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2022 Sponsor Q&A with Hillary Alger of Johnny's Selected Seeds

We're pleased to partner again with Johnny's Selected Seeds, joining us as Slow Flowers Summit's Supporting Sponsor for 2022. Two key Johnny's Seeds' floral experts will be in attendance at the Slow Flowers Summit, and you'll want to meet them, including Joy Longfellow (left) and Hillary Alger (right), pictured below when attending our 2019 Slow Flowers Summit in the Twin Cities.

American Flowers Week coincides with the Slow Flowers Summit and has done so ever since our first Summit in Seattle, held in 2017. Beginning with that first year, we have enjoyed generous support from our friends at Johnny's Selected Seeds.

We have a wonderful tradition that started when Johnny's Seeds created custom seed collections honoring one look in the American Flowers Week botanical couture lineup. In 2017, the packet included a "Couture Sunflower Collection" to pay homage to a stunning sunflower gown designed for American Flowers Week by Amy Le of Gather Design Co.

The tradition continues for 2022, and the American Flowers Week-inspired seed collection will again be a popular "perk" that attendees of the Slow Flowers Summit will find in their gift bag. Based in Winslow, Maine (USDA Zone 5a) Johnny's Selected Seeds is a Supporting Sponsor of the 2022 Slow Flowers Summit and we recently caught up with Hillary Alger, product manager for herbs and flowers. Enjoy our conversation!

Q. Can you describe how Johnny's Seeds conducts its flower trials? A. Joy Longfellow, our flower seeds and bulbs product technician, sows and transplants for nearly 10 months of the year. She starts seeding for early trials in January and then she seeds and transplants for our over-winter crops well into fall. And during this time, we're evaluating everything we trial.

Q. What are some of the goals of your trials? A. Part of this work is trying to have a full perspective of what it would be like to be a cut flower grower. The trials help us understand where there might be gaps in our assortment, as well as what challenges growers might be facing? We want to fill in all the seasonal slots with a nice representation of product.

Q. So Joy basically serves as Johnny's Seeds' resident flower farmer? A. Yes! One of the things she tries to do is plan a weekly harvest and then spend a little bit of time making market bunches from what she harvests from our various plantings. This helps us understand where there are aesthetic gaps, as well.

Q. How does the Johnny's flower team begin out the year? A. We start super-early seeds indoors, so crops like lisianthus and some early tunnel plantings, such as snapdragons and poppies. When the seedlings get to a certain growth point, they are moved to our greenhouse. Because we're in such a cold climate, we try to hold off as long as possible before we start heating the greenhouse, but eventually, the seedlings move out there. At Johnny's, we actually have one small greenhouse devoted to flowers.

Q. You actually trial growing lisianthus from seed? Isn't that difficult? A. Johnny's Seeds carries about 20 different varieties of lisianthus seed. Many growers might want to buy plugs, but there are many others who have had success growing lisianthus from seed. People have particular reasons for starting lisianthus from seeds, perhaps as a backup in case their plug order doesn't show up, or if they want to lock in a special variety. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, but there are many growers who have found success with lisianthus seeds.

Q. Spring is when you're evaluating lots of bulb crops, too, right? A. Yes, the bulbs start to emerge in April, and they really pick up by May.

Q. What else gets you excited as you conduct the spring trials? A. We have really beautiful pansy trials this year. They are amazing. There are stems of 12 inches or more and those stems are plenty sturdy. The flowers have lots of leaves so that adds a nice foliage element, plus they smell great. 'Brush Strokes' and 'Frizzle Sizzle Yellow-Blue Swirl' are two pansy options that produce abundant, artful blooms.

Q. Are you seeing increased demand for pansies? A. The overwintered pansies time really well with tulip season. We've always offered pansies, but last year was the first we selected varieties positioned specifically for cut flowers and floral design.

Q. What are you looking for in the tulip trials? A. We look for stem length and strength. Joy does a lot of bulk harvesting and she makes bouquets to determine the general strength of each variety. Oftentimes, heads can snap when you're harvesting, so we get a good sense of whether those tulips hold up in bouquet-making. Or, is the stem floppy? We also want to have a really nice assortment of colors and shapes. So, for example, we are looking for the biggest and most beautiful white-double tulip, and if it's fragrant -- even better. Something else we pay attention to is the appearance of the unopened bud, before it's fully formed, because that's the way a grower might market it and what a customer would potentially see when they're buying a bouquet. We want those buds to be appealing in all stages. Another thing we look for when harvesting tulips for cuts is that some have a lot of extra leaf tissue, or produce extra bulbs from the base. And that leads to a lot of extra little leaves, which means more cleaning and stripping. The more modern varieties seem to have cleaner stems and that's more efficient for the flower farmer.

Q. It must be stunning to look across the tulip fields to see the array of colors in your catalog. A. Everything we already offer is planted in one area; and all the new possibilities are planted in another plot. So we can visually observe missing colors that way.

Q. As you move into summer, after bulb season, what is your focus? A. As the early, spring-planted tunnel crops are being evaluated, Joy is also transplanting and seeding all our field crops. She will be seeding something most weeks, now through August.

Q. Wow, altogether, how many annual flowers are you trialing at Johnny's? A. It's in the hundreds. We trialed almost two thousand individual plots last year, including replications and Johnny's varieties.

Q. How do you manage the schedule, juggling both time at your desk and time evaluating trials? A. It's all-consuming for Joy's schedule. For me, right now, I'm spending a couple mornings each week, but once all these crops are blooming in full force, it will require a lot more time in the fields. We start on Mondays and do a walk-around, just getting a sense of how individual trials are progressing. We like to make a plan for the week, because with Mother Nature, things inevitably change.

Q. You have to photograph everything at the perfect time, too! A. We have at least one regular block of time each week just for photography with Kristen Earley, our staff photographer.

Q. I remember when I visited you and the flower team at Johnny's Seeds a few years back. I thought it was cute that you keep a closet filled with vintage plaid flannel shirts in the photo studio! The big flower bunches look so pretty in front of the faded checks and plaids. Is that the "Johnny's Look"? A. Yes, actually. We try to change it up, but it's a thing around the office. There are a couple of us who go to Goodwill and keep an eye out for the right shirts. Because, of course, our regular shirts are always dirty, so you have to have something clean hanging up!

Q. It feels so authentic that the people who are marketing your flower seeds and bulbs are gardeners, growing your flowers in trials. A. Ha! We just stumbled across a tulip photo that we wanted to use in an email. But we noticed that my hand holding the flowers is really filthy. I think our marketing team cropped it out for the email, but you can see it on our website (and above)!

Q. Okay, no surprise. How does the summer continue into fall for the Johnny's flower team? A. We continue with fall tunnel crops, which we evaluate into October.

Q. I would imagine you conduct some very big trials in certain categories, like sunflowers or zinnias? Do you have some mega-trials? A. Yes, you nailed it. Those two crops are really important, so they are always big trials.

Q. Tell me about the sunflower evaluations. A. There are just a lot of sunflowers to look at. We usually have three or so sunflower plantings each year. We look at differences in the way they perform in the early spring, compared to the last planting of the summer, because of day length and temperature. It's nice to be able to evaluate sunflowers across the season.

Q. I was intrigued to learn that Johnny's is doing some cut flower breeding! Can you share more about this program? A. This is going to be our fifth official season, but it takes time. We are at least two years or more away from having new varieties to introduce. Breeding involves observing what's missing and looking for genetic opportunities. So for example, with zinnias, there are colors you can find only in field-grown mixes, where the genetics are all mixed together, but you can't find specific features in a single variety. When we see something we love that's just not available as its own variety -- that's a place to start. The time-consuming steps involve removing everything we don't want (from the mix) and then starting over again with the selection we want to breed.

Q. Do you get involved in evaluating the ornamental gourds that a lot of flower farmers grown in the fall? A. We leave those to the vegetable team and stick to flowers, but sometimes they ask us what we think about an ornamental crop.

Q. Okay, (almost) final question and this is a little teaser for Slow Flowers Summit attendees. You and Joy designed two awesome looks for the 2022 American Flowers Week botanical couture collections, this year featuring amaranth (sneak peek above). I can't wait for the big reveal, to come in June. What amaranth varieties will our attendees find in their custom seed packet this year? A. We carry six or seven types of amaranth -- we really have the category covered. I think I picked upright burgundy, an upright copper one, and then a trailing one.

Q. Is June or July too late to plant amaranth? A. No, people will be able to go home after the Slow Flowers Summit and plant the seeds. Amaranth is great for succession planting. We usually do a late one so we have fresh amaranth by fall. It's such a nice color palette for fall arrangements!


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