August 18, 2010

Good Bye, Park Seed and Jackson & Perkins, but who's next?

Two Horticultural giants filed for Bankruptcy protection this spring, and it is very sad news for many of us in the plant field who loved these companies.. The Park Seed Company, and Jackson & Perkins roses may very well become a memory.  In the words of Plant Delights Nursery owner Tony Avent "George W. Park Seed Company (which includes Wayside Gardens) filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection on April 2. Park Seed also operates two affiliate businesses, Park Seed Wholesale and Jackson and Perkins Direct Marketing (Roses), which were also included in the filing. Park has 120 days to present a plan for restructuring for long term success, or the assets will be sold to pay off its debts. In the meantime, it's business as usual". I grew up with these companies as many of us did, but as I think about it more, I have to admit, that I havn't really thought of these two companies lately. In fact, I don't think that I've ordered from them in ten years or more, whereas I order from Plant Delights Nursery every season, which begs the question: "Why haven't I?"

I think I know why.

Both of these historic companies had thriving business 50 years ago, but their recent failures should only remind us of how much the world has changed. Gardeners older than 40 are mourning the loss of the nostalgic memory of Parks rare Amaryllis seed once available in the 1960’s and 1970’s. or the special rose of the year in the Jackson & Perkins catalog, but the reality is that all that may be remembered in the end are scented rose catalogs and ParksPaks. Face it, times have changes, and they haven’t.

Park Seed and Floral Company, perhaps my favorite seed catalog when I was growing up in the 1970’s is one of the nations oldest companies founded in 1868.  I eagerly awaited every catalog so that I could sit in bed with a flashlight at night looking at plant porn. Startling images of rare Worsleya seeds and titillating green amaryllis.  Today, I have to admit, that I’ve grown beyond the more common offerings, but if I were honest, I also would have to admit that I would be hard pressed to find a reason beyond nostalgia, for why I would order anything from either of these companies.

Their closing may not be surprising to many, for there are surely many reason beyond boring stock photography and “yawn’, ordinary offerings. There is the economy, baby, and the fact that roses have fallen out of style. Mostly, younger and more savvy people have less time to garden,  and those who choose to will most likely visit a big box store, or simply pass through a garden center at a Wal-Mart or Tesco’s rather than take the time to go online a Google ROSES. The rest of us know alternative methods, and either will join a society, or order a rare heirloom or vintage variety, or a new one from a private breeder.

Generally, most average gardeners will just associate both these brands (and, like the language or not, they are brands) and their products with their grandparents.

These sorts of shifts  in gardening trends are not new at all. We have history of changing tastes. At the turn of the Century, Valentines Day was all about scented Parma Violets, poinsettia were yet to be discovered, and no bride would ever consider anything but Camellia corsages and orange blossoms for her wedding party. Outdoors, Sweet peas were all the rage, as were Hollyhocks, and yes, roses. We need to be honest, roses are going the way of the Gladiolus, the Chrysanthemum and the wrist corsage.

But is this news all that bad? Aside from the obvious loss of jobs, which is terrible if it happens, there are some positive signs in the world of garden centers and horticultural companies. Today, younger gardeners snap up ever Hellebore when they appear at Home Depot, Allium bulbs are all the rage suddenly,  as are Snowdrops and Hybrid Daylilies. Cybister Amaryllis are as common as Paper whites, and a silk flower is as hard to find as are plastic grapes on a coffee table. Yeah, our tastes are changing, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Today consumers who grow plants are also segmented differently. They may be green, or want fast, disposable gardens. Either way, they are very different than our parents. Any company selling plant materials today must do their homework. We may not like what the assignment is, but as the world changes, so must the textbook. Even though plant societies are losing members faster than they are getting new ones,  some companies are expanding in new and exciting ways. Take Terrain, for instance, Urban Outfitters ( URBN) hot concept store outside of Philadelphia. According to the URBN quarterly report to investors, the company reported profitable returns, after it's first year and the CEO touched on expansion plans in the future. They site a gap in the marketplace, between the big box offerings, and the small local nursery. Add in a consumer who demands more lifestyle choices, and maybe there is a new model.
 “The goal of Terrain,” said the retailer, “is to transform the local garden center into an experience that celebrates the beauty and abundance of nature while offering an eclectic mix of garden-inspired products tailored for the contemporary customer.”
“We believe Terrain at Styer's will become one of the premier contemporary garden centers in the country.” said Urban Outfitters chairman and founder Richard Hayne. Styer’s single 10-acre location sells indoor and outdoor plants and an assortment of garden supplies and home products. It also includes a garden cafe and range of landscape-design and construction services."
It’s easy to see the differences between the successful plant companies and the ones that are closing. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine comes to mind. They are real. Real savvy, real authentic, real relevant. No color adjusted photos, no catchy names for their tomatoes, they are not afraid of Latin, and everything is in alphabetical order. Having a website that works fast, is nice ( take note - Harris seed).

Then there is uber relevance, take the overnight success story of Baker Creek Seeds, an heirloom seed company started by a 17 year old, just ten years ago. Today, it has grown 700% . In comparison, when I look the website of Parks with an image of a Parks Whopper Tomato, a Zinnia and bright orange Carrots, it looked as common and lame as a seed rack outside a dollar store. Nothing really special. So take note ordinary competitors, for if I was a betting man, you too could face a tough future. (This includes many of the seed catalogs we all loved growing up, but which today feel, well, lost in a sea of sameness- This includes Harris Seeds, Guerney Seeds, Stokes ,Ferry Morse and Jung Seed. These companies might want to ask themselves a difficult question “ why I would order from them, what makes their Blue Lake bean seed different from each other?” ( but, yeah, Stokes does have an incredible wholesale and corn selection – just make your website work!).
Maybe it all boils down to ‘meaning’ and the ‘brand experience’ customers get. Unless you are over 40, any association with these brands is probably not about service or selection, and riding on laurels cut from a 150 year old heritage is maybe not enough today. Seeds from Johnny’s or Baker Creek have a real story, they might be heirloom or organic, I can see a photo of the company owner who is not sitting at a corporate desk or in an old painting, but in farmer jeans in the field.

Sadly, some very good nurseries are closing for other reasons. Seneca Hill Perennials in upstate New York is closing its doors this summer due to illness in the family, Asiatic Nursery is closing this month, owned by plantsman Barry Yinger due to economic reasons. These two closures are both enormous losses to people like us, since they offer plants not available anywhere else, and the gap they leave in our horticultural world is real. They will be missed.


  1. Matt, I share your thoughts all around. I haven's shopped at either Parks or J&P for twenty years, whereas I shopped at Seneca and Asiatica month after month. I was able to visit "Terrain" this past June, for the first time: It was thrilling. Sophisticated and unusual inventory, a uniquely inviting series of interior spaces, ravishing marketing materials: Awesome all around, and they deserve all their success.

  2. Anonymous12:25 AM

    I think you must have have had more sophisticated tastes in plants as a child than I did. I recall dreaming in the 1960's era Parks catalogs over things like 'Thumbelina' zinnias and the astonishing Impatiens 'A Go-Go'. There was minimal practical advice so I happily sowed seeds of Gerber daisies and Delphinium zalil (the rare yellow-flowered Delphinium!) with the marigolds, expecting all to thrive in a suburban Chicago summer. Oh well, you learn early about failure when you get the garden bug.

    In those days, Wayside gardens exuded class and refinement. Even the typeface was elegant, like Gourmet magazine at the time. They did the best they could with color photography and really were the first company I saw that promoted English-style perennial gardens. You could even order collections of plants for an early or a late summer perennial border. What's a little shocking to remember is that these borders featured virtually no plants selected for foliage. Everything was flowers and these only looked good for a couple months a year, at best. Which is a little funny because as you know Gertrude Jekyll was espousing foliage plants in her books much before this. Anyway, Wayside at the time was a unique mail order source for many useful landscape plants. They had a huge selection of ground covers, hedging plants and of course trees. Even the 'landscape' roses of the day, which featured rugosa hybrids and even some old fashioned roses. 'Robin Hood', 'Gruss an Achen' and 'The Fairy' were popular then for landscaping.

    Leaving memory lane, I also pretty much stopped using Parks when they stopped offering annuals and perennial flowers in separate colors and strains. I mean, really, if you go to the trouble of raising things from seed, isn't one of the paybacks that you can be really fussy about what you grow? The Parks color catalog covers were always lurid and tasteless, but I remember liking them when I was a kid.

    I crossed Wayside off my list when in later years the quality of their plants went way downhill. Too many things shipped direct from growers, and not of the best quality. Lots of bare-root perennials, which are very tricky and only successful when absolutely fresh, and these often weren't. Plus they were so expensive but happily replaced anything you didn't like, without a peep. When the later generations of home-grown mail order nurseries got started, there was no reason to use Wayside, even though they did offer some really lovely and rare things. Too bad. You can analyze it better than me, but I felt it just became another business run by bean counters with probably way too much overhead and debt. And aside from great customer service, too many other nurseries delivered better plants. I can't think of a good mail-order plant nursery that doesn't raise their own plants, but maybe you can. Thanks. KM

  3. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Rumor has it that Ferry Morse is going under soon. I heard they are laying off full time wo ekers, cut back part time workers, got rid of equipment, are selling down inventory. I know they lost contract with Tractor Supply stores to Burpee.They just aren't competitive. anymore. They waste a lot of capital on giving seasonal representatives company vehichles all year long at the company's expense, not to mention the gasoline costs to send an actual rep into a small store to do what a computer could do. Some of these companies are just out of touch with the market and today's economic realities. They are really undermining the diversity of the whole industry which will result in Monsanto based companies dominating the market. God help us all!


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