Beauty and the Beast

From Baltimore to Richmond, the green industry peddles its wares.

Down on the vastness of the event floor inside, more than 900 vendors from all branches of the green industry — growers, soil specialists, landscapers, heavy equipment sales, mulch and more — came together Jan. 11-13 for the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show, “The Masterpiece of Trade Shows” — or MANTS.

If you happened to be at the Maymont Flower and Garden Show Feb. 9-12 and heard a parent explain to an eager child that trees come from the “shrub stork,” you had a moral obligation to slap that parent and explain that local garden centers such as Sneed’s and Colesville get a lot of their plants from annual dealings at shows like MANTS, which attracts companies from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and as far away as Florida and Oregon.

While Maymont highlights the innovation and creativity of the local green industry for the dirty-kneed gardener, MANTS focuses on business over beauty. But it’s here that new plants and technologies are unveiled, where garden centers plan what they’ll make available to the public come spring.

The sheer size of MANTS is kind of terrifying: Stretched to the fluorescent horizon are booths filled with big trees and bonsai starters, Velcroed walls of handheld shears, dinosaur-sized tree spades, moss-filled forms in the shape of deer, frogs and Chihuahuas, giant rolls of sod, a cigar-chewing guy selling tarps across the aisle from an organic grower with dreads hanging past his back pockets, Popsicle-sized pine plugs to fill out the receding hairline of the world with conifers, some essential things and some just clever.

It’s a bit of a playground for the industry folks, too, who wander around putting names to faces, lining up sales or just seeking loot — good yardsticks, free publications, posters. They’ll go in search of the mythical double-headed Knock Out rose (“Somewhere down row 2400”) or for the pretty girls hired to lure visitors to the booths, a staple of the trade show and, on a larger scale, the world of sales itself.

Sexy sells plants. Look at Maymont’s vendors: the tongue-in-cheek pussy-willow booth of “Rosemary’s Pussy Ranch” and, a little farther down the aisle, the Dutch beauties peddling bulbs in alluring accents at the booth.

Perhaps as intriguing as attractive women talking boxwoods are the newly patented trees nurseries take to shows to find growers. At the booth for Serendipity Nursery Inc. of Canby, Ore., are (in addition to a girl) two strange-looking little conifers: the Austrian pine “Teardrop,” a short columnar tree, and the weeping blue spruce “Blue Falls,” a charmingly sad evergreen that looks like something Charlie Brown would use as a Christmas tree. Nursery owner Dave Sather says of the “Blue Falls”: “It is a plant that becomes a specimen in your yard.” He’s here to get people interested in these trees, to find a place for them in the market.

With a background in marketing and economic research, Sather has to be a prophet too, to predict what will be popular years down the road. He says developing a tree is an eight-year process, and to get an idea of the future of the market, he visits other collections and asks, “What do I think the consumer’s gonna want?” It often takes a while for the public to catch on to a new plant; they’re shy about something they’ve never seen in use before. But he’s confident about the industry and his own odd little trees: “Everybody gyrates back to this Blue.”

The end of MANTS is a feeding frenzy, with vendors selling off the plants in their booths so they don’t have to lug them back to their home states. Some people buy a couple of trays of plants. Others, like the folks from Ed’s Landscaping, bring in trucks and buy the contents of about 90 booths, which will find their way eventually into yards in and around Richmond.

As for Sather, he’s donating his two conifers to the Baltimore Zoo. So maybe someday soon, someone will take a left at the Reptile House, spot an odd-looking pine and say to themselves, “That would look good in my yard.”HS

If you missed it, there’s always the Penn Allied Nursery Trade Show in Atlantic City. Yes, you can zip up to PANTS July 25-27. And Maymont is planning Herbs Galore for April 29 and Maymont Day at Sandy’s Plants May 20.


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