Most 60-year-olds you’ll meet may not be hip to the trends of the day, nor will they necessarily be the most innovative-minded. But that isn’t the case for the now 60-year-old Walters Gardens, in Zeeland, Mich. One of the country’s largest perennial producers, Walters Gardens has a talent for reinventing itself to keep business booming and maintain its leadership position.
Founded in 1946, the business started as a small flower farm owned by Dena and John Knoll, which served as a contract grower for a larger producer. After John passed away unexpectedly, Dena Knoll hired a young man, named Dennis Walters, whose four brothers also joined the company. When Knoll retired, Dennis Walters took over the business. He eventually married Knoll’s only daughter Harriet, and the couple’s five children have been involved in the business.
Today, Walters Gardens remains a family business that sits on 2,100 acres of land and employs up to 325 people. The business includes more than 740,000 square feet of greenhouse space and 900 planted field acres, with plans to expand to accommodate its increasing offerings in new varieties each year.
Since the operation’s early years, Walters Gardens has had an innovative edge, streamlining traditionally labor-intensive tasks with new technology to make production more efficient and trim the lead time for order fulfillment. Over the past few years, there has been a considerable emphasis on this goal, according to CEO John Walters. Several new technologies have been incorporated, including energy efficient greenhouses, a 3.5-million-BTU alternative fuel boiler for heating greenhouses, linear irrigation systems, GPS-directed field equipment, upgraded information systems and an automated transplanter.
The most notable new tool Walters Gardens has recently adopted is the popular Elle Plug technology, a root-penetrable, biodegradable paper sleeve filled with growing medium. According to Walters, Elle Plugs are quicker and easier to transplant than traditional plugs, are automation-ready and because there is less disturbance to the roots when transplanting, the plants root faster. The plugs are also competitively priced with less clean-up, he adds. “This year, we offered a limited number of our best-selling hostas in 35mm Elle Plugs and were extremely satisfied with their performance,” Walters says. “We plan to expand this product line in the future.”
Always vigilant about plant cleanliness, Walters Gardens built its own tissue culture lab in 1976, a considerable investment at the time, and it has been on the leading edge of perennial production ever since. In the past few years, the operation has stepped up the intensity of its virus-indexing program, Walters says. Walters Gardens now tests all of its perennials varieties for 12 common plant viruses.
“Due to the globalization of the perennial industry and the subsequent threat of new plant viruses, we have made a strong commitment to become educated in all aspects of plant health and to propagate only those varieties that have passed our stringent plant health inspections,” Walters says. “Recently, we have begun a pathogen elimination program for viruses, bacterial diseases and nematodes. Due to our diligence in the area of plant health, our customers can be confident that they are buying only the healthiest possible stock from us.”
Facing the crippling energy costs of recent years, Walters Gardens took a new approach, both in heating its greenhouses and finding a way to pay for it. The operation won USDA grant money in 2005 to pay for installing heat-retaining energy curtains in three of its DeCloet greenhouses. It also applied for a grant to fund its new boiler system, which burns corn to produce heat and supplements its natural gas furnaces by heating water that runs through its radiant heat greenhouses. One corn boiler is in place with room for two more.
Setting The Pace In Perennials
Like many enthusiastic plant companies, Walters Gardens works with breeders around the world–and at home–to seek out the best and most unique varieties. “We constantly strive to find new and improved cultivars to bring to market,” he says. “Several of our new introductions over the years have come from the breeding work and trialing being done right here at Walters Gardens, Inc. To be considered worthy of introducing, we look for improved or unique characteristics over the parent plant, in addition to cold hardiness and overall garden performance.”
Walters Gardens is trying to answer demand based on consumer trends, as well, including more compact plants for container gardening and native varieties, Walters says.
“There is a greater demand for drought-tolerant plants today than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “As our climate changes, people are learning to adapt their landscapes to the changing weather patterns rather than fight it. This would also explain the surge in interest of native plants, which are typically better adapted to grow in our environment with less maintenance.”
Walters Gardens is distinguishing native plants in its catalog with a new symbol for this reason, Walters says. “We hope this will make the selection process easier for our customers and that it will give them more information to market these plants as native to their customers,” he says.
Maturing and budget-conscious gardeners also have fueled a growing concentration toward longer-blooming plants, Walters adds.
“Gardeners often initially make the transition from planting annuals to growing perennials because they know they will come back the next year and it will save them money in the long run; however, many want their perennials to grow just like annuals, blooming nonstop all summer long,” he says. “To meet this demand, breeders are working diligently to develop perennials that have a long bloom time or that rebloom. We are seeing perennials with tremendously long bloom times now, such as geranium ‘Rozanne,’ which blooms from late spring into mid-fall. The availability of these nearly ‘everblooming’ perennials is sure to keep gardeners hooked!”
With increased consumer demand for perennials has come increased interest at the retail level for merchandising and selling this category–and Walters Gardens has stepped up to help. In addition to its three extensive Web sites, positioning the producer as a “perennial resource” at all levels of the supply chain, Walters Gardens’ main site also offers a grower locator that lists wholesale growers offering retail-ready Walters Gardens perennials to garden center retailers and/or landscape contractors.
Recently, Walters Gardens has shown off its marketing muscle, as well, with the help of Director of Marketing Communications Susan Martin.
“We believe in providing our customers with the tools they need to help their businesses grow,” she says. “This starts with having high-quality plant material that will look great for resale, but we go far beyond that.”
Walters Gardens offers a variety of marketing materials including benchcards that can be downloaded from the Web site or ordered online from FedEx Kinko’s, as well as variety culture sheets, PowerPoint presentations, high- and low-resolution images and premium labels.
“We believe in educating everyone from the home gardener to the grower, giving them the information they need to succeed with perennials,” Martin adds.
Ready For Another 60
Reaching such a milestone as its 60-year anniversary, Walters says it is important to pause and reflect on the past, while recognizing the challenges of the future.
“We view the perennial industry as a maturing, increasingly competitive market, requiring new technology to increase productivity and reduce costs,” he says. “There is a need to respond to environmental changes, which may eventually alter how we produce our product. We will also need to closely monitor the changing demographics of both the gardening consumer and growers, and adapt to meet their demands.”
He says despite increasing competition in the perennials market, Walters Gardens remains “dedicated to the ideals of our ancestors: offering a superior quality product; innovation in the form of new plant introductions; marketing support and new plant production technology; and helpful customer service.”