Harmony Hill Nursery of Dowington, Penn., recently gave me a topic suggestion for this column via the Nursery and Greenhouse Production Facebook group. They asked, “How about a piece on grading plant material on quality standards as well as size requirements? Where is the quality going? Is it increasing to be the best or decreasing to win the race to the bottom? Bids are being awarded to the lowest bidder the last several years, regardless of quality. Where does our future lie?” Hmmm … I’m not sure, but let’s give it a whirl.

As some of you may know, besides my own business – UpShoot LLC – I am also the Director of Plant Development for the HGTV HOME Plant Collection. Right now we’re focused on putting together and launching our perennial line. Besides genetics in the program, a major consideration has been the pot size. It seems every grower is suggesting a different size and/or shape container. It’s been a very interesting and educational process, to say the least.

I’ve been thinking, “Why is there what feels like 50 million different container sizes, shapes and colors to choose from in our industry?” Why do we need a 1 gallon, a true 1 gallon, a cheater 1 gallon, and so on … . And then I saw a friend eating a container of Chobani yogurt. Its container is squat and round, whereas the Yoplait brand container that I normally buy is more of a flared, cylindrical shape. Yet Dannon’s product is sold in a rounded square … and so on, and so forth. You get my drift. The container size, style, logo and color all contribute to the brand, and that’s one way the product is easily distinguished among its competitors.

And, just like people, it is really what’s on the inside that significantly counts as well – or at least it should. Thus, in our example, each yogurt has different tastes, textures and quality. Unless you’re strictly price-driven or brand-loyal – which many people are – what and how the product provides could be perhaps the main reason you choose one kind over another.

So let’s consider quality. But let’s first look at the definition of quality. According to it can be:

  1. an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute: the chemical qualities of alcohol.
  2. character or nature, as belonging to or distinguishing a thing: the quality of a sound.
  3. character with respect to fineness, or grade of excellence: food of poor quality; silks of fine quality.
  4. high grade; superiority; excellence: wood grain of quality.

To me, quality used to be a key differentiation strategy that set a company apart from others. It was an exception, not a rule. Nowadays, from an ornamental wholesale perspective at least, the middle ground seems to have somewhat disappeared; you’ve either upped your game and have quality or you’re among those in the bottom who don’t.

Should there be uniformity in plant size and shape? Probably. I mean, why else do we have an “American Standards for Nursery Stock”? I wonder, though, just how many industry people know it exists, let alone use it. I think those who have consistency in plant size and shape crop after crop, are the cream that rises to the top.

And is there a difference in plant quality at a box store versus an IGC? Overall, I would say yes – without a doubt. The box stores are going for the lowest price point, and quite often that means fewer inputs per pot or plants not being trimmed or pinched as often. However, the level of the quality found at box stores is getting better and better, so IGC’s can’t put all their eggs in the quality basket.

But just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is quality. I ask you: Where do you buy your clothes, and why? Wal-Mart or Nordstrom? Target or Macy’s? There is no right or wrong answer here – it is a personal choice – just like one’s definition of acceptable quality. And the more often we can look at our product from our customers’ or a consumer’s viewpoint, the sooner we can meet and exceed their needs – and the better off we’ll be.

Steve Jobs once said, “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” I guess only you can decide how well you want to sleep each night.

– Originally published in American Nurseryman magazine, July 2013 issue by Maria Zampini


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