Allan Armitage: Three Trends (Good And Bad) That Caught My Eye At Spring Trials

Nathan Lamkey Chuck Pavlich Allan Armitage talk about muckgenia
Nathan Lamkey and Chuck Pavlich of Terra Nova talk about muckgenia with Allan Armitage.

At California Spring Trials (CAST), I saw new shrubs, new perennials, and new annuals. I smiled as breeders spun yarns about their newest varieties and as brokers listened, nodding sagely, while wondering how they would ever sell such a thing. I noticed excitement, confidence, and incredulity.

I heard Sim McMurry, a California trials veteran, without embarrassment or apology, say, “I am always so excited being here. I never get tired or bored of seeing so many people be so excited.”

New never gets old for Sim.

And I heard my colleague Janeen Wright, who was attending her first spring trials, say, “I think I learned more about plants in one week than I did in four years of college.”

We need to always be pumped up by what we do and understand that excitement is contagious, as is lethargy.

As I made my way up the California coast, here are three things that were made abundantly clear to me

1. New Plants Will Never Stop Coming

“New” is our lifeline. We had better understand that newness is the horse under our saddle. If it stops moving, so do we.

Congratulations to all the breeders and staff who put such a show on. While we might catch ourselves saying “so what” about a new plant, it is essential to remember that new is an absolute necessity.

Let us all encourage curiosity, encourage risk, encourage gardenscaping, and always encourage new ideas from young people.

2. At Spring Trials, There Was A Dearth Of Young People

I suppose this is to be expected. Students are in school, and workers are working (Is there any worse month for having CAST than April?). However, I see the same lack of young people at trade shows and at lectures. At CAST, I talked to other horticulture professors concerned about the fall-off of horticulture majors.

We have always had a tough time recruiting people, but I don’t recall such a rapid and deep decline in young talent for some time. Just as I believe that without new plants we will do poorly, I know that without new people, we will die.

I can’t do anything about getting a student to attend a two- or four-year hort school, but I can do a little bit to inspire and encourage them. In that light, I have asked Greenhouse Grower magazine to work with me to support The Allan Armitage Spring Trials Scholarship. I want a young person to be as inspired as Sim and learn as much as Janeen every year. I want that student to come back so pumped up they are ready to take on the world.

I will do this by providing a chunk of money, being their mentor at CAST, and introducing them to the excitement and people responsible for making this such an exceptional industry. I hope everyone will support us on this.

3. Where Are The Emperor’s New Clothes?

While I can go on about the wonders and positives about what we do, I also see the warts. One of the biggest warts is only getting worse and is rather like the Emperor With No Clothes. As we all talk about the great new plants, as we look at last year’s intros and anticipate next year’s, the reality is that most of these new plants are almost impossible to find at retail outlets.

We parade our new plants like the Emperor’s fine clothes, but to most consumers, we are not wearing anything. Nothing gets to the consumer — certainly not with the plant names we are all seeing at the trials. I have asked and whined about the fact that the extraordinary wares we see in California never reach retail. I am tired of excuses.

If I hear one more broker saying they are too busy to learn about the new because the old sells well enough, I will go mad. If I have one more retailer tell me that consumers don’t care about the label and a 4-inch annual is just fine, I will stay in bed. If I hear one more retailer tell me they are too busy to get the newest varieties and display them well, I may spew my dinner. Enough! Everyone is busy! That is not a reason, but a lousy excuse.

I know it will likely not get better, but we must try. This is an industry-wide problem, and while I feel I am spitting in the wind, I will continue to do so. I do not know where the bottleneck occurs, from the grower, the broker, or the retailer, but I do know the best things I have seen over the last five years at CAST have barely trickled down to the consumer.

Let’s try to do better.

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9 comments on “Allan Armitage: Three Trends (Good And Bad) That Caught My Eye At Spring Trials

  1. My reader is the consumer, not the trade. When I caught the excitement shared by new plants at trade shows and Garden Writers, writing about them was an exercise in frustration for me and for my readers. The plants were rarely available locally. For all the reasons iterated above. Even when the Dallas Arboretum provides glowing reviews from their trials the plants still do not show up. Because the retailers cannot find them to buy.

  2. We talk a lot about new genetics but the only thing that is really new is color. There are a few exceptions when new variety genetics hit the market such as the kelos celosia and starcluster Pentas. For the most part-the only thing new is a different shade of pink or purple or on and on. Let me tell you my opinion on what new color and new shades of color is doing for all of us. My consumer, that bought quality in the past, now buys color. They will shop 20 different places to find the perfect color that matches their front door or shutters or pots or their color scheme for the year. If you don’t have the color they want they will move on. This means at the end of the season we all end up with the color or colors that were unpopular for the year. This means we will discount or throw away more of what we grow if we miss the color of the season. When the consumer cherry picks each of our colors we all end up with unsold color. The problem is, I don’t know what next years color will be and when I look at Welby’s catalog of 188 petunia varieties on 7 pages I don’t know where to begin. Despite 15 days of 100 degree weather my spectacular late season baskets won’t sell because they are the wrong color. What we need are new genetics that look spectacular all season and be the right color. The industry has a long, long, way to go to achieve this goal.

  3. Allen, thank you! I’ve been frustrated by this for years. When I try to promote new plants, I hear “I can’t find it.” Why? The bottleneck is in DIY stores plant buyers who aren’t “plant people” who told me “never heard of it”, or “that won’t grow here” – yes it will I’m growing it! The bottleneck is in mandatory old and often incorrect municipal plant lists for builders/developers that keep to the same cheap and incorrect cookie cutter landscape plans. The bottleneck is in decades old architect college course books that don’t teach architects and horticulturists to keep informed of the new plant availabilities or latest bmp’s. Clients and gardeners want these plants! How about when new plants are promoted in articles – they provide a list of retailers that are carrying/will carry the new plant? Advertising and Promotion and Future Sales all in one.

  4. Well said Alan. There are many barriers between a breeder and the end consumer/home gardener. I am constantly being told that my end market is the grower and I need to produce plants that makes life as easy as possible for the grower. My aim is to produce plants that will give lasting pleasure to fellow gardeners. These people are never mentioned. Dwarf plants that look good in full flower at the point of sale contribute little to a garden.
    For me, to offer a plant at its peak is akin to giving a mountaineer a lift to the top in a helicopter. The view is OK, but where is the satisfaction ?
    A plant bought at full bloom can only go backwards and the buyer most often concludes that they are a lousy gardener and lose interest.

  5. The small to medium IGCs that are in my sales territory always have new genetics, because over 17 years, I have made a point to recommend exceptional new introductions to my customers. For example, Petunia Night Sky from Selecta, was a runaway hit and sold out for everyone.

    All it takes is some interest, enthusiasm, initiative and a customer base that trusts their salesrep’s recommendation. Whenever I return from any plant trial, one of the first questions I get asked from my customers is ” what did you see, that I need to be growing ? “

  6. I’ll second that Amen. Thanks for your article, it really hit home with one of the roadblocks we are having. My company makes products to give hanging baskets a whole new look fresh look. Consumers (at home and garden shows, love it!) However, Retailers are very reluctant to even try them, must be that the old ones “sells well enough”.

  7. As far as I can tell from our IGC’s perspective, we love getting new plants and we try to have new plants every year because we agree that “new” is attractive to customers. We can only try so many, however, because we need balance between what we know will sell, the favorites that people look for, the varieties that we know do well here, and the new stuff. Also, we often can’t get the new stuff! Either we don’t want/need enough of what else the grower has at the time to meet their minimum order, or a big box store has the lock on them, or they are sold out because they only grew limited stock, or they didn’t grow them.

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