My last column seems to have stirred up good conversation, sautéed a few long-simmering sentiments, and served up a hearty spread of opinions on social media and in the comments section. Let me restate for clarity, if not also a rebuttal, that never did I question the facts or the value of innovation, only the value of its results. Innovation happens, sometimes repetitiously and incrementally, and sometimes by leaps and bounds. Without context, one version is neither bad, good, or preferred. It’s our lifeblood, and we ought to increase our proficiency.
In the case of new plant development, modern innovation infrequently addresses the ultimate needs of consumers. It so often focuses on the supply chain, which again, by itself, isn’t insignificant. We have to get plants to people efficiently and cost effectively. But why not invest further in addressing issues consumers actually care about or even want? What if we spiced up innovation instead of only lightly salting it?
Consumers Less Intimidated By Herbs and Edibles
When lecturing at a university-sponsored conference to gardening consumers recently, I faced a remarkable array of cynicism about “new” plants and a general malaise about the quality of the experience at retail. After my presentation, I could sum up conversations with attendees as follows: these new perennials, trees, and shrubs seem interesting, but I’ll let someone else kill them before I waste my money. Perhaps this was just a Midwestern community down on its horticultural luck, but the sentiment stung a little. In the meantime, they boasted of their interest in plants they could grow from seed — annuals, vegetables, and herbs. The conference featured an all-day, drop-in station to pot up rosemary, thyme, and basil seedlings as take-home gifts. Hundreds of seedlings left the building destined for windowsill homes.
Innovation Breathing New Life Into Edibles
Perhaps the Great Recession inspired this revival of tried-and-true edibles from the gardens of our ancestors to the glossy pages of contemporary gardening catalogs and magazines. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Seed Savers Exchange is no longer a non-profit alternative purveyor of offbeat seeds, but a mainstream supplier of the varieties people want to grow and tell stories about. Modern technology has even given us the grafted tomato as an alternative to the often-rambling habits of heirloom varieties. That’s innovative. A recent search of Johnny’s Selected Seeds found an offering of “Grafted French Heritage” tomatoes; 102 plants in the collection for $393 or around $3.85 per plant.
Innovation has even infiltrated the heirloom cachet. Joseph Tychonievich’s book Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener from Timber Press (2013) spurred gardeners to take up plant breeding in the simplest of ways with plants easy enough to grow, like vegetables. The celebration of new, open-pollinated varieties needn’t become a more prominent poster child than the ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes from Territorial Seed Company and Oregon State breeder Jim Myers. ‘Indigo Rose,’ the first of several in the series, has been available since 2012 and continues to earn prominence in culinary and grow-your-own circles. (Territorial Seed Company sells plants for $3.95 each, admittedly without the need to buy 102 per hit). What’s not to love about beautiful food?
Branding, Aesthetics, and Culinary Value Equals Different
Jim Monroe, owner of Hort Couture, is a champion of this retail revival of edible plants. His company’s recently launched Culinary Couture collection seeks to imagine frontiers in vegetable consumerism. As if foodie culture wasn’t fashionable enough, Monroe thinks it’s time to plate something pretty.
“There is tremendous innovation in the breeding of vegetables and herbs, but the consumer gets to experience none of that,” Monroe says. “Everyone, big box to independent garden center (IGC), is selling the same tomatoes, basils, etc. There’s no differentiation in products sold at retail.”
Monroe strikes a familiar refrain. Hort Couture has exclusively positioned itself for the independent retailer, gambling for dominance as a brand differentiated by design. Edible plants would seem a logical progression of their differentiation game. Monroe calls it brassicology.
“On the brassicas, we’ve tried to do everything we can. In the process of breeding kale, we’ve found endless anomalies,” he says. “In 2018, we have nine available, a smattering of different types. We have a pretty good selection of seed and plugs available.”
It’s not that difficult to add aesthetics to kale. What’s not to love about the rumpled texture of Lacinato kale or that head-turning shade of Redbor? Both varieties have earned reputations as autumn seasonal plants for containers and bedding, a welcome diversification of the chrysanthemum ghettos in most suburban neighborhoods. Both have contributed genetics to this brassica revolution. There’s more to these new kales than just fall decorating.
“We have selected a lot of ornamental varieties that still have all of the culinary value, which is the single biggest criteria, followed secondly by smaller leaves that are easy to harvest and cook with,” Monroe says. “We’ve never had a brand in our industry that’s had a tieback through horticulture to food production. To think about this being everywhere as a food product but also as an IGC product could be an awesome thing for our industry.”
Monroe is exuberant about the opportunity.
“We’re just getting started with it. It’s something I want to spend time getting people to understand. It transcends what we’re doing now,” he says. “The folks at Whole Foods absolutely flipped out about this line. They went nuts over the culinary and aesthetic [value].”
The collection features everything from patio tomatoes with cocktail-themed names, upcoming bok choy releases with iridescent leaves, and kaleidoscopic broccoli. Fiestaware finally has food to match.
Hort Couture might well be on to something truly innovative — a reimagining of what we eat and where we get it. Monroe hints at more to come. Why not? The interest in food isn’t likely to subside, especially if the varieties we toss and chop do more to satisfy our hunger for something new.