Candidly Speaking On Perennials

The Perennial Farm, based in Glen Arm, Md., is a greenhouse operation that produces perennials, ornamental grasses, groundcovers and more for independent garden centers and landscapers. Greenhouse Grower recently caught up with The Perennial Farm’s owner, Rick Watson, and its sales and marketing director, Ed Kiley, for a broad discussion on perennials, how growers are handling new varieties and the potential they see for perennials in 2011.

GG: What has you two excited at The Perennial Farm for 2011?

Ed Kiley: We always have new material we’re coming out with. We’re a little more conservative introducing new material than other growers because there’s always a mad rush for “new” to create some sizzle. The downside is you wind up with some plants that are not so great. Great examples are ‘Limerock Ruby’ coreopsis and ‘Orange Meadowbrite’ echinacea.

Rick Watson: A lot of the [research and development] doesn’t happen with the breeders. It happens with the growers. I wish it wasn’t that way. When the breeders get something new, they want to introduce it to the market quickly in an effort to make money. But is it hardy? Is it stable? What’s the longevity?

EK: It’s like somebody’s sitting in a back room somewhere, tweaking the breeding a little bit, and they’re trying to tout it to the marketplace.

GG: So of all the new perennial varieties being released, what percentage would you say are duds?

RW: Well, a dud could be a variety that’s not hardy or doesn’t perform well in a pot. A dud could also be an old variety that’s been updated, and we want to replace it with a better, more vigorous, longer-blooming variety.

EK: We navigate across promoting tried-and-true favorites – plants that work year-round, and can withstand heat and humidity and cold winters. At the same time, we go through a reasonable number of introductions. What growers should be promoting are perennials that are tried and true with a smattering of some of these new, sexy things.

GG: How about attracting new people to perennial gardening and developing novice gardeners into avid gardeners? If, as you suggest, a number of new perennial varieties are unproven, aren’t perennial growers at risk of scaring new gardeners away when their new varieties fail?

RW: Every year, there’s a certain percentage of new gardeners who come on the market. I think it’s important, especially for novice gardeners, that they have success in gardening. If they don’t, they’re going to quickly lose interest. It’s not going to be a good thing for our industry. They need to be out there having success.

EK: And if a garden center is focused on just the new, sexy varieties – and some of them are – then the homeowner’s experience could be a disaster. Especially if they’re getting their feet wet and just buying whatever the garden center is pushing.

The garden center’s message to the new gardener should be basic gardens with tried-and-true plants, and a sprinkling of some of the new, sexy stuff.

GG: What about perennial growers? Do you think they’re focusing too much on new varieties and jumping the gun on them before they’re actually proven?

The way many growers differentiate is to latch onto somebody’s new plant. So they latch onto new plants, and sizzle sells of course. Coreopsis ‘Crème Brulee,’ and ‘Limerock Ruby’: These were hot, hot plants five years ago. Everybody had to have them. Now, they’re like the lepers of the perennial community.

GG: How do you think perennials’ 2011 potential stacks up against other plant categories?

RW: When you look at all the different parts of the green market – trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials – I still think perennials are the strongest of the group. You have to add in what’s happening with the economy. Perennials are still one of the best five out there for price value and the fact that you’re getting a lot of new varieties every year. When you look at perennials versus annuals, trees and shrubs, there are more varieties coming into the perennials market.

To that point, I think it’s important to add plants like natives. They’re a hot-button thing.

EK: Over the next few years, I think you’re going to see a shakeout with some of the perennial growers. I don’t think they have an understanding of their costs. With perennials, you can be a little more reactive to market demands than with trees and shrubs, but I think there is a very poor understanding of all the costs with perennials when you consider the feeder material, the pots, the labor, maintaining them, the overhead, infrastructure and the variable costs to get them sold.

You’re going to see a shakeout, and the people who do have control of their costs and are trying to offer more value will benefit.

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