Spring Season Grower Review By Catherine Evans and Brandi Thomas

After the 2000 spring season, you probably took rigorous notes about which crops performed well, what conditions led to pest and disease problems, and how you could be more cost efficient for the 2001 season. Regardless of how much you plan, weather, diseases, labor, the economy and a slew of other issues can turn your business into something completely different than what you?d predicted.

This past spring posed particular challenges to growers: if it wasn?t the weather in the Midwest, it was the high fuel costs and shortages on the West Coast. GPN talked to growers around the country to find out how they ranked spring 2001.

Which varieties or plant categories performed better than anticipated?

“I was really happy with petunias this year. There were some new introductions, the ?Tiny Tunias?, that were easy to grow and sell.” (Brian Sylvester, Hillcrest Nursery, Inc., Md.)

“We sold less flats than we have in previous years, and more of the ?Proven Winner-type? stuff. It seemed like container gardening increased this year for us ? especially things that were cascading over the sides of pots. With perennials, we saw a strong year with hostas, and grasses were probably the biggest surprise.” (Calvin Bordine, Bordine Nursery, Mich.)

“Proven Winners is by far our largest-selling plant brand; within that, the ?Symphony? series osteo has really taken off. The other thing that did well in the early spring were ?Compact Innocence? and ?Bluebird? nemesias, because they take cool weather so well. The ?Supertunia Surfinia? series still sells great. Combination baskets have really taken off ? we?ve gone to almost three-quarters combinations. Accent or textured plants that go along with combinations were also very strong this spring.” (Carol Huntington, Pleasant View Gardens, N.H.)

“?Orange Symphony? osteospermum, ?Million Bells? and mixed combination baskets. ?Americana Dark Red? is still the standard in dark reds for geraniums. Ivies are definitely one of our biggest sellers.” (Dennis Flynn, Valley Farms, Mont.)

“New, vegetative 4-inch material: argyranthemum, coleus and nemesias. This year was a cool growing season, so the petunias and nemesias did okay, but nowhere near where they were last year. Geraniums still really hold their own ? you get a tremendous amount of color. Three, four, five florets develop on the pot, and you get a good value.” (Justin Marotta, Possum Run Greenhouses, Ohio)

“Four-inch premium annuals, like the vegetative geranium and New Guinea impatiens.” (Mark Leider, Leider Greenhouses, Ill.)

“Bedding plant sales were up just 2-3 percent, but for the month of May, they were up 8 percent. We had a good season with flowering foliage plants ? mandevillas, allamandas, etc. ? and also with the regular foliage. We had a good season with perennial cactus, that was a real shining star with us.” (Terri Colasanti, Colasanti Farms, Ontario, Canada)

“The spring main-line items such as impatiens, petunias and alyssum looked exceptionally good and sold well. Gallon color was expanded and sold out. Our new assorted hanging baskets also sold well for us.” (Steve Fujimoto, Coast Nurseries, Inc., Calif.)

Which varieties or plant categories did not perform as well as anticipated?

“New Guinea impatiens have been a pretty flat line over the last 3-5 years. Last year it went up just a little bit, and this year it was down. I think it?s because there are so many new things on the market competing for the same greenhouse or retail space. Even though there?s been a lot of breeding to make the flowers bigger and more showy, people can only grow so much and retailers only have so much space, so I think the space for New Guineas is shrinking.” (Carol Huntington, Pleasant View Gardens, N.H.)

“With the continued growth of vegetative product, we?ve seen seed geraniums decreasing in popularity and in sales. A lot of geraniums were once used in combination planters as centerpieces, but we see more and more of the ?Proven Winner-type? products becoming important.” (Dean Chaloupka, Floral Plant Growers LLC, Wis.)

“Verbenas, at least in our climate, didn?t perform as well as anticipated ? I don?t know if it was the cool spring or what, but verbenas just aren?t selling like they used to. I think another problem we had was a lot of spider mites and aphids. We?ve pretty much switched to ivy geraniums now, and away from things like verbenas.” (Dennis Flynn, Valley Farms, Mont.)

“Bedding plant sales were less than anticipated. I think we?re flogging New Guineas and geraniums to death. People are telling us that they?re using more unique plantings out in their gardens. The garden centers we sell to are looking for some different products.” (Terri Colasanti, Colasanti Farms, Ontario, Canada)

“Begonias ? I think people are just moving on from begonias, perhaps becoming more sophisticated.” (Tom Rogers, Barlow Flower Farm, N.J.)

How did the price of fuel impact your business, and how were you able to

recoup costs?

“Everyone was adding a fuel surcharge to their orders. I didn?t really feel a big impact; prices were pretty much the same for the plant material. We dealt with it and didn?t have any major complaints.” (Brian Sylvester, Hillcrest Nursery, Inc., Md.)

“We were much less profitable. We probably did not recoup our costs, but we didn?t raise prices. We are mostly trying to become more efficient by looking at technology and modernizing everything. We got a new racking system for the spring, and that helped us some. But for fuel costs, specifically, there wasn?t much that we did.” (Calvin Bordine, Bordine Nursery, Mich.)

“Every year, we really look at what costs are going into product. Fuel affected everything: It affected the heat and oil that go into the greenhouses but also trucking of plant material and supplies, like pots and labels. As a result, we had to raise our prices. No one refused to buy from us because we raised our prices, which is a really good sign. We?ve heard that our customers have done the same things this year, which we are happy about because we have to stop giving away product. It?s got to stop being a commodity, especially at the box stores.” (Carol Huntington, Pleasant View Gardens, N.H.)

“It really took a chunk of our net this year; we had no way to anticipate such a drastic spike. Like most growers, we absorbed the bulk of the cost because we couldn?t pass it on to our customers. We have increased overall cost by 8 percent to help offset the anticipated fuel cost.” (Danny Takao, Takao Nursery, Calif.)

“It did have a major impact ? we have five facilities across the United States, and our estimate was that it would cost us an additional $750,000. The bad news is, it actually did cost us that much; the good news is, we approached all of our customers and received negotiated price increases to cover our costs. So we came out of it fine overall and worked very closely with our customers to make that happen.” (Dean Chaloupka, Floral Plant Growers LLC, Wis.)

“We didn?t really notice it out here. We only fire up a small portion of our greenhouse during the dead of winter; it?s not until about mid-March that we get the whole range going. Fuel costs are not a big concern for us; they?re less than 5 percent of our gross. Since energy costs are such a small portion of our gross sales and one of our major competitors went out of business this year, we could have a doubling in energy costs and only have to raise prices around 3-4 percent to compensate.” (Dennis Flynn, Valley Farms, Mont.)

“Fortunately, we increase costs by 5-10 percent every season, regardless of fuel costs. That compensates for essentially 3 percent inflation, plus any additional costs that you might incur. As far as the fuel issues, two years ago, we signed a contract to fix our fuel costs. It?s just wise to do, and I think many growers are looking at that option.” (Justin Marotta, Possum Run Greenhouses, Inc., Ohio)

“It had a major impact on our business. We did a price increase across the board ? I don?t think it recouped all of the expense of gas, but at least it helped. Unlike other growers, we did not use a fuel surcharge; we just increased our prices, and most of our customers went along with it. With that, I think we did okay.” (Mark Leider, Leider Greenhouses, Ill.)

“It made a definite impact on us. We knew we couldn?t afford to take those fuel bill hits, so after the poinsettia season, we realized we were going to have to produce our product totally different. We closed down the months of January and February ? drained the heating systems, the water lines and just flat out closed the greenhouses. We let our plugs backlog, did our best to maintain plant health and waited until March.” (Michael Benken, H.J. Benken Florist and Greenhouses, Ohio)

“It hasn?t affected us because our county?s natural gas pricing was locked in, but it will this upcoming season. I don?t want to say we?re going to grow cooler, but we tend to grow cooler than a lot of operations. So that should help counter some of the increase.” (Paul Pilon, Sawyer Nursery, Inc., Mich.)

“There is no question that it impacted our business. We increased our prices January 1, and the people that we sell to did not want that increase, but they understood. They are paying us, and I think we fared very well. I?m grateful that our customers were appreciative of the fact that we needed that extra money.” (Terri Colasanti, Colasanti Farms, Ontario, Canada)

“We made the decision last year to buy in more prefinished and finished material ? we planned our production around the fuel increases, and we were able to make some changes when we heard where the prices were going.” (Tom Rogers, Barlow Flower Farm, N.J.)

How effective were various branding programs for you?

“Definitely effective ? there was a demand for them. People were asking for them by name. People were definitely seeing it in the retail area, and the tags were getting their attention. So I think it?s a very important tool, and it?s working.” (Brian Sylvester, Hillcrest Nursery, Inc., Md.)

“Moderately effective. Without question, people saw the advertising, but we don?t have a lot of customers ask for specific brands. People are still more concerned with the store they are buying from and whether that store will stand behind the product.” (Calvin Bordine, Bordine Nursery, Mich.)

“I think they were quite effective. We work with the Flower Fields, and I think they?re doing a good job of getting to the end consumer. Having national recognition that?s getting out to the end consumer is key because a lot of people are reading the gardening magazines and watching gardening television shows.” (Chris Schlegel, D.S. Cole Growers, N.H.) ç

“I don?t see the brands as having been real effective. Buyers for large retailers are familiar with the product and are requesting it, but most of the brands have yet to catch on with the consumers. Other than Waves, we still don?t see consumers asking for products by name. Growers and marketers need to work together to make sure the product that goes to retail meets the expectations of the brand. If a Proven Winner is not cared for at retail, it?s a waste of everybody?s time and effort. It?s not like Palmolive soap, where the product can be advertised and will look on the shelf basically the way it is shown in the ad. Ultimately, if the consumer walks in and the branded plant is half-dead, and an unbranded plant is healthy, she will usually buy the plant that looks good.” (Dean Chaloupka, Floral Plant Growers LLC, Wis.)

“Proven Winners has done pretty good, but we find it easier to promote plants that work in this area; a lot of times, plants that are branded don?t perform well here, so we do our own individual promotion of plants. The companies are doing a lot of branding, but they should put more into educating the consumers ? they are still sticking verbena in the shade, and Non-Stops in full sun. We do a 12-week series of gardening classes. They?re free, and we?ve had as many as 400 people come to a class. It?s cut our return rate down, too. I think a lot of it is because we?ve been educating people. That?s something that these big companies like Proven Winners need to do. Just developing a whole bunch of plant material and throwing it out there isn?t going to increase garden center sales.” (Dennis Flynn, Valley Farms, Mont.)

“Not very effective overall, and it?s really because we mostly sell to the chains, who have their own ?branding method?. So when you introduce two ?brands? to the consumer, it?s confusing. I don?t think the whole branding thing has kicked in yet. Maybe the serious gardener looks to the brands, but with the general consumer, if the plant looks nice, they?ll buy it ? it doesn?t matter what kind of tag is on it. I think the jury?s still out on how effective the whole branding process is. Independent garden centers are not so big on branding because if you get too many brands and POP materials in a store, it detracts from the store and gives it more of a ?carnival? look. The big chains, from what I can tell ? we deal with Frank?s and Home Depot ? are not asking for specific brands. All they want is good, consistent quality plants. I don?t necessarily think the tag and the branding is going to sell the plant, it?s the plant and what it actually looks like.” (Mark Leider, Leider Greenhouses, Ill.)

“People did not come to me looking for brands. Whatever looks the best is what sells. Unless the branding companies are willing to spend a lot more money, I don?t look for them to do anything. If you look at a company like Procter & Gamble, they do the advertising ? they?re not telling Kroger to do it. They spend all the money on marketing, they do all the work, they walk in the store and set it up. We?re far from that.” (Michael Benken, H.J. Benken Florist and Greenhouses, Ohio)

“We had the Flower Fields. I think that?s questionable: There was some interest, but not a whole lot. My retail people tell me that consumers are starting to recognize certain brands. Right now, I think it?s confusing the average consumer because they?re not used to it.” (Patrick Bellrose, Fahr Greenhouses, Mo.)

“This is the first year that the Proven Winners ads had any impact at all. People asked for it, but it was certainly the minority. The problem is that Flower Fields and Proven Winners have the same product with a different name. Take verbena, for instance. You can only carry so many verbenas ? I don?t need to carry both a Flower Fields and a Proven Winner; it just doesn?t make any sense.” (Tom Rogers, Barlow Flower Farms, N.J.)

“These are hot! With proper merchandising (the CD package for point-of-sale, national TV and magazine advertising) they will continue to perform very well.” (Richard Bennett, Bennett?s Greenhouses, Ind.)

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Catherine Evans and Brandi Thomas

Catherine Evans is editorial assistant and Brandi Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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