The GPN staff's trip to the 2008 Pack Trials, which began in Encinitas and wrapped up a week later in Gilroy, was a fantastic opportunity to preview all the breeders' newest introductions for 2009 and see how their best varieties performed in sunny California's temperate climate.
It was also a perfect way to see how breeders were interpreting the latest movements in our industry — including the ever-present issue of sustainability; marketing and merchandising strategies; and the consumer trends of container gardening and outdoor living. If you couldn't make this year's trials, let us be your eyes: Here's a look at the trends we saw during our week on the West Coast.
All Eyes on the Consumer
Nearly every stop on our trip up the coast showed a bigger commitment to helping growers make their product ready for the retail shopper before it even reached retail: From variety branding to all-out merchandising and packaging strategies, Pack Trials was more polished and consumer-ready than ever.
At Benary, coordinators hoped their enthusiasm for the breeder's newest variety would trickle down through growers all the way to the everyday consumer. So, in an effort to whip attendees into a frenzy over Joey — Ptilotus exaltatus, a new introduction from Australia — they offered temporary tattoos, a life-size kangaroo silhouette with a face cutout for a little photo fun and other merchandising ideas for this new variety.
Many stops also featured ideas for boosting retail sales, from POP displays to vignette suggestions. Bodger set up a miniature "gift shop" with a caf table and high-end containers arranged on wooden crates to create a homey, shoppable feel within its greenhouse. Fides provided a high-impact, European feel in all its variety displays — intense, artful photos with color schemes to match the blooms — and offered plenty of packaging inspiration with gift bags and accompanying signage catering to many consumer lifestyles. And Proven Winners, which also displayed poster boards detailing the extensive reach of the company's consumer broadcast and magazine advertising, showcased its latest POP materials: a sea of purple, one of the spring's hottest color trends.
Ecke surprised us the morning of our visit, unveiling its glossy "magalog," a magazine-catalog hybrid geared toward growers that provided splashy color photos, detailed growing information and columns on everything from variety trials to mixed container composition, contributed by Ecke staff members.
And occupying almost as much greenhouse space as the breeders' displays at the Greenheart Farms trial site, John Henry had set up a series of merchandising displays featuring the breeders' plant material in their packaging. A "summer celebration" clambake display featured a picnic table stocked with red and white geraniums and petunias in patriotic packaging, which was across the room from an ornate Christmas tree display that included tiny potted-cyclamen ornaments dangling from the evergreen's boughs.
With all this inspiration in mind, growers left with a better idea of how to sell their plants.
Encouraging Eco-Friendly Production
With concern for the environment at an all-time high and energy conservation becoming essential for growers, the sustainability issue came up at almost every stop at this year's Pack Trials. Whether it was offering biodegradable containers or tags, displaying drought-tolerant plants or reducing shipping costs, breeders this year definitely got our attention with their environmentally friendly products and programs.
Most companies made sure to display their drought- and heat-tolerant varieties, making it easier for growers to efficiently produce crops without as much maintenance. Syngenta Flowers, for instance, had on display an entire section of "Heat Lovers," which included varieties bred specifically for heat tolerance and low water use. And at the Kieft Seeds Holland stop, they were promoting the viola Skippy series, which exhibits very strong heat tolerance.
Other breeders went as far as to give their Pack Trials site an eco-friendly theme. American Takii's theme was "Garden Performance Naturally," with various variety displays including disease-resistant crops that require less chemical use and have better survivability; energy-efficient crops that require minimal or no heating and reduced lighting; and genetically dwarf crops that have increased shipping density and encourage gardening in small spaces.
Ball Horticultural Co. had a new theme this year: "Step Up to Sustainability." Once again, the company showcased its Circle of Life program, which launched last year. The program promotes sustainable horticulture and brings eco-friendly plants and containers to home gardeners. Ball is also offering growers organic-based fertilizers to use during greenhouse production.
Growing organic products is nothing new at Plug Connection — the company has been encouraging organic production for years. This year, we were able to check out their range of organic herb and vegetable programs. They also offer a Water Wise collection of varieties that have lower-than-average moisture requirements. And we can't forget to mention Buddy, the adorable puppy at their trials. He had his own sustainable initiative: Buddy's Green Roof Project.
Knox Nursery exhibited for the first time at Pack Trials this year at the GroLink site. They shared with us new programs they are offering to their customers as a way to conserve energy and resources. They implemented an RFID tag on each plug tray, which allows growers to better track their products and leads to less crop loss and damage.
Selecta First Class also has new programs for the cost-conscious grower. They are offering the Mini-Rooter program, which is designed to replace in-house rooting programs. It results in reduced freight and product cost and cost savings for mixed baskets and small production.
One issue that growers face when trying to remain sustainable while producing a quality crop is the use of chemicals. Some growers are now limiting the amount of chemicals they use.
To make it easier for them to choose when and if to use certain chemicals, some breeders demonstrated chemical trials at their sites. At Golden State Bulb Growers, not only were their gorgeous Callafornia Callas on display but they also set up seven separate trials and shared their ongoing research on optimizing cultural practices.
Bringing Outdoor Living to the Greenhouse
Many of the breeders continue to concentrate on the consumer's desire to move the indoors outside — the outdoor living trend was the focus of many of this year's stops. The gardening, landscape and lifestyle displays provided growers and retailers with a myriad of products and inspirational ideas.
A lot of the outdoor living displays provided visitors with the opportunity to see 'em, smell 'em, touch 'em and taste 'em! The colors, aromas, textures and flavor of the different flower varieties, vegetables and herbs created a multitude of sensory delights.
Several stops highlighted herbs and vegetables, including the Homegrown Gourmet display at HF Michell's and the Hishtil Nurseries display at Pacific Plug & Liner. The GPN editorial staff could be seen running their hands through the foliage or with their noses immersed in many of the different herbs to check out their texture and smell. From fresh mint to zesty oregano, these types of products are finding their way into consumers' window boxes, containers and herb cutting gardens — and many growers' greenhouses.
Patio vegetables were sizzling at Floranova. The flavorful ornamental peppers, tomatoes and strawberries looked especially tasty in different decorative containers that consumers can put on their own patios. The clever use of the "one-dimensional" Floranova personnel cutout manning the grill and enjoying the patio also provided some comic relief.
As usual, Goldsmith Seeds continues to put on a brilliant display every year. This year, Goldsmith was showing many different lifestyle vignettes as well as retail displays that are sure to inspire. One display that really caught our eye this year was the "flower pit" display filled with hot varieties and surrounded by comfortable Adirondack chairs. After traveling the California highways, it was an effective — and inviting — respite.
Some of the other locations that had impressive outdoor living displays were Plug Connection, Suntory, Proven Winners, Syngenta and Fides.
And taking a cue from the consumer container-gardening craze, many trial sites offered another look at their star varieties in containers — both mixed and single-variety — to show off their garden potential.
Once again, Suntory and Jackson & Perkins wowed us with their elaborate lifestyle vignettes inside and out, paired with splashy, larger-than-life container displays. Unbelievably lush containers lined the approach to the greenhouse that held their trials, bursting from the ground and cascading down fence posts. And large wire "umbrellas," arched trellises perched on stakes taller than the average person, were planted with petunias that would eventually trickle over their edges like rain.
At the K. Sahin, Zaden B.V. trials at American Takii, mixed containers arranged in front of the greenhouse stole the show. General Manager Elisabeth Sahin, always keen on taking the pulse of younger consumers, asked us after our tour to rank which mixed containers we'd like to have in our own garden, based on their color and general aesthetics.
At Sakata, one of our group's last stops, we were impressed by the breeder's combined use of floor-level beds, containers at varying heights and hanging baskets to create a truly tiered striking display of their new varieties in the landscape.
Even at sites without dramatic container displays, the container trend continued. GGG-International featured ready-to-go container mixes, a six-pack of different flowers set to make a statement immediately after being planted, complete with the container recipe and care instructions on the handle. And at Danziger "Dan" Flower Farm's trials, there were nearly 100 introductions in a rainbow of colors. Growers were presented with nearly endless options to create mixed containers for their retail customers and the end consumer.
This year, the label and packaging companies were all about showcasing their eco-friendly options for Pack Trial attendees. By using recycled materials and producing biodegradable products, these companies are able to offer growers sustainable solutions for their businesses.
John Henry Co. Exhibiting at Greenheart Farms with Dmmen USA, the John Henry Co. devoted an entire section to its new Eco Chic line of eco-friendly packaging solutions. The collection includes tags, basket toppers, 4-pack carriers, signage, pot wraps and more. They also handed out their Little Green Book, which gives an excellent overview of sustainable packaging and defines a variety of terms associated with the topic.
MasterTag. While visiting HF Michells' stop this year, we previewed MasterTag's new sustainable packaging options. The merchandising solutions company introduced two new labels this year made with eco-friendly materials. The materials, shape and design of the new labels were developed to complement the new biodegradable pots that are becoming part of the retail package. MasterTag is also offering a stake label made of recycled/recyclable material.
Visitors to Plant Haven's Pack Trials location at Island View Nursery got to say "Aloha!" to the Royal Hawaiian collection of colocasia. Bred by the University of Hawaii's John Cho, this line of colocasia was originally produced as a food crop.
Cho said the colocasia series is bred to be disease resistant and take a beating out in the garden. We were intrigued by its unique coloring and leaf shapes, along with a "tidy clumping habit."
The different offerings included in this series are 'Blue Hawaii', 'Pineapple Princess', 'Hilo Bay', 'Hawaiian Eye' and 'Diamond Head'.
We were told that the Royal Hawaiian collection would be available only in independent garden centers for 2008. Learn more about this series at www.royalhawaiiancolocasias.com.