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Growing In The Green: July 2006

January 28, 2008  By Melhem Sawaya

Travels with my Nephew’s Aunt: Touring the California Breeders Showcase is an overwhelming experience. How does a gardener view the new introductions and displays?

April Fool’s Day this year had a new meaning for me and my nephew’s aunt (my wife!).

We left Ontario on March 31, on a sunny day and a temperature of 18ºC, to arrive in “sunny” California and a temperature of barely 10ºC and rain. The rain didn’t last for one day, but for the entire 10 days. As we learned later, this was a record year for rain. By the time we left California, they had had 32 days of nearly continuous rain.


I’ve often seen individuals play April Fool’s jokes, which are usually only funny for them, but never by Mother Nature. However, there is a first time for everything and what is more appropriate than for this rainy joke to come from “sunny” California.

In contrast, the Breeders’ Showcase had no surprise April Fool’s jokes. It is still the same thing over and over, year after year. Both in my own job, and from observing other successful businesses, I have learned to look for a need and try to fulfill it.

The needs of the horticulture industry are changing drastically, but the Breeders’ Showcase is not addressing more than 10 to 15 per cent of them. For more than 20 years, I have been travelling to the California Pack Trials, or Breeders’ Showcase, as I call it. Initially, I looked forward to noting advancements in growing techniques, such as great disease-resistant plants that had shorter production times and were more compact, all of which improved our efficiency and allowed us to grow more product per square foot. That used to be important for an industry that was increasing sales seven to 10 per cent annually. However, for the past three years there is only minimal sales growth and the profit margins for the growers and breeders are much less.

As we said before, successful industries target needs. The number one need for the floriculture industry is increased demand for our product, not more product. Showcases for the benefit of growers, brokers, and even the chain stores and buyers are great, but they are not our ultimate customer base. Our customers are the homeowners themselves.

The key to a continuously successful industry, therefore, depends on us reaching that customer base and teaching them the beauty of flowers and health benefits of actual gardening.

The cost to breeders, brokers, buyers and growers in order to make the California Showcase a reality is in the thousands of dollars, plus considerable time and labour. Perhaps for one year, all this time and money could be redirected to promote the industry to the ultimate consumer, the homeowner, with the goal of increasing product demand.

Can we turn this suggestion from an April Fool’s joke into a reality?

In saying this, I am by no means trying to underestimate the tremendous effort by almost every breeder to put on an excellent show.

We will address the varieties later, but here are some of the breeders display highlights:

1) Many breeders grouped their varieties to target different seasons, cool crops, warm crops, season extenders, etc.

2) Product was displayed in more than one size, options that will automatically extend the season and, in many instances, will illustrate a better way of using the product. For example, a Dragon Wing Begonia in a 12" or 14" pot has a much better show and appeal than in a 4" or 6" pot.

3) More than one breeder emphasized the use of uniformity in a line. For example, within an impatiens series, breeders are aiming for five or six colours having the same finishing date, growth habit and flowering time. This is particularly important, since the increased demand for mechanization requires product uniformity.

4) Only a few breeders are addressing energy issues by providing the optimum, efficient conditions to produce good, economical product.

5) Other breeders stressed how quality, size and maturity of liners affect the cost of finishing a specific crop. (We’ll have more on this topic in later articles.)

6) Many breeders are trying to solidify their position as the prime suppliers for a specific line rather than promoting everything.

Every year, there are more seed varieties that perform as well as, or better than, vegetative material. The benefits of seed varieties are:

• Many seed varieties are the same or better quality than vegetative plants.

• Easier to transport.

• Minimal shipping shock.

• The supply available is known a few months ahead of time, rather than just the week of shipping.

• Respectively, they are more economical to produce.

• They can be programmed more accurately, which is extremely important in meeting advertising and shipping schedules.

The improved characteristics of a variety were previously based upon being short, early flowering, compact, and basal branching (but not too much). These growing characteristics were encouraged so that six plants or more could fit in a pack measuring approximately 3.5" x 5", an area not much larger than a 4" pot. Trying to grow six petunias in an area equivalent to a 4" pot required especially compact varieties. The early flowering was necessary because our consumer mentality, or more likely the buyer mentality, was “NO colour, NO sale.” Colour is still desirable, but now other issues are important.

Within the last four to five years, the trend has been toward a larger pot size and varieties that are good garden performers. With this in mind, the introduction of vegetative varieties has changed the focus of desirable plant characteristics. No longer is it important if a plant is compact or early flowering in order to meet short-term satisfaction. To meet the goals of good garden performance, a new variety must satisfy the following criteria:

• How much of an area will the plant cover?

• Will it flower all summer long?

• Does it have good heat-tolerance?

• Will it take a mild frost?

• Is it disease-resistant?

In summary, is it good value and a dependable garden performer?

Plants are grown in 6" pots, 12" and 14" hanging baskets, large patio pots, colour bowls, and moss baskets. When we did find any of the seed varieties, they were mainly grown in 4" pots. This makes for an all-round better plant with better branching, a better root system, and definitely a better garden performer. Also, there is less chemical use because we don’t have to shrink the plant.

Another obvious shift in the Pack Trials is that there are no longer “trials,” but instead a display of new varieties and repackaging of new, old, found, and borrowed varieties to form a brand name.

Obviously, brand names are very hot now and companies are putting considerable effort into marketing their own particular brands. The reality is that a brand name, marketed well, will sell the first year, but it will only keep selling if the quality of the product performs well for the grower, buyer and consumer. It’s true you sell the sizzle not the steak, but if the steak is tough, then the sizzle just becomes an annoying noise!

For the July and August issues, I will share a sampling of the 2006 California Breeders Showcase, both my perspective, and that of my Nephew’s Aunt as a gardening customer.

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome by e-mailing him at This is the sixth year for the Sawaya Gardens Container Trials of perennials and
annuals (vegetative and seed). It is one of the largest such trials in North America. What began as a 150-variety vegetative trial now encompasses more than 2,000 varieties.

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