How The Perennial Farm Navigates New Trends in Perennials

Perennial Farm Queen Bee Natives native pollinators

Photo: The Perennial Farm

Greenhouse Grower’s April 2024 issue includes a major focus on perennials, including marketing trends. Here’s an extended conversation we had with Tom Watson and Rick Watson at The Perennial Farm in Maryland.

Brian Sparks: What are some of the top trends shaping the perennials market right now that growers can capitalize on?

Tom Watson: One of the things we’ve tried to grasp and promote is native pollinator perennials. We came up with a line of perennials that fits that exact description called Queen Bee Natives. We soft-launched it at Cultivate last summer and officially launched it at MANTS 2024. The point of it is to take things that we’re already growing or can easily get and provide to our customers that fill that void of native plant pollinators. It’s been hot for the last couple of years. We call it a trend, but it’s not a trend. It’s been growing for years, and I think this year it’s going to take off a little more. Hopefully our branding is something that can help with that.

From the marketing side we’ve added tags, banners, and posters, but we also really wanted to focus on the bee aspect. We have a mascot here, her name is Polly Nader, and it works well under our other brands that fall under the category of solution gardening. We’re trying to provide solutions for common problems in a garden and make it easy for customers, whether they’re landscapers trying to design something for their clients, or for somebody walking into a garden center, or finding us online. If there’s a problem, we want to help solve it. In some cases it’s not really a problem so to speak, but a desire or a need people are looking for.

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Brian Sparks: What do you do to keep up with trends in the market, particularly what consumers are looking for?

Tom Watson: It’s a lot of keeping your ear to the ground. We travel a lot visiting customers, and we attend as many seminars, trade shows, and conferences as we can make it to. We try to just listen to what people have to say. When you’re marketing something, you do a lot of talking because you want people to hear what you have to say. But if you want to figure out what they want, you have to listen. So we do a lot of listening, and when we hear something, we try to create something that would help full that need.

Another part of listening is watching trends. We track all of our sales for every plant that we sell and where they sell, especially online. I look at all of our Amazon sales every month and create a map of where they’re going. You start to see patterns pretty quickly when you do that. Anything we can do to figure out what people are gravitating towards, we want to make sure we’re on board with something to offer.

Brian Sparks: I know online sales are an area that your company has really jumped in on the past couple of years. Are you looking to expand in that area at all?

Tom Watson: We were fortunate to get in on it pre pandemic, and were looking to do it even earlier. No one else was really doing it. It was very difficult to navigate early on, and we couldn’t get a lot of help because we were among the first ones to try it. But it’s continued to grow every year. This past year we were close to the 2020 spike, and it continues to grow not just in sales, but also in the efficiency of how we get plants out, how we package things, and how we keep the customers that are buying these things happy. Buying plants online is still a novelty. A lot of people still don’t want to do it. Some of the customers that we found on are ones we could not reach any other way than online. Either they’re too far away from us, or they might be young people who are intimidated to walk into a garden center. It’s pretty neat to connect with people that you didn’t even know were your customers before.

Brian Sparks: As we’ve come out of the pandemic, the type of plant consumer is changing. How are you trying to track the differing needs of today’s plant consumer versus just five years ago?

Tom Watson: We’re kind of at a crossroads. One thing I’ve noticed is that at the everybody in this industry, because we’re farmers, we tend to move a little slower — not in a negative way, but we take our time. But we also need to pair what we’re doing with the rate of the consumer. That’s why we’ve gone online and revamped our online and social media presence. That’s where people are looking for information.

Brian Sparks: On the production side, you have breeders growing for what the grower wants, while the grower needs to know what the consumer wants. What’s the role of the grower in this process?

Rick Watson: It has to be a collaborative effort. Growing perennials has always been sort of a popularity contest. What the consumer is buying from us tells us what we have to grow, and what we shouldn’t grow. Years ago when I got started, it didn’t matter what your plants looked like. You just had to have perennials, because nobody else did. Now you have to have perennials that look almost like annuals, and they have to act more like annuals. Some of our new genetics that we’ve put into place, and the breeders are part of that, is first-year flowering or day neutral plants. They’re plants that don’t need to be fertilized. Companies are breeding that more and more into the perennials that we grow, so a lot of the new varieties we have start blooming earlier, and they bloom for a long time. Okay, not to say that they bloom twice as long as they used to. While these are popular, you have to balance that with the tried-and-true offerings.

Brian Sparks: What are the steps that growers can take to work more closely with their garden center customers?

Tom Watson: That’s something we take very seriously. We try to champion the independent garden center. We want them to be successful, because then we’re successful and everybody wins. That’s part of why we came up with solution gardening and why we have our salespeople constantly on the road. We offer marketing materials with every one of our brands, at no cost. We also want to make sure the garden center staff is prepared with whatever answers and marketing materials they may need help customers you find what they’re looking for.

Brian Sparks: What excites you the most about the future of floriculture?

Tom Watson: We talked about our online presence. It’s kind of like the Wild West out there, and that’s exciting for us because we’re finding customers we didn’t even know we had. The more customers we talk to, the better we can serve everybody. It’s a way to reach further than we ever could have before, and I feel like we’re only scratching the surface.

Rick Watson: Generation Z is going to be the future buyers of our plants, and they have their own view of what gardening should be. We talked about native plants, and that’s very big with them, as is the beauty around their house. They may not want to get out and dig in the dirt themselves like previous generations, but they want plants, and they are very accepting of new varieties of plants.

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