For 25 years, the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) has raised a blooming industry by bringing together professionals who share a passion for perennial plants. This month, Greenhouse Grower will present PPA its Medal of Excellence for Industry Achievement to recognize the association’s dedication to elevating perennials as a crop category and growing the market.
The seed was planted in 1983 when landscape horticulture professor Dr. Steven Still of The Ohio State University (OSU) organized the very first Perennial Plant Symposium in Columbus, Ohio. He was already a respected expert in the field after publishing the “Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants”–the first textbook related to herbaceous perennials.
“When I took a perennials class at the University of Illinois, there were no textbooks,” he says. “We talked about 200 plants but only saw 20. I decided that was not a good way to do it and started teaching from slides and images. My textbook covers annuals, perennials, bulbs and biennials. It is being revised now but current versions are still being used by students at 150 universities and colleges today.”
Still received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Illinois, where he conducted cutting-edge research on using hardwood bark as a growing medium and was a teaching assistant to the influential Dr. Michael Dirr in woody plants. He then taught courses in woody and herbaceous plant materials, landscape management and nursery management at Kansas State University, before coming to OSU in 1979, where he retired two years ago.
At OSU, Still worked closely with Ohio growers to get plants for the classroom and expose students to real-world opportunities. To assess interest in a perennial plant symposium, he sent a comprehensive questionnaire to growers and industry leaders to determine topics and timing. Much of what was presented then is still of interest today: propagation techniques and finished production methods, pest control, overwintering, research findings, marketing strategies and retail considerations.
Based on the responses and advanced registration, Still expected about 100 growers to attend the first symposium, July 12-13 at the Holiday Inn on Lane Avenue near campus. Interest in the Perennial Plant Symposium turned out to be much greater than he realized, when 250 growers came and lined up out the door.
Building A Community
These growers realized they were experiencing something very special, just for them, and they wanted it to continue. “The big question for perennial growers at the time was, ‘Where do we fit in?” Still says. “Other groups were focused on bedding plants, mums, poinsettias and Easter lilies. On the woody plant side, perennials were considered weeds. So we decided to start a separate organization.”
The list of 20 growers at the first organizational meeting reads like a who’s who in perennials, with many who are still in the industry. PPA was incorporated with its first board of directors in 1984 with Still as executive director. The organization has been nurtured by his entire family at their home in Hilliard, Ohio, ever since.
The first PPA officers were Jim Beam of Sunbeam Farm as president, Pierre Bennerup of Sunny Border Nursery as the first president-elect, Jim Kyle of Spring Hill Nurseries as vice president and Ainie Busse of Busse Gardens as treasurer. A board of directors represented key regions of the country.
It’s not unusual for PPA board members to serve the organization for 12 years–three two-year terms as regional board members and six more years through the officers’ rotation. This continuity enhances stability and helps keep PPA true to its mission.
“The board has a lot of good industry people who are recognized in other parts of the industry,” Still says. “I think any organization needs to have people who are recognized. It brings credibility and validity to what we are trying to do.”
Today, PPA has more than 1,800 members and draws more than 1,000 perennials professionals to its Perennial Plant Symposium. (For details on the 25th symposium in Columbus, see page 36.) The program appeals to growers, retailers, landscapers and allied industry members. Workshops and seminars provide vital information on horticulture, design, business management and other topical areas. Since the symposium is held in a different part of the country each year, tours of notable nurseries and gardens are a big attraction, along with networking opportunities. The published proceedings have become a valuable reference library.
PPA’s current president Janet Anderson of JEA Perennials in Strathroy, Ontario, fondly remembers attending her first symposium 14 years ago. “It was just the experience–meeting all the plant geeks, talking to them and not having their eyes glaze over. The symposium draws likeminded people, who keep coming back every year. When we ask why they come, the overwhelming answer is networking.”
PPA also has a number of outreach activities to support the industry. These range from regional educational opportunities to funding scholarships and research grants and supporting legislative activities by industry advocates, including the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and the Society of American Florists (SAF).
In addition to helping growers produce perennials, PPA has developed cost-effective tools to help them sell their great new and tried-and-true plants.
PPA’s most successful marketing program is the Perennial Plant of the Year. Two years in advance, members nominate and vote for the plant of the year, giving growers and propagators adequate time to ramp up supply to meet demand. Most are proven performers throughout the country. Posters, flyers, plant stakes, bench cards and T-shirts are available for retailers to promote each year’s special plant.
Another campaign with promotional tools is “June Is Perennial Gardening Month.” Educational Idea Brochures are another resource that helps customers select and care for perennials for a variety of interests and conditions. Slide sets are available to those who would like to use them as a teaching tool.
PPA also has cultivated relationships overseas, which have led to fabulous tours and learning experiences for PPA members. “We interact with International Staudin (perennial) Union (ISU),” Still explains. “They have a congress every two years and three or four days of tours. It was a German organization that now encompasses Western Europe. Every two years our president goes and each year we invite people from ISU to attend our symposium.”
Next month, two weeks after its symposium, PPA will lead a tour to Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and St. Petersburg. The ISU tour alternates with a professional tour to England.
PPA’s nomenclature committee also participates in updating the comprehensive Naamlijst of plants published in The Netherlands every five years. PPA is the only organization in North America that sells the book.
The Next 25 Years
Perennials are a maturing market, with more growers producing them than ever before. While there are still traditional perennials specialists, both annual and woody ornamental growers have added perennials to their offerings.
“Plug, cutting and tissue culture suppliers have allowed a generalist to get into the industry more easily,” Still says. “If you get a liner or plug for a pot, stick three in a gallon and water them and they are going to grow. Early on, there was no production information related to perennials. Our proceedings emphasized propagation, sold pretty well and were very valuable.”
On the woody plant side, growers have added perennials to provide one-stop shopping for landscapers. These growers will carry bread-and-butter landscape plants, like hostas, daylilies and echinacea, in 1-gallon and 2-gallon containers.
Topics that continue to be controversial include the rise of patenting and branding perennials and the great debate on invasive species. Both native plant enthusiasts and advocates of right plant, right place are part of PPA. From her own experiences, Anderson says it will become increasingly harder for plant people to succeed without strong business skills.
“The industry is changing immensely,” she says. “The last few years we’ve seen a lot of consolidation in supply and in retail customers. The big operations are getting bigger and smaller ones are dropping by the wayside. Retailers are expecting growers to do more. I’m a plants person. It’s becoming harder to be in the industry as a plant person if you don’t have the business skills. Or hire someone who does and listen to them–the bean counters we all disparage. A lot of interesting plants are not economical to grow.”
In the years ahead, we can expect PPA to be at the forefront helping growers, retailers and landscapers address these challenges. Members are still hungry for information on solving production problems, learning propagation techniques, discovering new plants, promoting perennials and creating profitable year-round markets.