Kelly Norris: Questioning The Purpose Of New Plants

Kelly Norris Des Moines Botanical Garden WebNote: Greenhouse Grower welcomes Kelly Norris, Director of Horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden in Iowa, as a contributor with his new column, “Passion For Plants In A Modern World.” He recently published a new book, “Plants With Style,” and is a breeder and owner of Rainbow Iris Farm in Bedford, IA. He was one of Martha Stewart’s American Made award winners in November 2015.

In 2003, a Sesame-Street-for-grown-ups musical called Avenue Q opened on the stage of the John Golden Theatre in New York City to critical acclaim and eventually three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. One song from the score, “Purpose,” features a memorable lyric that aptly defines the search for real meaning in life.

“Purpose. It’s that thing that lights a fire under your ass.”

So when I think of new plants, I wonder about what lights a fire under our industry’s collective tukhus. What motivates us to connect people, plants, and a passion for growing them?

Times Are Changing

For the last five to seven years, many in our business have felt caught in a maelstrom. Everything seems to have changed. Nothing is certain. Questions abound. Who are our customers, and what kinds of plants do they want to grow?

To be sure, we don’t have just one consumer. In fact, we’ve been fatally disillusioned in our marketing for years in this regard. Perhaps more so today, we have no one identity that accounts for a bastion of consumer force (apart from gender) because we live in an age when people, practically by choice, see themselves against the grain. Marketers have begun to wonder — how do we market to a world of consumers who seem to defy traditional categories?

Technology grants us daily access to a world of possibilities beyond our immediate surroundings — a passport to countries, cuisines, curiosities, and cravings. Consumers today are modern explorers from the comforts of couches and coffee shops.

In a world where everything is new and the possibilities for self-expression and daily existence are virtually endless, why has horticulture clung to and defended plants so storied and predictable under the guise of new? Surely some of these consumers with a penchant for exploration rove the floor of the garden center in May?

Challenging The New Plant Mindset

Some of you might disagree. You have a point. I mean, we have more new plants on the market today than ever before, right? Who knew what an angelonia or a cuphea was 15 years ago? We have so many new plants that we have a fatigue of talking about new plants. Some people have called for no new plants — essentially, let all innovation lurch, just so we can catch our breath. I jest, but only sort of.

What if we considered the purpose of new plants? What if we considered that a plant has to be more than pretty? That it has to do more than just fit a rack. That it can’t just feed us. What if we challenged the very assumptions that underpin millions of dollars in industry investments by simply imagining a plant’s life beyond the bench or box?

We might arrive at a few conclusions that don’t look all that different than the present. Some plants just can’t be produced at reasonable numbers to make them economically viable; some paradigms are good. We might find that consumers actually do demand petunias and pansies in almost infinite numbers without discernment for anything more than a new color. Someone’s buying them after all and most of us have jobs as a result.

But what if we concluded that so many introductions just don’t matter? What if we found that most innovation failed to gain any traction?

Linus Pauling, an American chemist and peace activist, had some advice for this moment: “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”

What Does It Do?

As someone who celebrates, writes, and talks about plants for a living, I’m sometimes challenged by the opportunity to talk about new varieties when the greatest headline I could pen has everything to do with “white instead of red” and nothing to do with why, instead of how. Don’t mistake me. I’m not knocking the devices through which innovation happens. I’m a plant breeder, after all. I am, though, critiquing what’s viable as a result.

Leslie Halleck, owner of Halleck Horticultural, a Dallas-based consulting firm, calls it passing the “so what” test.

“The trend is purpose, talking about the add-ons, benefits, use, and anything to justify their existence to consumers,” Halleck says. “But just as important as the benefits is why a plant matters. As an industry, we have to focus on the kind of life that people want to live and how we fit into that.”

Plants do equal lifestyle; gardens, after all, are expressions of their creators. Planting with purpose may be the new mantra afoot in horticultural consumerism, if only because we have so many options for how to spend our time and treasure.

“What does it do?” asks today’s consumer. What does it do? Do its flowers make me happy? Does the plant excite me? Can I eat it? Does it feed other creatures? Is it compatible with my environment? How many plants do have a function?

You might catch a whiff of minimalism here, but conversely the options are endless. Consumers don’t know what they don’t know — we can’t judge their lifestyle or their skills for them, particularly when we can’t categorize them as neatly as we used to.

“New varieties can justify their existence because they feed the passion [for gardening],” Halleck says.

Yes, Virginia, new varieties can meet consumer needs while also exciting them about doing more gardening. In fact, why isn’t that their purpose?

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3 comments on “Kelly Norris: Questioning The Purpose Of New Plants

  1. As always, Kelly, I appreciate how thoughtful you are about all aspects of our industry. Since I view myself as a “plant pusher” whose jobs involve the public and “getting them hooked,” I see that new varieties have several functions. For those who are plant geeks or confirmed gardeners, they do indeed feed the passion. For the public that’s largely composed of home landscapers, I think that we’re all well-served if new varieties go through a filtering process.

    Some homeowners are fine with trying out a new plant without knowing if it will perform well or not, but many of them get discouraged if that plant doesn’t bloom or live as expected. Here is where garden communicators play a huge role. When we are able to trial plants and see how that new variety performs in our yards and gardens, we can then be fully and truthfully enthusiastic about it to the public. And the public depends on garden writers, speakers, radio hosts and other educators to pass on the information about which new plants really do well in their regions.

    Many of the plants that are now garden standards with plant geeks and the public alike were new varieties a few short years ago. So I say bring on those new plants but be sure to connect with the people who can spread the word about “the keepers” through organizations like GWA. Most of us don’t badmouth a plant that doesn’t live up to expectations or advance marketing, but we knock ourselves out to “sell the excitement” about the plants that are likely to be important and desired for years to come.

  2. I so appreciate the questions you’re asking here. Probably because it’s exactly how I feel about new plant introductions which are often exhausting and only occasionally exhilarating. The idea of “what does it do” has so many answers and those answers will be different for every gardener. A plant may matter because your grandmother grew it or because it’s beautiful AND edible, but whatever the reason, consumers are looking for that extra connection. If we hope to reach through the clutter of every day life and capture customers’ imaginations, cultivate in them a passion for gardening, we’re going to need those purposeful plants. I look forward to reading more of you.

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