How to describe my experience last week (March 28th – April 2nd) touring the California Spring Trials (CAST) for the first time with friend and co-hort, garden writer Marianne Willburn and her (now our) friend, Andrea Gasper? Maybe it was big. Yes, it was very big.
Thousands of miles traveling by air, 624 miles by car winding down California from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Ten tour stops in four days. About 35 plant breeding and marketing companies. Throw in two botanical gardens, scenery out the wazoo, a Dodgers game in a luxury box, my first Thai curry, and, my first In & Out burgers, and damn right it was big. It was huge!
Of course, as a plant nerd, I was eager to see the plants but one of my ulterior motives was to better understand how the annuals business is structured. I’ve been involved in annuals trialing for twelve years and, frankly, I have been and might still be (but to a lesser extent) ignorant of who all the players are and how the pieces fit together.
The condensed version as I now know it? It is a big, byzantine world. There are a handful of huge, worldwide corporations and then a bunch of smaller companies. All are competing for their piece of a finite pie through better breeding and better marketing. But, to hedge their bets, there is also a lot of jockeying for partnerships and licensing deals between them. Caught in the gravity of all this are all the known Universe’s brokerage companies, garden centers, big box stores, and more. It seems messy, but the end result, honestly, is a surprisingly wide assortment of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful plants in the world, all of which are destined to brighten the lives of people all over the globe.
It’s amazing it all somehow works. This industry offers a very perishable product. A product that is aimed at the moving target of public taste. A product that can take a decade or more to breed, produce, and introduce. And, ultimately, a product that is, for many end users, an impulse purchase using discretionary funds. But the industry has been around a long, long time. Uninterrupted really. Impulse buys and discretionary spending, I suppose, but people seem to really want and need beautiful plants in their lives.
See Marianne’s first blog on CAST here.
So glad to see you getting out and having a great time!
It was a trip that felt forced, set among the busiest time of year, but I am so glad I went. It was, in reality, just what was needed.
I am a Californian through and through. The photo of Carmel Valley made my heart sing!
It was so beautiful!
We probably pulled over on that drive about 20 times – both to stop and marvel, and to let people behind us go on. Beautifully tranquil and didn’t see a soul besides the occasional car behind. Memorable. – MW
Hey Scott–Thanks for taking the time to explain a bit about the Spring Trials world. It sounds like a fascinating and much-tentacled business, much like the Dutch nursery trade that I’ve been learning about on my European travels. I’m curious, though, about how garden writers benefit from evaluating new plants for commercial nurseries other than having a peek into future introductions. Do you receive compensation for your work, such as travel expenses or meals? (I hope you do!) And how does one get chosen to participate in this special week? Would you mind sharing more about your experience and relationship with this part of the nursery industry?
We went at our own expense to learn about the plants and industry. I don’t know of any writers getting their way paid, but perhaps some “influencers” are sponsored by companies. That seems to be happening with other events here and there, but not with us.
As Scott says, we were not sponsored, though we are very grateful for the hospitality shown to all participants by companies who were kind enough to provide lunch and refreshments (and very upscale portaloos!). It’s an expensive trip for freelancers (and one that I cannot afford to make often), but it is an investment in one’s knowledge of the industry, how the pieces fit together, and the plants that are coming out (without the ‘clutter’ of products, services etc.. at larger tradeshows like Cultivate or MANTS which we also both attend). The conversations are also a large part of why I wanted to go – it allows me to speak directly to breeders or marketers about the what and why of the plants on display.
Not being sponsored gives us the freedom to observe and write objectively – which is priceless in a world of paid-partnerships. Appointments must be made with each company individually through the CAST website, and my assumption is that one must be professionally connected to the horticultural industry in some way (writer, grower, buyer, broker, breeder, etc…) to be given an appointment. -MW