Top Trends From Spring Trials

If you want to be in the know, you’ve got to go to the California Spring Trials in April. While some growers may only make the trip once or twice in their lifetimes, because it’s so difficult to leave the greenhouse as spring is getting underway, others have made it a priority to go most years because they want to be at the forefront of all the new developments in varieties, marketing programs and global supply options.

For those who can’t make the trip, we’re happy to be your eyes and ears and provide the highlights from the trip. My traveling companions from April 10-17 were Contributing Editor Allan Armitage and Associate Editor Kevin Yanik. We had a great time posting news stories and videos that entire week, which can be seen on


Movers & Shakers

Last year was a big year for breeder consolidation. We got to see the results, where the dust settled. The Syngentaacquisitions have been different than the typical breeder acquisitions because the global agricultural giant also is a force to be reckoned with crop protection chemical controls and growing media in addition to having a distribution arm, Syngenta Horticultural Services. On the breeding side, Syngenta Flowers combines S&G Flowers, Fischer, Goldsmith Seeds and Yoder mums and asters.

Syngenta’s intent always was to bring the companies together to provide more comprehensive solutions and drive innovation. Now we’re seeing results. In breeding the Diabunda and Dulce dianthus combined S&G’s and Goldsmith’s genetic strengths in barbatus and chinensis varieties. On the technical support side helping growers, Syngenta announced an integrated Technical Services Team that spans all crop input needs–genetics, biological and chemical controls and growing media. While part of the team is on the front lines working with growers and brokers, another group is behind the scenes, writing technical communications and working on research and development.

Ball Horticultural Co. became an even bigger destination incorporating Kieft Seeds and Selecta First Class. While Kieft was an acquisition, Selecta is a distribution alliance. Kieft brings Ball strengths in perennials and grasses while Selecta brings a leading position in calibrachoa and other premium vegetative annuals.

Takii Seed, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary and will be receiving our Industry Achievement award this year, has fully integrated the acquisitions of Global Flowers and Sahin into its genetics. While Global Flowers brings a leading position in gerbera and other pot crops, Sahin brings niche offerings in perennials, grasses, herbs and violas.

Forging Alliances

Beyond consolidation through mergers and acquisitions, we’re continuing to see more strategic alliances. A new one that came together over the summer is the supply chain supporting the Hort Couture brand developed by Jim and Jennifer Monroe for independent garden centers. C. Raker & Sons in Michigan and other young plant producers are part of the alliance along with key breeders and brokers. During the trials, Gerry Raker said he felt one of the limitations of the more established industry brands is the perspective of those creating them was too narrow. Having more segments of the supply chain involved will help overcome issues that arise in execution, he says.

On the cuttings side, Green Fuse (formerly Bodger Botanicals) has contracted with Dutch breeder-producers Fides and Florensis to produce its cuttings in Costa Rica and Kenya, respectively.

Oro Farms in Guatemala is starting the beginning of a contracted rooting network with Head Start Nursery in California and Van Wingerden International in North Carolina. The plan is for Oro to own the production instead of having inconsistent rooting stations. The goal is to expand to regional sites to take advantage of truck delivery. Oro also will be producing unrooted cuttings for Terra Nova Nurseries.

In addition to strategic alliances, we’re seeing more companies streamline their assortments. Japanese breeder Suntory refined its collection from 160 varieties to 100 while adding some new ones this year. The company’s goal was to choose the 100 best plants for growers and consumers while doing a better job of grouping plants by growth habit.

GroLink, which produces a wide range of vegetative annuals and tropicals in addition to mums, reduced its offerings by 300-400 varieties. “These varieties accounted for less than 7 percent of sales,” GroLink’s Paul Gaydos explains. “We give plants a few years, but if the numbers are not there, they’re not there.”

This is the first time we’ve published a comprehensive reference of the varieties that were introduced by genus within the key crop categories. Check out our New Varieties Guide following page 34. In addition to checking out the new varieties, we assess common themes and trends that emerge. Here are the top 10 trends across all locations:

1) Incredible Edibles

Interest in fruit, vegetables and herbs continues to grow as consumers maximize their dollars, take charge of their health and dabble in the culinary arts. This was the first time Dutch strawberry breeder ABZ Seeds exhibited at the trials. In addition to bearing tasty fruit, plants featured eyecatching pink and red flowers.

The most innovative concept in edibles was PanAmerican Seed’s Simply Salad program with mixed lettuces fused together as pelleted seed. Plants grow out beautifully together as instant combos. These would be a hit at food retailers, farm markets and garden centers.

This year also marks the full national rollout of the Burpee retail program managed by Ball. The expanded assortment includes 34 new and five exclusive varieties and a large, mixed container option called Burpee Home Gardens To Go.

Floranova continues to add vegetables that present well in pots in its Vegetalis program and demonstrated how to make attractive combination planters with flowers. New varieties include striped tomatoes and eggplants.

The John Henry Co. has developed innovative marketing concepts for edibles. One is a holographic display that flashes blueberries and then muffins. Another is through a partnership with, directing consumers to recipes for their garden vegetables.

2) Combos, Combos, Combos

Breeders and producers are taking the guesswork out of combination plantings by conducting trials and determining which plants will grow well together. The multiliner trend is especially hot and breeders are integrating more species into their assortments. Sales of Dummen’s Confetti Garden liners and unrooted cuttings collections nearly quadrupled in the last year, Chief Business Development Officer Perry Wismans says. Other multiliner sources include: Trixi Liners from Selecta, Kwik Kombos from Syngenta, Multi liners from Proven Winners and Patio Ensembles from Ball FloraPlant. Even cuttings producers are testing combination plantings. Ecke Ranch is conducting extensive research. Oro Farms developed a list of 150 combination plantings that are grower friendly and require only six cuttings per container. Plant Source International is putting together combinations within a genus that arrive together as packaged unrooted cuttings. On the seed side, PanAmerican Seed is pioneering Fuseables, combining different varieties to grow together in seed pellets. These include Shockwave petunias and bacopas. The concept was first tried with straight and curly grasses as Twisted Arrows juncus. For retailers, Hort Couture is promoting combination plantings named after cities. It also groups 4-inch plants together as a ready-to-plant combo called a Fashion Plate.

3) Black & Dark-Colored Plants

There’s no question about it. Ball FloraPlant’s black petunias–’Black Velvet,’ ‘Pinstripes’ and ‘Phantom’ were the hit of the trials with ‘Black Velvet’ becoming a finalist for all three of our Medal of Excellence breeding awards, Industry’s Choice, Editor’s Choice and Reader’s Choice. Expect a lot of attention from Ball’s “Everything Goes With Black” campaign to promote mixing it with other colors. Other dark varieties include cordyline ‘Renegade’ from PlantHaven, calla ‘Black Star’ from Flamingo Holland and calibrachoa ‘Superbells Blackberry Punch’ from Proven Winners. Several women who looked at Blackberry Punch said, “I would wear that.”

4) Maximizing Merchandising

We’re continuing to see a big push on packaging and presentation as a proven way to sell more plants. Proven Winners continues to hire Kip Creel to conduct studies on site at garden centers to compare the sell-through of plants in Proven Winners pots compared to generic pots. Ball also underscored the difference of selling Wave petunias in pink pots and is encouraging retailers to create a real destination through its Ultimate Wave Garden Center program. Ball also is offering free downloadable benchcards for its Simply Beautiful program and encouraging retailers to use mannequin plants as a focal point. The Hort Couture brand also heavily emphasizes merchandising with its iconic silhouette, Lady Couture. Knock Out roses will require a mandatory pot and tag program starting in July. Beyond plant packaging, the John Henry Co. and Proven Winners showed a prototype of instant display kiosks and gifting centers that offer packaging.

5) Cause-Related Marketing

In a down economy, consumers feel better about their purchases if they are supporting a cause rather than just buying things for selfish reasons, says Snow Maestas from Paul Ecke Ranch. This year marks the big rollout for the ‘Polar Bear’ poinsettia with proceeds benefiting Polar Bear International. The program appeals to consumer interests in protecting the environment and animals, a wonderful tie in with local zoos, too.

We got a sneak preview last Christmas when the poinsettias debuted in larger-than-life topiaries in Las Vegas. Ecke Ranch also is looking at new types of pink euphorbias that are different than the Christmas poinsettia and could be grown for breast cancer awareness promotions.

The instant display kiosks shown by John Henry and Proven Winners could easily promote a cause. John Henry’s Bee Friendly program (see page 36) promotes Happiness itself can be a cause. Proven Winners has a “We Grow Smiles” campaign for retailers to partner with other local businesses to hand out plants.

6) Consumer Engagement

We’re seeing more one-to-one relationship building with consumers than ever before. Proven Winners has been really successful introducing new programs while growing more established ones. The marketing company has honed distinctive strategies for two distinctive consumer bases–the passionate gardener and the casual gardener.

One high-profile television spot this spring was live on the Katie Couric show at Chicago’s Navy Pier. More television personalities with a female following are approaching Proven Winners. In radio, working with friendly but rival disc jockeys in a metro area has been really fun and well received as they compete against each other for the best garden and share what they are doing. Ryan Seacrest also featured Proven Winners on his syndicated radio show. But perhaps the program that most exceeded Proven Winners’ expectations was the response to its series of Outdoor Living Extravaganza events in major cities featuring garden celebrities along with Proven Winners staff. People paid money and drove great distances to attend.

Ball has developed consumer engagement strategies for three key brands. It’s using the Wave Fan Club to introduce members to more plants. In addition to new Wave petunias, 1,500 members will receive samples of Serena angelonia. For Simply Beautiful, Ball has been partnering with garden centers to have a mixed container contests on site. This spring Burpee ads appeared in spring issues of gardening and nongardening magazines, including Parents and food magazines. The Burpee brand also lends itself to hands-on promotional events focused on community gardens. Facebook fans will each receive a Garden Fresh guide to help them succeed with vegetable gardening.

7) Techno Tagging

Tagging companies are harnessing the information age to link plants and consumers to a wealth of information. Pilot programs featuring Quick Response codes that can be captured by smart phones and ordinary dialing and texting were tested this spring. For the complete story, turn to page 36 for “Information Revolution.”

8) Seeking Sustainability

Sprinkled throughout the Spring Trials destinations were eco-friendly and biodegradable packaging from Western Pulp, Bellan, Summit Plastic and others. John Henry has been promoting carbon neutral, paper-based packaging, printed using wind power. Jiffy presented a plastic-free retail concept called Plant In A Jiffy featuring paper-wrapped seedlings consumers can put in a paper carrying tray. Some breeders also promoted varieties that achieve sustainable objectives, including reduced water, energy and chemical use. Ball has developed an EcoIndex for genetics and packaging and Ecke Ranch promoted an Eck-O collection of plants.

9) Taking In Tropicals

We’re seeing the plants presented at Spring Trials reach beyond conventional annuals and perennials. Plug Connection is promoting a Tropical Surge collection that includes an assortment of acalyphas, colocasias and tibouchina. Heat-loving tropicals have been a sweet spot for GroLink for many years. Suntory’s Sun Parasol mandevillas continue to take the market by storm.

10) Premium Perennials & Shrubs

More annuals breeders and brokers are selectively adding perennials and shrubs and more perennials-oriented companies are participating in Spring Trials. The Color Choice partnership between Proven Winners and Spring Meadow Nursery continues to bring innovative shrubs to market. PlantHaven focuses on distinctive perennials and is evaluating more shrubs. Terra Nova’s lines from tissue culture are showing up in more places. Skagit Gardens shined a bright light on coreopsis and hellebores this year. Ball continues to build its ornamentals division and presence.