Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, this column will feature a roundtable of viewpoints from various team members with vested interest in and experience with Greenhouse Grower and the horticulture market.
In early April, the Greenhouse Grower editorial team enjoyed that epic, exhausting and brilliant road trip known as California Spring Trials. After taking thousands and thousands of photos, driving hundreds of miles and talking to dozens of people, it took a few days to process all that we experienced.
One of the themes that emerged from the clutter of memories and notes was how breeders are giving substance to claims of wanting to help consumers succeed. It’s something we as an industry have been discussing for a long time, but we have also struggled with how to deliver that at multiple levels.
Take color fads. Lime green was hot for awhile, then black leaves were all the rage. Breeders developed a lot of great plants to match the trends, but let’s be honest, there were also a lot of stinkers.
Those plants, both good and bad, were developed because of consumer demand. But how much they ultimately advanced gardening is open for debate. Consumers want to stay on trend, sure, but they want to succeed even more.
Greenhouse Grower’s sister publication, Today’s Garden Center, recruited Dr. Bridget Behe of Michigan State University and Dr. Susan Hogan of Emory University to conduct consumer research to learn which barriers exist that prevent younger generations from gardening.
The team collected a lot of information from three different focus groups that took place over three days each. There were dozens of questions that generated hundreds of pages of transcripts, and a funny thing happened. One of the most important findings came from spontaneous comments and not from questions the researchers prepared. The terms “luck” and “risk” came up repeatedly.
Consumers feel they have very little control over a plant’s survival. If the plant thrives, it’s due to luck, not good gardening practices or even good breeding. The specter of a new plant dying soon after planting is always present, however, which makes the money spent on plants a risk.
Breeders Are Focusing On Fool-Proof Plants
Many breeders are aware of the problem and are striving to ensure that plants in a customer’s home garden will live up to the visual appeal the plant has on a store display bench. A lot of the resulting plants were on display in California.
Several companies promoted compact varieties that require very little or no growth regulators to maintain their petite habit. These plants remove the risk of customers being dismayed when well-formed, small plants revert to their original genetics in the home garden and turn into leggy, sprawling bullies.
I would feel even better about this development, though, if I was certain that the reason behind the breeding effort stemmed from concern for the home user and not purely a desire for fewer inputs in the greenhouse. Many of the breeding advances are geared to benefit growers, from shorter growing periods to ease of shipping.
Don’t get me wrong, these are important goals to chase. As an industry we need to control costs. But we also need to make sure advances for growers do not have a negative result for the end user. Are plants that can be propagated more quickly than others in the species as long-lived? Will plants look as good a month after purchase as they do on the bench? If not, then consumers will continue to lose interest in gardening and we’ll be facing a much bigger challenge of trying to find an audience for our plants.