Tuesday, August 23, 2011

P. Allen Smith: Larger Than Life? No, Just Down to Earth

Without question, P. Allen Smith is a garden celebrity. He hosts three television shows (P. Allen Smith Gardens, P. Allen Smith's Garden Home, and P. Allen Smith's Garden To Table) and has authored numerous gardening books including Colors in the Garden and Container Gardens: 50 Recipes for Year-Round Gardening. Through his company Hortus, Ltd., he partners with several other companies to offer garden plants and products under his name. When one takes a broad view of his accomplishments in the industry, he can appear larger than life.

P. Allen Smith giving his keynote address
I had the opportunity to hear Allen speak at the Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago, where he was the keynote speaker for the IGC opening session. Perhaps surprising to those accustomed to the gentle, friendly demeanor of his TV shows, Allen spoke with a forceful enthusiasm about how the industry needs to focus on creating products that make gardening a simple endeavor that fits into the lifestyles of its customers.


After the keynote was complete, the IGC trade show floor opened for business. Several of the P. Allen Smith partners had booths, including Proven Winners who market the P. Allen Smith Platinum Collection of plants. I was scheduled to interview Allen after his book giveaway and signing at the PW booth.

P. Allen Smith signing his Colors in the Garden book at the Proven Winners booth at IGC
As I waited for the line to subside, I noticed how Allen cordially greeted each of his fans with the familiar demeanor of his television shows -- friendly and warm. Fresh off his motivating keynote however, I saw him in a different light -- one which casts him as an intelligent business owner, interested in bringing the best product to his customer.

Impatiens Rocapulco® Red
With this new perspective in mind, my first question to Allen centered on the process by which he selects Proven Winners plants -- like Impatiens Rocapulco® Red -- to be included in his Plantinum Collection. He doesn't just stick his face on these plants, he's branding them with his reputation. Allen explained that he first looks from a designer's perspective, choosing plants from the PW trial gardens for their visual appeal. He then considers how they will interact with other plants already in the collection. Allen describes this as a "Garanimals" approach, where plants are chosen for his collection so that they can be matched together in many an appealing combination. Once the initial selection is done, the chosen plants are trialed in Allen's own gardens (in Zone 7b). A list of top candidates is formed, based on how they perform in both the garden and containers, disease resistance, length of bloom and ease of care. The final selection is then based once again on how they will combine with other plants already in the collection.

While the plants in the Platinum Collection are performance tested in Allen's home climate of zone 7b (in Arkansas), all of the plants have gone through the PW nationwide research and development process prior to being selected for Allen's collection. Allen noted that many of the plants will perform even better in zones outside his home climate. For example, Allen mentioned Supertunia® Vista Bubblegum as a variety that performs just as well for gardeners in New York and Southern California as it does in Arkansas.

Mecardonia 'Gold Dust' (Photo courtesy of Proven Winners www.provenwinners.com)
One of the newer introductions Allen highlighted during the interview is Mecardonia, which he described as "a beautiful little low groundcover plant that has glorious bright yellow flowers." This plant was trialed two years ago, and was added to the Platinum collection in 2011.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
Since we're approaching autumn, I asked Allen if he had any recommendations for fall planting. Aside from the standard bulbs, trees and shrubs, Allen recommends using Colorblaze® coleus for late-season color to replace container plants that died near the end of summer. When I mentioned hydrangea, Allen noted that he is planning a few mass plantings of hydrangea on his farm, including 'Limelight' and 'Invincibelle Spirit' from his collection. Since Hydrangea are such water-loving plants, Allen suggests giving them consistent moisture and adding plenty of humus to the soil.

Chicago skyline from the deck of the Odyssey II
Later that evening, I was invited to join Allen and his staff from Hortus, Ltd. for a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan. On board, we had the opportunity to talk with representatives from several of his corporate partners including Proven Winners, Laguna, and Ferry Morse while enjoying the gorgeous Chicago skyline on a moonlit night.

A special thank you to P. Allen Smith for taking the time to talk with me and for hosting a wonderful dinner cruise. Allen may have been larger than life on the keynote stage, but in person he's as down to earth as they get -- a perfect person to interview on From the Soil.

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