The Perennial Farm goes above and beyond growing high-quality plant material by offering landscape professionals and retailers valued services, support and educational tools to help their businesses succeed.
A few years ago at the New England Grows trade show in Boston, Ed Kiley, director of sales and marketing for The Perennial Farm, Glen Arm, Md., was approached by the owner of a Boston-area wholesale growing operation. The man had a big smile on his face as he greeted Kiley.
The Perennial Farm owner Rick Watson and his wife, Gail, in one of the farm’s fern greenhouses. “With all the things we do that provide value to our customers, we want to be able to say to them, ‘Why would you buy from anywhere else?'” Rick Watson says.
After the two men shook hands, the grower, whose business is a friendly competitor of The Perennial Farm, told Kiley in a joking manner, “You guys are pissing me off.” When Kiley asked why, the grower confessed that during the previous summer his wholesale operation had “tested” The Perennial Farm’s declaration that it is “The Delivery Specialists.” The Perennial Farm states most customers – from Maine to North Carolina and west to Ohio – who place an order by 1 p.m. will usually receive their plants the following day.
On two occasions, the Massachusetts wholesale operation placed a large perennial order with The Perennial Farm in the morning and then added on to the order later that afternoon. The first time, the business added six Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’. The second time, it added six Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’. Despite the add-ons, each order was pulled and delivered by about 7 a.m. the next day.
“Ed, I’ve got customers 30 minutes down the road that can get a delivery faster from you in Maryland then they can get from me,” the man told Kiley. Kiley says he looked at his friend and competitor and told him, “We’re going to keep trying to piss you off.”
By providing customers with high-quality plants at a competitive price and a high level of customer service and support, The Perennial Farm has gained a reputation as one of the leading wholesale perennial growers on the East Coast.
“With all the things we do that provide value to our customers, such as just-in-time deliveries, silent sales aids, reference materials and four informational websites, we want to be able to say to them, ‘Why would you buy from anywhere else?'” says owner Rick Watson.
Sowing the seeds for success
The story of The Perennial Farm actually begins at Watson’s Garden Center, located nine miles southwest of Glen Arm in Lutherville, Md.
In the early 1950s, Maurice Watson, Rick’s grandfather, re-mortgaged his home so he could purchase a nearly bankrupt garden center in Towson, Md., for his three sons to operate. Rick’s dad, Joe Watson, and Rick’s uncles, Bobby and Jimmy Watson, grew the nearly bankrupt garden center into a thriving business. In 1955, the Watson brothers relocated their business, Watson’s Garden Center, to its current location in Lutherville. Today, Watson’s Garden Center – a full-service nursery, greenhouse and garden center – is run by Henry Marconi, Bobby’s nephew.
As a youth, Rick Watson spent many afternoons after school and weekends helping his dad and uncles at his family’s business. “I usually worked in the nursery and in the greenhouse,” he says. “As a result, I made a decision early in life that I wanted to make this my career.”
The Perennial Farm was originally the nursery division of a design-build landscaping business called Exterior Design Inc., which was founded by Rick Watson and his business partner, Ken Fowler, in 1980. After Fowler died in 1998, Watson shut down the landscaping division and renamed the business as The Perennial Farm.
While studying horticulture at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the late 1970s, Watson worked for renowned landscape designer and horticulturist Kurt Bluemel, who taught his young student how to grow perennials and ornamental grasses.
“I was always asking Kurt questions because he has a lot of plant knowledge. At times, I pestered him to the point that he would tell me, in his German accent, ‘Ricky, lessons are extra,'” Watson says with a laugh.
In 1980, after earning his horticulture degree and receiving his mentor’s blessing, Watson, along with another Bluemel employee, Ken Fowler, started a design-build landscaping business in Glen Arm called Exterior Design Inc. At that time, the only perennials available to Watson and Fowler were perennials in quart containers. Oftentimes, the plants would disappear under the mulch and did not provide the impact they were looking for in their designs.
In 1983, after purchasing 3.5 acres of property adjacent to his home, Watson started growing perennials and ornamental grasses in 1- and 2-gallon containers, creating a bigger impact in customers’ landscapes. He also sold the plants to his family’s garden center, which led to sales at other garden centers in Maryland and in surrounding states.
Four years later, Watson and Fowler split the business into two divisions: a landscaping division, which was run by Fowler, and a nursery division that Watson oversaw. Tragically, on March 29, 1998, Fowler was killed in a motorcycle accident in York County, Penn. During this difficult time, Watson made the decision to shut down the landscaping division and change the name of the growing business to The Perennial Farm.
The Perennial Farm now employs more than 60 people year-round and adds 40 more people during peak season, which is from March 1 to June 15. Watson is joined at work by his wife, Gail, who is in charge of accounting and payroll, and his son, Tom, who is the marketing manager for the farm’s Treadwell line of perennials. Rick’s youngest daughter, Katie, helps in human resources when she is home from college.
Fulfilling customers’ orders
With more than 60 acres for production, The Perennial Farm grows more than 1,000 varieties of flowering perennials, ornamental grasses, flowering shrubs, hardy ferns, flowering vines, groundcovers, and some seasonal flowering plants, such as pansies, cabbage and kale. More than 60 greenhouses – heated and unheated – are situated on 280,000 square feet of property.
“Sixty acres for container production may seem like a lot of property, but it’s still a finite amount. Therefore, we have to properly manage our square footage,” Watson says. (See “Lessons Learned from Europe”, page 8.)
The majority of The Perennial Farm’s customers are landscaping companies, as well as independent garden centers and rewholesalers. The business does not sell to big-box retailers.
Landscapers or garden centers that place an order with The Perennial Farm are given quotes the same day. Customer service staff recommend suitable substitutions if the plant requested isn’t available. Once the order is confirmed, a pull ticket is generated using a wholesale nursery-specific software system. The pull ticket provides the order puller with two greenhouse options from which to pull the plants.
Watson’s Garden Center, shown here in 1964, was founded by brothers Joe, Jimmy and Bobby Watson in the early 1950s in Towson, Md. In 1955, the business was relocated to Lutherville, Md., where it is still in operation today.
“At the end of the day, every single one of our customers is called and given an approximate time when their order will be delivered the following day,” Watson says.
The Perennial Farm has a fleet of 15 delivery vehicles that include tractor trailers, 10- and 12-rack box trucks and small delivery vans. Delivery drivers are routed to the farthest location first, then are brought back closer to The Perennial Farm to make subsequent deliveries. A specialized map program, which is displayed on a large LCD monitor outside of the customer service office, is updated by the minute with such information as the order’s status, delivery driver’s name and estimated delivery time.
Lessons Learned from Europe
Rick Watson, owner of The Perennial Farm, Glen Arm, Md., was among a group of perennial growers who took a tour of about 20 nurseries in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium in the early 1990s. There, he learned best practices on how to use land efficiently for production.
What really caught Watson’s eye was how Dutch nurseries turned over plants in their greenhouses and growing areas without wasting land.
“Open spots in container areas and greenhouses didn’t really exist to a large degree in Holland,” Watson says. “When I returned home, I tried to make our nursery, greenhouses and growing areas more accessible for producing plants and pulling orders. If I can get three turns a year in a greenhouse so I can grow three different, successive crops, then I end up needing less square footage.”
“Our customers want just-in-time delivery,” Watson says. “They don’t want their plants delivered a week or two before they need them. They want to do the least amount of handling as possible. Our customers get exactly what they want, when they want it.”
Building a better mousetrap
The Perennial Farm takes a conservative approach to introducing new plants to the marketplace, Watson says. “If we feel comfortable with an introduction and if it’s a home run, we’ll go with it,” he adds.
Two recent home runs have been its line of Treadwell perennials and a line of landscape plugs called Mr. Big Stuff. “You can learn a lot from your competition. We looked throughout the marketplace and found products that were very intriguing. But we felt we could build a better mousetrap,” Kiley says.
Treadwell perennials. These perennials, which can tolerate foot traffic, are used by landscape professionals for walkways, pathways, stone walls, rock walls and patios, according to Tom Watson. “They are tried-and-true favorites that are available year round in true quart pots. These plants work in hot and humid areas, as well as cold, winter environments,” he says.
Garden centers can promote Tread-well as its own brand and have full market exclusivity, Watson says. “We put the Treadwell name along with the garden center’s name. The Perennial Farm plays the strong, silent, John Wayne type behind the scenes,” he adds.
Customers can access a Treadwell plant catalog, design ideas and marketing tools by visiting the website, www.treadwellplants.com. In addition, The Perennial Farm was among the first growers in the industry to use quick response (QR) codes on its plant tags, Watson says.
“Our industry isn’t always the fastest to jump on technology, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well our customers have adapted to this new marketing approach,” he adds.
When the QR code is scanned by a smartphone, the customer receives additional online resources and information about that particular Treadwell variety. It also brings up a 15-second video by renowned horticulturist and researcher Dr. Allan Armitage, who is a strategic advisor for the Treadwell line. In each video, Armitage briefly describes the plant’s ornamental characteristics, as well as its best use in the landscape.
Mr. Big Stuff. These landscape plugs, which are sold in a variety of sizes depending on the specific job need, are ideal for mass restoration projects, green roofs and green walls.
With more than 60 acres for production, The Perennial Farm grows more than 1,000 varieties of flowering perennials, ornamental grasses, flowering shrubs, hardy ferns, groundcovers, and some seasonal flowering plants, such as pansies, cabbage and kale.
A new line of perennials for 2013, Perennial Farm Premium, will be unveiled at the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in January. “Our strength has always been plants in No. 1 containers, but we’ve decided to produce a very strong line of plants in No. 2 containers,” Rick Watson says. “We know that this will be a hot new line of plants for us next year.”
Creating a culture of quality and value
While all nurseries strive to produce high-quality plants, Kiley believes that a successful growing operation must adopt a “culture of quality” in order to meet or exceed customer expectations.
“Rick created a culture of quality at our company through hard work and attention to detail,” Kiley says. “About five years ago, we were slammed with orders in the springtime, and we didn’t have enough order pullers. So Rick personally headed up a crew to pull orders. You don’t see that in a lot of companies today.”
An important piece of that culture of quality is adding value for customers. “Our customers want the highest-quality plant material at a good price value. They want a high level of customer service and support, and they want plant materials delivered when they need it, not when the grower wants to deliver it,” Watson says. “Because of this, we are recognized as ‘the price value leader,’ and that’s something we take pride in.”
The Perennial Farm grows 225 native plants and native cultivars. Information on each plant can be accessed by customers on the website, www.whatsnative.com.
Photos courtesy of Tom Watson unless otherwise noted.
One of the more important strategies The Perennial Farm uses to add value is providing customers with educational tools about plants. “We strongly believe that if we help our customers sell more plants, we’ll sell more plants to our customers,” Watson says.
The following is a small sample of the educational resources The Perennial Farm offers to its customers.
Mary’s Must Haves. Each week on The Perennial Farm website (www.perennialfarm.com), Mary Hall, who oversees inventory and availability, posts photos that she takes of plants that catch her eye, along with a brief description of each variety. “Mary does our plant grading, and she is consistently conservative. If Mary says a plant looks good, it looks good. A lot of our customers will just order Mary’s Must Haves,” Kiley says.
Master availability list. Availability lists are posted online and updated multiple times a week. However, a popular reference with customers is a password-protected master availability list that includes comments from Hall and wholesale prices for each plant. Kiley explains that the list wasn’t supposed to be accessible to customers, but one day, he published it by mistake.
“Mary would make a comment like, ‘Ugly, needs to be cut back’ or ‘The leaves have spots on them.’ When I accidentally published the list, I was horrified because I thought we wouldn’t be exposing ourselves properly to our customers,” he says. “But, during that week, I received more positive feedback from people because that’s what they wanted to see. They really got a sense for what we were doing, that we weren’t hiding anything.”
www.Growingforyou.com. Designed as a resource for landscapers and customers of premium garden centers, the website contains photos and information on more than 1,000 varieties of perennials, ornamental grasses and other flowering plants, as well as articles and tips on gardening. Customers can also submit questions via the website that are downloaded each morning and answered by staff at The Perennial Farm.
“We are not looking to promote The Perennial Farm on this website. We are trying to support our customers,” Kiley says.
Perennial Farm Plants at Famous Places
Over the past 20 years, plants grown at The Perennial Farm, Glen Arm, Md., have been used in approximately 250,000 installations along the East Coast, according to Tom Watson, marketing manager for the farm’s Treadwell line of perennials.
“Our plants are at 352 golf courses, many amusement parks, and at every major airport and professional sports venue from Boston to North Carolina,” he says.
Perennial Farm plants were also installed at the following national landmarks:
- U.S. Capitol
- White House
- U.S. Supreme Court
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Statue of Liberty
Some customers that don’t have company websites put “growingforyou.com” on their promotional materials, according to Watson. “One of our landscape customers uses in his plant warranty,” he adds. “He tells his customers that if they don’t follow the plant care information on the website, their warranty is null and void.”
www.Whatsnative.com. This website provides extensive information on 225 native plants and native cultivars that have been chosen by landscape professionals for today’s landscapes. The Perennial Farm also recently published the second edition of a companion book, What’s Native, that includes an introduction by Armitage.
“Our customers rely on us as a business partner to help them grow their businesses,” Rick Watson concludes. “As the ‘price value leader,’ when you consider all the things we provide to our customers – quality, price, delivery, customer service, silent sales aids, support, websites and educational seminars – we’re the best bang for their buck.”
Jason Bramwell is a freelance writer, and a contributor to and former senior associate editor of American Nurseryman. He can be reached at email@example.com.