Let’s Revisit New Crops

Dr Allan ArmitageThe California Spring Trials (CAST) are the launching pad for new annuals and perennials that will soon be adorning gardening magazines, blog posts, websites and even the occasional garden center. One place they won’t be is in my daughter’s gardens. They are not interested in knowing what is new; they are still buying what they are comfortable with.

Do not misunderstand me, however. Apparently, I am known as the new plant guru — supposedly on top of all new plants every year. While that is surely not so, I am the biggest cheerleader. I have been quoted time and time again as saying, “New crops are the lifeblood of our industry.” I truly believe that.

However, “new” has many meanings, and the definition varies, depending on who is doing the talking.

The following are four lessons I have learned about “new” plant crops.

Lesson 1. We are more excited about new plants than most people who buy our plants. Sometimes we intimidate landscapers and gardeners with our zeal for new.
When teaching at the University of Georgia, my greenhouse manager and I were relaxing in the office just off the greenhouse when a lady, calling herself Rachel, walked in and inquired if this was the Hort Club plant sale. I said that these were research facilities and the sale was elsewhere. She asked if she could walk through the greenhouses, which she did.

About 15 minutes later, she came into the office carrying two pots. She had her purse open, money ready and wanted to know how much they were. I was about to repeat my former statement when she placed a pot of ‘Better Boy’ tomato and a pot of ‘Leyland’ cypress in front of me.

I was astonished and said, “Rachel, when you walked in there, you believed that everything was for sale. You were surrounded with incredible beauty and sensational plants. There were no prices listed. You could have chosen anything at all.” She nodded in agreement.

“Then why did you choose a ‘Better Boy’ tomato and a ‘Leyland’ cypress?” At that, she looked me in the eye and said, “That’s all I recognized.”

Lesson 2. People like the word new, but they like to hear from you even more. Put the two together.
It is true that no one comes into the garden center and asks, “What’s old?” However, while a few people come into the garden center wanting to know what’s new, most are asking, out loud or in their minds, “What can I succeed with?”

Use the word “new” in marketing your “Newest List of Top Ten Plants,” or “Newest List of Best Groundcovers,” or “Newest List of Great Roses,” etc. Bookstores do this; specialty food shops like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods do it; so should we. In this way, you can sell the tried-and-true with the newest-of-the-new.

Lesson 3. Don’t expect everyone to be as excited about new plants as you are. The next grafted tomato or echibeckia may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they may take a few years to catch on. 

My daughters are decorators, not gardeners. They get their information from friends, magazines and online (certainly not from their father). They will never ask for a cultivar or nativar; they simply are not that interested. What is new to them is likely two to three years old for you.

If they look good in a container, are reasonably priced and displayed well, my daughters will buy them. Never throw out all the tried-and-true to make way for untried and new. Unfortunately, many of the newest have not been around long enough to know if they will die at the first sign of drought or heat.

Last lesson: Don’t confuse your daughters, your moms or their friends. Let people know what you think is best (Lesson 1) and take the guesswork out of shopping.
My daughter Heather finally called me after I sent her shopping for a heuchera plant. Like a teenager waiting to hear from a date, I was sitting by the phone. When she called, I asked “Heather, what did you buy?”

I was on the edge of my seat expecting to hear her rave on about a Caramel or a Mocha or a Citronelle.

I was immediately subdued when she replied, “Dad, there were so many choices. I could not make up my mind, so I didn’t buy any.”

All this being said, I can’t wait to share the new and the incredible from the CAST — that is when I can ignore my children and love my industry.

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