Kelly Norris: Three Variety Trends That Caught My Eye This Spring

Amsonia Short Stop from Intrinsic Perennials
Amsonia ‘Short Stop,’ from Intrinsic Perennials, is a promising amsonia with purplish-black stems that is half the size of the standard A. tabernaemontana.

As Director of Horticulture at a young, entrepreneurially charged botanical garden, I’m passionate about exposing public garden users to new plants. Without fail, spring is an intense season for horticulture, visitation, and programming. But with each spring comes a new opportunity for planting and curating the latest varieties and underappreciated gems for our collections and the visiting public. On the move with trowel in hand, I’ve made note of a series of recurring thoughts on the subject of new varieties. Here’s one slice of the season that was.

First Impressions

Mother always said they mattered. Here are a few new or recent introductions that did more than show up for the first date. (Keep in mind, nobody’s getting married here, but I’m smitten enough for a follow-up text.)

Phlox ‘Opening Act Blush’ from Walters Gardens and Proven Winners isn’t even planted, and I’m already in love with the possibilities. Truthfully, I’m in love with the hordes of new, shorter, disease-resistant phloxes coming onto the market that redeem and reinvigorate the possibilities in this truly American genus. Smooth leaves, abundant flowers, and compact habits — what’s not to love?

For gardeners and growers alike, amsonia have perennial appeal, probably because they offer silvery blue flowers in season when the whole presentation just feels right. Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennials plans to further capitalize on the potential of amsonia with two recent releases, including ‘Short Stop,’ which measures up to only half the size of standard A. tabernaemontana with purplish-black stems. In Intrinsic’s distinctive purple pots, stems flushing with buds, the effect of ‘Short Stop’ at retail was palpably exciting.

In the annual realm, Gomphrena ‘Cosmic Flare’ from Plants Nouveau looks to light up our world this summer. I’m still a sucker for what Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ does in the garden, even if the plant Illuminati view it as a bit cliché. Introduce chartreuse foliage, however, and you’re ready for hardball with any holdouts. I can’t imagine consumers won’t crave these electric leaves.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden Festival
The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden hosts a four-day, pop-up retail festival, featuring nearly 500 different kinds of plants.

Market Penetration — Not As Deep As We Think

Each Mother’s Day, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden hosts a pop-up retail festival, featuring nearly 500 different kinds of plants and educational opportunities for all ages. While the event is young, it generates around $100,000 of gross revenue for our budding institution, and gets about 2,500 people through our doors in high spring.

As I interacted with customers at the festival, I couldn’t help but think of how long it takes for most varieties to reach any kind of mainstream awareness. The hard reality is that our plants, in theory, have (need) longer lifespans than we often realize. Qualitatively, I don’t seem to associate any particular level of consumer awareness with demographics. Even astute gardeners with higher disposable incomes (or at least a willingness to spend more on plants) might not recognize a variety that’s been on the market for nearly five years.

We take for granted that even among our most inveterate patrons, what we do doesn’t matter as much as we think it should. To put it another way, in marketing parlance, even the people who love us the most, don’t care most of the time. That’s the reality of an information-inundated, fast-paced world, and it should make us thoroughly consider what we bring to market and why we’re doing it. It isn’t easy to get people’s attention, let alone maintain it. Gamble wisely.

Just Ship It

I’ve long prescribed to the Seth Godin-proffered wisdom of “shipping” as a metaphor for productivity and success in business. To distill it into a few words — if it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t matter. The idea might be genius, the process might consider every detail, the product might be your best yet, but if you don’t put it in a proverbial box and ship it to the end user, it doesn’t matter. Godin says avoid resistance at all cost and just ship.

The shipping analogy made a lot of sense to me as a teenage entrepreneur running a mail-order business. If a customer placed an order, they had a reasonable expectation that they would receive what they had ordered. If what they ordered didn’t ship in its entirety, we had no reason to think they should be satisfied with the experience, no matter how kind or gentle we were in our communications, how easy the ordering process was, or how quickly we responded to their questions. Even if only one product on their order failed to ship, we had no reason to expect that the quality of everything that did ship would override the disappointment of the thing that didn’t. If it didn’t ship, it didn’t matter. Nobody for a minute would expect anything different in food or hospitality services. Why should horticulture be an exception?

What does this mean for a business that hangs its hat on innovation and new product development? Does it mean we’ll always hit the mark? Of course not. The struggles of a living inventory make for painful, bitter realities in comparison to manufactured goods. Creating a value-added experience for consumers starts with a supply chain that produces value in the first place.

Understand my empathy for our business, particularly for anyone growing product in open fields. But we can do better. We can manage the supply chain differently, more cost effectively, and with greater return on consumer experience. Some companies do just this. Others miss the mark. Here capitalism wins — the best plants don’t necessarily make it to market the fastest or most efficiently. The faster, more efficient systems make it to market with the plants they produce — better, best, or otherwise.

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