Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Newest Thing Is Old Hat

Wednesday I had the great good fortune to attend a seminar at Spring Creek Growers, presented in part by Ball Horticultural Company.  The idea is introduce garden center folks and landscape contractors to the newest, most innovative "plant material" out there, in the hopes that we can entice our own customers to buy them.  (That's what they call it sometimes, plant material.  Isn't that a little, well, dreary?) 

'Phantom' Petunia
I love these events.  I love to hear about all the research and development that goes into the creation of a "new" plant.  I get all plant-geeky inside, just hearing words like vegetative or triploid.  And the facility at Spring Creek is very, very nice, and the food was delicious, and it makes for a great start for the spring season.

'Breathless' Euphorbia
What thrills me about springtime, though, does not necessarily thrill the customers.  The panel discussion pointed up a disconnect between what the Ball folks were promoting, and what the landscape contractors, re-wholesalers and garden center owners were looking for.  The Ball representative started the discussion by asking each of the participants how they felt about new plants, new innovations, new products.  You could tell he was very excited about Ball's product line, and he was right to be -- there are some very interesting new plants on the market.  However...

Zinnia 'Zahara Double Duo'
One by one, the panel participants said, in not so many words, that simply being "new" was not good enough.  The landscape contractor said that her clients never come to her, asking for the newest thing.  They rely on her to put together a plan that works for them, in their budget.  She believed it was important for her to find out about new plants, but the customer wasn't driving that.  The garden center owner said that a few of her customers came into the store looking for the latest in new plants, but that only happened if there were a big national marketing push behind the product.  She also said that much of the time, the new products failed to deliver on the promises made by these marketing campaigns.  The Wave petunias are a good example -- they don't perform here nearly as well as promised here, in our climate, as other petunias might.  The rewholesaler, who provides plants primarily to landscapers, said that he had to push the new products -- there wasn't a demand from his clients specifically for the newest varieties.

Coleus 'Redhead'
The discussions went on in this vein for about half an hour.  None of the panelists were using social media or traditional advertising to promote new products.  None of the panelists felt that "newness" provided a higher price point or profit margin.  In fact, while there was excitement about specific plants, I thought I detected a general skepticism about "newness" in general.  Simply being new doesn't mean a plant can solve a customer's problem or meet a customer's need.  It's hard to say what was going through the Ball rep's mind -- he put up a good front.  But it's got to be discouraging to have your customers tell you new's not where it's at.

Verbena 'Aztec'
I'll put my customer hat on for a minute.  Would I rather have a new petunia, in the rare and unusual shade of black?  Or would I rather just have a petunia that can make it longer through the heat and humidity of our summers?  I appreciate what Ball's doing here and I love some of the new plants.  But I hope they don't overestimate the importance of new and different.  I think many of us would be satisfied with a good quality, virus-free same-old, same-old.

All photos courtesy Ball Horticultural Company, and a big thanks to Spring Creek Growers for hosting us.  It was a very interesting, thought-provoking event!


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think it is a common disconnect between a company and their customers. When you hear the same issue(s) from several different people, there is an opportunity worth addressing. Your thoughts are food for thought for all of us who deal with customers of some sort on a regular basis.

  2. They do new, we do gardens, and where we can meet is good business. As 'just a gardener' I am wary of new varieties, that disappoint wildlife, and are not as climate suited as the original species was.

  3. @Georgia, I see this disconnect all over the place in trade publications too -- a worrying trend. @EE -- I'm with you on this! Your climate is much like ours. At the seminar, there was quite a bit of concern that the trial gardens were in areas that were not very similar to our climate -- particularly the high heat, humidity and high nighttime temperatures. I know we all think our own climate must be the toughest, but here in the states, plants that do well in California are almost guaranteed to do poorly in the Gulf Coast!

  4. Interesting post, Elizabeth. I've heard my fellow garden writers and bloggers say similar things about various growers, including Ball. The best example of new and different but virtually worthless plants I can give is the huge number of Echinaceas that have come on the market in recent years. I have yet to hear of anyone who's been able to grow them successfully here or elsewhere.

  5. Elizabeth~I just attended a talk on heirloom flowers and the speaker assumed that we gardeners are always wanting the latest and the newest. There seems to be an assumption that we prefer new and different. The audience disabused her of that notion~Although, many had fallen for the new echinaceas that Cindy mentioned above. Personally, I want my native plants to still be attractive as host plants and nectar and pollen sources. gail

  6. My garden is filled with memories. Grandma's baby pink Seven Sisters roses, wild strawberries we discovered on a lake trip, many, many generations of an old graveyard iris I keep in memory of family long gone. But I also have what's new. Last summer I trialed Coleus 'Redhead.' It is the deepest red and more importantly fade proof.That is new and I will be looking for 'Redhead' at the garden centers this year.

  7. I liked your view on new and different. How it adapts is far more important.