After a year of grower trials, several varieties will move on to retail trials this spring.
Photos courtesy of Matt McClellan

The industry continues to churn out new plants like clockwork, often before the nuances of last year’s introductions are completely understood. Even seasoned growers find themselves daunted by the sheer amount of new varieties.

If a dedicated plantsman has trouble staying on top of all the new genetics, it’s understandable that landscapers would be intimidated. A plant neophyte who enters a garden center for the first time is likely to be overwhelmed by the choices.

We might be suffering from new plant fatigue, but consider where the industry might be without Knock Out roses, Endless Summer hydrangeas or the countless other smash hit introductions that pumped a shot of vitality into the market.

New genetics are the adrenaline of our industry, says Ed Overdevest, president of Overdevest Nurseries. Reducing consumer choice is not the way forward.

“We see the ever-increasing supply of new varieties as an opportunity – if processed properly,” he says.

Overdevest is part of a collaboration of growers, new plant introducers and retailers that is trying to solve this problem. The group has one major factor in common: a dedication to the independent garden center. The group was announced last year and its goal is to provide better choices to the consumer by improving the plant pipeline process. Not every new choice is a better choice. Retailers try to help landscapers and consumers, but the fear of failure is a major impediment.

And when a plant fails, the consumer feels that fear was justified. By filtering the myriad new varieties, “rush to market” failures can be avoided.

“By thoroughly trialing in all settings: production, landscape and retail, we expect to narrow the field of selections down to the truly outstanding,” Overdevest says. “That way, retailers, and ultimately consumers, can have confidence in the merit of these introductions.”

In the beginning.

In 2014, the Syn-RG group commissioned Kip Creel’s StandPoint Marketing to survey consumers about their gardening concerns. What stood out loud and clear among all age groups was a desire for plants to be “tested to succeed in my area” and accessing those “grown specifically for my area.”

Similar to the way “trustmarks” such as the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval have provided helpful reassurance to consumers for decades, the wording for a new plant certification program clearly emerged from this research. The group consulted with its collaborators, and the “Handpicked for You” trust-mark was born.

More than 1,400 logo designs were submitted as part of an online crowdsourcing project.

This collaboration with IGCs is a vital part of the Syn-RG group’s DNA. The growers involved all understand the value of reinforcing IGCs as trusted plant experts.

“We’re competitors, but we realize how much we can benefit from working together because we are aligned with the same values and marketing strategies of making IGCs successful,” says Mark Sellew, president of Prides Corner Farms.

“We want them to be involved in trialing as much as we are as growers, so we can foster a partnership with them, and also know that these plants aren’t going to run off to a box store.”

Retailers’ role.

Independent garden centers have been unofficially involved in Syn-RG since its early days, as growers called upon a cross-section of their retail customers to weigh in on the StandPoint surveys, Overdevest says. Garden centers also provided input during focus group sessions, which helped shape the Handpicked for You program.

Syn-RG is still developing its network of independent garden centers that will sell Handpicked for You plants, he says.

“During the lead up to spring, each Syn-RG grower will be reaching out to interested garden center customers to be a part of our Handpicked for You certification network,” he says. “Actual ‘membership’ involves the original group of five Syn-RG growers.

These companies are providing all the investment capital for the Handpicked for You program. Retail participation is open to all garden centers purchasing the regional brands offered by the member growers.”

The initial plant focus will be shrubs and perennials, but Overdevest says that it is likely that trees and annuals will be added as the program matures.

Sheridan Nurseries, which runs both robust growing and retail operations, is already gearing up for a soft launch at retail in 2017, says Rob Naraj, vice president of nursery sales for Sheridan Nurseries.

They are trialing 150 new plant varieties that are not available in the marketplace from several different breeders and propagators, Naraj says.

“I can tell you right now that there is a very large number that will be ripped out of the garden by spring of next year,” he says. “We already know that they’re not cutting the mustard.”

The plants aren’t fed fertilizer and only get watered about once a week to test their strength in conditions that a typical consumer would provide, Naraj says.

Overdevest says that in 2017, roughly 20 plants out of the initial varieties trialed will be introduced in a soft launch-like introduction of the Handpicked For You program.

“Based on all the interest, we expect (the number of plants) to increase substantially with each year,” Overdevest says.

As the initial stream of new selections gets narrowed down from a production and landscape perspective, IGCs provide valued input on appearance and performance. Those that ultimately get the thumbs up are certified as Handpicked for You and marketed through each participating grower’s regional brand and network of IGC customers.

Handpicked for You is not intended to be another brand. The founding growers believe there are already enough good national brands in the market.

The Syn-RG group of growers and retailers is working to ensure new plants are tested to thrive where they're installed.

The certification will be added as an overlay to the Syn-RG growers’ own regional brands – by virtue of an additional tag – and marketed only through IGCs. Although new genetics from national brands will be trialed on an early access basis at the grower level for better mutual evaluation purposes, the release of these new plants is not currently authorized to be part of the Handpicked for You certification, distribution and marketing process.

Naraj says the main goal throughout the trialing process is to test plants over a long period of time and within a variety of conditions and areas to pinpoint plants that will thrive locally. They are also still hammering out a marketing and advertising plan to figure out how to communicate to consumers that these plants have been thoroughly vetted by a group of growers and retailers.

The overall goal is simple for Naraj. He hopes Handpicked for You allows “the retailer to sell it in confidence, and, more importantly, the consumer to purchase it with confidence.”

Overdevest says he’s excited to collaborate with garden centers, and to “be able to partner with local garden centers in a way that respects their opinions and values their input – with the end result being a strengthened future for the independent channel.”

Trial by fire.

The regional trials are a key part of the process. Throughout 2016, the first year of access to promising new varieties, Syn-RG growers have collected data on production capability and landscape performance in their specific climatic region. During 2017, which will be year two of the process, the growers and their IGC partners will trial for hardiness, drought-tolerance, production performance, landscape value, disease and insect resistance, invasive tendencies and duration of interest.

Retailers can use these samples for planting in their own trial areas or as displays in their sales yard to gather consumer reactions. If a variety receives a consensus positive opinion, the Handpicked for You certification will be awarded, and initial production will be targeted for sale at partnering IGCs during the third year, 2018.

Some new varieties will emerge from “Year 2” trialing for certification in 2017. But there is a strong possibility consumers might see the Handpicked for You logo as soon as this spring on select varieties.

“Interestingly, we have been encouraged by IGCs in the meantime to extend this certification to existing outstanding performers that have already proven themselves in the market,” Overdevest says. “We have this under serious consideration for this coming spring.”

Certain plants may receive the Handpicked for You certification in some states, but not others. For instance, while a crape myrtle may meet the standards in Virginia, it might not in Connecticut. The respective region will be reflected on the tag.

“That’s the magic of our regional network,” Sellew says. “Each of us will have a different mix. We have Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Ontario and Connecticut. We all made a promise that we were going to trial these not just in the container but in the garden to ensure it doesn’t just have good container performance, but also good garden performance.”

Earlier access to plant material is another lynchpin to the process. For that, the Syn-RG growers needed to get the new plant producers on board. Luckily, that was an easy sell.

“Based on all the interest, we expect (the number of plants) to increase substantially with each year.” Ed Overdevest, president, Overdevest Nurseries

“We have a group of similarly minded growers who share the same goals as independent retailers and new plant introducers,” Overdevest says. The plant pipeline. The Syn-RG group is currently trialing several significant new selections. Among the highlights include boxwood selections from Saunders Brothers nursery. As one of the top boxwood producers in the U.S., Saunders has been actively studying new selections for blight resistance. Trialing of these varieties has been extended to the rest of the Syn-RG growers – with retailer input being sought in the coming years.

Tom Saunders, container nursery manager at Saunders Brothers, used Kelly Ivors’ research into boxwood blight as a starting point. Ivors, currently of Cal Poly’s Horticulture & Crop Science department, was previously at North Carolina State University, where she researched which varieties are more susceptible to boxwood blight and which are more resistant. That, along with his own research into leaf miner resistance, helps him determine what to grow long term.

“Our goal is to release a couple varieties that are less prone to boxwood blight and not as susceptible to leaf miner injury, as well,” Saunders says.

Outside of boxwood blight, Saunders says leaf miners are the second-biggest threat to boxwood, because of how they change the aesthetic appeal of the plant.

Syn-RG also will be the exclusive marketing entity for a collection of virtually sterile barberries developed at the University of Connecticut by Mark Brand. Many current varieties of Berberis are on the hit list in several states because of their invasive nature. This collection represents the only barberries currently allowed to be sold in “barberry banning” states like New York.

Licensed propagation began in 2015. Grower trialing took place throughout 2016, and retailer samples will be available for testing in 2017. Handpicked for You certification for the barberry will be evaluated at the end of 2017 – with retail sales commencing in 2018.

There is also a series of five reblooming daylily varieties, and a Bambini series dwarf Phlox paniculata in the program. Both are existing performers and potential “fast-track” candidates for a 2017 certification.

Overall, the group is optimistic about the collaboration, and its faith in the capability of its partners and its new executive director, Emily Bibens Chung. The vice president of Woody Bibens & Associates joined the Syn-RG venture in late August.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Sellew says. “All our businesses have been successful because of our consistency and perseverance. I’m excited to be in this group because we’re not looking for a home run today. We’re looking for sustainability and success over a long period of time.”