Gardening, America’s favorite outdoor leisure time activity has growing pains. It was inevitable, and not unlike what happened to the cooking craze a few decades ago. Julia Child and others turned the idea of “get out of the kitchen in no time, into “cooking is an art that enriches your table and your life.” Within a few years, people were speaking French at dinner parties, and trading recipes for Coq au vin over the backyard fence. But then, the fashion for elaborate cuisine began to wilt like meringue peaks on a baked Alaska. Cookbook sales flagged. Cool Whip made a comeback. Now, it might be gardening’s turn to step out of the spotlight.
In my April 6, 2006 story for the New York Times, I write about a nurseryman, Tony Avent, who bets--and wins--on new plants that will keep customers coming back to Plant Delights Nursery web site and/or catalog year after year.
Also, be sure to See and hear the Multi-media slide show that accompanies the article!
A Collector's Collector Rides the Waves
"Plant Fever" Helps One Nursery Weather Soft Plant Sales in the Economy
“The slump is real,” said Tony Avent, the co-owner with his wife Michelle of Plant Delights Nursery, a retail and mail-order concern in Raleigh, N.C., and founder of the Juniper Level Botanic Garden, (Tony’s nursery display gardens). “These things happen in cycles,” he claimed not sounding too anxious. Among dedicated gardeners, Plant Delights is one of the premier specialty nurseries known for new and unusual plants. They are in good company with Heronswood, Fairweather Gardens, Forest Farm, Asiatica, Collector’s Nursery, Seneca Hills, Roslyn and others around the country. Mr. Avent is known as a shameless plant promoter, and author of a joke-filled catalog with a cartoon on the cover (employing a sense of humor to weed out potentially difficult, humorless customers).
In general, sales relate to the health of economy; when there is a housing boom, plant sales are strong. But there are many other factors that affect business. After 9/11, for example, people turned to their gardens, and sales were good. The businessman-savvy Avent tracks his website sales and looks for correlating current events. “Every time something bad happened in Iraq,” he said, “sales drop, and take a couple of weeks to come back.” Whether times are good or bad, Mr. Avent feels the most challenging periods are times of insecurity. “People hate uncertainty.” On the other hand, good news does not always translate into good sales. The company saw internet sales dry up during the Olympics, and then bounce back as soon as the games were over. People who shop on line must spend less time at their computers and more time watching the Olympics.
One would imagine that with more and more emphasis on nesting that the gardening industry would be thriving, but it is not that clear cut. Organizations like the National Gardening Association say the aging baby boomers who may be scared of maintenance are cutting back, scaling down, and planting less. The marketers of garden products point to outdoor-living as the growth category, a kind of California pool-party lifestyle with built-in gas grills and suites of weather-resistant furniture. But a distinction should be drawn between followers of fashion, people who decorate outdoors, and real gardeners who want to tend plants.
I have noticed that people are becoming more interested in native ornamental grasses like Muhlenbergia capillaries, a New Jersey species with a cloud of pink flowers, and are beginning to choose them over potentially invasive Asian varieties. The fascination with wild gingers, subjects of a veritable cult in Japan, is attracting more Americans every year. Arisaema relatives of the Jack-in-the-pulpits from eastern American woodlands first thrilled only we plant nerds, but now they are one of the most sought after collectables, and more species are being propagated for sale. Nursery propagated native orchids, trillium and even carnivorous pitcher plants are going to be in more gardens in the future.
One of the newest Arisaema species in the US is the small-flowered A. saxitile (below, left). It is not in the Plant Delight’s catalog, yet, but is available from their website. Unlike the dark colored flowers of most Arisaema species, this pale-colored one does not smell like carrion, or as Tony writes, “body odor.” It smells lemony. (Zone 6 to 9).
Just as American gardeners graduated from growing annuals that have to be replanted every year, to long-lived herbaceous perennials, they are now looking to woody plants, especially flowering shrubs, to help lower maintenance without sacrificing color. Calycanthus, for example, are hot! Unusual versions of familiar trees like ginkgos with tubular leaves, weeping and variegated redbuds, and magnolias with flowers in shades of creamy yellow to chocolate-brown are becoming popular.
And then there is the hosta take-over. Interest in these shade-tolerant plants shows no sign of letting up. Last year’s New York Times article on plant collector and Hosta enthusiast Barbara Tiffany was the most e-mailed story of its day. The allure of the story might have been hostas, but could also have been the general subject of collecting, which fascinates all but the most resistant minimalist. I have heard the compulsion to amass objects of desire as stemming from anything like childhood deprivation to potty training conflicts. Who knows?
Plant Delights offers about one hundred hosta varieties, many of which Tony Avent bred, himself. His have funny names like ‘Elvis lives,’ ‘ Hosta Bubba,’ ‘ Elephant Burger,’ and more. But this gorgeous variegated, medium size hosta (below, right) is not Tony’s and has a comely name – ‘Eternal Flame.’ Get it while it is hot!
Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride,’ also found as 'Orange Meadowbrite' (below, left), is one of the hybrids developed at the Chicago Botanic Garden by Dr. Jim Ault. The plant may be in short supply since it has been shown to not be easy to produce ion great numbers in tissue culture. The story goes that many of the results turn out to be E. ‘Mango Sunrise,’ a paler, but beautiful flower.
“Some people are passionate about their new cars,” Mr. Avent explained, and he thinks that is the way it is for many plant lovers. But he also points to a difference between plant collectors and say, people who buy antiques. “I bought an antique chest, and I’ve watched it all year,” he joked. “It hasn’t grown an inch.” Plants, he reminds us, grow bigger and better, flower and, unlike other collectables, can be reproduced and shared. That doesn’t hurt when a new hosta goes for $200 or more before the supply can catch up with demand. Sharing is a big thrill for Mr. Avent, and for most gardeners.
How does Tony know what collectors are going to want in the future? Simple – he is one of them.
Click here to visit Plant Delights online catalog.