Gardeners plus QR Codes equals Really Happening?

Proven Winners is putting QR codes on plant tags. So is Walters Gardens, a major wholesaler of perennial liners. Growers often purchase tags from the propagator to go along with the liners. In the case of patented plants, that’s a common method of collecting royalties – the finishing grower has to purchase the tag.

Quick response (QR) codes are everywhere. For those that are vague on the concept, it’s a two-dimensional barcode. Install a code-reader app on your smartphone, snap a photo of the code, and your web browser takes you to a specific site for more information.  The marketing experts associated with our industry say they’re a “must” if we want to connect with the ” iEverything” customer.  Even botanical gardens are slapping them on plant identification labels, interpretive signage, and more (that’s on my to-do list).

My question:  are YOU, dear readers, taking advantage of this technology (as it applies to purchasing plants)?  Or is it enough to pull the tag out of the pot and note that this petunia, though oddly-named, needs full sun and gets 8″ to 12″ tall?

Image snagged from Kristy O’Hara’s article “Doing More With the QR Code” in Greenhouse Grower magazine

I realize we have a wide variety of interests and occupations represented – which makes things even more interesting. So whether you’re a grower, a horticulture professional, or a semi-dangerous gardener, please leave a comment as to whether you’ve ever used one. If so, did you find it useful? Any other thoughts?

Almost forgot…Why am I pestering you for this information?  I teach the senior level Ornamental Plants Production and Marketing course here at Virginia Tech.  If I think it’ll give our future growers and garden center managers/owners an economic edge, I’ll certainly recommend it.

36 thoughts on “Gardeners plus QR Codes equals Really Happening?”

  1. Overall picture? Suggest you do a search for qr code use statistics 2012. It pulls up some interesting data. I messed with it as a garden publisher but decided if it took off, the big guys (like PW etc) would dominate. Would a smaller retailer want to send customers to a potential competitor website? I wouldn’t if I were still running my specialist nursery. Do I use them now as a crazed gardener? No. Too slow and sites too cumbersome. The key question in my mind is what is the fastest and easiest way to get info to customer? IMHO QR codes aren’t.

  2. We’re investigating using QR codes for our MG plant sale and signage in our Demo Gardens. Still climbing the learning curve, however, and the demographics of our MG group tend toward, shall we say, ‘retired’ folks, so we’re relying on MG kids and grandkids to help out, believe it or not. I can’t comment on their usefulness as a user, since I don’t have any kind of smart phone – just a county issued flip one, that they make me have- and I like it that way (insert old fart mumble grumble here), although I suppose I’ll hafta relent soon.

    I do see people with smart phones using them all the time, on ads for coupons, movie times, etc., and I think it’s a good thing for Extension to reach out
    to more folks beyond our standard “stakeholders” demographic and this seems to be a very logical and important thing to do, as is the Blogging and FB’ng (Pinteresting, Twittering, Google+ ing) to reach a wider audience. I also understand that with the right software, the marketing potential for capturing who uses it, and a way to get back to them, seems like a good thing, too – properly done, of course.  Our steps are going to be Demo Gardens at the Sign level, with a link to a blog post, or Extension web page that drives traffic to good, Land Grant University information, and ultimately, to the label on the plant/cultivar at the specimen level, for all our labels, including what we sell at our fundraising plant sales.  Ambitious, but doable – eventually.
    Technologically speaking, its the same as Bar Coding (scanning for groceries items, for example), but with 64 characters, rather than the 8 or 16 available with standard bar coding, and the ability to include a URL (internet address) in the 64 characters.  So “Scientific Name”  “Common Name”, and a link to an Extension Website with more detail, is easy to accomplish in 64 characters, and very worth pursuing.
    There’s a blog post on the eXtension MG Blog from June, 2011 by Karen Jeanette that’s applicable, too.

  3. QR code? (Glad you added a definition.) Smart phone? Duh… I guess I’m one of the “un” smart ones because I don’t have a smart phone and really didn’t know what QR stood for. I’ve seen the scrambled symbols on things and in magazines but didn’t know where a phone would take you if you knew what to do with it. So, old f… um… fogie that I am, I don’t use them. I LIKE tags in the plants that tell me something. I prefer info directly on the pot since that’s a little hard for Susie Consumer to switch at the store. But I can see the benefit of the codes, too. When most of us have smart phones (and know how to use them!) they will be everyday items like bar codes are now.

    1. I have an iPhone and would like to be able to scan a barcode from the tag on a plant and get details on how to plant and care for that particular plant. Many times the tag doesn’t give me enough information. What is the name of the app I need to download (preferably a free one)?

  4. I don’t have a smart phone but I’m seriously considering buying tablet partly because I will be able to search information on plants I find in nurseries. I will be most likely to do my own search for information,though, sceptical as I am of information provided by the seller.

  5. I like technology, but let’s not forget that many people cannot afford to pay $50 or $70 or $100 or more each month to have cell data service (which I believe is required to read QR codes). Those who can’t or choose not to pay those prices still needs access to information about the plant. So I surely hope the physical tags don’t go away any time soon.

    Now if we can only get the information to be good and comprehensive… and regionally appropriate. Yeah… I’m a dreamer. 🙂

    And growers… PLEASE… list how long it will take the plant to reach a mature size, what that size will be, and how much larger the plant is likely to grow after maturity so we know how much room we ultimately need for that plant in our garden in 20 years.

    Does anyone remember right plant / right place?

  6. I’m dubious about their utility, or more precisely, whether it is worth the customer’s effort to scan them. I’ve tried scanning a few, and they just take me to web pages with, yawn, boring info. The trick for using QR codes will be to offer something really worthwhile. Otherwise it’s just a pointless gimmick.

  7. After running the QR code article on the Extension Master Gardener blog last year that Ray described, we started to see some doubt about whether these would be used. I personally think they could be really useful if the expectation was you’d provide some really useful or value added to the code, BUT consider this article when thinking QR Codes:

    When I went to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center last year I thought they used them really well. You would go into a garden, see a sign and get more info of what was in the garden – like a plant list of similar native plants for a certain condition. I thought that was a great use of QR Codes, in fact if I lived in Texas I probably would have taken the plant list and walked into a garden center with that list.

    The key exercise is to think about value added context. I can’t see added value of a QR tag telling me to plant in full sun/full shade better than what’s already been done with the icons on the tag; however, I can see the value in having it take me somewhere that gives me options to find out ways to pair it with other plants or for certain situations- or maybe a link to an app that would do this for me? (it better be a good app).

    I think it would be a fun exercise for your class to make a couple personas and have them think about what the person may need to know about and then think about how the company providing the code could provide that added value.

    Sidenote: I think Ray’s idea of QR codes for their plant sales is a neat idea. Even if few people use them, the way we think about providing that information to the consumer in a way that meets the context of a specific plant or situation is a good/necessary exercise for all of us (marketers or extension)

  8. As I said above, we’re concentrating on the value added of more, and better, information provided to the user with links to Extension fact sheets or web pages, like the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center example. The added bonus from an Extension standpoint is a better (more accurate) metric for (in Extension-speak) Direct Contacts (versus guesstimated Indirect Contacts) and a subsequent improvement in Impact Statement reports, that ultimately help prove our value to grant-makers, and state and federal policy funding managers (I can dream, can’t I?).
    One example we’re dealing with in our plant sale, is the Day Lily problem. In May, they all look alike, and the basic consumer avoids them, assuming they’re just the orange “ditch lilies.” We have several MG’s who are Day Lily specialists, who donate divisions from plants that they paid $25.00 or more for a few years back. We don’t accept donations of “ditch lilies”, yet we always have leftovers of the more prized ones, or need to mark them down to (what is perceived) as an insulting price (I’m guilty of taking advantage of that, he confesses sheepishly). It’s discouraging for the MG specialists, who get frustrated at the lack of knowledge from the consumer, which affects their willingness to donate in future years. So a QR code at the Day Lily sign, with links to MG Garden pictures of how they look in bloom has the potential to help here.  The same problem exists for any of the later (Summer and Fall blooming) perennials like the better behaved dwarf Solidagos we’re starting to get as donations.  In the mind of the general public, Goldenrod is a weed that causes hayfever, not a desirable garden specimen that adds Fall color, and attracts pollinators, so an effort to educate, could result in better sales.
    From a general marketing perspective, however, think about what Amazon does. I often go there to order one thing, and wind up ordering two or three more, based on the suggested “Peop
    le who bought this, also bought these items” come-ons on the bottom of the page. A smart nursery business ought to be able to do the same thing with plant selections, based on how they organize their QR codes with links to their web pages.
    There are pitfalls with new technology, of course. I’m reminded of this YouTube from 2008: “My TiVo Thinks I’m Gay” that will have to settle out (love the airplane banner example in your link, Karen). I have no doubt they will, eventually.

  9. I have used QR codes a few times, and what I found was basically the info on the plant tag. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has come across many plant tags which should defined as outright fiction or at best participate in a little zone stretching. And what may be “full sun” in Massachusetts would burn up in the South. I almost never trust what’s on the tag while standing in a nursery; the few times I do I regret it.

    For electronic to be useful, they need to point to info that is local, relevant and *accurate.* This is easily within the parameters of the technology since your smart phone knows where you are either via GPS or cell tower triangulation.

    Also — personal pet peeve — a close up photo of one bloom is not helpful. Unless you are dealing with a small annual like the above petunia, people need to know what the plant looks like throughout the seasons, not for a tiny 1-2 week window in spring when it’s blooming.

  10. We have trialed them on both signs and tags for the last couple of years and interestingly had little use by our customers. They are not creating traffic to our website (yes we track to see if it is from one of the QRC). This is even though we do see people using their smartphones to be reading about our plants on our website while they shop. I think part of it is with the new intuitive keyboard apps it is just easier to start entering the name and just let it pop up, rather than opening your phone app and jumping through all the hoops to get ti scan the QRC. As a grower/retailer I want to control my nursery’s brand image and would strongly dislike tags/packaging that did not send my customers to my website. Yet another reason to not buy in “Branded Plants” even if they are cool.

  11. Alrighty, then! Out of all the comments on how QRCs should/could/would be used etc., it sounds like only two people – Karen S. and Nicole – have actually USED them while shopping for plants (with underwhelming results). Hap notes not many folks are utilizing them at his fab nursery. That’s also a great point that this technology has, possibly, already “jumped the shark.” For the record, I’ve not used a QRC either. Karen J., did you actually use it at Lady Bird? That does sound interesting. Keep on commenting, if you haven’t already!

  12. Hi Holly, yes, I used it at Lady Bird Johnson and actually would use them again in a similar context. I thought the plant list for each LBJ garden was great to see and then when i called it up I could bookmark the list for future use, but I spend a lot more time organizing my info then most people, I think. I would use them in Ray’s example of their plant sale too (to see several photos of a plant I’m going to buy when it’s not in bloom).

  13. I am a dumb phone user that hangs out with smartphone users but they don’t look for QR codes on pots. They shop for what is emerging from the pot. They might be curious about the name of a product for future purchase. I use a camera not a QR code to help me remember what I want to know and how well the plants performed. The only QR codes I have used were for sales in fabric stores. Until more people can afford a smart phone I would not get excited about scanning the QR codes. I will watch what happens this year.

  14. I work at a big box store and have recently received a smart phone. Many of our bedding plants have that little Id tag. I’ve never used it. My thing is that that many of the tags that i can read, are wrong. Primroses are perennials and cyclamen are tubers, not annuals.

  15. As a young professional in the ground’s maintenance field, I thought I’d chime in. As others mentioned, price of the technology is limiting. I use a “dumb” phone because I’d rather spend my money on things besides a data plan. I’m a bit of an oddball in my generation because of that. But I also go to a garden center knowing what I’m looking for – I’ve already done my research in books and online, and know what plants I’m looking for. Therefore, the general plant tag info is more than adequate for me.

  16. I have a smart phone and a QR reader app and I have used it on multiple occassions. If you can provide information through a QR code to customers who have smart phones but may not know about plants, why wouldn’t you? It’s free to create simple QR codes- you can pay if you want to monitor/track the QR codes. For Extension or a business, I would consider QR codes another tool in the outreach/education/marketing toolbox and I certainly would not dismiss them. It’s about trying to reach the most people and in today’s world that’s going to involve a variety of ways including, facebook, twitter, websites, newspaper articles and QR codes. We should use them all.

  17. Not only do I think the QR cde will not be used, I think many do not read the tage. It is easier to ask a person than to find reading glasses whilst in the nursery!

  18. Precisely, Kerry. Spot on. My sentiments exactly.

    And one user with a smart phone scanning, will attract 3 or 4 others gathering around, sharing, and looking at the information. Investment on our end is less than what it would take to laminate a single picture and put it up, with less effectiveness. So far, I have seen no disincentive in this discussion to doing it.

  19. When I’m browsing a nursery, the last thing I want to do is stare at my phone!!! I usually leave it in the car so I won’t be disturbed…

  20. Hi! I’m jumping in this conversation late and from out of left field. My name is Tola – I am a painter/artist and a technologist currently living in Chapel Hill NC (where I went for grad and undergrad). I googled “gardens and qr codes” and ended up here and thought to contribute to the discussion.

    I have some ideas about QR code usage – and the lack thereof. One thought I had about QR codes is that QR codes don’t often lead to better or more interesting experiences for the user. The reward for the effort of scanning one of those things with one’s phone (sometimes somewhat awkwardly in public) can be pretty low. And once you’ve done it and ended up at just another website, it pretty much kills the experience and serves as a deterrent for subsequent experimentation.

    I think it is key to make sure that the user is rewarded for their efforts by an experience that clearly adds something to the reality that they are experiencing – one that illuminates (without them having to do much more work).

    I’m a huge weekend BookTV and American History TV fan. When the various curators, experts, and/or tour guides divulge their knowledge of a place, it can be pretty riveting. If users knew that they were able to access that sort of information from scanning a QR code I think they would be more inclined to do so.

    I’ve been working on a project for the last few months that is about that. Web-based, easily generated,iImage-centric video/audio presentations, accessible via url or QR code. If anyone is interested in throwing some tomatoes at an idea, would love to get some feedback on what I’ve been working on and find out if it could work in the public garden space. Happy to post a link to a demo for you guys to throw tomatoes at.

  21. I’ve tried using them and at least the ones I tried didn’t give me the answers I was lokoing for. So I just Googled the plant variety and found the asnwers elsewhere on the web.

  22. At the risk of beating a dead horse with a broken record, the question is not only the value added that QR codes could bring for existing gardening enthusiasts, it’s also the opportunity to tap into a new market by enticing existing smart phone QR users into becoming gardening enthusiasts.

    1. As the Tech Team lead for Pender Co, NC MG, I’ve been encouraging this all year. I recently attended a workshop and stole a few minutes with Lucy Bradley, one of the workshop speakers. I chatted with her about my intent to generate QR codes with info for our plant sale (having read Ray’s info already), as well as for plant tags in our Demonstration Gardens. A short while later what did I find? She (I presume) generated QR codes for the plants in our NCSU plant database, greatly reducing the time I’d need for the project. Check out

      I have encountered resistance to using these codes from those without smart phones. However, since it takes little time to generate printing out on our plant signs, why such vehement opposition? NBD (no big deal). People will begin to use QR codes when they provide meaningful information. If it helps one person select the “right plant, right place,” then it will have been worth my time.

      Not everyone is as geeky as I am. I do a search of plants fitting my gardens’ conditions before I shop, then determine where they’ll be placed. I do a search of local native plant sources first. I make a list, and add it to my master spreadsheet of plants I own (my version of a garden journal). I include the source link and QR code/link if available. Then I can dispose of those pesky dirty plastic plant tags that are more ads than true plant information.

      I too would love to see more photos of a plant include the entire plant rather than just the flower.

      I did all this BEFORE even owning a smart phone with data plan. My 2013 Christmas gift? An iPhone with a data plan! What did I do to deserve that? Encouraged disconnecting cable/satellite and got antennas for OTA (over the air) tv (and hulu and netflix subscriptions for streaming tv shows when desired). The data plan costs much less and has already proven to be much more useful to me. Will everyone get smart phones with data plans? Of course not! Does that mean we shouldn’t experiment with technologies? Of course not!

  23. I work with low-mod income people through a community organization. How exactly is this group going to afford 1)a smart phone, 2)monthly phone rates? I don’t have a smart phone either. Widening the digital divide, are you?

  24. The digital divide is a big issue. I don’t think it is necessary however to forgo this particular technology implementation because of it. I do think its important to consider two things when dealing with mobile/qr codes. Make sure the content is available online where it can be accessed from any computer and stay away from geo-location dependent functions when developing your mobile site.

    If those rules are followed most people will be able to get access to the information provided.

  25. We’re trialing QR codes this year in gardens. Our slant is that the plants have stories, and when we’re not in the garden to tell their story, the QR codes can help us do that. We’re landing the QR codes on mobile friendly pages where we have crafted writeups about the plant / garden, with additional links for more information.

    The codes take little space, and if they allow additional contact with our demographic, then it’s worth it in my book. Lower income populations can be served in the same space by providing handouts that list the QR codes with relevant writeups. Same message, different format. We’re having a public ed on the evening of Feb 27th going over some things about QRing a garden. Stats will be available publicly on the code usage through the growing season to see what value, if any, comes out of it.

  26. Henry, please don’t equate low income with lower usage rates of smart phone technology. Some of us, regardless of income, are just borderline Luddites, some prefer to spend our money on plants instead of expensive phones and service. And some lower income folks would rather have a smart phone than eat.

  27. Good point. Making the optional content available in some alternative form is just a sound strategy. I tend to balk at museums etc. that require iphones or ipads (excluding android phones) in order access additional content. Though there are some reasons to do that, it can still be frustrating.

    Question. Would anyone suggest not using on-site informational technologies because their usage would exclude some visitors from participation?

  28. Right, by choice or not, there are different demographics with different reasons that are not smart phoned or QR-scanning. Everyone’s got their own reason!

    Hmmm, I suppose if we had a handout of the same things we QR coded, then we could do some gauging. # handouts picked up vs. # codes scanned or # people that scanned. Apples-to-oranges sort of stuff … a little head-scratching and pencil-licking may make sense of it. And there will probably be a footnote somewhere in it (* — ran out of pamphlets, forgot to restock).

  29. Thank you all for the thoughtful discussion. My takeaway from this is the following: QRCs and similar technologies are useful for plant shopping if enough effort is put into making “wherever you land” a good resource. Repeating information on the tag is not helpful; misleading or flat out wrong information is hurtful/annoying. And a certain amount of redundancy needs to happen so those without smart phones (or the desire not to fiddle with ’em) can find the same information/resources somehow.

  30. I wonder why people will use QR codes over simple search? When you search you get to decide what info to use, whereas with QR codes it generally leads to a companies website.

  31. The Mashable article linked above makes some good points. If you are going to use QR codes, make it clear what they are for, what the reward is for using them, and tips on usage or an “ask for help” notice for users that don’t know what they are. Also be aware that QR codes are easy to sabotage. A bad guy could print
    his own QR code on a sticker and put it over your good QR code and send your users to a site handing out malware. Some security sites are already recommending “don’t scan random QR codes you see.” ( for more info). At the least, users should ensure their QR scanning apps show the URL embedded in the QR code before loading it so they can decide whether or not to follow it.

    (I’m an IT person that uses a dumb phone and has never scanned a QR code).

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