This was absolutely one of the most interesting and fun trips I’ve been on in a very long time!
Each spring the world’s leading greenhouse growers come together for the California Spring Plant Trials a.ka. the spring ‘Fashion show’ of the plant world. This event is a weeklong open house for growers and plant breeders from around the world to showcase their new plants and ‘superior genetics’. German, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish and Hebrew were just some of the languages heard while visiting the different greenhouses. Most of the plants featured at the spring trials are flowering annuals available to greenhouse growers for the spring 2012 growing season. Plant breeders are extending their efforts to include flowering shrubs and herbaceous perennials but demand is still a fraction of that for summer annuals. I was fortunate enough this year to be able to attend the spring trials through a faculty development grant from my employer Gateway Technical College.I managed to land a seat on a bus tour organized by Dr Mark Bridgen, Professor and Director of the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center of Cornell University. The bus was filled with like minded ‘plant geeks’ from around the world. Floriculture professors from Cornell, Purdue, Penn State, Kentucky and even Taiwan National University were there. Throw in a couple international plant breeders, various floriculture suppliers, some botanic garden managers and a wholesale greenhouse grower or two and you have a very rich mix of traveling companions. We began our journey at Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas and over the course of five days traveled the California coast visiting some of the world’s leading producers and marketers of ornamental plants.
Ecke Ranch Euphorbia hybrid ‘Love Me Pink’ (No its NOT a pink poinsettia)
The California coastal valleys provide the perfect climate for growing greenhouse ornamentals, with plenty of sun and warmth during the day, and cool nights. While there are lots of growers in the area producing finished plants for local and regional sales, many greenhouses now specialize in ‘plug’ production. These growers only produce small plants from seed and cutting to be shipped to growers though out the U.S. for ‘finishing’. This production is driven by the retail consumer’s desire for new and better performing garden color every year. Professional marketing campaigns have made plant breeders the ‘rock stars’ of the plant world. Who will be lucky enough to breed the next ‘Wave’ petunia or ‘Knockout’ rose? Great plants in themselves are wonderful but they are also made hugely profitable with the magic touch of high power, professional marketing.
The use of television and magazine advertising, face book and social media marketing have increased the visibility of new plants to consumers, and with it, demand. Creative packaging in ‘branded’ pots, point of sale posters and huge colorful plant labels create dynamic displays to attract customers and drive sales. New at the spring trials this year were plant labels with
Quick Response or QR codes which turn a smart phone into a mini barcode scanner. Customers take a picture of the QR code on the label with their smart phone and information about the plant appears on their screen. The QR code also reads the phone’s ISP address which provides location information about the viewer . The customer doesn’t even need to search a website for information; their hardiness zone pops up on the screen along with a local weather report and cultural information about the plant shown on the label. It even gives information on good planting companions to increase add-on sales as well as ‘ratings’ and comments from other gardeners. A list of local garden centers carrying that plant and brand is also provided. Some of the labels even have ‘face recognition’ technology so marketers can tell exactly how much time the viewer spent looking at different parts of the label. They can use this information to customize their next marketing message to this consumer. Kinda scary but very cool, and especially important in attracting younger customers to the gardening scene.
3 different species in one plug, or ‘Trixiliners’, were also a big trend observed at the show. Producers transplant 3 different species of rooted cuttings together in a 72 or 50 plug tray for an easy and labor saving way to produce combination planters and hanging baskets. Brand names include the
Trixiliner by Selecta, the MIXI by Danziger Flower Farm, Kwikombos by Syngenta and the now infamous Confetti Garden series by Dummen. Infamous because Dummen recently applied for a patent which could effectively prevent all the other producers from using this specific growing technique to produce a 3-in-1 plug.
KwikKombo from Syngenta, Gilroy, California Plant Trials, March 2011
Overall I saw a plenty of new petunias, geraniums, Osteospermum and New Guinea impatiens (on steroids!) covered in flowers the size of CDs. They were all very beautiful but I couldn’t necessarily tell which ones would perform best in the heat, humidity and heavy clay of a Midwest Wisconsin summer. This is where the importance of ‘trial gardens’ comes in. Many of the people I traveled with were responsible for university trial gardens. They grow these new plants in locations across the country and provide ratings for plant performance in their particular area. These ratings translate into sales dollars as the rating are listed in grower and consumer catalogs. Just as consumers have come to rely on rating systems for a variety of goods, from electronics to travel, the same concept is being used to sell plants. Catalogs/websites list plant ratings and comments from university trial gardens to increase sales for new plants. I came home with lots of new information to use in improving our trials on the Gateway campus this season. I also came away with an ever increasing list of people and places to visit!
SuperSonic New Guinea Impatien ‘Orange Ice’ by Goldfisch Vegetative now owned by Syngenta