Some little known facts for better gardening in 2008
Vail CO, Colorado
New Year’s Eve, that seems like an appropriate time to give you a glimpse of what is new in plant material for 2008, except that what’s new has been around for most of last year.
There’s a reason for the delay between the plants being introduced and you being able to buy them; I’m just not sure what it is. See, the last days of March is when the new plants for 2009 will be reviewed at the mellifluously named “Pack Trials” ” a series of corporate fetes held up and down the length of California where the latest in plant breeding is unveiled each spring. This year’s new plants were brought out last March. (As old as the flower business is, you’d think we could schedule this thing better.)
As I’ve said, I don’t know the reasons behind the delay, but I can speculate. Knowing flower farmers, the reasons are probably sensible and cautious. My guess is that when plant breeders come out with a new plant they don’t know how much demand there will be for the new introduction; so, they throw a springtime garden party in California inviting all the seed peddlers that are literally doing nothing that time of year but awaiting their customers’ crops to come in, and then see how many blooming business people bite.
After the breeders get a reading on demand, they budget their advertising and plant an appropriate number of mother plants ” saving on ads that run nowhere and on flowers without beds. The delay also gets them a chance to see how their plants grow throughout the country because breeders send samples out to the players in the plant world all spring and summer. In other words, you may have already seen some of the 2008 introductions.
It makes about as much sense in a utilitarian ag kind of way as how the pack trials derived its name. At the trial, plants are displayed in plastic packages ” packs ” just as they would be sold at your local plant emporium; hence, the name Pack Trials.
It’s at the pack trials that I think some aspects of my industry have gone astray from providing a quality product. Pack performance has tremendous impact on how a plant sells and how economical it is to grow. Here’s why: A small plant that blooms soon after planting is probably going to look good in a pack and also affords less time in a greenhouse and, therefore, if that’s what you’re looking for, a pack trial winner.
But, how a plant performs in a pack is frequently much different than how it performs in a garden. In other words, pretty in a pack often means puny in your yard.
You may ask why? Well, when a plant sets flower, much of the energy generated by the plant is diverted from growth and is then consumed in developing a seed. Less energy is available for growth of roots and plant. Furthermore, once some plants set seed, they figure they’ve done what they were put on this planet to do and promptly die. Probably, not a good overall result for you the gardener.
How can this be? Why would flower growers be so short-sighted? As you can probably tell from the preceding paragraphs, the answers to those questions will not be short.
The profit margins for flower growers have been for a number of years, believe it or not, exceedingly thin, and lately excessively still thinner. When you look at a flower you see sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows of colorful fun. When a grower looks at a flower he sees manual labor, natural gas, plastic, and diesel fuel ” none of which are getting any cheaper these days. He also sees a consumer that is willing to spend only so much for a pack of flowers as opposed to say a gallon of gasoline. What are you, Mr. Flower Grower, gonna do?
The first thing many of the biggest suppliers did was shrink the size of the tray ” known as a flat ” that holds an also reduced size pack. It was only a couple of inches, but it allowed them to grow a lot more flats in a greenhouse, ship a few more flats on a cart, and a bunch more on a truck.
That worked so well that most of the large growers in a synergistic moment with flower breeders put their money on compact, fast-growing, early-blooming annuals that look good in packs and allows them to run an extra crop or three through their greenhouses. They know that a small plant in bloom sells much more rapidly than a big, green, late-blooming plant that looks sloppy in a pack.
I didn’t see anywhere in that business model where season-long garden performance was a high priority. It’s not that big growers and big breeders wouldn’t put a strong garden performing plant that grows over time big and deep rooted and is also surprisingly early blooming into a pack if they could. They do, when it occurs, but, nature being what it is, those attributes don’t come together very often.
What are you, Mr. and Mrs. Gardener, gonna do? Well, many of you are already doing it. You’re buying more plants in pots. Most often, not always, plants in pots are of genetics that don’t do well in packs. They’re big, often late-blooming varieties that don’t come cheaply from seed. They come from cuttings, and they do well in a garden. But, they’re more expensive because they take more labor and time to grow, take up more space per unit in a greenhouse, and require more fuel to ship per plant. That’s a dynamic that’s not readily changed.
There you go. My hope is that you’re now a better informed shopper ready to garden with new expectations and, consequently, better in 2008. Next week, I’ve talked to some well-placed friends in the flower business, and I have a few of their picks, especially for the Vail valley, of some of the best of 2007 intended for introduction in 2008.
Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments or questions about this column to email@example.com.