Planting relations with Must Have Perennials

Colorado State University Trials.

FCI sat down with Jason Tabor of American breeders network Must Have Perennials to discuss how their plant’s business has grown, identifying the significant issues and his plans for the future in the September 2022 magazine.

Must Have Perennials has been connecting breeders and their plants from its Barberton, Ohio, base through its network to experienced propagators, growers and retailers from around the world for 25 years to help bring new perennials to the market.

Extensive trialling of potential introductions takes place at secure locations worldwide in all types of climates and conditions to thoroughly test the merits of each plant over a period of years. Ongoing testing at universities and botanical gardens further documents regional plant performance over time.

The company’s Jason Tabor has a general marketing background across various industries, including some horticultural marketing, before starting with Must Have Perennials (MHP) in early 2020.

In his daily work, he uses social media, e-blasts, and websites to promote the MHP product line. He also champions its industry partners, including the licensee and grower network, perennial breeders, and Independent garden centres. MHP markets to the industry (B2B) and the garden consumer (B2C).

Jason Tabor of American breeders network Must Have Perennials.

FloraCulture International: The horticulture industry seems like a close-knit family from the outside world. However, every segment of the industry is a world on its own. What attracts you most about the perennials industry?

Jason Tabor: “Our industry helps garden consumers reconnect with nature and beautify their living spaces. There’s a blend of science and artistry there that I find very fulfilling to be a part of. It’s very rewarding to help facilitate plant breeders taking their new discovery or creation and introducing it to the international garden market. It’s also nice to not be stuck in an office all day and have the opportunity to get my hands dirty working with plants in our greenhouses and trial gardens.”

How is the business currently going at Must Have Perennials?

“Business has been strong over the past few years. Like many other businesses in the garden industry, we saw steady growth due to rekindled interest in gardening during Covid-19. We are pleased to see our industry network expanding, and we’re excited about some of our recent variety introductions and exciting new varieties currently in the pipeline.”

What do you feel is the biggest strength of MHP right now?

“I believe our unique product line sets us apart from our competitors. We work with breeders (large and small) to bring the most garden-worthy perennials to market through extensive testing and trialling. This includes the world’s best-selling perennial: the award-winning Geranium Rozanne.”

What kind of business is MHP?

“We work as a breeder agent, partnering with breeders to test and trial potential new introductions, conduct market research, and assist with patent protection and marketing. We are not actively involved in finished plant production, breeding or propagation. We work exclusively through our network of breeders and licensees.”

Lithodora diffusa ‘White Star’ produces masses of white star-shaped blooms outlined in blue.

Can you explain the company’s business model?

“Must Have Perennials works side by side with breeders to protect and market their new varieties and connect them to a supply chain through our licensee network. We then assist in royalty collection, and our income comes from a profit share.”

This year you celebrate 27 years in business. Your history links to Blooms of Bressingham. Can you elaborate?

“In 2016, Blooms of Bressingham rebranded as Must Have Perennials, launching two new websites for industry connections and to support consumers.”

Plant breeders and propagators are your company’s backbone; who are they, what kind of perennials do they focus on, and where are they located?

“We work with all types of breeders, from hobbyists to large breeding companies around the world. We focus on garden-worthy varieties that consumers will be successful with. We base our selections on real-world garden performance, and we evaluate the garden market to introduce innovative varieties that fill current consumer needs.”

Who are your customers?

“We consider each part of the industry that we work with to bring our plants to market to be our customers. This includes breeders, propagators, growers and retail garden centres. We also market to the end-user, the garden consumer, to make them aware of our products and where they can be purchased.”

Rudbeckia Viette’s ‘Little Suzy’.

I guess you work with large commercial breeding companies and small independent breeders. Typically the big ones breed for large-scale plant operations focusing merely on the economic and technical aspects such as yield, plant habit, transportability, crop density, and uniformity. Is this the right environment to present novel plants and new marketing ideas?

“One of the questions we get asked most often by growers is, ‘what do you have that’s new and exciting?’ All breeders, large and small, consider the importance of ‘newness’ in their product lines and the demand for innovative new plants throughout the industry. That being said when working with larger breeders we are often able to select items that come out of their breeding, but don’t fit their traditional programme. Everybody wins.”

More than two years have passed since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, causing massive disruption to the global flower industry. Where are we now?

“I’m thankful that the perennials industry fared better than many others did during the pandemic. Many people around the world discovered or re-discovered gardening during lockdowns, which generated many new garden customers for the industry. We’re hopeful that signs indicate that the industry is recovering in terms of staffing and production, although there are still supply chain issues that persist. I think most people feel cautiously optimistic about the future.”

What lessons have you learned during the pandemic?

“We’ve learned the importance of flexibility and adapting to changing conditions. Part of that includes reaching customers and consumers where they are, which in the Covid-era meant increasing our online promotional content.”

There is no doubt that Covid-19 re-established the importance of flowers and plants in consumers’ minds. Flower and plant sales worldwide have never been this good, but the pertinent question is: will the habit stick?

“We certainly hope so! It may be a little early to make any long-term predictions about the new garden consumers we saw during Covid, and whether we should expect the market to grow or contract in the near future. However, we feel optimistic that many of these new gardeners will become lifelong customers. It is important to meet the novice gardeners where they are, which is increasingly online. New gardeners are looking for guidance, so it’s important that the industry becomes a resource of information for novices and helps them achieve success in their gardens. People are more likely to stick with gardening if they aren’t frustrated with poor results. We cater to new gardeners with the Rozanne and Friends consumer channel, providing garden tips and tricks to help them become successful.”

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ in a hanging basket.

Inflation, war, political instability, debt, and skyrocketing energy prices are hardships affecting us all. How would you describe the state of consumer confidence as we speak?

“Historically, consumers tend to tighten their belts and spend less during times of great instability. However, as we saw during Covid, consumer spending increased dramatically in the gardening sector. Currently, rising fuel and food costs are my largest concern, as these have the most impact on consumer discretionary spending. I think that all of these issues you mentioned have consumers paying attention to the news and budgeting accordingly.”

Global research shows how so many consumers know so little about gardening. The lack of knowledge may build a wall of resistance. What strategies and solutions has MHP in mind to give the consumer more confidence when gardening?

“The Rozanne and Friends website and social media are geared toward garden consumers, many of whom may have little gardening knowledge or experience. We use these channels as a resource to answer common gardening questions from consumers and help them become successful. The more easy-to-find information you can put online to help consumers, the more engaged and successful they become in their garden.”

We live in a fast-paced society with ever-changing consumer behaviour; what is hot today is not tomorrow. The average plant variety market life reduces, so breeders’ returns are under pressure. In consequence, breeders may choose not to protect their releases. Can you elaborate?

“It is true. Everyone wants new new new! But we have also found that if you supply the market with a tried-and-true winner they will stand the test of time. Geranium Rozanne is a great example. Protection is a costly endeavor and proper trialing, planning, and marketing are imperative for success.”

Speaking of IP protection, do you feel that novel plants have more protection under the Plant Patent system in the USA than the Plant Breeders’ rights in the EU?

“We utilise one or both types of protection for our varieties depending on the market we think the variety will be most suited for. Lots of planning and thought goes into these decisions. We also work with an international resource to ensure the protections we invest in are supported.”

Must have perennials, the essentials

Must Have Perennials works with plant breeders (large and small) to bring some of the world’s best-selling perennial plants to market, including Geranium Rozanne.
MHP tests and trials all of its introductions at trialling facilities worldwide. These trials establish the reliability and excellent garden performance to ensure success for growers, their customers and the end consumer.

Current MHP varieties on the market: 96
Licensees: 18 (US), 39 (Worldwide)
Units sold in 2021: 2.7 million (US), 5.6 million (EU)

• Geranium Rozanne
• Verbena Lollipop
• Geranium Azure Rush
• Rudbeckia Viette’s Little Suzy
• Achillea Little Moonshine
• Lithodora White Star
• Euphorbia Bonfire

In terms of quality, your network of propagators must be tried and trusted. Plant viruses (Tobacco Rattle Virus, hOsta x) are one of the most significant threats in perennial production. What is your strategy for guaranteeing healthy perennials?

“We work with some amazing partners in our supply chain that allow us to offer production from virus-tested elite stock in tissue culture.
Stock built from this nucleus for URC production is also regularly renewed and tested to guarantee our varieties are coming to you clean and virus free.”

Fed by politics, media and environmental movements, the consumer is increasingly concerned about the planet and its people. How to address the neonicotinoid use issue?

“This is indeed a heated debate. The industry has made great strides in finding more sustainable ways to produce clean, healthy crops. We have licensees that are working with everything from compost tea to beneficial insects, nematodes and biopesticides. These integrated pest management programs are helping move us toward a greener future.”

What is your answer to the anti-peat and plastics lobby?

“There have been exciting initiatives in this area as well. While peat is still widely used in the industry, alternative media options are gaining ground. Our licensees are trialling and implementing alternative media options such as coconut coir, recycled newspaper products, compost and more. In terms of plastics, this is an area that I wish our industry were further along. While innovations in fibre pots, trays and plugs that don’t need trays or have reusable trays are becoming available, the bulk of the work is recycling.”

In this context, would you say that the green revolution may herald the revival of bare-root perennials? Because they reduce waste (smaller quantities available), they will not disappoint in producing blooms due to full vernalisation. They can be grown cooler and fill containers quicker, and you can grow them faster.

“Bare Root perennials are indeed wonderful and boast many benefits. We have several licensees that even specialise in bare-root perennial production. While there are quite a few perennials that work well in this production model, unfortunately, there are quite a few that do not. We will see a continued balance of bare root and plug production of perennials moving forward.”

Horticulture production in the United States of America

Horticulture production occurred primarily in ten states, which accounted for 66 per cent of all USA horticulture sales in 2019. California ($2.63 billion), Florida ($1.93 billion) and Oregon ($1.02 billion) led the nation in sales.
The top commodities in US horticulture sales in 2019, and compared to 2014, were:
• Nursery stock, $4.55 billion, up seven per cent
• Annual bedding/garden plants, $2.24 billion, down 13 per cent
• Sod, sprigs and plugs, $1.27 billion, up 12 per cent
• Potted flowering plants, $1.2 billion, up 11 per cent
• Potted herbaceous perennials, $923 million, down two per cent
• Propagative horticultural materials, bare-root, and unfinished plant materials, $720 million, up four per cent
• Food crops under protection, $703 million, down 12 per cent
Other key findings from the 2019 Census of Horticultural Specialties report include
• Family- or individually-owned operations made up the largest number of operations, accounting for 52 per cent, but corporately-owned operations accounted for 75 per cent of sales ($10.3 billion).
• It is safe to say that Covid-19 has had a positive effect on the numbers above

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