You may know him as “Sparky,” “Energizer Bunny” or “The Whiz Kid.” Whatever you may call him, Chris Hansen is an undeniably passionate plant breeder whose reputation far precedes him. You may catch a glimpse of Hansen as he whips across a trade show floor, dazzles audiences with his mile-a-minute presentations or tours prospective buyers through his greenhouses filled with varieties that make plant geeks drool. Nearly 2,000 Facebook fans follow his posts as he showcases his one-of-a-kind rock gardens overflowing with succulents and other unusual drought-tolerant plants.
Have one conversation with Hansen, and you’ll know this guy is fulfilling his lifelong passion. It’s impossible not to catch his infectious enthusiasm. And if you weren’t into succulents before you met him, you will be after speaking with him.
Lighting the fire
One of Hansen’s earliest gardening memories is playing with Sempervivum when he was about 5 years old. He was fascinated by the chicks, which he called “baby rollers,” attached to the mama hen. That interest in horticulture followed him to Iowa State University, where he received a Bachelor’s of Science in Horticulture and Botany, and performed internships at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and world-renowned Longwood Gardens.
Landing a job as assistant director of horticulture for Wayside Gardens under the direction of esteemed horticulturist John Elsley was a life-changing experience for Hansen, and it spawned his interest in breeding hellebores, which turned out to be his first marketable crop. Elsley’s Royal Heritage Strain was the industry’s gold standard in hellebores at that time, but no one had yet cracked the code to offering seed-grown hellebores in single color strains. Hansen was up for the challenge.
More than 20 years of hand pollination and discriminating selection has resulted in the introduction of the Winter Thriller series of hellebores, which now includes eight double-flowered selections and 10 single-flowered varieties in a rainbow of colors, patterns and textures. Color trueness from seed, extreme plant vigor, and giant 3-plus-inch flowers are Hansen’s strict breeding criteria, which has led him to introduce everything from velvety black to clear canary yellow varieties. Growing the original seedlings in sticky red Carolina clay provided a great way to test their root strength and resistance to the dreaded root rot diseases. Only the strongest survivors that made it through the extremely hot, humid summers and heavy deer pressure continued on in his breeding program.
Boredom births a new brand
Hansen is one of those rare individuals who is blessed with the energy of three people in one. He gets more done in an average day than most people accomplish by mid-week. Since hellebore season peaks in the greenhouse after mid-April, Hansen started to get bored, so he found something to do in his “downtime” — he started to breed sedums.
After examining what was already available on the market, he noted a need for a greater selection of colorful, durable groundcover sedums that would thrive across a broad range of hardiness zones. He wanted to develop new cultivars that not only looked great at retail in spring, but also would thrive for all types of gardeners all season long. Thus, the birth of the SunSparkler brand of sedums.
Moving to Michigan offered the chance to test and select SunSparkler sedums for winter hardiness. Hansen leaves nearly 5,000 sedum plants in a variety of sizes from tiny 128-cell plugs to full 2-gallon pots outside, uncovered, in an exposed area all winter long. The plants freeze solid and are subjected to the freeze/thaw cycles that are common in Michigan winters. They are then left in this same location to be subjected to direct sun and the full heat and humidity of summer before being selected for their vigor and disease resistance.
Like his Winter Thriller hellebores, Hansen hand-pollinates all of his sedums, selecting two different species for every cross. All of the resulting seedlings are interspecific hybrids with sterile flowers that bloom for months. Like any good hybridizer, he is ruthless about roguing out sub-standard seedlings. Only about one in every 4,000 plants meets Hansen’s ultra-high standards and is worthy of introduction. To date, there are seven selections in the SunSparkler series.
When asked which of his introductions he is most proud of, Hansen responds, “I think it would be a tie between our purple-foliaged SunSparkler ‘Dazzleberry’ and our red-leaved ‘Firecracker’ sedum. When I first grew ‘Dazzleberry’ from a hand-controlled cross back in 2008, I thought this might have great appeal to the landscape designers across the country because of its low habit, colorful foliage from spring through fall and brilliant flower display. I’m thrilled to see many landscape designers using this hybrid in their installations. Our ‘Firecracker’ was the first new red-leaved Sedum groundcover to come along since Sedum spurium ‘Voodoo.’ But, ‘Firecracker’ has no spurium blood in its genetics. My goal was to create a red-leaved groundcover sedum which looked great from April through November.”
Marketing plants to non-gardeners
One of Hansen’s latest adventures has led to the introduction of the Chick Charms brand of hardy Sempervivum, which launched earlier this year.
“I began seriously collecting Sempervivum about five years ago and quickly amassed a collection of 450-plus named varieties,” he says.
Wanting to attract the younger, non-gardening audience to plants, and drawing on his own personal experience when he was young, he thought these would be the perfect plants to accomplish that goal.
After evaluating his own collection for vigor, year-round color, summer rot resistance and ease of production, Hansen selected the top-12 performers to launch under the Chick Charms brand. These are the most colorful, vigorous varieties that are not readily available in the URC marketplace, he says. Each year, he plans to introduce one to two additional varieties into the collection, starting with the 24-carat ‘Gold Nugget’ in 2017. This striking selection bears brilliant yellow leaves with red tips and changes color throughout the seasons, and Hansen is quite confident it will be a top seller at retail.
Hansen says his goal is to “get people addicted to collecting all the varieties of Chick Charms, similar to the Hello Kitty craze or Department 56 [Hallmark] collectible series. If we can capture the magic of horticulture and instill upon these young gardeners a love for gardening, I believe you’ll have a plant-lover for life. It all begins with a single plant!”
Managing and promoting garden solutions
If there is one thing that makes Hansen unique as a plant breeder, it is his uncanny ability to capture and build his audience. After much thought, Hansen decided that he would be his own best advocate for his introductions, but first he needed to learn how to patent, trademark, license and sell his plants. It was extremely helpful to have already built up a worldwide network of growers who might be interested in his plants before he expanded his business.
He doesn’t advise new breeders to choose the same route he did.
“If you are a beginning breeder, I would strongly advise using one of the numerous agencies available to represent your plant. However, you need to make sure to specify the time frame, quantity expectations, and exit clauses in the agency agreement with whomever you choose,” Hansen says.
Hansen founded Garden Solutions LLC in 2010 and currently manages a multi-talented team of seven full-time employees in Hudsonville, Mich. They grow and ship 72-cell plugs of SunSparkler sedums and Chick Charms Sempervivum, as well as 128-cell plugs of Winter Thriller hellebores to wholesale finish growers across the United States. By May 1 of 2016, they had already shipped 140,000 Chick Charm plugs and sales were still going strong — incredible volume for an independent breeder.
Hansen personally maintains a loyal following of SunSparkler sedum fans on his Facebook page, @SunSparklerSedums, where he consistently posts images of his introductions throughout the growing season. The installation of an enormous rock garden in 2015 has allowed him to showcase his plants in a garden setting, showing people how to best use his plants in the landscape. He personally responds in a timely manner to questions and comments posted by fans and customers on social media.
How does he do it all? Being extremely well-organized, surrounding himself with a fantastic staff, and getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning helps. There is only one Chris Hansen in this industry — catch him if you can.