September/October 2023
A perennial focus: Darwin Perennials Day marks 13 year in West Chicago By Heather Machovina

Darwin Perennials Day provided a look at new varieties, a brand introduction and retailer tips on how to sell more perennials.

First-Year-Flowering Tool

There’s no guessing on timing with this new online, digital interface. A one-of-a-kind collaboration between Darwin Perennials and Kieft Seed, the First-Year-Flowering Scheduling Tool is a tool that allows growers to schedule their perennial crops to ensure they will bloom in the desired weeks of the season.

By selecting a specific crop variety and entering the desired week of color, the tool will output a schedule for which week a grower should be sowing/sticking, transplanting and finishing to stay on time for the market.

Each crop schedule can be saved, and the tool will automatically compile all of the saved schedules so growers have one easy guide to follow.

The tool is not just for making a schedule; it’s full of important information for growers to succeed in their overall production of each crop, too. Details on time shifts for northern and southern growers to keep them on time, notes of locations where data was collected and trials were conducted, propagation guide and finishing guide charts, and links to view the crops on the breeders website all give growers the most comprehensive information to plan their season best.

The free tool is located at

Darwin Perennials Day celebrated its 13th year in West Chicago this summer, with attendees enjoying a day full of suppliers, breeders, garden tours — including the new variety showcase — and even a butterfly release. A fitting ending to a day full of pollinator-friendly plant inspiration.

While I was able to view many of the new introductions for 2024 from Darwin Perennials during California Spring Trials (CAST) in March, it was a different experience being able to see them in action in the trial beds. California had some unusually wet weather at the beginning of the year (we continued to experience the rain and even some hail during our trip), which made it much more difficult for growers to produce display plants that were the proper size and flowering leading up to CAST. And, because these plants were being grown as we were climbing out of the winter months, most were greenhouse grown.

Seeing the new varieties growing outdoors in the trial beds on the first day of summer allowed me to see how the spring weather and heat impacted their growth compared to the greenhouse-produced, potted plants from CAST. Some were very prolific, while some were not as showy. Others gave me the flower power I was told about but wasn’t able to see due to winter growing conditions in California.

Darwin Better VersionsDarwin Perennials also launched the new landscape brand, Better Versions, at the event. When discussing how older genetics perform in the landscape, most industry professionals answered, “Not good.” Landscapers have been hesitant to trust improved genetics of their favorite varieties from breeders because they are not sure what to expect in the long run. Better Versions focuses on more current genetics that have been trialed for landscape performance coupled with market sales for at least five years, so there is knowledge and results to prove they are consistent performers.

Better Versions varieties are “better blooming, better performance and better availability,” says Seth Reed, sales and marketing manager at Darwin Perennials. Only three varieties are currently available: salvia ‘Blue by You’, nepeta ‘Junior Walker’ and lavender ‘Superblue’.

Retailers Share Perennial Selling Tips

During the keynote session, retailers discussed what they are doing to grow their perennial program, engage the next generation of plant parents and increase sales throughout the year.

Darwin Perennials Day provided a look at new varieties, a brand introduction and retailer tips on how to sell more perennials.

Barton Springs Nursery  

Barton Springs Nursery in Austin, Texas, is a retail grower that concentrates on providing high-quality perennial options for their customers in the southern heat. Five growers, growing the same perennial in five different locations, can all get the varying results. They are careful to only select plants that customers will have success with in their climate. For example, while many customers ask for hostas, it’s not something they offer because it doesn’t work well for Texas.

Display gardens are a huge help for sales. While customers are usually buying 4-inch potted perennial plants, a display garden helps them to understand what the mature plants will look like in the landscape. Barton Springs also has a pollinator garden that is covered in butterflies during the warmer months, helping to drive more spontaneous sales.

Barton Springs staff members are expected to have vast knowledge of its plant offerings. They believe that when an employee is able to answer questions without having to ask someone else for information, customers develop a great confidence and trust in your business. They implement a “plant of the day,” so employees can learn facts about one plant every day and build their knowledge quickly.

A “Genius Bar” is also on-site, where customers can bring in any plant to learn more about it. They can receive general information, help diagnosing what may be wrong with it or have any other questions answered.

They have started using data to gain insight into what is the best-selling perennials throughout the year. This has been a valuable resource to determine what to buy more of and when. Having enough overstock on varieties that continue to sell out quickly has helped them to reach perennial sales of over 42% of total sales already in 2023.

Darwin Perennials Day provided a look at new varieties, a brand introduction and retailer tips on how to sell more perennials.

Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse

Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse is a retail grower in McDonald, Pennsylvania, working to build its perennial sales with more homegrown plants and less bought in. With plenty of opportunities in the industry to provide better education on natives and ecological gardening, Bedner’s is currently growing more native and pollinator plants and implementing pollinator-friendly pest-management practices.

Customer education is also a top priority at Bedner’s. Posting weekly “staff picks” videos on social media and spreading information through email newsletters help customers learn more about the plants they love. Merchandising displays by plant feature or use with detailed plant ID signage and literature cards for each plant also increases customer knowledge and success.

To keep customers coming back for more, Bedner’s has a phone app with a rewards system. One of the top-used offers from the app is a discount on its “Perennial of the Month” pick, which sells out every time.

Darwin Perennials Day provided a look at new varieties, a brand introduction and retailer tips on how to sell more perennials.

Hoerr Nursery

Hoerr Nursery in Peoria, Illinois, was close to meeting 2022 perennial sales just six months into 2023. So far, perennial sales are about 8.8% of total sales in June, and 2022 total sales hit 10.2% for the year.

Hoerr concentrates on making sure the perennials look amazing throughout the summer to help get more sales based on visual appeal. Customers are less likely to buy a plant that only has the promise of showing off at some point in the future; they want something that will bring them joy now. Employees work hard to make sure the showiest plants are out front or on end caps for all to see, and then change them out when they are fading and something else is blooming well.

When promoting plants or posting on social media, it’s important to first show customers what they want to see to get them to the location, then make sure the product looks just as good — if not better — in person.

Hoerr employees want customers to buy the right plant for their specific situations. They love “brutally honest” signage that will dissuade people from bringing the wrong plants home. Some customers may not take the honesty to heart, but it’s better to give them the facts and increase their overall chances of both success and returning to your location for more throughout the year.

For an enhanced reading experience, view this article in our digital edition.

Heather Machovina

Heather Machovina is managing editor of Lawn & Garden Retailer's sister publication Greenhouse Product News. She can be reached at [email protected].