Tony Avent, co-owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh NC, spoke recently on the topic at the Flower Garden and Nature Society in Fayetteville AR.
Photo: left Russell Studebaker - garden writer for the Tulsa World, center - yours truly, right - Tony Avent
Plant Delights, considered one of the premier boutique mail order nurseries, has been providing unique plants since 1991. Their customers are collectors and plant hobbyists.
Avent is known for setting trends. His introductions include tropicals, hostas, Arisaema, Agapanthus, elephant ears, wild ginger, Baptesia, and agave. Avent finds plants, breeds new hybrids, and then grows them on acres of test gardens before they are offered to customers.
He said there are four levels of plant markets: 1) Mass market (big box stores), 2) mainstream (garden centers), 3) niche market (specialty nurseries) and 4) bio market (plants for collectors).
Mass-market sellers offer plants that are at their best in the spring. Avent said that approach is logical when you consider the fact that most gardeners spend their budget in the spring and plants that are at their best in October look like a pot of dirt in April.
In order to be economically feasible, plants sold in volume have to be easy to mass-produce from seed or from cuttings within 16 weeks.
Size matters. Large volume plants have to grow quickly into a sellable size that customers think are worth their price.
In order to qualify for mass release, a patented plant has to fit into a seven shelf high shipping rack. Plants that cannot be stacked in "7 rackers" cannot be sold cheaply.
Also, the value of greenhouse space is a factor. Plants that have to be grown in heat and light all winter cost more to produce and have to carry a higher price tag.
When hardiness zones are printed on the plant tag, each additional zone has the potential to double sales. For example, a plant that is said to be hardy in zones 7 to 9 will sell half as many as a plant that is said to be hardy in zones 6 to 9. Not all plant tags accurately reflect plants' cold and heat tolerance.
Large growers apply growth hormones to artificially dwarf plants so they are compact on the shelf. When you get them home and the growth inhibitor wears off, the plant will not behave the same. It’s not your gardening skills that make plants change their appearance.
Trends in plant popularity go in a 30-year cycle according to Avent. For example, invasive used to be considered desirable. Catalogs said a plant would naturalize well when it became established and gardeners wanted that feature.
Most new plants that show up in spring are either from a commercial or university plant breeding program, from back yard breeders, or, are random seedlings that a grower discovered in a bed.
A few plants are found in the wild by plant explorers, but they rarely become commercially viable. Many fail to thrive, so they are not an economical method of expanding the plant supply.
Avent said gardeners should go to garden centers and specialty nurseries to find the truly great plants. Some niche market plants such as variegated agave can also be found on eBay.
The catalog for Plant Delights Nursery is available in print (919-772-4794) and online at www.plantdelights.com. In addition to being an engaging and informative speaker, Avent invents clever names for his hybrids and writes entertaining plant descriptions.