Seeding the future

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Home+Garden editor
  • Updated: December 29, 2009 - 12:54 PM

George Ball is bullish on gardening. But then, he ought to be. Ball is the chairman of Burpee Seed, one of the nation's largest seed, plant and supply companies. We talked to Ball - in English with a smattering of French - about "catalog creep," our hunger for new plants and the explosive growth in gardening.

George Ball of Burpee Co.

Q When does spring start for you?

A My spring starts in mid-December -- and it ends in late June. I'm already shipping seeds to Florida, and I'll be shipping to Maine until late June. That's when I stop seeding my last crop.

Q Garden catalogs seem to come earlier every year. Are you guilty of catalog creep?

A No. Mr. Burpee, the founder of the company, had a commandment: No garden catalogs while there are Christmas catalogs. And we've followed that. So we're on your doorstep the day after Christmas.

Q Don't you think that's a little early?

A Between Christmas and New Year is when people start thinking about gardening. The guests have gone, you exhale and start thinking about the next year, and that means gardening. January is when [a garden catalog] is a dream book.

Q Burpee is the largest seed and plant company in the country. How much business do you do in Minnesota?

A That's what we call "gardening country." Along with the South and Northeast, the Midwest is where we do most of our business.

Q Why is so much attention paid to new plants?

A It's the same reason people are interested in babies: Because they're new. If you see the same plants in your garden every year, it just isn't as exciting. So if I tell you about a brand-new zucchini that has pink and green stripes and a sweet, creamy taste, are you going to buy it? Of course. What's new is what gets people.

Q But very few gardeners start from scratch every year.

A I estimate that people keep 20 to 30 percent of their garden to play around with. It's not like fashion. It's not like they throw out their whole wardrobe, but most gardeners want something new. Even if they won't buy it, they want to know about it. They want to be in the loop.

Q How many new plants does Burpee introduce in a typical year?

A About 25 to 30 plants. That includes vegetables, flowers, herbs and what we call small fruits: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries.

Q How long does it take to develop a new plant?

A It's all over the board. Impatiens take three to four years, pansies four to five years, petunias six to seven, cyclamen 10 to 12. And it depends on the goal. How fancy do you want it?

Q Is it about fanciness? I thought breeders were looking for pretty, hardy and disease-resistant.

A Sure, most people want stronger color, bigger blooms, longer-lasting. But people don't want the ordinary. They want des choses belles et étranges (the things beautiful and strange). Rarity and exclusivity can trump beauty.

Q There are hundreds of new plant introductions every year. How do you make a standout?

A You have to find something nobody else has. I might find a double-flowered nasturtium that was found growing in India after the British left in 1948 because I have a friend there who grows peppers for me. That's how these things happen.

Then you have to take excellent pictures, write an excellent verbal description and use plain old good marketing. Oh, you have to have the plants in the bag, too. You have to be able to supply the plant.

Q Name three -- only three -- of your favorite Burpee introductions for 2010.

A Tye-Dye, a very unusual, marbled tomato that's mind-blowingly beautiful and very sweet. Fancy Dress petunia, an old-fashioned petunia with lobed petals and a yellow and purple color scheme. It's just spectacular. And RSVPea. Isn't that a great name? Of course, it's a pea, but it's one that flushes [blooms] twice. So it comes back. Get it? RSVP.

Q Last year was one of the biggest gardening seasons on record. Were you surprised by it?

A Nobody saw that coming. We had seen three years of solid growth, but last year we had increases of 25 percent. We had aging baby boomers -- and we all know gardening is a hobby of middle age -- food scares, people wanting to go green and then the banking collapse. It was a perfect storm.

Q What does your crystal ball say about 2010?

A Guess what? The recession isn't over. And people have discovered with vegetable gardening you save so much money, and then there's the flavor. I say 2010 is going to be even better -- for gardening, that is.

Q Aren't you worried about a backlash from newbies who tried and failed?

A Only if they concentrated on tomatoes. Last year was such a terrible year for tomatoes. They're tropicals. They need heat and sun, and we didn't have that. But chard and spinach and all your leaf crops did so beautifully.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

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