APRIL 12, 2006
Reporting live from Southern California
Welcome to the age of technology. I am writing this column on my new portable laptop computer from my hotel room in Southern California where with the aid of wireless internet connection I can send it off the publisher of this newspaper and you can read it. Amazing, isn’t it. The reason I am down here is to participate in something called the “Pak Trials”. This is an annual event that happens all up and down the coast of California every spring and is attended by industry people from all over the world.
The Pak Trials are essentially a fashion show of flowers where breeders can showcase their new introductions for the following year. But there is a whole lot more to it than that. The breeders are just one part of the equation that ultimately puts a new plant on the shelf for you or me to purchase and take home and plant. It takes the coordinated efforts of several different groups of people.
Breeders are good at genetics but they don’t have the capabilities of producing mass quantities of their new creations. Specialized growers have evolved over the years that have developed the technology to take one plant and turn it into millions of baby plants that can then be purchased by growers like myself that will in turn grow the baby plants into something that is big enough for you to take home and plant and have it survive. One such grower we toured was producing over 2 million baby plants a week in a greenhouse that covered just over 2 acres. That is one heck of a lot of plants.
But like any manufacturing business, no matter what kind of widget you make, you have to market it if you are going to sell it. So in enters the large marketing companies like Proven Winners that do all the advertising in all those stylish gardening magazines and create the demand for these new plants. It is these marketing companies that produce this annual Pak Trial event and they can put on one heck of a show.
Inside greenhouses and outside (because it is sunny California) these companies have created displays to show off their new products. Pansies, petunias, million bells, verbena, nemesia, diascia, phlox, begonias, coleus and on and on in every color of the rainbow and in dwarf, semi-dwarf and full size and trailing and upright and double and single flowers. In other words, pretty much every kind of annual you might buy is featured. We get to see how they perform in “real” garden settings and how they look combined with other plants and they give us ideas on how we might market them to the home gardener.
The trip is intense. I flew into San Diego early (and I mean early) Monday morning and joined 5 other people, two of us grower/retailers and the other 4 brokers that we purchase these baby plants from throughout the year. During the day we stopped at 4-6 greenhouses where we were handed a thick notebook with pictures and descriptions of the plants they were displaying. We took digital photos (which I downloaded onto my laptop at the end of the day) and made copious notes. This information is used in planning what we will buy and grow the following season.
The next morning we got up early and drove to the next destination and started the whole process all over again. The first night we stayed in Solano Beach which is slightly north of San Diego. Last night we were in Ventura which is west of Los Angeles. Today we continued to travel north and are spending the night in Pismo Beach which is just south of San Louis Obispo. Tomorrow we leave at 6:30am and drive to Salinas and Gilroy and on Saturday we end up in San Jose where we will fly back home totally exhausted and filled with so many visions of flowers that we won’t be able to tell one from another.
This is the first time I have attended this event and while it is always exciting to see new varieties, what has struck me most is the complex process of taking a new creation, getting it into production and ultimately bringing it to market. It’s a wonder that plants don’t cost more than they do. This is a sophisticated process with highly mechanized production techniques in facilities so clean and sterile that you could perform heart surgery in them, flashy marketing agencies and specialized transportation systems that deliver a product to the consumer that is free of any diseases and ready to start growing in our gardens.
So the next time you go to purchase that “Wave Petunia” remember that it wasn’t just some hick farmer sowing some seeds in a dirty old run down greenhouse that produced that plant. It was a team of scientists, agricultural technicians, marketing gurus, transportation professionals and retailers all working together. More when I return.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at the nursery at 425-334-2002 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org