“We discard varieties too soon.”  Such were the sentiments of one of industry’s leaders concerning the introduction of new plants. He had been introducing new varieties for many years, and could explain in detail the good things and the not so good things about the patent system, licensing, and the status of plant breeders’ rights America and Europe. In other words, he knew the mechanics of new crop introduction as well as anyone in this business, and I considered his comment quite telling. 

I write a monthly column for a national industry magazine, Greenhouse Grower, and on more than one occasion, I have stated that there were too many crops in our business. Too many cultivars of petunia and hydrangea and heuchera - and too few consumers to sustain the rush towards more, more and more.

I understand why the plant industry feels the need for new. After all, nobody walks into a garden center and asks, “What’s old?” Perhaps I am just frustrated knowing that another 10 cone flowers and 30 cultivars of calibrachoa will be introduced again this season, just like there were last season. There is just something not right; the industry is feeling like a Tokyo subway car at rush hour - more and more being squeezed in. 

Too much “new” makes the buying experience more confusing and difficult. Essentially logic suggests that “too much new equals to little old”.

In a horticultural business now predicated on promotion and advertising dollars, it makes sense that those dollars will not be spent on something old. However, in the rush to cram in new cultivars, older ones have to go. This would be fine, except that the definition of “old” means something very different to a breeding company compared to 99% of consumers, from retailer to gardener. 

While the industry thinks anything over two years is old, it usually takes twice that long for information about that new cultivar to get down to the user level, (even longer for my daughters) and by that time it is on the chopping block. A new double Digiplexis may be really neat to those who bred it but, good grief, people, gardeners and retailers are now just hearing about any Digiplexis, and it is 4 years old. 

Have you tried to find an old-fashioned purple coneflower lately? Those are the ones that everyone’s daughters are successful with.  Today, yellow, orange and strawberry coneflowers are everywhere and the purple are considered boring and don’t get the shelf space anymore.  

I am by no means upset with new cultivars; I revel in it – heck, I introduced a bunch of them myself. New crops will always be the lifeblood of the landscape and gardening industry. However, I caution my colleagues that we must be careful about throwing out the wine before its time.  Let’s give gardeners and plant lovers a chance to learn about them before something else is stuck in their faces.

Once upon a time there was a well-known horticulturist named Adam who thought he knew what was best when choosing and designing plants for his house.   When it was time to plant his window boxes, Adam’s wife deferred to his experience and simply said, “I want them full and colorful.”  “No worries,” Adam said.

Adam knew the best plants from his experiences and went to a local garden shop.  He could not find any of the cultivars he knew were excellent.  He went to two other locations in town and the story was the same; either the cultivar name was not on the tag, or they were old and tired selections.  Adam had not shopped much before; after all he worked with plants and always was able to find what he needed from the greenhouse.  He was understandably upset when none of the plants he told people about could be found.   His wife, on the other hand, saw lots of color, but even she could not find a nice white or clear pink, regardless of varieties. 

They came across some alyssums and finally spied a handsome mix of petunias and verbenas in a container.  Looking at the plant mix, Horticulture Adam thought of ways he could separate them and use them in his boxes.   Together they walked out of the store, plants in hand, ready to work – he the plant guy, she the decorator.

The boxes, soil and the plants were assembled on his table and everything was done “by the book.”  The boxes were filled with top-of-the-line planting soil, and properly moistened.  However, he quickly realized that he could not easily separate the plants without doing significant damage.  No worries, he thought, I’ll simply slide the combinations into each end of the boxes.   Susan came out and gave the thumbs up, and went back in.

Being the professional he was, Adam knew there was one more thing to do.  As he always did when planting in the landscape, he proceeded to cut everything back, hard.   His knew from experience that this would help with overcrowding, disease issues and aeration, and the plants would of course grow back and be even more colorful in a few weeks.  He proceeded; and finished hanging three of the four boxes when he heard Susan gasping in horror. 

“Where’s my color?”  “Where are the flowers?” “What have you done?”  Adam jumped aback with each question and tried to explain that proper horticultural techniques demanded they be cut back.   She countered that this was her house, not one of his landscapes that people would not see every day or one of his experiments in trialing – “Do the other one properly!

Adam could win an argument with his crew, but not with his wife.   Putting away the shears, Adam dutifully hung the last box up, unshorn and flamboyant.   Stepping back he looked at his handiwork then let out a huge sigh; he realized she was right.  There was no comparison nor would there be for many weeks. 

The moral of the story should be obvious. Gardeners and decorators are not professionals.  Gardening and decorating are not jobs; they are simply meant to bring pleasure.  There is no wrong way to plant a petunia nor is cutting back necessary or even desirable.  Who cares? 

Kudos to Susan for reminding Adam why he loved his work so much; we can all use a little reality every now and then.


"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

–Leonardo da Vinci

Part of Leonardo da Vinci's garden, Chateau Du Clos Luce in Val Du Loire, France

Part of Leonardo da Vinci's garden, Chateau Du Clos Luce in Val Du Loire, France

Remember when you used to put your ear on the railroad track to hear the murmur of an oncoming train? I used to do that when I was about 10 years old. We waited until our ears started to vibrate, and then a little longer until the train was in sight.  Although not very bright, I sure could tell what was coming!

Now many years later I am still keeping my head down, trying to discern the future. Fortunately, today I have a little help from my friends. One such friend is Anne Raver, an excellent garden writer for the New York Times. She also writes about what she sees coming down the tracks, and her thoughts about the interaction of people and gardens are similar to mine. She wrote her view of changes over 10 years ago. The sentiments rang true then and no less so now.

 “When baby boomers fell in love with gardening back in the late 1980s, the perennial border almost elbowed the swimming pool aside. Billowing masses of color and old roses were the rage. People dropped Latin names at cocktail parties and compared notes on their Wellies and hand-forged English garden tools from Smith & Hawken.

But after years of robust growth nurseries are reporting a decline in sales, purveyors of seed packets and garden supplies are quietly saying the same thing: although boomers are still gardening, they are slowing down. Their backs are giving out. They’re tired of expensive perennials that keel over in a drought.

Instead of bragging how well the foxgloves look among the roses, they are speaking of the serene effect of green on green. Their manic gardening has given way to calmer (although for some more profound) pleasures, like planting a grove of serviceberry trees and watching them change through the seasons.”

            I see these things happening all over the country. “Simplify” is the great battle cry of boomers and as it turns out - for almost everyone. I am not sure when the word “work” become associated with gardening, as in “I am going to work in the garden, get the ibuprofen ready”? Garden writers and others even managed to convince consumers that perennials were less maintenance than annuals, but people know better. Gardeners will always enjoy color (they may hire someone else to install it), but the idea of deadheading, dividing and supporting have definitely fallen out of favor. Low maintenance is not just the battle cry of the sunny-day decorator; it is the trumpet call of nearly all of us today.

Anne also had this to say. “As baby boomers bow out, a younger generation appears to be either uninterested or too busy with children and careers to pick up the trowel. ‘A lot of kids are brought up with things being done for them” . Matt Horn, the owner of Matterhorn Nursery in Spring Valley, New York, whose customer count was down 5 percent last year noted that boomers were focused on the environment in their youth, but today, “these kids aren't into the outdoors. They're into the Internet and doing business.”  We must simplify if today’s consumers, young and old, are going to garden.

I have been one of the foremost proponents of new crops, new cultivars, and new plants in general. I firmly believe that each new plant is an opportunity to choose something even better for the landscaper and gardener. However, just because 30 heucheras have been bred does not mean we have to put 30 heucheras (or petunias or New Guinea impatiens) in front of the consumer.

Another perception of the simplification trend is the movement to native plants. It is simply not true that all non-natives are bad and all natives are good, but they surely enhance pollinators and sustainability in our gardens. 

I am a gardener, always will be, but I have downsized significantly and enjoy my gardening activities even more.  I do not apologize for having less, because in reality I have more.


Visit Ann Raver's New York Times news articles here: