SO MANY SHRUBS, so little time. I’m kidding, sort of, but I think shrubs are a gardener’s best investment, and they were the topic of conversation with longtime plant hunter and plant breeder Tim Wood of wholesale Spring Meadow Nursery. Tim, the Product Development and Marketing Manager there, devotes his career to developing and identifying outstanding new woody ornamentals for the retail and landscape markets. His personal blog The Plant Hunter is always loaded with things I’ve never seen.
He visited my public-radio show and podcast to talk shrubs: what’s new, what’s coming next, and what’s going out of favor and why. There’s a tension between what we gardeners need to make great season-long gardens, and the fact that we mostly shop only in spring—meaning we mostly buy things that look good then.
We covered why he’s excited about plants like a beautyberry with flashy foliage, not just fruit (to help satisfy the “looks good in spring” thing); new barberries that don’t seed and become invasive; a dream of better viburnums that resist the leaf beetle; new native Hydrangea arborescens varieties in different colors of flowers (like ‘Incrediball Blush,’ above; an Aronia that covers the ground, and lots more.
Read along as you listen to the April 15, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
great shrubs old and new, with tim wood
Q. I’m a longtime fan, of course, of your work, so I’m happy to speak to you. Can you start by explaining briefly, because the listeners and readers are home gardeners, and they may not know what a wholesale grower of shrub liners does. What’s Spring Meadow?
A. Yes. I think the best example is, most people understand going to a garden center and buying a flat of annuals—you know, 32 plants in a flat or something like that. Well, at Spring Meadow, we sell flats of baby shrubs that have been propagated, and we sell them to other growers, who then pot them up and they grow them for a year or two, and then they sell them to a garden center or they sell them to a landscape pickup yard, or they sell them to a home improvement center.
So we’re a little bit … we’re at the very beginning of the process in terms of producing plants. That’s a really good place to be for somebody who’s interested in new plants, because it’s very efficient for us to ship these baby plants across the country.
Q. So now you kind of are a little bit of a scout. You’re always on the lookout for something that will eventually become something that’s shipped around in the multiples to lots and lots and lots of wholesale customers. So you’re at the very beginning of that process, right?
A. Yes, our customers are always looking for something new, something better, and so that’s why I was hired at Spring Meadow—to basically be a plant hunter, a plant breeder. But I’m also a plant advocate and a gardening advocate. But I’m always on the hunt for something new, something better, when it comes to woody outdoor gardening plants.
Q. And Spring Meadow is connected in some way to Proven Winners, which is a name that gardeners can’t help but notice in the garden center. So explain that part of it?
A. Proven Winners is a co-op brand, kind of like Ocean Spray cranberries or Sunkist oranges. So in agriculture, a lot of times companies are not big companies that can afford to do branding. So we work cooperatively with other growers to sell our very best plants under this brand called Proven Winters. We work on the woody plants. There are nurseries that specialize in perennials, they work on the perennials side of the Proven Winners brand. And there are annual companies that work on the annual side. Each of us is continually looking, evaluating, and testing, and selecting the very best plants that we can sell to consumers under this particular brand, Proven Winners.
The idea is to make consumers successful at gardening and to get more people involved in gardening, because a lot of people are afraid of gardening. It’s like going into a store and buying wine. We don’t always know what we’re trying to choose to get the best wine, and it’s very similar for a lot of people to go out and buy plants.
Q. In your personal career, Tim, how long have you focused on woody plants, on shrubs? How many years, do you think?
A. I grew up on a nursery, growing woody plants on my Dad’s nursery. But I’ve been at Spring Meadow for about 23, 24 years. Before coming to Spring Meadow, I used to grow perennials, I used to grow annuals—I used to be more in the botanical garden curation business as well.
Q. In that time—I’ve been gardening I don’t know, 40 years, and I guess 30 years in my current space, keenly—I’m trying to think, when I would go to the garden center back then, what were the first things that I bought, woody plants that I bought. I bought a magnolia, for instance, and I bought lilacs. So then versus now, let’s start to talk about some of those changing landscape mainstays of then versus mainstays of now.
A. I think just like fashion, plants also come in and out of vogue. Some of the things that we grew 10 years ago are no longer popular. Some things that we grew 30 years ago, when I was growing up on my Dad’s nursery, they went out of favor but they’re coming back. It’s kind of like that neon green clothing that people wore in the 60s, you know, they went away and they came back.
It’s not all that different from plants. We sometimes get into a new plant and we get bored with it, and then we move away from it. And then there’s a whole new generation that discovers that plant again, and it comes back in fashion.
Q. So for instance, I saw in the catalog—I mean it’s not a catalog that I can buy from, it’s a wholesale one pointed toward your wholesale customers. But looking at your website, at the Spring Meadow website, it was around two dozen, maybe, new plants for 2019. I said, I thought, some of them I had never heard of. Well, I had heard of them but I have never grown them because I am in the wrong zone, like Coprosma, which I think is a Zone 9-11 plant.
But I saw there’s a “new” forsythia [called ‘Flying Machine’], and I thought, “What the heck do we need more forsythia for?” [Laughter.] But then there were some Japanese maples, and I thought, “Oh right, they’re hot right now.” So tell me some specific things that have gone out of fashion or are coming back around for their second showing. Give me some examples. [Above, Acer palmatum ‘Katsura.‘]
A. O.K.. I think a really good example is beautyberry, Callicarpa?
A. It’s a beautiful plant, I think a lot of gardeners that are a little bit more sophisticated, maybe some of the gardeners on the East Coast are familiar with beautyberry. But generally speaking, you don’t really ever see it being sold any more and you don’t really see it in the garden center because it doesn’t look fabulous in the springtime.
Some of the old varieties were a little on the floppy side. So in the garden center world, and particularly having gone through this last recession, growers are really looking for things that can make them money, and retailers are the same way. They want to minimize their risk, they want things that will sell without having a person there to explain, “Oh, this is a beautiful plant, it’s going to look great in the fall.”
So beautyberry doesn’t sell very well in the spring, and we had a breeder that developed a Callicarpa that is called ‘Pearl Glam,’ [below], and it has purple foliage. So now it’s a plant that looks good in the spring, as well in the fall. It looks good throughout the whole summer. And all the sudden you have a plant that was kind of an old-time plant that maybe sophisticated gardeners knew but most general public people didn’t know. And all of a sudden it’s getting new life and getting popular.
Q. I see, with a facelift. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. A lot of times when you find a plant that has one new attribute, it can give whole new life to that particular genera and it becomes popular again.
Q. Sometimes the motivation for that is not just a fashion issue, but it may be an environmental issue, scientific, something that we know now that we didn’t know then. I’m thinking of barberries, for instance, that were popular and in English … You look in any old English garden book and there’s barberries in every mixed herbaceous border. They’ll use them as the backdrop and colorful-leaved ones and whatever.
Well then we have this problem with them sowing around and becoming invasive. But now something has happened to barberries to bring them around as a possibility again, yes?
A. Yes, I mean barberries are really easy-to-grow landscape plants, very durable, very tolerant of a lot of urban conditions. And it comes in a lot of different foliage colors, so it’s been quite popular over the years. Of course the issue of invasiveness, and birds carrying the seeds into native habitats, has been a real issue.
There are a number of plant breeders across the U.S. that have looked at this particular issue of invasiveness, and have been breeding plants that do not set viable seed, or very little viable seed. For example, we all are used to buying seedless oranges, we’re used to buying seedless watermelons. The breeding techniques that are used for those; creating those vegetables and fruits, they can be used for creating ornamentals that are not going to damage the environment.
Q. That are sort of sterile, yes?
A. Yes, exactly.
Q. Is there a series now of those that are, the new generation of barberries that are not going to seed around? Do they have a name?
A. We’ve introduced two new ones. They have been on the market for only two years. That’s from these baby plant sizes, so they’re just starting to come into retail. There’s two of them, one is called Sunjoy Mini Maroon [above]. The other one is called Sunjoy Todo.
Q. So Sunjoy.
A. They’re both dark. One’s dark burgundy, and one is more on the dark black side. They are both plants that were developed to be environmentally friendlies. I think there will be other varieties of barberry coming out on the market as well, that are sterile and not problematic.
Q. That’s just a really … That’s going to be a great thing to have happen. That’s such important work, because it’s a shame that we can’t ethically grow them in so many places anymore. In fact, some states have outlawed them, made them illegal to be sold. But boy, I would like to be able to know that we could ethically grow them again. So that’s exciting.
So it can be making a plant… sort of the grail of what you’re looking for is the new attribute, the beautyberry that has that extra something so that it looks good and shows off in the garden center over a longer period, and in the garden as well. Or it can be something environmental, ethical/environmental, like with the barberry.
So what are the other things? I mean, I see for instance, with Hydrangea paniculata, it seems like there’s 97,000 new varieties [laughter], many of which look like dumpy little mounds to me and I get aggravated because I can’t remember all their names and tell them apart. But whatever.
What are we looking for? Are we looking for smaller because people have smaller gardens, are we looking things that are for containers because that’s … What are the things you’re scouting for? The traits.
A. I travel all over the world looking for plants, and I love plants. I don’t think there is, in my mind, a bad plant. There’s bad uses; there’s bad places to grow them. But I appreciate every plant, and there’s a place for them, I think, somewhere. But it’s not always in the garden, and I think that my job is to help gardeners with buying good plants for their garden.
So even though I go across the world looking at plants, most of them I don’t want to bring home because I know that they’re not going to be good garden plants, or they’re not going to be plants that a grower can make money growing, or a retailer won’t be able to sell them.
But I mean, we’re looking for things, plants that solve problems, and we’re looking for plants that perform better for gardeners. We’re looking because we’re selling under a brand—we’re typically looking for plants that are adaptable and easy to grow, that people are going to be successful with.
We’re looking for plants that are low-maintenance, we’re looking for plants that are disease-resistant. We’re looking for plants that have more color; multiple seasons of interest. So yes, you talked about forsythia a little bit earlier.
Q. Yes. [Laughter.]
A. I would love to find a forsythia with an attribute like really good fall color, for example. In fact, we’re evaluating some forsythias with really good fall color. Those are the kind of things: Can we take a plant that was once very one-dimensional, like forsythia, and give it multiple seasons of interest? I love plants that … I think everybody has so much room in their yard, and if they’re going to devote space in their yard to a plant, they want it to really give them the most bang for the buck.
Like you take a viburnum that would give you flowers, it would give you maybe glossy foliage, you’re going to get fruit, and you’re going to get fall color. That’s a plant that earns its keep.
Q. Correct, yes.
A. And I think that we want to do that to plants, and we want to find plants that earn their keep, whether it’s a mock orange or whether it’s a forsythia, or whatever. The more attributes and the more beautiful it can be throughout the season, the better. I’m a really strong advocate that a plant should look good in the garden when it’s not in bloom.
A. Most of the plants people buy because they’re basing it on the flower. To me, I want a plant that looks good when it’s not in flower. Because I know it’s going to look good in flower. But it should look good the rest of the year, too.
Q. Well then that’s that tension, though, with what you were talking about, is it needs to show well, to show off well, in the garden center often in spring when the highest foot traffic comes. So it’s that tension between … do you know what I mean? If it’s not a spring-flowerer, it’s not going to look so good right then, and it needs to have that extra attribute, structure, or colorful foliage or something to get … even to get bought, to catch people’s eyes, I guess.
A. It’s getting harder and harder to introduce and sell plants that don’t look great in the spring. That’s kind of a shame.
Q. No, it is a shame, and as a gardener for so many years, I always say to people when I’m lecturing, I say, “Hey, when you get out of the car at the parking lot of the garden center in spring, I want you to cover your eyes and make a beeline for the desk, you know, for the cash register, to someone in charge. And don’t buy any of those things that are in bloom because I bet you already have spring plants in your garden. Please instead, I want you to go to the counter and say ‘Where’s the stuff that looked good in February? And where’s the stuff that looks good in November?’” Because it’s not on display right then. But it exists, right? [Laughter.]
You know, there are witch hazels … yes.
A. I had a friend who used to teach a lot of gardening classes, and he used to tell his class, “Go to the garden center every two weeks.”
Q. Yes, the whole … yes, exactly.
A. Throughout the year, all year long. Go every two weeks and you will see which plants look good throughout the whole year. I thought that was … that’s just so easy and a simple way to make yourself a good gardener, is to find plants that make your garden look good yearlong. Not just going in May.
Q. Is there pressure to find more native shrubs as well? You mentioned viburnum, for instance, and some of our Asian viburnums are having some of those problems, like the doublefile is having some of the problems with potential invasiveness, like we saw with the barberries. Not as severe, but whatever. I mean, are people asking for natives?
And you mentioned problem-solvers, and I noticed in the new listings there’s a creeping … not creeping, but prostrate maybe, low-growing Aronia—chokeberry, is that what we say? Chokeberry?
A. Yes, chokeberry.
Q. Actually, I think it was bred by a friend’s brother at UConn-Storrs, Dr. Mark Brand, is that right? [Note: It’s called ‘Ground Hog.’ Above.]
Q. Yes, yes, yes. So are people asking for … and that’s a native, so that’s why I’m … So it’s a problem solver and it’s native. Is that giving it … does that give things extra points if they’re native these days?
A. Absolutely. People are looking for native plants. Sometimes there’s advantages to having natives, and I think that there’s … If someone is designing a … We have a nature reserve over down the road here, and in front of the sign they have Japanese euonymus. How ridiculous is that, right?
A. They just don’t even know what they’re doing. So it just doesn’t make any sense to do that. But I understand, there are urban environments and there are certain plants that maybe they’re a native plant or even exotic plants that will do better in Brooklyn than some native things. So there’s importance, I think, in a lot of the genetics that we have available for us.
For example, you mentioned viburnums. A lot of our native viburnums are actually affected by viburnum beetle.
Q. Oh, not that I’ve ever seen that in my garden. Oh my goodness. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, I know. And so breeders have the opportunity to …
A. … save some of our native viburnums by using breeding techniques of using resistant varieties. Sometimes there’s an advantage of using some plants that are resistant, and we can solve those problems. We’ve seen it with things like dogwood breeding, to get rid of anthracnose. We’ve seen it with elm trees.
So those are important tools, but native plants certainly, I think, are very popular right now. We’re always looking for native plants, we’re looking at our native flora.
Last week I was down in Florida in the Panhandle, walking through the woods and looking at the native flora there. I always try to walk through different native habitats to figure out what is doing well and what plants are we overlooking as ornamentals? I think there’s opportunities.
Q. I wanted to ask you just to tell me about some of the things, because you must just get in some sense it’s like overstimulated. You see just the world of plants year after year after year. You’ve seen so many possibilities. But are there things that you just are so excited about or personal loves or anything you want to tell us about? You know what I mean, that feel like victories, or on the horizon that are coming soon?
A. Yes, you know what we do is we dream about different plants. I dream about different plants, that’s kind of who I am.
A. For example, for years and years I would say, we would say to ourselves, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if …” And one of those “wouldn’t it be great if” was wouldn’t it be great if we had an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea that didn’t flop after a rain?
We came out with one that has stronger stems, it’s called ‘Incrediball,’ and it kind of solved that issue. But then we moved on and we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea that had pink flowers? Or red flowers? Or green flowers?” Believe it or not, probably about eight years ago, a professor [Dr. Tom Ranney] down in North Carolina developed a whole series of ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas called ‘Invincibelle,’ a whole series of them with a whole array of colors. [Above, ‘Invincibelle Mini Mauvette.’]
I think it’s just one of the most exciting things to happen in horticulture in years, because we all love … everybody loves hydrangeas, but we don’t live in a mild climate like the Japanese, where they’re native to. Now we have here a native species that’s adapted to our difficult continental climate that most of us have. We don’t live in Seattle. If we don’t live in Nantucket, we struggle getting our hydrangeas to bloom reliably.
All of a sudden, Hydrangea arborescens, our own native, comes in all these colors and to me it’s just going to make gardening fun for a lot of people.
Q. Right, so that felt like a big victory.
A. It was a big victory.
Q. Yes. Where are you headed next? Where are you headed next on your next adventure, searching? Are you going abroad or around the country?
A. You know, I got back from Germany about a week ago, and then straight from Germany I went to California, and then from California I went to Florida.
Q. Oh my goodness.
A. Right now I just want to stay in my office for a couple weeks before I head out on the next trip. But I know I’m going back to Germany, I know I’m going back to the Netherlands. I’ll probably go to Japan this year. But my schedule is kind of open right now, I’m a little bit … trying to be flexible.
Q. Got to do your spring cleanup in your yard, right Tim? [Laughter.]
A. You know, you had asked me earlier if there was … People always ask me, “You must have a beautiful garden.” And it’s like, you know, unfortunately, I travel so much I don’t really get to do a lot of gardening at home. My gardening is really done in our test garden here at the nursery. I have help there. I get to enjoy that.
Q. Well, I enjoyed speaking to you, and I’m so glad you explained a little bit about what the hunt is all about and what’s coming next and what’s on the horizon. So thank you so much, Tim Wood, of Spring Meadow Nursery.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 15, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).