For C. Raker and Sons’ trial director Greg Michalak, getting ready for the opening of Raker’s 2016 Trial Gardens and the Michigan Garden Plant Tour took some planning and a bit of trust. Their trial gardens, located in Litchfield, Michigan, opened to the industry and the public on July 13 – the day after Cultivate’16 wrapped up – and was open through Aug. 26.
While Michalak was attending Cultivate’16, members of his staff that didn’t attend the trade show were back at home putting the finishing touches on the trial gardens. Michalak and the entire Raker staff worked in advance to not only organize the many displays in their 9.5-acre trial gardens, but also their own plant-powered party, The Connection, designed to also attract consumers to their operation.
“It’s me making a big list that I can give to three or four people and say ‘this is your piece’ [to make the trial gardens a success],” Michalak says. “We do everything we can to make it useful for as many people as possible.”
Begonias, beds, baskets and more
Raker, primarily a wholesaler of growth plugs and liners, doesn’t have what some may think of as a traditional trial gardens set-up. Beyond the typical sponsored beds, hanging baskets and experimental gardens, the Raker Trial Gardens offers much more.
“A lot of times with trials, they are just university trials – which are important,” Michalak says. “Our trials are a little different because we do sponsored areas, landscape areas and comparison trials.”
This year, Raker has 16 raised sponsor beds, 265 large containers in a showcase area and 362 hanging baskets in a comparison area. Additionally, they have 360 sponsored rows and more than 700 rows of comparison trials in sun and shade. In their Hort Couture, a Raker brand that offers unique genetics exclusive to Independent Garden Centers, area, they also showcased 300 quasi experimental containers that visitors were able to vote on to help them decide what to offer in years to come. In addition, Raker is one of 47 All-AmericaSelection (AAS) trial sites in the U.S. Raker is a trial site for ornamental vegetative and ornamental seeds.
Across the gardens, some breeders are showcasing specific plants in baskets, rows and containers in order to give visitors an idea of what their flower will look like in several different environments. In their comparison trials, the focus is on begonias – the National Garden Bureau’s 2016 plant of the year.
A new twist this year is Raker’s red petunia blind trial, which includes 22 different varieties. While that happens, Michalak and his team will evaluate everything from each plant’s flower power to the flower’s ability to self-clean and how sticky they are. Then, all attendees will vote on which variety they like the most and the trial will determine which petunia is actually the best.
And why did Raker choose red petunias this year? They aren’t new or unique, and most every operation interested in the blind trial already grows them. But they are recognizable to the average consumer.
“It’s something easy, it’s something that all the breeding houses grow and all breeding houses say theirs are the best,” Michalak says. “Everyone loves a red petunia.”
New this year: the RTG six pack
The first 1,500 visitors to Raker’s 2016 Trial Gardens received a six-pack of new varieties called the RTG Sampler. Like the gardens themselves, the six-pack was designed to please everyone from horticulturists with a vast knowledge of plants to the amateur gardener who wants some pretty flowers to plant at home.
Sponsored by PanAmerican Seed, Dümmen Orange and Hort Couture, the sampler featured six different varieties – including 2016 AAS winner Brocaded Fire Geranium and the New Guinea Impatien from Dümmen - and only required a visitor to sign up in order to receive the plants.
The idea of the six-pack is simple: expose more people to flowers. While Michalak notes that catering to the horticulture industry is important, getting the end consumer involved is essential. By giving them six different eye-catching plants at no cost, the hope is that they’ll go out and buy more after they leave Raker.
“For the longest time, we just focused on the hort industry. The garden clubs, the master gardener, the [women] that go their garden center - we want to entice them more,” Michalak says. “Our charter [now] is to get as many people into gardens as possible.”
With that in mind, three years ago, Raker hosted the first ever The Connection, a family-friendly gathering designed to draw in locals and industry members into one place on the same night. According to Michalak, the goal of the event is to bring together two groups of people who normally wouldn’t interact into the same place and let the two learn from one another.
The first Connection event occurred after the industry had gone through a few rough seasons in a row and were struggling to attract the number of people they wanted to visit their trial gardens. Their solution – to have fun and relax in the middle of the brightly colored trial gardens– has been successful.
“We wanted to do something to celebrate,” he says.
According to Michalak, Connection attendance has grown 20-30 percent each of the past two years. This year, The Connection took place over two days on July 28 and 29, which coincided with the first few days of the 2016 Michigan Garden Plant Tour. During the event, Raker offered greenhouse tours and kids events like face painting and a bouncy house. They also held a hog roast, served local craft beers and wines, and served other catered food. They also hosted a concert right in the middle of the garden. A former seasonal employee drove in from the Jackson, Mich. area with professional musicians to serve as the event’s centerpiece.
The Connection, at its core, is a local event – Michalak says all of the food and drinks come from within 30 to 50 miles of Raker’s operation – and serves as their tent-pole event during the garden tour. The two-day event is the best chance for visitors, both industry members and the public, to learn from one another. And by design, the trial garden was at its peak during the party.
“We use it let people interact in the background of flowers,” Michalak says. “It’s always better when there’s flowers.”
According to Michalak, there’s also only one requirement for visitors to the Raker Trial Gardens: take a lot of photos and share what you like.
For more information on Raker’s trials, visit www.trialgardens.raker.com/trial-data.
Photo courtesy of C. Raker and Sons