Is Spring Trials The Best Way To Introduce New Genetics? [opinion]

Darth Gardener

Darth Gardener is the screen name of a greenhouse grower who comments on the industry on Twitter. This industry veteran grew up in a greenhouse and now works at an 80-person operation. 

He shared some thoughts with us on the state of the industry, breeding and California Spring Trials. 

GG: This spring on Twitter, you questioned the value of Spring Trials to the average grower. Why do you think Spring Trials might not be the best solution for marketing new varieties to growers?

DG: It would be the best solution for marketing if I were flown to California first class, put up in the best hotels and chauffeured around in a limo the way I should be.

Since that didn’t happen, it just struck me as funny that all this money was being spent by the breeders and the suppliers and distributors and people traveling to the Spring Trials; and, excluding those who attended, of the hundreds of varieties there only a handful would be talked about, shown in magazines or even seen by the rest of us. Are these the best varieties? Who knows?

Out of all the new varieties at Spring Trials, how many are actually seen by the majority of the growers and garden centers? I would bet that the majority of growers and garden centers see pictures in a magazine or online or in an eNewsletter, ask their supplier about it, then go from there. Or possibly they had new stuff shown to them by their suppliers, which have already trimmed the new list down to a manageable list.

Are these the best varieties? Who knows?

There should be a way for more people to get a chance to see the new varieties without the Trials having to be when production and sales are happening. It shouldn’t have to take a week to see them all. It shouldn’t require the cost of travel to California. There are some who are happy to get away, take the time and spend the money, but I bet there are more who aren’t. I don’t know what that solution might be — maybe samples, maybe contracted regional trials, maybe webcasts or…?

GG: What would be the best way(s) for breeders to reach out to growers to share new genetics?

DG: Breeders should work with growers regionally to develop the best plants for their markets. They should focus more on improving greenhouse and garden performance and focus less on rushing new products to market just to be first, at the expense of quality introductions. Very few first-to-market plants are still around. Growers and serious plant people are going to gravitate to the better performers.

Note to breeders: Let the hasty breeders do your work for you by creating the demand, then step in with a superior plant to replace the lackluster first intro.

Second note: Have enough supply to meet demand before you introduce that next homerun intro.

GG: If you could change one thing about flower breeding, what would it be?

DG: I would cut the lists of available plants down like I would a village of Sand People or a Rebel base on Hoth.
I would change the focus of breeding from quantity to quality and not put a plant out on the market until it was truly ready to be planted by a new gardener. We don’t need 1,267 petunias to grow — double petunias, multiflora petunias, grandiflora petunias, trailing petunias, seed petunias, vegetative petunias, trailing seed petunias, trailing vegetative petunias, etc.

IGCs might carry a couple of dozen color selections of a plant. The consumers can barely handle picking from a dozen.

Weed out the low-hanging fruit. Focus on the good stuff. Help the growers and IGCs get to know the new stuff, leave out the mediocre and educate all of us on the benefits of the best of what you have.

GG: What’s your biggest business challenge these days?

DG: So many worlds to conquer and so little time. What isn’t a challenge these days? The biggest challenge depends on the time of year and on time itself. Being a tyrant takes a lot of time. You are always having to force choke a general, fight Rebels or look for a transport that’s disappeared. On top of all that, people just don’t like tyrants so PR is a constant hassle.

Our biggest business challenge this spring is the lack of demand due to the weather, which was either cold as Hoth or wet as Degobah or both. The only thing left to top off a perfectly awful spring would be for it to become as hot as Tatooine.

GG: What’s your biggest production challenge?

DG: Once again that would be the weather. Even with less demand, my Storm Troopers were able to keep most of our product looking great. They did have to spend a lot of extra time picking and cleaning. Some plants went into the dumpster, but overall they did a great job. As I write this, our sales are off by one really good week or two OK weeks. The Dirt Side can do a lot, but it can’t control the weather.

GG: What do you think the industry will have to do to ensure a strong next generation of gardeners?

DG: Start young and convert them all to the Dirt Side. Invite school groups to tour your operations. Work with local schools, some of them have ag programs and need your knowledge. Approach school districts about horticulture programs or grants. Support school gardens and community gardens. Use any and every possible plan of attack to get plants and gardening education in front of Generation Next as soon as you can.

There may be no hope for the Millennials. I read an article that said we needed to go to where they are and talk about what we do, educate them with short “How To” sessions at Farmer’s Markets or where ever they are at. I don’t remember which article it was or who wrote it, but I readily agree with them.

I think that a lot of the oldest of that demographic have tried gardening and were not successful so they gave up and devoted that time and money elsewhere. There is still a large portion of them who are just now trying out plants and gardens. We will have to be there for them and hold their hands through it. Facebook and other social media tools are a great way to connect to that demographic.

However we do it, we need to be communicating with them and sharing what we know — how to grow, what to do, what not to do; basically a start to finish on how to succeed at gardening. This group doesn’t seem to have a lot of practice failing.

GG: Anything else on your mind about the greenhouse business?

DG: I spoke to one person who went to Spring Trials who said that it was all too much. There were too many stops, too many plants, too much of everything. He said that next year he was going to cut back on the locations he visited. When we can overwhelm a seasoned industry professional with just the new introductions, what are we doing to the consumers?

I have walked into IGCs and have been overwhelmed as well. At one store, there were so many plants that whole product categories were swallowed up. I had to hunt for my plants in the garden center and the numbers of those plants were not insignificant. Plants were crammed in every corner, and worst of all my plants were not displayed properly.

If we want to encourage Generation Next to join the Dirt Side, we need to take a serious look at how many plants there are and how much product and information overload is added to their lives just to garden. We need to reduce the product selection and focus on better-performing plants. I don’t care if they have black (my favorite color) this or blue that, if the plants stink, don’t try to push them on us. Last, we need to change the way we operate the supply chain. There are some efforts at pull through marketing but they get lost at the IGCs and growers who focus on push-through sales.

You will all [*waves hand*] work closer with your partners above and below you in your supply chain to develop better products for our consumers.

Or answer to me.

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5 comments on “Is Spring Trials The Best Way To Introduce New Genetics? [opinion]

  1. Laurie Scullin

    but we like confusing the gardening public – we like only talking to ourselves – and spending millions of dollars doing it – who cares about consumers or retailers – it's their fault the market is shrinking, not ours – just because they refuse to speak Latin – and refuse to learn the huge difference between a milli-multi-grandi-petunia… use social media to talk to younger/older consumers – arghh – that is too much like marketing… we prefer to only talk to ourselves… Well said Darth

  2. Sid Raisch

    Well done Darth. The way to the Millenials, (in addition to social media) is through their kids. If the kid wants Chicken Nuggets from Mickey D's, or a salad determines everything. If they want to grow their food (kids love to do this given the chance) that determines where and what the parents do. Tight budget paying back college loans? Grow your own food, or some of it anyway. Hope to hear more soon from the dirt side.

  3. Paul Westervelt

    I agree that there should be expanded regional trials. Maybe scaled down displays at the Spring Trials could help offset that cost. As Grower and Production Manager for my employer, most of my decisions are based on trials – whether in house or at established regional trial sites. It's enormously useful to see what plants looks like throughout the season and especially at the end of the season. I visited the legendary Raker trial garden last September and had a blast finding the winners and spectacular losers there. Everyone says their product is the best, but trials separate the best from the rest. Anyone who goes to the OFA Short Course should be able to squeeze in a visit to the OSU trials at least. Thank you regional trials for doing what you do!!!

  4. Edward Knapton

    Garden cemters if they have the space should be entertainment centers. I am overwhelmed when I go to Disney World and see all the rides and long lines but somehow people keep going back. The same should happen at a garden center. Each group of plants should have its own ride and be displayed correctly. You have to get out of the mindset that you are competing with Wal-mart, Home Depot, and event he garden center down the street. You are not selling wiggets – you are selling inspiration like the infinity car commercials.