January 13, 2016

When I Win Power Ball Tonight, I'm Buying Thompson & Morgan

First, you need to know this: There are two Thompson & Morgan companies. One in the UK, the original, and one in the US and Canada, the portion of the company sold in 2009.

My story began at midnight last night as I was searching on-line for Phlox drummondii seed.

There was a time when I looked forward to the arrival of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalog arriving in the mail, just after Christmas. Throughout the 1980’s, I would spend hours – literally hours - marking up the colorful pages, at least, until I ‘grew up’ horticulturally, and began graduating to the 'hort-porn' hidden within the Heronswood catalog.

Thompson & Morgan wasn't perfect, but boy, they sure did carry an impressive variety of seeds, at the very least, their seedless helped educate me with my botanical Latin, at its best, it taught be how to germinate difficult to grow plants. I was introduced to Saladisi (their version of what eventually became Mesclun), and the catalog carried such 'exotic veggies(at least to us Americans)  to weird vegetables like Courgettes, swede’s. aubergine. Rocket, broad beans and beetroot. Oh, you Brits – so fancy, Mange tout!

Read more of this rant, just click below.

Today, the newly reinvigorated Thompson & Morgan, is swift and savvy, as I learned yesterday when I shared my frustration with the brand on Facebook and Twitter. I hated doing that, and it's not my typical behavior, as I’m not the sort who brings such issues to social media, but honestly? I felt crappy after visiting the Thompson & Morgan US website, in my desperate, late night emergency, life or death search for Phlox drummondii. Stop it, don’t mock me. You’ve been there too!.

The US site, confused and frustrated me, because it only listed about 14 (about? Exactly fourteen) annuals, the rest, were marked ‘sold out’. When I selected ‘Vegetables’, nothing appeared in their offerings list. At first, I was confused,  later, just angry as I could not find any reasoning or explanation as to what was up, either on Google, or in a search.

I visited the UK site, which at least confirmed my theory that this was purely an American problem. I was hoping that I could order directly from the UK site, but it appears that one cannot, which is unfortunate, but perhaps, was part of the deal in selling the US portion of the business?

I posted my concern and angst on Facebook, and Twitter, and went to bed at 2 am. This morning, at 6 am, I discovered something impressive - the UK company had responded.  -  it reminded me of a 2 day, and somewhat inspiring, meeting I had at work last year, with a social media expert  and consultant who talked about this at a Ted conference. Justadandak.

If you are curious, check out his site and videos here. DK blew me away with his ideas on how social media should work in business today, and what Thompson & Morgan did, was exactly what he spoke to us about. Within three hours, I was retweeted – and even  ‘liked’ by Thompson & Morgan UK, but not the US company. 

Nice, but insightful, right?

They immediately addressed my concerns, in a cheerful and helpful manner, which was then retweeted and liked by many of my fans, and theirs as well. Brilliant. And even though nothing was solved, I felt better for some reason.

I was also impressed by what they didn’t say. 

There were no excuses, not even that the US site was owned by someone else. They just provided a link for me to contact the other company OK, so maybe it’s some contractual  where they were foreboden to speak of the other company, but in the end, I was reminded that they are two companies now, and finally, I resolved that the US company must be closing, or being dissolved by the owner Gardens Alive.

As for the US site, I have yet to hear anything, and I doubt that I will given how nothing appears in a full day search on Google, or on their social media which – honestly, is a great example of what social media should not look like. Sad, but true.One the venerable  British seed company founded in 1855 and now owned by Primary Capital who acquired the now profitable company in 2002, and then there is the US version of the seed company, a completely different business which was sold in 2009 to the mail order mega catalog company, Garden's Alive. 

Image from the Thompson & Morgan, Website in the UK.

Yeah, that Garden's Alive the mail order catalog with the ladybug on the logo? Got it.

What has happened still needs to be sorted out, but some things are clear - the British unit under the guidance and stewardship of its parent company has grown to become one of the largest, and most profitable seed companies in Europe, but something has gone fatally wrong with the US company, and some of us are trying to figure out what went wrong, and when.

Much appears to not be public, since Gardens Alive is a private company. Maybe they are working on restructuring the Thompson & Morgan brand, maybe they are recrafting the rather nonfunctional and unpopulated website, or more than likely, they are shopping the business around for anew buyer, but anyway one looks at it, the venture failed for any number of reasons, but why?

I have my theories. I assume that they bought the brand name and visual assets, but not the actual product? Or perhaps, just some of the product? (the seeds), since the US product lines were different, or highly edited from the UK and EU selections, but one thing is for certain - the US counterpart did not zig when it should have zagged - as the UK company grew in innovative ways, increasing varieties and choices, offering new plants not available anywhere else, clearly building a name for itself in a new world of gardeners, the US company slipped into what appeared to be a more generic seed company, with very little diversity or variety, two tenets that made the Thompson & Morgan name such a respected seed supplier years earlier.

Whether any of these theories are valid or not, I just can’t agree with what the Gardens Alive CEO Niles Kinerk stated as the cores reason why his seed catalogs are failing in the marketplace. All I can do is to guess at what the cause might be,  but I can make a few connections.  Given that Gardens Alive failed bid on acquiring the Park Seed Company catalog a few years ago, as well as the fact that the business owns many seed and plant catalog libraries, I would imagine that it seemed like a good idea to buy a well known and recognized name, maybe merge it with a few of the other content lists, much in the way that Target corp purchased the rights to the one-time popular horticultural lifestyle company Smith & Hawken. 

Mr. Kinerk was quoted on NPR's Marketplace as saying "folks are not ordering from (his) Spring Hill Nurseries which has experienced losses over the past few years. The article states that it's “a nationwide phenomenon that is decades in the making but came to a head in the great recession.” We can't deny that the recession has affected sales of many things, but other business have proven that plants not only have sold well, but that some niche companies increased their sales. But why? I'm not buying that it's just because people don't garden, or because business loans are harder to get. 

Kinerk also added, “People’s sizes of yards are getting smaller. Two-income families have less time. Gardening takes time.”

This may be true, but the problem, or challenge may indeed be more like this - although there are more people gardening today, they can be divided into two groups, both somewhat informed. Group 1 likes value, but finds this value at the big box store garden centers, the 'Lowes' and 'Home Depot's' of the world, where a 1 quart container plant grown from a plug or a sleeve (terms for rooted cuttings. micro-propagated or pre-started plants developed at mega wholesale nursery research labs, grown often overseas in plugs, then grown-on at local in-between liner growers, and then distributed to the retailer in pre-arranged contracts under branded names like Miracle-Gro, or Proven Winners.

This model keeps local, independent nurseries out of the picture, thus threatening a segment of the business, so yes - many middle sized nurseries, once successfully scratching by with local sales, going under with the larger and well-marketed competition - those spring Lowes commercials with dancing hoses, happy young couples and carpets of color, all crafted by a national team of merchandisers, marketers and local buyers.

On the other hand, there is this 'other' audience, I'll say 'us'. Folks who demand more, who will search for the specialist nursery, be they mail order or local. This leads us to the few, but successful niche grower - Plant Delights Nursery, Annies Annuals, and those sort of places we all know and love. For now, they are successful because they carry what others won't. Plant breeders know this, we know this, and home gardeners who care, know this - that some great coreopsis being bred right now, will never be propagated by one of the large, Dutch wholesalers simply because it is too tall for the shelves at retail, or too tall for the shelves on the trucks that deliver to retail. True story.

 The article about the struggles of Gardens Alive goes on to touch on other challenges for the mail order nursery business, citing economic factors as a key problem. This is what Marketplace referred to as "America’s relationship with it’s gardens and plants" as a changing one. The article makes the point that " fewer people now grow their own food.”.


I find that hard to believe. I mean, sure, if we are measuring this to 1945, or 1965, but today, this tide of 'home gardeners' has definitely shifted. 

Sure, OK - - many large-scale nurseries have been forced to close, especially generalist wholesale nurseries, and a good number of the, well, let's call them the average, 'mom and pop growers. The small, backyard or hoop house "we only grow pansy's, impatiens and tomato plant" growers".

 There is no denying that managing a nursery during a period of economic challenge so experienced today, is tough, but much of these factors are obvious, yet some nurseries are not only surviving, they are thriving.  My point it, this argument has two sides.

Let's look at the mail order company also owned by Garden's Alive, Spring Hill Nursery as an example.

We all grew up with this catalog, and I would bet anything that many of us first became interested in gardening by ordering from this, or even a Gurney's catalog back 'in the daySpring Hill is not special, it's not fancy or even that respected by horticulturists. It's audience is more likely to be the same consumer who played Publishers Clearing House than one that ordered from White Flower Farm, or Wayside Nursery. It's basically the plant equivalent of a dollar store combined with that of Wal Mart, not necessarily a dumb idea,  I suppose, but it's got to be hard today to be this, ordinary. Apparently, the consumer feels the same way.

Back toThompson & Morgan US, and it's apparent failure - is it failing because of what the Gardens Alive management says? That “American’s don’t have time to garden anymore?”  Nah, I don't buy that. 

I believe that the answer is pretty obvious - So, let's just say it together - -  Once the Thompson & Morgan catalog became 'American' and ordinary? The  serious gardener stopped ordering from it. We all stopped ordering from it for the same reason why we never ordered from Spring Hill Nursery - we know that we don't want an bare root 'anything' in a poly bag. The varieties offered in the new American Thompson & Morgan, were available in most other seed catalogs. We weren't 'convinced that anything was special.

It's just a different world today. Quality wins out, as does selection.

It so happens that that Marketplace article illuminated this problem as well, but I don't believe that it was intentional. The author, Sabri Ben-Achour, wrote about his visit to the greenhouses at Spring Hill, and his experience summed up what the problem was: "Through what seem like endless rows of blood-red sedum, glowing pink coral bells, and lush vining clematis - Coolers were filled with grub-like arisaema tubers, and phlox roots that tumbled through conveyor belts and packing machines into bags of peat moss.”

Yyyyeah, that's the nursery we want to order from? Rrrright.

This sort of mass-bare-root dormant nursery stock may have worked as a business model 20 or 30 years ago, but today this type of big 'Farma' only results in disillusionment. People want plants that are in bloom, or in bud when they shop at the garden center. When they get a dried bare root anything, they go onto Daves Garden.com and they rant.

 As for the rest of us? We're not that kind of consumer, we are even worse. 

So is there an audience for the novelty and cheep? Of course there is, but I would argue that they are glued to their TV flat screens  watching someone shlep tuberose tubers on the Home Shopping Network rather then flipping through paper catalogs. Surely orders keep pouring in for  3.99 Tree Tomatoes and Ozark strawberries, but return visits are unlikely. 

This does leave the UK Thompson & Morgan skyrocketing to new stardom. I can only hope that they begin shipping to the US soon, for I desperately miss their selection. As the US side of Thompson & Morgan, the end, may actually be here already. They have not updated their website, and no one is returning calls, or inquiries about the future of the business.

So, a quick recap - you should know up front, that Thompson & Morgan, at least the company you once knew and loved, still exists in the UK, but the North American company ( and I think, the Canadian) company was sold off to Gardens Alive. The brand on this side of the Atlantic joined their ever-growing portfolio of horticultural and home lifestyle mail-order brands, that I listed above.

The US site is surprisingly out of stock of most everything. Clearly, something was up here, but now, it's all beginning to make sense.

Michael Perry, also known as Gardening_greek online and as PlanthunterUK, being the New PRoduct Development manager for Thompson & Morgan means much more than just hunting.  He is well connected, has a social media following, and is quickly becoming the voice and image of a new generation of gardeners, even of plantsman. A clear example on the UK company is not only keeping up with its audience, but demonstrating how modern seed companies can grow.

I will admit that over the past year, I’ve been secretly stalking  Michael Perry (@gardening_greek), a studly, bearded New Product Development Manager based in the UK office, for this, the ‘better side’ of the Thompson & Morgan company.  Perry, who is clearly more millennial focused as well as is a legitimate plantsman himself (aside from being as ridiculously attractive as Disney’s ‘Galahad’), is clearly a smart move for T&M. Not only is he a plant hunter, looking for trends in the horticultural world, he is also very active in social media, being a spokesperson to a new generation of gardeners without being just a flower-arranging blogger (say what?). He’s young, hip, and he makes the brand more-than-relevant to this new, emerging audience who purportedly ‘doesn’t’ have time to garden’. There are youtube videos, plenty of chat on Facebook, and definitely a good use of Twitter aside from his musings on his blog, PlanthunterUK.

As for the British growth company, who aquired the British portion of Thompson & Morgan, it clearly knew what to do with this investment. After growing the business, it’s now getting ready to sell it, clearly with a profit, but this is not a bad thing.  T&M is a company which has been turned around by its current owner, Primary Capital , who announced in August, 2015 that it is now offering to sell the company, who in a statement said: that it has “Improved performance and revitalized profitability”, and most promising perhaps, “In recent years, the company has consolidated its market leading position, with e-commerce revenue being over twice that of its nearest competitor. May 2015 saw a record 1.7 million visits to the T&M website.”.

And no one is gardening anymore? Right.


  1. Hi, if you need help obtaining seeds from England I'll always be pleased to help you. Janet Miller

  2. I was likewise bewildered by the US site the other day. Thought it was just me, and didn't get how to use the site when I saw the small selection of seed and the repeated sold out text. This is sad.

  3. Unfortunately in the US I think the trend is more towards "lifestyle" gardening rather than recreational or horticultural gardening. Millenials are more mobile, which prevents them from gardening. They are more interested in experiences rather than accumulating or collecting stuff (as in plants), prefer living in urban areas (with small lots or just balconies), and more interested in electronics than other things. I'm guessing that Garden's Alive is trying to diversify a little, in addition to trying to carve out a niche in mail order for generalist and lifestyle products. Millenials who live in urban areas may not live near a big box retailor (Lowe's, etc.), and even those who do may not have a car. Having slightly more upscale value products delivered to one's door is maybe one strategy to compete.

    Condolences on not winning the power ball...

  4. hopflower6:05 PM

    This has all been true for quite sometime now. Not new. Disappointing, but true.

  5. Anonymous2:48 PM

    dear matt
    about T&M, so accurate: UK website couldn't accept my order--all i could do was be pissed off and salivate over what was on it but inaccessible.
    keep on ranting--maybe some marketing genius will wake up and realize that a heckuva lot of people are gardening (and ditching their electronic devices: see article in Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/15/living-offline-status-symbol-eddie-redmayne)
    honestly, makes one wonder how these tastemakers earn their salaries. no foresight at all. but then, maybe i live in a bubble.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  6. I miss Thompson and Morgan. I used to spend hours perusing the catalog too! The seeds had the best germination rate I have ever had from catalog bought seeds.
    It really is tragic.
    I even bought baobab seeds and had a baobab tree--until a horrible roommate threw it out when it was dormant.
    He was awful and so is the loss of Thompson and Morgan over here...across the pond.


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