Several years ago, when I worked in the perennial section at Hyannis Country Garden, the manager’s practice was to get on the phone on Monday and ask our vendors what was looking good. Based on their responses, he’d place orders that would arrive on Thursday or Friday for weekend sales. I remember that one week in early June the grower said that the lavender plants were looking great. They were almost in full flower. The perennial manager, Dave Lane, ordered 250 of them and I helped unload and display them on Friday morning.
The following Monday, the owner of the garden center was going through the paperwork from the week before, and he was aghast to see that Dave had ordered so many of one variety of perennial. He grabbed the delivery slip and came out to the yard, looking for that large group of plants. I met him in the perennial section, listening as he complained about the order of so many lavender plants, and asking why they weren’t even on display. “They aren’t here anymore, Mr. G.” I explained. “They were all sold over the weekend.”
We all know the maxim: color sells. Yet as true and powerful as this is, I have seen that there are times when buying plants in full bloom can both backfire and ultimately narrow the range of plants that are available to the public. There is a case to be made for bringing in plants in bloom, and an equally strong argument for not doing so. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be an either/or decision.
Color up front
“My dad always insisted on ‘color up front,’” says Donna Kutil Ross, co-owner of Scenic Roots Nursery in East Sandwich, Massachusetts. “I still hear him to this day every time I rework the front displays.” Flowers that are visible at the front of the business can bring people in, especially when they’re visible from the street. But Donna doesn’t want all of her stock to arrive in full bloom.
“I prefer in bud, or showing very little color when they arrive,” she explains. “If I’m ordering stock that’s in color, I am always afraid that it might be at the very end of bloom and not looking so great.”
Donna touches on one of the problems with bringing in plants in full flower: the window that you have to sell them is much shorter. Had the weekend when Dave brought in 250 lavenders been raining, or even been the start of a cold, rainy week, those plants would not have flown out of the nursery and they might have reacted poorly to going from the grower’s warm greenhouse into cool, wet weather.
Joe Kiefer, a manager at Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden in Franklinville, New Jersey, hasn’t had a great experience with bringing in plants in full flower. “I think that the ‘bud-n-bloom, flip it quick’ mentality is fine for many, but it’s not my cup of tea,” he says. Joe has seen these plants deteriorate quickly, so he prefers plants that haven’t been grown for in-flower shipping.
The marketplaces can lose good plants
My concern about the ship-in-color programs is that many plants are just not suited for these plans. Perennials that take a couple of years to fill out in a garden, such as yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) or false indigo (Baptisia australis) seldom fill a pot in the way other perennials can.
Yet these are valuable garden plants. Given the choice between the instant satisfaction of a full Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) or a Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night,’ compared with a few stems in a pot, most of our customers will go for the quick color every time. Yet if we only fill our yards with those quickly turned plants, many worthy varieties will drop out of the market altogether. Growers will not continue to propagate plants they can’t sell.
The answer is to stock both, but to know where the IGC should put a greater effort in marketing. The plants in color will sell themselves, especially if they’re displayed up front, as Donna Kutil Ross’ father advised. But plants whose appearance in their pots bears no relation to what they can do in the garden need some help, and there are several ways we can promote them.
Using signs and telling the truth
The first way to show a customer why a plant is desirable is with signage that features a full-color photo of that variety in a garden. This is, after all, how such plants are sold online or in catalogs. Those who sell by mail don’t show the plant in a pot; they illustrate the listing with a beautiful photo of how that selection looks when it’s mature in a landscape. Some growers have such signs available, or garden centers can laminate photos to create their own. Another option is to post photos of these plants on your website, and have a QR code above the pots that will take shoppers to inspirational photos and information.
Another way to engage shoppers with an immature plant is to tell the truth. I’m reminded of a dog shelter that had a Chihuahua that was so poorly behaved that most thought he would never find a home. He was called “Eddie the Terrible.” Yet the shelter not only found a home for Eddie, but they also had people lining up to take him. How? They told the truth, saying “Yes, he is a great listener. But inside that innocuous adorable blonde package exists tons — indeed, whole square miles — of naughty.” They explained that Eddie wasn’t right for most households since he didn’t like children, refused to sleep in a crate and went totally bonkers if he saw another dog. Being honest about the dog’s flaws made the right people want to rescue him.
We can sell many plants the same way. “This Epimedium doesn’t look like much in the pot. It’s short and the flowers are small. It might take a couple of years for it to fill out in your shade garden, but if you show this perennial some love and plant it anyway, you’ll be rewarded for years to come. What looks like a wimpy, thin plant in the pot becomes a weed-smothering groundcover with sweet, heart-shaped leaves. And oh yes … the deer and rabbits don’t eat it.”
People love secrets, and to be in the know. So talk up those plants that will never make it into a bud-n-bloom program by telling your customers the inside story. Write them up on your company blog and give them the spotlight on social media. “This plant is like the unassuming guy who takes off his glasses and becomes Superman.” “Those who underestimate this perennial miss out on a great addition to the garden.” “This shrub is small now, but think of how you looked in 7th grade. Give this plant a chance to show what it will do in adulthood.”
The best plant for the job
The bottom line is that when we provide our customers with the best plants for their yards and gardens, everyone wins. Sometimes that’s a plant in full bloom whose mission is to occupy a space in the customer’s landscape and to fill a place in their hearts. On other occasions, we’re providing the varieties that solve problems and create beautiful gardens … and although it’s not immediate gratification, these also become cherished plants.