Celebrating the Past, Present and the Future By Jasmina Dolce

Happily (to me), our industry has become more consumer focused with each passing year. Individual firms and the industry as a whole continue to evolve from a production emphasis to a marketing emphasis, where the consumer’s needs are central to many business decisions. What the consumer needs isn’t just a retailer issue. It’s an industry issue. We’ve become more aware of that fact and are taking steps to address it.

While the pace of change continues to accelerate so, too, does the capability and willingness of many firms to rise to the occasion and address the challenge or change before it acts too negatively on the business. Many have learned the lesson from firms that didn’t address challenges before they became problematic. Those firms unwilling or unable to act are no longer a part of our industry. Stagnation does not inspire. I also see many companies pay more attention to financial information because profitability and liquidity are key survival measures. Savvy companies continue to look both inward at their own improvement and outward to adapt examples of others’ successes to their own. It is great to be a part of an industry where many successful businesses are open to sharing some of the reasons for their success, largely because they have moved on or will soon move on to other ways to stay innovative and profitable. Continuing education is essential for all cutting-edge firms, but how they learn today is different from 25 years ago. In the past, they may have simply observed sales or consumer behavior. Today, however, many firms have incorporated technology and the Internet to both keep in touch with customers and learn from them. The Internet, smartphones, apps and online behavior will become an increasingly more important part of our communications with customers and suppliers.

Where will we be in 2040? The connectedness of people and the plants that enrich their lives won’t change, but perhaps the individual items that meet those needs will. I suspect the food interest will continue to develop and (hopefully) so, too, will consumers’ interest in a healthy, vibrant environment that includes beautiful as well as functional ornamental plants. Markets will continue to become more diverse and fragmented, maybe even realizing the profit potential of mass-customization for markets of one person. We see it for fashion items, why not someday plants? Genetic engineering may permit novel plants we can’t yet dream of that may become indispensable parts of everyday life. We’ll still be a strong industry in 2040 because the bright, passionate, young professionals entering our industry will be inspired to find a way to stay successful. It will be here before we know it!

Bridget Behe, professor, Michigan State University, Department of Horticulture


Until discussing their anniversary with GPN, I had not realized the first basket I ever planted was back in March of 1990. We offered all the choices required, seed impatiens for shade and seed petunias for sun. I have been fortunate enough to witness our industry advance from the “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude to become consumer driven. The passion of the leading breeders throughout the world has not only brought forth innovative cultivars but has done so with the end user in mind. The ability to bring new plants to the market within seasons, rather than years, is astounding. This process allows us to react to the market trends laid out before us, and also to start a few trends of our own.

The globalization of the horticultural industry has allowed direct contact between the breeders, growers, retailers and consumers. Availabilities, purchases and inquiries have become instantaneous. In a short period of time we have advanced from opening a cell phone bill with one eye open due to the $1.99/minute plan to being able to text high-res pictures globally asking for advice or comments.

The market has been driven by the ability of our industry to not only advertise the attributes of a plant, but to associate a lifestyle. I look forward to how we all will continue to advance in the relationship with the consumer. I foresee the common grocery list in the near future: bread, eggs, flowers, milk É beer. Congratulations GPN.

Jim Devereux, regional sales manager, Dümmen Orange


I started my career many years ago with a 100-year-old seed company. There were eight colors of impatiens. Any new Impatiens color riveted the hort industry. New varieties were presented to growers on 35mm slides.

No more! Breeding has changed radically. We are in an explosion of plant diversity. You want a plant that attracts butterflies? We got it. Repels deer? No problem. Drought tolerant? Check. Takes a Texas summer? Yes sir. The horticultural selling season has expanded, and everyone is focused on building shoulders of sales deeper into the summer and earlier into the spring. And all the wringing of hands about the next generation not being interested in plants is proving overwrought, as we re-tool to different lifestyles. Now it’s getting exciting.

Steve Jones, president, Green Fuse Botanicals


Thinking back through what is now 40 years in horticulture (how can this be, since I still think I am 18?!!!), I see several incredible advances, but on some of them, they also constitute the genesis of some of the worst things that have happened along this long, strange trip.

First, and really the kingpin of it all, is the plugseedling. I was privileged to be right in the epicenter of actually creating it at Ball Seed, with the Spark Plug. Bruce Melin, John Van Wingerden, Gene Greiling, Peter Stanley, Bob Wilhelm and I worked together to create the concept, the execution, the marketing, scheduling, techniques, economics and rationale for it. My job was to go all over the country, explaining it and proving that the economics were a no-brainer, along with creating the actual scheduling for the bedding growers. Ed Harthun and I worked in the greenhouses at Ball and published the very first schedules! It was really exciting stuff, and it really exploded in the industry. It led to the great research from Dave Koranski and a host of others and literally created a whole new grower segment, the plug grower.

The plug also drove the equipment manufacturers rapidly forward, creating incredibly efficient new machinery that leveraged the demands for accuracy in high-speed and high-density production. Seeders, tray fillers, water tunnels, booms and internal transport were first, then came the shipping containers. Then the transplanters showed up, and speed and production went through the roof, and we were able to easily produce millions of flats fast and with dramatically lower labor and extreme accuracy. Times were fabulous; anything you grew was sold easily.

My next project at Ball was the pelleted seed and sowing technology. Modern seeders demanded uniformity and cleanliness in an area typically the opposite. I was sent to Upjohn Laboratories and Asgrow Seed with several ounces of dead begonias to begin to figure out how to make seed pellets, but more importantly, how to make pellets that actually broke down. We got it done, after lots of work, and now begonias and petunias were cranked out by the hundreds of millions accurately. Now there is controlled growth, and a ton of other amazing advances. I’m proud to have been there at the very start.

Unfortunately, this efficiency and ease was also the creator of the downside, and it is pretty directly tied. It was now easy for almost anyone to get into the business cheaply — plastic house, a pre-filled flat, plugs when you need them and “Voila!,” you’re in the bedding biz! So much material, booming economy and then the advent of the box store all leading to ever more amazing technology and efficiency. There was a tipping point, where it became more than the market could handle selling. The price wars started, and the more efficient producers took the front seat. We still have not recovered from the overproduction caused by this incredible efficiency, and we will still see more shaking out, and much will be on the extremes. There are some folks who are big, but not big enough, and some smaller operations who didn’t or couldn’t adapt or reinvest, but the real hard spot will be in the middle.

The next big thing is right in front of us now, and this one will last, and become a literal saving grace for many — I am talking about the explosion of biocontrols, biopesticides and organic chemistries so many are trying. We have been almost exclusively biocontrols and biologicals for almost 10 years now and feel we get far better control than almost anyone using chemicals, and the key is that there is no resistance! We are getting better control of thrips using banker plants, Orius, predatory mites and biologicals. Whiteflies are pretty much a nonissue, mites are isolated and crop-specific, and aphids are pretty much hot spots. Fungi are controlled with other fungi, bacteria and water sanitation, along with computer control of the environment. This is no longer a concept or an idea, but full reality for us, and the future is in our own hands and it is clean. This is where we need desperately to go as an industry, to stay acceptable and relevant to younger folks and to feel good about ourselves. It is simply no longer acceptable to gild the lily to the consumer, and try to rationalize using hard chemistry.

The past was amazing, the current reality is exciting again, and the future will amaze us all!

Lloyd Traven, owner, Peace Tree Farm


Over the last 25 years, availability has changed — there was so much demand for everything that we were producing everything and anything and at least 90 percent would sell. We barely had computers or software to support the greenhouse industry or the POS side of retail. Growing media was based on local peat sources, and chemicals were used that were not only prone to resistance, but some were quite dangerous to humans and the environment.

Currently, and going into the future, availability is now more consumer driven and in some markets (wholesale especially) it is driven by not only quality but price. Profits have to be used for equipment upgrades, but also computers and software now must be taken into account. There will be more specialization in crops, along with higher medical and employee costs. We’ll see better irrigation techniques as water becomes more expensive and irrigation runoff becomes more of an issue. There will be more pressure and regulations against chemical insecticides, PGRs and chemical fungicides; using biologicals will become a precedent. More efficient distribution of plants and materials is crucial as labor becomes more expensive.

 Jan Gulley, owner, Gulley Greenhouses

Jasmina Dolce is managing editor of GPN magazine. She can be reached at jdolce@greatamericanpublish.com.