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Into the Garden: A look inside the business of gardening

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anna Ball has been in the gardening business for many years, starting in the seed office of Ball Horticultural and moving to the top of her family's company, one of the nation's largest sellers of commercial seed for flowers and ornamental crops. The company also owns W. Atlee Burpee, a major seed seller to home gardeners."We always let our varieties do the talking: the Wave petunias, Early Girl tomatoes," Ball said at the 2011 International Master Gardeners Convention in Charleston last month. But she gave the audience a business perspective of the broader horticulture world, including insight into the current trends."People want plants with a purpose. We started in the business of feeding the soul of the world, creating beauty. Recently, we found we need the gardens of tomorrow to be more than just about beauty -- they will be about plants and people and that relationship. We call it the Three E's: economic benefit, environmental benefit and emotional and health benefits," the CEO said.Ball listed many ways plants help the environment, and she gave a few other interesting benefits of plants. She said a study by the University of Illinois of three similar apartment buildings, one with no trees or shrubs, one with a few plants, and one that was lushly landscaped, had widely varied amounts of crime. The building with the most plants had, by far, the least amount."Crime plummeted in the heavily landscaped one. They think, in part, it was because the women who lived there spent a lot of time outside, tending to their territory." She also said plants along roadways slow traffic.Another trend in the business is plants with drama. Someone once described her company's bedding plants as "timid," and she realized that had to change."People want 'in your face' in their plants today," Ball said. "It doesn't have to be complicated, it often just needs to be more vertical." Ball said green walls are a popular trend around the world."The problem with green roofs is that you can't see them! In Seoul, Chile, Paris, we see a lot of interesting plantings on the sides of buildings. We see vertical farming in Abu Dhabi, Singapore -- just follow the money and that's where you'll see the latest trends."Ball said the "old" trend to gardeners -- sustainability -- is the hot new trend in the industry. She joked that the garden center has become the "carbon offset center." Gardeners have been aware of the environment for years, but the trend is away from the 10-by-10 Victory Garden to incorporating edibles into the landscape.Ball talked about the shift in where Americans buy their plants.
"In 1980, it used to be 100 percent independent garden centers. Now, it's 40 percent independent garden centers and 60 percent mass marketers. The consolidation lowers prices, and margins of profit as well. I think there's a place for both in the market," she added.Finally, Ball said her company needs to better address the retail experience for the novice gardener, where there is a disconnect between the industry and the consumer. A friend told her, "My young friend going into a garden center has the same experience as my grandmother going into Best Buy." She pointed to the Latin names, an audience not being raised by gardeners, and the fact that many novices don't understand the classic industry categories (woody, part sun, perennial, etc.)."Who else describes their product by the size of its container? We say it's a 10-inch plant, but it's the pot that's 10 inches, not the plant. That's like saying you're buying 12-inch eggs, because the carton is 12 inches long."They tell us to give them perennials that look like annuals, and annuals that act like perennials. They don't care if it's a native, they just want low maintenance."
Hydroponic gardeningWest Virginia State University Extension Service is hosting two hydroponic production workshops covering hydroponic gardening and growing techniques. The free workshops will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in the Ripley High School Ag Building and Greenhouse.Hydroponic production is growing plants in nutrient-enriched water without an inert medium such as soil. In traditional agricultural production, soil is used as the growing medium. In this method of production, a nutrient solution provides all the needed nutrition that the plant requires.Participants will get hands-on education on nutrient film technique, aeroponic and hydroponic growing systems, which have been incorporated into the Ripley High greenhouse for educational and production purposes for the school system."We want participants to learn the basics of hydroponics, as well as the benefits," said Melissa Stewart, extension specialist for agriculture and natural resources. "From saving space to reducing weeds, insects, disease and pesticides, we'll cover all areas of using a variety of production systems."While there is no cost to attend the workshops, registration is necessary. Call the WVSU Extension Service offices at 304-204-4305 or email
The program is made possible in part by a grant from the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation and the Jackson County Foundation.Reach Sara Busse at or 304-348-1249.
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