Category: Other ramblings

What gardeners could learn from the local food movement

I spend a lot of time at the local Farmers Market here in Mission BC. That’s where you can find me most Saturdays through the selling season. My time as a vendor has given me a lot of respect for what the local food movement is about. The more I look at it, the more I recognize this movement as inspiration for my own industry. As a gardener first and foremost, I would argue that our shared hobby is threatened by consumer-driven mass marketing. If we want to “push back” we should take lessons from how the local food movement is changing the world, one reusable organic cotton produce bag at a time.

What is the local food movement?

I would never describe the local food movement as negative, but it is a reaction against something. Somehow, a whole bunch of people came together to draw similar conclusions about the global food industry. What started as a list of problems eventually began to inspire solutions. But first, some of the problems:

  • Apples shipped in from around the world, while local orchards go out of business
  • The widespread use of GMOs, pesticides and chemical fertilizers in farming
  • Shelves full of overpackaged and highly processed foods
  • Varieties of produce chosen for the sake of uniform ripening and for long-distance transport (but not necessarily flavor or nutrition)
  • Local, small-scale food production disappearing, along with the jobs and skills they entail

So what’s wrong with the free market?

Here’s my take on it: individually most people are quite smart, but together we can be a little stupid. When a large food company makes a decision, they’re doing it based on consumer behavior as a group. They’re following the herd, and the herd is following them. When they end up selling us something cheap, easy, salty, sweet, overpackaged, and shipped in from 3000 kilometers away – it’s not like any individual consumer would have requested it that way, but we move funny when we’re in big groups.

How this applies to the gardening hobby

While the local food movement is pushing back against some bad outcomes, what’s happening in gardening is every bit as concerning. International mass-merchants have gobbled up somewhere above 50% of plant sales in Canada already, with no signs of slowing down. If you want the best for the gardening hobby, would you aim to buy plants from a knowledgeable horticulturist, or a part-time seasonal clerk at a mass merchant? Would you prefer properly labeled plants, with botanical names and complete growing information, or the infamous “Green Plant” tag? Would you want a garden center that at least makes an attempt to stay relevant all year, or a “seasonal department” that stocks plants for 10 weeks in the spring, then switches to patio furniture?

How’s that for detail?

Is it even a plant, or just disposable decor

I happen to be writing this post during the run up to Christmas, so examples abound of plants packaged as seasonal decor. Take the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) as an example. This tropical tree shows up in the hardware and big box stores this time of year, usually all dressed up in holiday tinsel:

I’m not judging you if you bought one: it’s actually a very interesting plant. The pretense that any of these trees will actually be kept alive is what I question. The Norfolk Island Pine is a tropical tree, so it’s not going to survive a winter outdoors in our climate (not that you would know any better from the informational tag included). The timing of the sale puts these trees into homes at a particularly difficult time of year. Good natural light will be hard to come by, humidity will likely be low, and “Christmas trees” often go neglected for watering during the busy season. A few attentive purchasers will turn these holiday trees into attractive large houseplants. The rest will end up deteriorating under poor conditions until disposed of after the holiday, tinsel and all.

Poinsettias aren’t exactly evil (but they did kill Frosty the Snowman)

I took this poinsettia picture at the hardware store yesterday. Yes, that’s glitter. As if this long-standing abomination to sensible horticulture couldn’t get tackier. For all the heat and special growing conditions that go into forcing this tropical shrub to bloom, most will be in the garbage bin by mid-January.

Christmas isn’t the only season with throw-away plants. Wrap a miniature rose in red foil, and decorate with plastic heart-shaped “bling” for Valentine’s. We have lilies for Easter, sorrel for St. Patrick’s day, and fall mums for, well, fall. If you can bling it, it can be holiday themed as throw-away decor.

Where does it lead?

The problem with these products isn’t just their wastefulness. Dumbing down horticulture to this extent puts new gardeners onto the wrong path. Selling a plant that ends up in the garbage is just confirmation that the hobby is “too hard”, or maybe just a bad way to spend money. When a new gardener buys a plant with scant or misleading growing information, she’s less likely to succeed. That’s a problem for us all. Greenhouse forced and highly growth-regulated plants (with sprays or by other growing means) often have performance problems in the garden. Do you think the novice gardener will understand that when his snapdragons remain stunted in the garden?

Where doesn’t it lead?

It used to be that there was a clear path forward from the bedding annuals. They were like a “gateway drug” into gardening. Once you were hooked on the color, you could go back to your local garden center and be transitioned into other, longer-lived plants: bulbs, perennials, shrubs & trees. The novice becomes proficient, the proficient gardener becomes an expert, and so on. This is how we can assure the future of the hobby, by helping each other to get better. It’s also how we trade around and manage to keep rare, interesting, and even historic plants in hobbyist gardens.

The above pictured rose, ‘Chapeau de Napoleon’ with it’s very fancy crested sepals is kept alive in gardens by trading between gardeners. The future of cool plants like this one depends on new gardeners getting past the throw-away plant phase in their hobby.

What else isn’t working

Where do I start? As you can tell from the above topics, I’m not a fan of over-packaging and heavy-handed branding. The really big horticulture companies have turned to the dubious tactics of hiding real cultivar names beneath trade names, fancy logos and highly branded product lines. It affects me personally when it comes to my horticultural first love, roses. You can see my rant on rose naming here.

In a somewhat related tactic, at least one horticulture company I know of is making good business of buying a “portfolio of genetics”. They’re locking down some of the best new cultivars to their corporate branding efforts. Is this is the long-term interest of the gardening hobby? They will flog these cultivars until nearly the expiry of their patent period, and then move onto something newer before they have to share those genetics with the world. Sound a bit like the pharmaceutical industry?

What the local food movement has changed

Okay, okay. The food industry is still plagued by overpackaging, overshipping, the use of GMOs, questionable chemicals, and rubber carrots (well, maybe it only seems that way compared to the local stuff). The problems aren’t all fixed, but at least they’re identified, and that’s a good start. The most powerful accomplishment so far: a dedicated and viable alternate market for local produce. The Farmers Market has become a place where it still makes sense to talk about flavor, quality and good production practices. The real value that has come from the local food movement is that they have made conversations about farming practices relevant to the consumer.

Oh great, another lecture about hybrid seeds…

We don’t all have to agree about every topic, to know that the conversation itself is a good thing. If we can agree that in general, buying local is better than buying from who-knows-where, that’s progress. We may not 100% agree on tillage, spraying, or organic practices, but the fact that customer are making direct contact with producers, and asking these questions is good. It makes growers more accountable and more thoughtful about their methods.

Who am I to judge?

You’re the person making the decision, that’s who. Every time you spend a dollar on a plant, you tell the horticulture industry what you’re willing to pay for. If the local food movement is any indication, the horticulture companies will listen and adjust.

Do you want to make a difference? Here’s my prescription:

  1. Join up. See other plant people at the local Farmers Market, community garden, garden club, or related Facebook group. If you’re in my area, I can recommend three right away: Mission Plant Buy & Sell, for buys/sell/trade & giving away plants, as well as garden discussion, Gardening in the Fraser Valley, which is just what it sound like and has many knowledgeable participants, and Canada Rose Cuttings & Exchange, where we’re working on preserving rare garden roses.
  2. Give buying preference to local specialty growers. We may not have all the assortment of a garden center, but you can find some really special plants this way… and go a long way to supporting local agriculture.
  3. Share your opinions. You may be the expert gardener that novices are taking their lead from, and if so, please lead them thoughtfully and towards success.
  4. I’m not saying to avoid the mass merchants altogether. I would just encourage you to visit your year-round independent garden center as your preferred option to the degree you can, and perhaps even when there’s a difference in price.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my opinion. I know I went a bit long, but what can I say… I’m an enthusiast. Not a writer (clearly), but a grower, and a grateful participant in the hobby of gardening. If you agree, or even if you don’t, I’d be pleased if you were to share your thoughts. It’s a conversation worth having, I think.



Trading Roses & Cuttings

Recently, I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen about why we (rose gardeners) need to take control of our own hobby and safeguard the many garden-worthy, heirloom and unique roses that are no longer offered “in the trade”. Think about this for a minute: we have over 2000 years of rose cultivation under our belts, and thousands of exceptional cultivars selected. Yet, we’re going to leave it to some buyer at a national home improvement store, sales report in hand, to decide which ones will carry on and be offered to the next generation of gardeners. Can you say “Knock-Out”?

Madame Hardy, pictured above, will probably never make the cut at the big-box stores – but still deserves an honored place in the garden. Thus, we need a plan.

If you look back on my previous posts, or at my Youtube videos, you’ll see me giving instruction on how to take semi-hardwood cuttings. I’ll probably add another one shortly on how you can stick winter-season hardwood cuttings. I also talked to the Fraser Pacific and Vancouver Rose Societies about how we can work together to keep our best garden roses being propagated and distributed to budding gardeners.

If we’re not going to rely on the big nurseries, just how do we expect it to happen? 

And just how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do we save garden-worthy roses? One rose at a time.

This is my first offer: If you have a rare but worthwhile rose in your garden, and are willing to root some cuttings, I’ll be happy to trade you something interesting from my assortment. I’ll plant your rooted rose as a trial plant in my garden, and if I also find it worthwhile, I’ll continue to propagate it for sale. And that’s that… one more rose back “in the trade”, insofar as you can call our little farm part of the nursery trade.

And my other offer: Maybe you don’t have the time or wherewithal to root your roses, or maybe you’re too far away from the Fraser Valley to make sense of trading potted roses. Nonetheless, if you have a rare rose in your garden, and you’d like to see it back in distribution, you could send me some cuttings. I’ll happily pay the postage. On my end, I’ll stick the cuttings and see if I can get some roses rooted. In return for your efforts, upon successful rooting, I’ll send you your choice of some rooted rose liners.

So that’s my part in it… but I’m just one guy. The more gardeners we get involved in preserving roses, the better we can help each other to take control of our hobby. That’s why I’m asking you to arrange your trades of cuttings or roses on this Facebook group: Canada Rose Cuttings & Exchange.

We can share our lists: what we have, what we’re looking for. But we can also share techniques, arrange trades, discuss suppliers… anything related to the propagation and dissemination of hard-to-find roses. I hope to catch up with you there.


Why I love selling at the farmers market

Yesterday a customer challenged me about some plants I’ve been selling. The plant is butterfly weed (aka milkweed), the genus Asclepias, of which I sell two species. What he took me to task on was my description, in which I noted that Asclepias is the host plant of the endangered Monarch Butterfly.

He wasn’t questioning the accuracy of the information – both Asclepias incarnata (which is tall, pink flowering, and likes a moist soil) and Asclepias tuberosa (which is shorter, bright orange flowering, and likes a drier location) are the larval food plant of the Monarch Butterfly, and both are native to North America. What he was challenging is the relevance of the information: if our local area is outside of the range of the Monarch, then isn’t it a bit misleading to appeal to customers with this tidbit of information.

Back to the Monarchs in a minute, but I found this to be a nice reminder of why I so much enjoy my time selling at the farmers market. Not all feedback is quite as direct as this example, but selling at the farmers market gives me a wealth of feedback.

Growing plants is a challenge I enjoy – otherwise, I suppose I wouldn’t spend a large portion of my free time doing it. On the one hand, I enjoy the challenges and novelties of growing the plants themselves. On the other hand, it’s the business end of it – how to use my limited resources to keep the costs of my “hobby” from overwhelming us, and how to progress our little farm towards sustainability. That’s the balancing act I’ve been working at for the last six years. To do this successfully, I need to share my hobby with my customers, and I’ve learned that to do it well, I need to allow my customers to “have their say” in what I grow, and how I grow it.

This would be true, by the way, even if I were selling through wholesale or by mail-order, but I happen to think these channels would be much less personally rewarding. I can grow whatever strikes my fancy, but the correctness of that decision is only tested when my produce sells – or doesn’t! If my enthusiasm for a plant doesn’t translate into a customer interest, I messed up.

At the farmers market, I get to see that moment up close and personal. I experience the feedback richly and completely, sometimes in what my customers say or ask, but more often in how they shop – what they walk by, and where they pause, how they select the plants and how long they consider their purchases. I see it in their mood when they walk right past my tent, or when they shop and walk away with something they’re excited to plant or or cook with or give away as a gift.

I don’t think I could ever gather such rich feedback from a sales report. No offense to the accountants who are reading this. Yes, your numbers are essential to the running of a good business, and they keep me honest about how things are going, but no spreadsheet could adequately tell me about that flower stem that catches everyone’s eye in a bouquet, or what color and form of rose is most likely to be sniffed.

Seasonality is a funny business, and very much woven into my life now. My preparations for farmers market begin in December and January, with seed purchases and stratification. That part is predictable. After that, the actual weather and variability of the season begins to alter my carefully prepared plans. I have to watch the cues of our shoppers to see where I should focus my efforts. I do know that sometime in late May or early June, plant sales will fall off – but exactly how steep and deep that cliff will be varies from season to season. So the decision is whether to seed more cilantro or sweet peas, or whether to spend my limited time pruning and fertilizing roses for rebloom, or to attend to cut flower crops instead.

The trends are unmistakable. When customers are “done” with planting, their eyes avert as they walk past. The more avid gardeners may walk though to see what’s new, but the small-talk topics turn to the difficulty of keeping the garden watered, or summer vacation plans – both common reasons why a customer would choose not to plant anything new.

However, as quickly as market visitors can close a door on your sales, if you watch carefully, they’re opening another. It’s what led me to sell cut flowers during the sales lull following the spring planting season. It’s also what led me to growing tomatoes and squash for the later part of the year. You see, as enthusiasm wanes for my potted plants, I can see excitement building for the summer produce season. Stall visitors will pause to talk about how their grapes are coming along, and the veggie vendors become the main attraction at the market.

My first love in farming will always be novel and interesting plants, I think. It’s just the way I’m wired. However, by listening to my customers, I’ve found a way to maintain my presence at the market and my relationship with the visitors outside of  the spring selling season. I’ve become a tomato and squash grower because I listened to what my hobby “partners” told me they want.

They’ve told me a lot, directly or indirectly. Customers have told me they prefer veggies that are grown without synthetic fertilizers and sprays. They’ve let me know that multi-purpose plants are better – they want a plant that doesn’t just look good, but also attracts pollinators, or has edible flowers, or is suitable for difficult growing conditions. They’ve taught me that the average gardener is a little intimidated by the idea of growing roses, but also isn’t afraid to occasionally try something new in the garden.

So what about the Monarchs? Well, I’m not troubled by the fact that my customer challenged me about selling milkweed for the benefit of the Monarchs (when, in fact, the presence of Monarchs in the lower Fraser Valley is a little dubious). The tone of the conversation was positive and respectful, which I find pretty typical of the farmers market crowd. The fact that he was ready to challenge my marketing just confirms for me one more thing that my farmers market customers have said loud and clear: authenticity is important. They don’t want to be manipulated.

My answer to the Monarch question: my cursory research indicates that we’re on the edge of the Monarch’s range. A UBC report documents individuals periodically in the South Coast, presumably as a part of migration towards the Pemberton/Lillooet area and upper Fraser Valley, where populations are more numerous. E-fauna BC and other BC gov websites also place the Monarch as a present but infrequent species in our area.

The fact that Monarchs aren’t numerous in the Fraser Valley doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the Asclepias species at all. As it happens, the milkweeds are a reliable nectar source for a very wide variety of butterflies and bees. They’re also quite attractive in the garden – despite the “weed” in their name. And if they end up being of some use to the odd wandering  Monarch, so much the better!

Bumblebee on Asclepias tuberosa, photo by Kabir Bakie

Name that rose

Imagine I’m hosting a quiz show. I have a panel of noted rosarians ready to buzz in. I unveil cuttings from a rose variety for their inspection and challenge them to “Name that rose…”

After clicking furiously at his buzzer, contestant #1 pulls at his facial hair, shifts his baseball cap, and answers with a question: “Well which name do you want?”

And for most varieties, he’s absolutely right to ask.

For those of you who aren’t interested in my rant on the way roses are named, off you go! Read no further. I’ll leave you with a picture of a rose with a very straightforward name: ‘Just Joey’. Life is easy and uncomplicated. Have a nice day!

Just Joey
Photo by Geoff Penaluna

Now for those who choose to read on, I’ll level with you now. It’s a bit of a mess.

The problem is long-standing one, and old garden roses are not innocent in this. ‘Chapeau de Napoleon’ is also ‘Crested Moss’ and ‘Centifolia Cristata’ and several other variations including the words “moss”, “crested”, “Provence” in varying orders and languages. ‘Rosa Mundi’ and ‘The White Rose of York’ are famously named roses, but those aren’t their only names. By virtue of having been around for a long time and being grown in many gardens, these centuries-old roses tend to acquire a number of names to travel with.

So you’d think, based on that, that modern roses would be an easier issue. Not so much.

You knew ‘Peace’ would get in here somewhere. It was very successfully marketed and is well known in North America under the name ‘Peace’, but it was sold elsewhere under the names ‘Mme. A. Meilland’, ‘Gloria Dei’ and ‘Gioia’. The extra names in this case are marketing names, customized to the languages and preferences of the countries the rose will be sold in.

So you’ll never guess the solution that the breeders came up with: they added another name! And here’s the kicker. The “true” registered name of many (but not all) new roses is a nonsensical denomination with a three (capital) letter prefix followed by a some letters that may or may not have any descriptive value.

How about an example?

‘Hot Cocoa’ is a beautiful floribunda rose with a distinctively rich red-brown color, so the common name is nicely descriptive. The rose has the “real” registered name of ‘WEKpaltlez’. Much better. I’m glad the breeders took the initiative to clean this thing up!

Seriously. How would you pronounce that?

Wek – palt – lez. Or Week – pal – tleez. Take your choice. Either way, it appears to be purposely nonsensical.

I don’t argue with the purpose of having a single official registered name. It makes sense. And it would make even more sense if breeders and marketers acted with goodwill and wisdom when they chose the name. How about this? Take a good descriptive name that you really like, in whatever language you first introduce the rose, and keep that as the registered name. Any names acquired by introduction elsewhere would be footnotes, but the real name could move proudly on with the rose for as long as it’s cultivated.

This, by the way, is what International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants was meant to do: create a single name made up of “a word or words in a modern language other than Latin” in order to avoid the “the use of names that may cause error or ambiguity or throw the above disciplines into confusion”.

So why, then, did many plant breeders and marketers decide instead to resort to nonsensical names that are so atrocious that they are useless for the purposes of exhibition, garden identification, and publication? They confuse rather than enlighten. They are a burden rather than a help.

Greed. Or so goes the theory. If you have a few minutes, go on and read a more detailed article at this website. The author of the article, Tony Avent, gives way more insight into how this weirdness happened.

The short version is that some plant breeders give the nonsensical coded name to roses so that they can continue to collect royalties even after their plant patent expires (or without applying for a patent at all). Most countries will allow a breeder to patent their new introduction for somewhere in the range of 20 years as compensation for their work. After that, growers can propagate the plant without paying royalties.

The idea behind the nonsensical coded name is that rose buyers, authors, exhibitors and nurseries will use the “trade name” (like ‘Pope John Paul II’) because it’s, well, let’s face it… a lot easier, more attractive and more descriptive than the coded name (in the case of ‘Pope John Paul II’ it’s ‘JACsegra’). Then, if the rose continues to be popular past the patent period, the grower/marketer goes thermonuclear, and begins threatening everyone to pay royalties if they want to use the trademarked name.

You see, ‘Graham Thomas’ was never the name of that rose, goes the breeder’s logic. It was always ‘AUSmas’. This whole time, we were graciously allowing everyone to publish and exhibit and discuss the rose under the trade name, but that was always just a “brand” of the ‘AUSmas’ rose. Rose buyers value the brand, goes the logic, because they know that the ‘Graham Thomas’ brand of ‘AUSmas’ is grown better than all of those generic ‘AUSmas’es on the market. It has value because it distinguishes a high quality ‘AUSmas’ from a lesser quality ‘AUSmas’. Now, you could go ahead and grow and sell your ‘AUSmas’ as a generic, but if you want to use our brand name, you’d better pay up.

Now I’m not going to go on and say that this is underhanded. Heck, the pharmaceutical companies do this kind of thing all the time, and if you can’t trust big pharma to set the standard for moral behavior then…

But it doesn’t seem to me to ring true. And I say this as a nurseryman who works for a company that uses trademarks extensively, and properly I might add. Here’s how the wholesale nursery I work for uses trademarks:

My employer sells many varieties of perennials (mainly). Much of our business is in three trademarked brands. There’s a main brand of perennials, a brand of groundcovers, and a brand of alpine plants. They are sold in distinctively colored pots with large branded picture labels, and are often displayed in the garden centers with supporting marketing materials. My employer also adds value to these brands by maintaining a website on perennials, which provides information on the specific plants, as well as articles and videos and all sorts of other information for the gardener.

The idea, I think, is to add value with the brand. Long before I took the job, I looked for those distinctive pots in the garden center as an indication that I would find a large plant, a quality plant, an interesting variety, and an informative label. I’m not trying to make a commercial here. I’m just saying that the trademark did its job in this case… the job of distinguishing the plants grown by one producer from the plants grown at another, even when the individual varieties of plants may overlap.

To use a trade name as the name of a specific plant in publication, exhibition and gardens, so that in everyday usage it becomes the common name of the variety, and then to claim that it was never a common name… well, it doesn’t seem to meet the test. I don’t think, at that point, the end customer is looking for a rose marketed by a specific company when they say ‘Bonica’. I think they’re just using the common name to ask for a rose they’ve seen and enjoyed, regardless of the producer. The trademark adds no value and distinguishes nothing.

And while I’m belaboring the point, consider this comparison to literary works. It’s not a perfect comparison, but I think it’ll make my point. Authors have a right to profit from their work. So do plant breeders. Authors use their creative talents to create something new, say a novel or short story. So do breeders… in this example, a unique new rose. The law provides an author protection (copyright) so that they may profit from their work for a reasonable time frame. The law does the same (with plant patents) for breeders of plants. If a book continues to interest readers after this copyright period, it stays in the public domain, free of copyright. Same with plants. After the patent period is over, a rose may be freely propagated.

So the ploy of claiming a rose’s trade name is not it’s real name would be, in this example, like claiming that a book’s published title isn’t it’s real title. Imagine that authors and publishers caught onto this trick long ago, and Herman Melville were able to register “Moby Dick” as “MELwhldck” on some official book registry. Now, his publisher allows reviewers and schools and libraries to use the trade name “Moby Dick” so long as they add the coded “MELwhldck” in brackets somewhere in the reference. At some point, years after Mr. Melville has passed away, the copyright on “Moby Dick” comes to expire. A wonderful novel passes into the public domain, now free to be published by anyone into the future… its classic status assuring that it will nearly always be in print.

Not so fast… the publisher was still making a modest profit on printing “Moby Dick”, and now they decide to drop the bombshell. The book was never titled “Moby Dick”. That was just a trade name for a particular publisher’s whale novel, properly titled “MELwhldck”. Now everyone has to pay royalties ongoing, and that silly coded name becomes the real title of a literary classic for all time. Would this muddy the waters? Would this cause confusion? Would this cheapen literature? Would this seem dishonest? You know my opinion.

That’s my view, and it doesn’t much matter if it matches legal reality or not. My argument is not a legal one. It’s a moral and a practical one. We shouldn’t burden ourselves and future rosarians by littering these garbage names into the descriptions of entire generations of roses. Breeders, I submit to you that it would be simple decency and goodwill to give your roses a real name for general use and posterity. I know some lawyer might tell you differently, but I’m the guy on your other shoulder.

My rant is over. Just to be fair, I don’t think that every breeder is using the coded name system in order to extend patent protection. Some are simply using it because that’s “the way it’s done.” The way I read the registration instructions there’s no requirement to use the wacky coded denomination system.