How do you sell a plant? You do your best to grow the best, but there’s a lot of competition out there. If you’re a grower and you’re attracting landscape and retail customers — selling wholesale — you have a website, a catalog and an availability list. You tweet, you e-blast, you Instagram. You do all you can to get the word out. For those customers who are fortunate enough to visit your facility, however, one of the best ways to show off your plants is in a display garden. Out of the pot and into the ground, those plants look different. Giving them a few years to mature in a garden setting, showing customers what the plants look like in their “natural” environment, can inspire even the most creative of landscape professionals. The result? Better educated customers and increased sales. Plus, there’s the benefit of working with an on-site test plot, where your staff can monitor and evaluate plants in a garden setting.
Education by design
Many growers offer their gardens for landscape customers, showing off their best selections in a way that’s a bit more inspiring than row upon row of cans. But often the gardens are used for trials and staff instruction, as well. As Jill Bondi, marketing manager for Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles, Illinois, describes it, “It’s utilizing the space to create a beautiful display, but really utilizing it more for education to compare and contrast different varieties; basically, the space [is used] as much for education versus just a beautiful garden.”
The world-renowned display at Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon, was established by the late Jean Iseli as “a synoptic garden, kind of one of each of different groups of plants,” explains Sandy Dittmar, director of consumer marketing relations for the grower. “There were strip plantings of different types of plants; I’ll say one strip would have been Chamaecyparis obtusa, and another strip Picea abies … .” It was intended to be a place of comparison, a living lab for the nursery that evolved into spectacular gardens still used for education, but for display as well.
At Monrovia’s Dayton, Oregon, facility, plant production manager Ron Tuckett maintains the extensive display gardens for visitors as well as for “in-house” purposes. “First and foremost,” he says, “it’s a display garden. But then we also get new plants in all the time; there are people who’ll send us new varieties, and they’ll say, ‘We want to see what this looks like planted out.’ Or people will call and say, ‘How big does this get if you don’t prune it?’ Well, we’ve got the plant in our garden, and we haven’t pruned it, so we can show them, this is how big it will get after so many years.”
Then there’s the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Arboretum in Boring, Oregon, a private, 10-acre display that was established in 1984. Nancy Buley, the company’s communications director, says the extensive collection “is used to educate customers and specifiers (landscape architects, designers, urban foresters, garden writers, policymakers) … and it is a great living laboratory where we can observe tree performance over a long period of time. Understanding how each variety and tree grows helps us do a better job of growing them.”
Most growers’ display gardens are open to customers, and a few to the public. While we’d like to fly everyone out to stroll through the actual gardens, we’ll have to give you a little preview here. And for more photos, be sure to visit https://www.amerinursery.com.
Iseli Nursery, Boring, Oregon
About 2.5 acres of garden surrounds the Iseli Nursery main office in Oregon, and the site is well-known for its collection of woody plants. “We get people from all over the world coming to look at our garden,” Dittmar says. “It’s not open to the public, but it’s for our customers; sometimes a landscaper will bring one of their clients here to look at something. They’re usually here to purchase something, but of course they can tour the garden.
“A lot of college groups come through, kind of a field trip for their plant identification class, or just to see what’s out there,” Dittmar continues. “So those students are getting some exposure to the company and possibly would have interest down the road in an internship program, or future employment, you never know.”
The garden was created by the late Jean Iseli several decades ago, primarily as a place for the company to observe plants as they mature. But in the late 1990s, the company developed the site into a regular garden design, connecting several individual plots to surround the main building.
“There’s not just the plants that we’re actively producing, there are things that we’ve discontinued that are still there,” Dittmar describes. “But we also include a lot of evaluative material so that we’ve got it, we can show our customers what’s coming on, we can show them things we’re working on, we can ask them, ‘what do you think about this plant?’”
The garden gives Iseli staff an opportunity to “see a plant 15, 20 years down the road,” Dittmar says. “We wouldn’t have a 20-foot-tall whatever in our growing yards, but here in the garden we do. It’s all inventoried in a database; it’s like a living museum.”
As with most growers’ displays, this garden provides customers a unique view of a plant’s future. Specifying a plant from a plant tag is one thing; seeing a variety several years down the road gives a designer a whole new perspective.
“A lot of conifers will start out more globe-shaped and develop a leader later, and become more treelike,” Dittmar says. “That’s just what a lot of them do. So then you can show the customer, this is what it’s going to do; you’ve got to be patient with it, but this is what you’re going to end up with.”
The Iseli garden also is used as the company’s own photography studio, ready to be employed for marketing and advertising purposes. Having mature trees in a landscape setting helps the company show customers more than just a snapshot of the plant. “With a typical flowering crop or other types of plant materials, the photo image that’s used to represent those, either on the retail tag or in a company’s catalog, is a bloom,” Dittmar notes. “It’s just a close up; that’s all that’s seen. With the type of material we have, we need to show it in a landscape setting.”
J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Arboretum, Boring, Oregon
Nancy Buley describes the garden thus: “Named in honor of the founder of one of North America’s leading nurseries, the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Arboretum is home to more than 500 species and cultivars of deciduous trees, shrubs and conifers. Established 30 years ago, this private 10-acre arboretum is a living museum and may well be the most up-to-date collection of deciduous tree cultivars in North America. Trees are organized by genus and species, and identified by Latin and common names.”
The site is visited year-round, and often plays host to social events as well as horticultural educational events. “We make it available to green industry and non-profit groups as a gathering place. We often host green industry educational events and field days,” Buley says. For several years, Dr. Michael Dirr and Keith Warren, the nursery’s director of product development, have teamed for a tour of the site billed as the “Walk of Legends.”
Buley explains that the arboretum was ahead of its time. “One of the things that I find quite visionary about J. Frank Schmidt Jr. — the arboretum was his idea, and it involved taking a perfectly good, 10-acre production field out of production and turning it into an arboretum/display garden. They started by laying out the planting areas, the road to the eventual picnic shelter, and then planting bare root trees. For a decade, it looked like a big field with trees planted here and there, but as they matured, the arboretum took shape, and it has become a wonderful, shady, cool gathering place.”
The site has become so successful that the company has planted more displays closer to headquarters. “We have developed a good collection of our newer introductions in the main office landscape,” Buley explains. “[It features] probably 40 or more trees that are currently in production. Showing these to customers on our way to the Suburban for a field tour is a great sales tool.”
Midwest Groundcovers, St. Charles, Illinois
On its softly rolling property in northern Illinois, Midwest Groundcovers has established several areas of display gardens. Initially created as islands among production acreage and administrative facilities, the gardens have evolved over the years in many ways. A swath of lush grasses and perennials along the two-lane highway provides a welcome at the entrance to the property, but the area also hosts a trial garden. “It isn’t the best area, so we did it on purpose,” Bondi remarks. “It’s close to one of the main drives, alongside the gravel road,” where plants are put to the test. Selections such as a new Gypsophila — which did not survive the challenging winter conditions — and about 10 varieties of Geum have been trialed so far. Two of the Geum passed muster and will be incorporated into the company’s production program.
Noted international plantsman Piet Oudolf designed perennial gardens that surround the Midwest Groundcovers office, incorporating many of the company’s current inventory as well as a few plants on trial. Midwest also works closely with plantsman Roy Diblik, co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, and author of The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, who often supplies the nursery with introductions. (Oudolf and Diblik also teamed to help develop the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.)
Bondi explains that all gardens on site are dual purpose: to educate customers and to educate the staff. A new Hydrangea paniculata display was incorporated, because “the market is so saturated with different hydrangeas, but what do they do? How do they perform?” she poses.
A company brand enjoys its own space: Hocus Pocus Groundcovers® is a line of plants that are said to “cover like magic.” The small garden is a way to show customers new varieties, and a way for the company to evaluate its own efforts. “What’s interesting is that, right or wrong, good or bad, we display them,” Bondi says. “There are plants that do not perform extremely well in our site, so we have to replace and/or decide to eliminate them completely. If we continue to see failures in our landscape, we know it’s probably not something that’s covering like magic, at least not in our site, and we question whether it belongs in the program.”
There are two types of landscape customers who visit Midwest Groundcovers, according to Bondi: “Some come just to pick up their order, then there are others who come here, place their order, and then walk the property. And they take pictures.” Those pictures inspire the landscape pros, but they also serve to inspire their own customers. It’s great marketing.
Monrovia, Dayton, Oregon
The meandering, 6-acre display gardens that surround Monrovia’s Dayton, Oregon, facility, resemble a park more than a distinct garden. But the installation serves, as most do, as a source of learning and beauty. Plant protection manager Ron Tuckett is charged with maintaining both of those functions, ensuring that visitors are greeted with outstanding examples of Monrovia’s plants as well as providing Monrovia staff with information, and material, at their fingertips. “We want it to look beautiful out there, and we want to display all our plants so that people can see what they look like as they grow and as they mature,” Tuckett says. “We want to show off our building as well, and make it beautiful for everybody to enjoy.”
Sometimes the acreage is used in propagation. Yes, it’s a display garden, but “there have been times where we’ve gone out of a certain variety and weren’t producing it anymore, and so the only plants available were in the landscape,” Tuckett says. “So they became mother plants, and those didn’t look very good for a while, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices. One year we got 2,000 cuttings off of plants in the garden, and we were back in business again with the variety. We try not to do that; we try to keep it good looking out there all the time. But occasionally plants will get pruned out fairly heavily for propagation, even though that’s kind of a last resort.”
Display gardens need not be vast to make an impact; a smaller, well-designed and maintained plot that features your plants the way the end user imagines can be just as effective. What’s critical?
“I think this is probably the most important thing for a display garden,” Tuckett says. “When you see a plant like a nursery would sell it — in a 1-gallon container, a 5-gallon container — it almost never looks like it’s going to look in the landscape. It’s been pruned, and it’s a certain size, and you really don’t know what it’s going to do. Sometimes you just don’t have the vision of what it’s going be, and people need help with that.
“I’m not a very good designer; I can’t see a plant or look at a picture on a page and imagine how it’s going to look in the garden,” he continues. “I have to take it out there. I’m fortunate that I work at a big nursery where I can just go out and grab whatever I need, and I’ll take three or four things out and see what looks best.
“That’s why seeing a full-sized plant, or seeing a mature plant, people can get that vision. You might not sell the plant in a 1-gallon container, especially if people just saw it in a 1-gallon container. But when they see it full size, in the garden, it’s like ‘Wow, I’ve got to have one of those!’”