Choosing the Top Plant Picks

Published on May 23, 2008

New selection Echinacea 'Pink Double Delight' compared to the growth of highly touted Echinacea 'Razzmatazz', both in a one-gallon pot.  That's what we call a breakthough in habit.
New selection Echinacea ‘Pink Double Delight’ compared to the growth of highly touted Echinacea ‘Razzmatazz’, both in a one-gallon pot. That’s what we call a breakthough in habit.

Years of tedious work or simple luck, the discovery of a new or improved variety is every professional and backyard plant breeder’s dream. Once they’ve found a new plant, where do they turn? Too often they turn to the company who is willing to introduce and market any new plant that comes their way without trialing, without testing and without verifying that these new plants are what the breeder promised. This, my friends, is how we end up with too many “new” plants. Notice I didn’t say anything but new. The word new has many meanings, but few of those include improved, novel or better.

Some definitions of the word new include the following:

• of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.

• having but lately come or been brought into being

• of a kind now existing or appearing for the first time; novel: a new concept of the universe.

• fresh or unused

• (of physical or moral qualities) different and better:

• being the later or latest of two or more things of the same kind

New often means new to us, or new to the person who found it and that doesn’t always mean good. For example, this strain of flu that’s been going around the Mid-Atlantic this winter is certainly “new”, but after experiencing it first hand for the last 20 days, it isn’t a good thing. Do you understand the difference? Well…that’s terrific because not many people introducing new plants understand that difference. They are so hungry to carry something no one else is growing that they’ll tout a “new” plant as being the best thing since sliced bread to boost their sales. Do you think Nordstrom adds things to their line of merchandise without first making sure the quality is there? I know they don’t because to Nordstrom, quality is everything. Sadly, in our industry, quality isn’t everything. Our industry believes standing out by selling plants that no one else sells and selling things cheaper is the key to success. They’re wrong! Look at the most successful high-end retailers. Do they ever put things on sale? Price gouging has devalued plants and gardening.

Too many unsuccessful “new” plants have also played a huge role in devaluing our industry. If everything is “new” and cheap where’s the “special”? Ok enough of my rant from atop the proverbial soapbox.

I got into the business of introducing new plants early on in my career. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. I had an eye for novelty and a pretty good feel for what people wanted, needed and what was already on the market, plus a degree in horticulture, which helped. The new plant business is like the fashion industry and just like fashion designers, plant breeders think each of their creations is a treasure. Companies who introduce new plants need to be the bad guys. They need to tell them they aren’t all special, that perhaps one or two will be really special if they are lucky. But because there is so much competition out there, the true winners will build their reputation on thoroughly tested, truly novel introductions.

To choose a truly novel, new plant I look for a few things:

• Is it a breakthrough color? Then you must ask, “Is that breakthrough an attractive addition to what already exists?”

• Does it have a breakthrough habit? Is it dwarf or does it have an improved habit?

• Does it have improved disease resistance? Take the new, mildew resistant phlox. They might not have a novel flower color, but if they have their leaves well into fall and remain disease resistant, they will outsell and even replace older, mildew prone selections.

• Is it a problem solver? Something new to expand the palette for dry shade perhaps?

• Does the plant evoke a feeling? Does it bring back memories of yesteryear in grandma’s cutting garden? Does it make you think of simpler days?

Are there too many new plants being introduced? Absolutely! How do you wade through to find the true stars? It’s hard because the selection is overwhelming for consumers and growers who are trying to choose the best varieties. I would suggest trialing them. New plant introduction companies are always looking for new places to trial plants. The more trials the more results. The more results, the more we’ll know how truly good and novel the new introductions are. Test them before ordering them. I know it’s hard, but if you get in on the testing phase, you’ll be way ahead of your competition when it comes time to deciding which plants to add to your line. Especially perennials, just having them in your garden for one year will give you a good feel for performance. There are bad varieties being introduced. The goal of some companies is to have all of the new plants they can get their hands on. They let their sales and their customers tell them which varieties to keep. Align yourself with a company that prides itself on testing and selecting new varieties. If a rose is introduced and touted as being disease resistant when it was only evaluated in areas where there aren’t any diseases, this does a disservice to our industry and it devalues our products. They feel they can’t trust anyone because time and time again, they’ve bought a rose hoping it’s disease resistant only to have that rose succumb to disease in the second or third growing season. It’s disheartening to them and the next time they read disease resistant, they say the same thing I usually say, “Yeah, right!”

My business is new plants and even I don’t trust anyone. If I haven’t grown a new plant in my garden, I don’t feel comfortable promoting or selling it, so why should you feel comfortable buying and selling these plants to your customers? You shouldn’t, so my advice to all buyers, designers and growers is test the plants before you buy them. If a company won’t let you test their new plants, they don’t want to know what you think and you shouldn’t be buying from them.

Have you ever bought a car without a test drive – or two? Enough said…

Just imagine how great your sales staff will feel when they are able to take customers around and show them these new plants in your trial gardens. It makes a world of difference and that earns their trust. Trust equals loyal customers!

If you are interested in trialing new varieties from Plants Nouveau, contact me at angela@plantsnouveau.com. I’d be happy to help you get a head start on choosing your new plants.

About the Author

Angela’s career has spanned almost every aspect of gardening, garden design and teaching folks how to garden with plants – especially natives. She most recently managed the development of new gardens for the U.S. National Arboretum. Angela managed new plant introduction and marketing for the Chicago Botanic Garden and The Conard-Pyle Co. She has designed and installed many private gardens throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Angela now has her own company, Plants Nouveau; that specializes in introducing new plants to the nursery industry. She’s been directing the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference at Millersville University for the past five years. Angela’s career has taken her around the world, experiencing world famous gardens and remote areas looking for new ideas and exciting plants.

Source: Pond & Garden Lifestyle May/June & July/August 2008

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