumer behavior during real and perceived periods of drought, especially with respect to landscape plant purchases. As importantly, we do not know for sure if consumers perceive drought periods correctly, let alone whether they are likely to modify their landscape care and maintenance practices during periods of drought or if a drought influences their plant purchasing decisions at all. We developed this study to explore the answers to these questions, which will have important implications for the horticulture industry. Importantly, we do not know if consumers perceive drought periods correctly, whether they are likely to modify their landscape care and maintenance practices during periods of drought or if a drought influences their plant purchasing decisions at all.

We created an online survey, which included questions regarding a wide variety of topics related to plant and water use including plant purchases and expenditures, attitudes about water conservation and landscape plants, knowledge about water conservation and landscape plants, and demographic characteristics. We collected data September 7-13, 2016, from 1,543 participants dispersed across the U.S. who were both plant buyers and non-buyers.

We defined areas of drought using data from the National Drought Mitigation Center (Heim, 1999). This measure is used to classify levels of drought experienced at any given time across the contiguous U.S. The U.S. Drought Monitor Drought Conditions maps for Sept. 20, 2016, and Sept. 15, 2015, were chosen due to consumers’ likelihood of awareness of current drought conditions when the survey was administered (Sept. 2016) and, as another point of reference, from the previous year (Sept. 2015).

We classified the respondents into one of four groups to analyze how real and perceived drought affected attitudes and behavior related to plant purchases and water usage. We used the question, “Were you in an area that experienced drought this year?” to assess their perception of drought. We then compared their response to the drought monitor classifications to assess whether they correctly perceived being (or not being) in drought and then classified them into one of four categories: “Perceived/Real” included respondents who correctly perceived a drought when they actually experienced real drought conditions (P/R); the second category was “Not Perceived/Real” for subjects who did not perceive drought conditions but actually experienced them (NP/R); the third category was described as “Perceived/Not Real” for subjects who perceived a drought when their area actually did not experience a drought (P/NR); and the fourth category was identified as “Not Perceived/Not Real” for subjects who did not perceive a drought nor experienced one (NP/NR).

We anticipated that consumers would differ in their attitudes and behavior about plants purchases and water conservation, depending on their real and perceived drought situations, and that their attitudes would affect their plant purchases. For example, people classified in the P/R category might show a different attitude about water conservation and behavior, especially compared to subjects in NP/NR category who may not be as concerned about water use. Individuals in the NP/NR category were described as “in normal conditions”. Respondents in the NP/NR category may show similar attitudes and behavior to the individuals in the P/NR since they perceived a drought, even though they really were not experiencing one. We were interested in the NP/R respondents since those respondents may lack knowledge about the real drought occurring in their area and could be using more water or have different perceptions about drought. We believed that people in the NP/R group would be different demographically, spend more on plants (because they may not have known they faced water restrictions), and engage in less positive water conservation attitudes compared to other groups.

Table 1. Comparison of percentage of plant purchases of respondents to a water-related survey of households in 2016 that were in a real drought situation and correctly perceived it (P/R); in a real drought situation but did not perceive it (NP/R); and not in a real drought situation and did not perceive it (NP/NR).

The average age of respondents was 40 years old and most were women (57.8 percent). Average household size had 1.2 adults and one child every two households. Respondents were primarily Caucasian (87 percent) and approximately a third (28.3 percent) had earned a 4-year college degree. This is relatively comparable to a sample of the U.S. at large.

We found that 16.4 percent of our respondents could be classified in the group P/R (correctly perceiving they were in a drought situation), 29.1 percent were in the group NP/NR (correctly perceiving they were not in drought or under normal conditions), 52.3 percent were classified in the group NP/R (not aware they were in drought), and only 2.0 percent were in the P/NR group (incorrectly believing they were in drought). Since the NP/NR respondents were accurate in their perception that they did not experience a drought, we used this group as a “control” or “benchmark” against which we compared the other groups. Those in the P/R were accurate in that they perceived a drought when they were really in a drought situation. With such a small number of respondents in P/NR group, they were excluded for the analysis.

Demographically, the remaining three groups were similar on most of the listed demographic characteristics. However, the NP/NR spent most on plants in 2015 followed by NP/R and then P/R in 2015 (Figure 1). We did see decreased plant spending on plants for the P/R group and more plant expenditures for the NP/NR or “normal” group. Next, we asked what types of plants were purchased in 2016 (Table 1) and found that annuals were the dominant plant category purchased (by 49.8 percent of the respondents overall), followed by vegetables (41.6 percent), herbs (30.5 percent), perennials (29.7 percent), and flowering shrubs (19.2 percent). A much smaller percentage of subjects in each category had purchased evergreen shrubs (7.4 percent overall), fruit trees (9.3 percent), evergreen trees (6.8 percent), and shade trees (7.5 percent). Very few differences between the groups were observed, with each of the 3 groups exhibiting similar percentages of purchases for annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs, and fruit trees. However, a higher percentage of the P/R group purchased evergreen trees and shrubs compared to the other two groups. The higher incidence of purchase for evergreen shrubs and trees for those who correctly perceived drought during real drought conditions may partly be explained in that some evergreens (not broad leafed types) may require less water to establish after transplanting.

Table 2. Average and standard deviation for attitudinal measures of respondents to a water-related survey of households in 2016 that were in a real drought situation and correctly perceived it (P/R); in a real drought situation but did not perceive it (NP/R); and not in a real drought situation and did not perceive it (NP/NR). Average scores are based on a 5-point Likert scale where 0 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree. Note: Statistically significant coefficients (P values < 0.01) are presented in bold. Different letters within rows indicate statistically significant differences. WC=water conservation

All three groups had a similar percentage of individuals with a lawn and landscape, and patio/porch area, as well as those who had neither (only 7 percent overall) but they differed in whether they irrigated turf and/or landscape beds (Figure 2). A higher percentage of survey participants in the P/R irrigated turf and landscape beds, most likely because the householder may have believed that the turf or landscape may not have survived without it. While we didn’t measure water use, we could suspect that people in the P/R group may be using more water to sustain their plants and turf. Approximately 1/3 of the people in P/R drought irrigated plants to keep them alive. For green industry growers and retailers, the need to use irrigation in an effective manner and to adopt water-saving measures (e.g. mulching, adoption of low-water use cultivars) appears to be essential to the long term sustainability of the Green Industry.

We found some attitudinal differences between the three groups (Table 2). When asked whether they thought water conservation was important, all three groups strongly agreed with the statements and had generally positive attitudes about water conservation. However, we found a higher level of agreement to the statements in the NP/NR groups. This average level of agreement was higher compared to both P/R and NP/R. A similar pattern was found when asked if water conservation was of great concern. Interestingly, when asked if they “know a lot about water conservation” and if they “conserved water in and around their home,” there were differences among all three groups but the P/R group ranked the lowest. Both the P/R and NP/R groups were lower than the NP/NR group for the questions about water conservation practices, including “I use fixtures that help me conserve water at home,” “The price of water restricts what I can do in the landscape areas outside my home,” and “I have decreased my outdoor plant purchases due to water restrictions in my neighborhood.” The only question in which there were no differences stating “In a water crisis, we should not buy or try to maintain outdoor landscape plants” with all three groups moderately agreeing with this statement.

The more people become aware of a drought, the more they may realize they do not know how to deal with their plants in a drought.

This difference in attitude observed among the groups may be partly explained by the Hierarchy of Competency (Adams, 2017). According to this theory, individuals begin as unconsciously incompetent and are initially unaware of what they do not know. The theory then posits that they gradually recognize they have a knowledge deficit, to knowing how to handle the knowledge deficiency. They may further develop to unconscious competency where the “skill” or knowledge is second nature. Though we expected P/R to be most sensitive to drought conditions, this would not necessarily be true by the “order of recognition.” What we conclude from these results is that subjects in the P/R group demonstrate conscious competency the consciously competent stage by being aware of the drought and having the knowledge to adjust their lifestyles or being aware of their lack of knowledge or ability adjust to drought conditions. NP/R may demonstrate unconscious incompetency the unconsciously incompetent stage, where they do not know their deficit of knowledge and therefore are not sensitive to drought information and issues. Finally, NP/NR may demonstrate being consciously competent of their drought conditions. They recognize their drought status but it is also possible that they have experienced drought conditions or have prior knowledge and are sensitive to drought information and issues.

We speculate that maybe the more people become aware of a drought, the more they may realize they do not know how to deal with their plants in a drought. Beal et al. (2013) observed when people who are over or under-estimating their water usage are made aware of their actual water usage (education/awareness) they could change their habits. But, technology engineered to assist with water conservation needed to be tied to water conserving behavior – not used as a crutch. There is a paradox in which the more consumers who underestimate water use are made aware of their behavior, the more they realize they do not know.

In addition, we know relatively little about consumer’s landscape plant purchase behavior during real and perceived periods of drought. Our goal was to better understand consumer behavior during real and perceived drought situations, especially in terms of their landscape purchases and gardening/landscaping activities. We hypothesized that consumers would be similar in their attitudes and behavior regarding plants and water conservation, depending on their real and perceived drought situations, and that their attitudes would affect their plant purchase behavior. Findings from this study confirmed this hypothesis. For example, people classified in the P/R category demonstrated a different attitude about water conservation and plant purchasing behavior, compared to subjects in the NP/NR category. More education is still needed to help facilitate the transition from intensively managed landscapes to include the use of plants or cultivars that use less water. Growers, wholesalers, and retailers will benefit from leading some of this change by promoting the water use needs of plants, especially those with lower use, and continuing to communicate water sources in plant production as well as landscape water needs.

Funding for this study was provided by USDA SCRI Clean WateR3 – Reduce, Remediate, Recycle Grant Number 2014-51181-22372

About the authors: Melinda Knuth is a doctoral student, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; Bridget Behe and Tom Fernandez are professors, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University; Charlie Hall is a professor and Ellison Chair, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; and Patricia Huddleston is a professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan