A legacy of innovation

A legacy of innovation

Features - Cover Story

Pierre Bennerup looks back on a lifetime of horticultural achievements.

October 11, 2018

Julie Bidwell

You don’t have to look far to see Pierre Bennerup’s impact on the perennial industry: through more than 50 varieties of plants he’s introduced, the prevalent use of plastic pots that he pioneered, or the dedicated trade association that he helped establish.

During his 50-year career, the second-generation owner of Sunny Border Nurseries Inc. in Kensington, Conn., has left a legacy of innovation far beyond his company. Because of his numerous contributions, Bennerup received the 2018 Liberty Hyde Bailey Award from the American Horticultural Society earlier this year.

“Pierre has always been ahead of the curve,” says Janet Draper, president of the Perennial Plant Association, which Bennerup helped found. “He’s always looking at the way things are done and asking, ‘Why? Why not do it another way?’”

But carving out a prominent role in the industry wasn’t always his plan.

“I never thought I would be in this business,” says Bennerup, whose father founded the wholesale nursery in October 1929. “Unlike my father, who was born in Denmark and had a thorough training in horticulture, I graduated from Princeton, which doesn’t have any horticulture courses at all.”

Bennerup with Veronica reptans ‘Sunny Border Blue’
Julie Bidwell

After earning his English degree, Bennerup explored a few different careers before joining a large wine importing company, where he worked his way up to corporate vice president. But after his father died in 1967, leaving his mother struggling to maintain the nursery, Bennerup decided to return to his roots and revive the family business, which he purchased in 1969.

Over the last half-century, Bennerup has traveled the globe in search of new plants, while advancing the North American perennial industry through his efforts and innovations. Now, Bennerup is searching for fellow “plant nerds” to carry on the torch.

Pioneering plastic pots

When Bennerup took over the family nursery in the early 1970s, “perennials were basically in their infancy,” he says. “Total sales of perennials compared to other nursery plants were less than one percent, and grew to nearly 20 percent by the year 2000.”

Back then, perennials were predominantly sold as dormant bare root plants. But as the market grew, so did the demand for retail-ready plants.

“Independent garden centers didn’t want to waste their time potting plants. They wanted a salable, finished product they could turn over — and that wasn’t the case with bare root plants, without a lot of work,” Bennerup says.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’
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Many growers, including Bennerup’s father, tried bagging or wrapping bare root plants — but regardless of the packaging, dormant bare root plants didn’t grab consumers’ attention like plants in bloom. Peers credit Bennerup as the first nurseryman to sell finished, container-grown perennials, but he says he didn’t come up with the idea — he just improved it.

He claims that container growing originated in California, where growers used tin cans. Meanwhile, growers on the East Coast were using pots made of stapled tarpaper, which weren’t very durable, or clay pots, “which were totally impractical because they were so breakable,” he says.

“We were one of the first nurseries that contracted with plastic manufacturers to make pots according to specifications,” says Bennerup, who saw advantages to using lightweight, durable, inexpensive plastic. “It didn’t take long to catch on. By the end of the 70s, it was a widespread practice for many wholesale nurseries to grow in plastic pots.”

Through his innovation, Bennerup helped advance the production of perennials to facilitate growth in the market.

Lychnis ‘Lipstick’
Julie Bidwell

“Suddenly, there were all sorts of retail-ready plants available in garden centers because plastic pots made it possible,” he says. “Once people saw what plants looked like, they became much more interested in gardening.”

Now, Bennerup thinks it’s time for the industry to evolve again and replace the plastic he helped pioneer with more sustainable materials.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 20 years trying to find an acceptable substitute for plastic,” says Bennerup, who has experimented with biodegradable pots made of potato skins, sawdust and even cow manure. “It’s not only pots — it’s trays, it’s labels, it’s the plastic covering we put on our greenhouses, it’s the fleece we cover our plants with. The horticulture industry is too dependent on the plastic industry, but I just haven’t been able to figure out a viable alternative.”

Uniting plant nerds

A self-taught plantsman who learned through experience and experimentation, Bennerup recognized the value of sharing best practices among his peers. So, when Dr. Steven Still, a horticulture professor at The Ohio State University, invited him to speak at a perennial symposium in Columbus in 1983, Bennerup willingly presented about Sunny Border’s container production.

They expected about 150 people at the event, but the actual attendance nearly doubled that estimate. Bennerup immediately realized an opportunity.

“I said, ‘Look, if we have such interest, it’s time we formed an independent association devoted to hardy perennial plants,’” he remembers. “It was obviously a growing trend, so after the lectures, we began to organize a group.”

Bennerup, Still, and a handful of other horticulturists met several times that year to plan how the group would operate. They incorporated the Perennial Plant Association in 1984. Bennerup served as president from 1986 to 1987 and received the association’s Award of Merit in 1998.

“When the association started, the internet didn’t exist — so before that information became available, it was difficult for growers to get the information they needed to be successful,” Bennerup says. “The PPA has provided a wealth of important information about plant culture and practices.”

Now with nearly 1,400 members, the association continues its mission to connect horticulture professionals, promote perennials and provide education.

“The Perennial Plant Association has strengthened ties between horticulturists across the country,” says current PPA president, Janet Draper. “It’s a gathering of hort nerds sharing their passion and information about plants — and none of that would have been possible without forward-thinking people like Pierre.”

Peers credit Bennerup as the first nurseryman to sell finished, container-grown perennials, but he says he didn’t come up with the idea, he just improved it.
Julie Bidwell

Adding value to glitz

Although he didn’t have his father’s formal horticultural training, Bennerup inherited his dad’s love of plant material. He proudly identifies as a “plant nerd,” admitting that his collection is “kind of insane.”

“Every time I see a new plant, I can’t resist it. I have to own it,” he says. “I have a garden full of specimen plants and a nursery full of more plants than we could ever possibly market. We have more than 3,000 varieties at the nursery, and less than half of them are actually listed in our catalog.”

In search of new varieties, Bennerup has journeyed the globe with several horticultural travel groups. On one trip to southwestern China, he spotted a variegated Sanguisorba menziesii ‘Dali Marble’ that he brought back. On another voyage to Europe in 1987, he procured Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Feuerhexe’ (Firewitch), which became widely popular and was selected as the PPA’s Perennial Plant of the Year in 2006.

Throughout his career, Bennerup has introduced more than 50 plants through Sunny Border, honing an extensive selection of perennials ranging from Acanthus to Zizia. But predicting which plants will be popular with consumers is much more difficult than choosing plants that appeal to his own preferences.

“What I like and what’s popular are two totally different things,” he says. “There are plants that should be selling 20 times as many as they are, and there are plants that are selling 20 times as many as they should. The buying public is highly unpredictable, but you can predict that they’ll almost always go for glitz rather than quality. Anything that’s glitzy is going to sell, and plants that are long-lived and dependable but don’t necessarily bloom all season are often overlooked.”

An example is the genus Epimedium. Bennerup has amassed about 25 varieties over the years because they’re evergreen, drought- and shade-tolerant with beautiful (although brief) flowers in spring — but he doesn’t sell many, “because they’re just not glitzy,” he says. Meanwhile, colorful lupins, delphiniums and foxgloves sell like wildfire, even though they’re short-lived in Connecticut’s climate.

“People are misled by their eyes,” he says. “The big-box stores just want to show a lot of color, so they’re not giving typical garden consumers any reason to buy plants, other than the pretty flowers. But you have to give people other reasons to buy plants, because flowers aren’t going to last forever — especially with perennials.”

Educating a new generation of consumers about the value perennials provide is the major challenge he sees facing the industry. The nurseries that are succeeding are finding ways to market what else plants can do, he says. By promoting plants in the mint family as “deer resistant” or featuring butterfly weed and milkweed as “pollinator friendly,” he says the industry can add value that outlasts flowers.

Passing the torch

Bennerup had planned to retire by now, assuming that his second-in-command, president Marc Laviana, would have taken over the business. Unfortunately, Laviana died in March 2017 after a long illness, so now Bennerup is exploring other exit strategies. Currently, he’s looking for interested buyers.

“It would be a shame to see Sunny Border disappear,” he says. “I’d prefer to sell the nursery to someone who has the knowledge, money and interest to continue it, but so far I have not found that person.”

However, he realizes that the nursery’s approach to growing a diverse selection on speculation is very “old-fashioned,” especially in the current market.

“The key failure of Sunny Border Nurseries is that we don’t know what we’re going to sell. We grow and propagate on speculation,” Bennerup says. “Most modern growers, especially the growers that sell to big-box stores, know exactly what they will need by which week of the season, because everything is presold under contract. It’s a very extensive process to maintain the salable inventory of so many plants on speculation. Sometimes we end the year only selling 60 percent of what was grown, so we’re in a difficult position.”

Ten years ago, Sunny Border was an $8 million business. Now, it’s less than half that, as the perennial market has declined and consumer preferences have shifted. Though Bennerup owns 200 acres, only 20 acres are currently used for production.

“Years ago, we made a strategic decision not to sell to big-box stores, and to exclusively supply independent retailers and landscape entities,” Bennerup says. “Since then, the retail business has quickly gone over to big-box stores. Thirty years ago, independent retailers did 90 percent of the retail business, but now, 85 percent of green goods are sold in big-box stores.”

In response to these trends, Bennerup has pursued more contract growing opportunities. Sunny Border still doesn’t sell directly to the big boxes, but it does do cell-pack production for growers that finish plants for big-box stores.

Coreopsis x ‘Darling Clementine’
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Other contract business involves growing green roof plants for large projects including the Barclays Center, which is home to the Brooklyn Nets, as well as Ikea stores, government buildings and universities, including Bennerup’s alma mater.

Between green roofs and cell pack production, contract growing now comprises approximately 25 percent of Sunny Border’s business. The nursery also earns royalties on patented plants. But the biggest piece of the business is still growing a wide selection of perennials — and that part has been hit hardest by the recession.

“The center of our line, which is hardy border perennials, has shrunk the most,” Bennerup says. “The plants that were traditionally the bulwark of the perennial garden are not doing nearly as well as they did 10 years ago, because younger generations have not taken up the plant zeal that baby boomers showed.”

To carry Sunny Border into the next generation, Bennerup is looking for an innovative “plant nerd” who will stir up the next wave of perennial passion. While Bennerup is proud of his contributions to the industry, he knows much more needs to be done. Now, his job is finding and equipping the next leader to steer Sunny Border into the future.

“I’ve always been a terribly optimistic person,” he says. “When I bought the nursery, we were doing exponential increases on a yearly basis – and I never thought it would end. Of course, it did level off and decline, and I don’t think I adequately prepared. We all know the stock market isn’t going to go up forever, so that’s the lesson I would share: Plan for the best but prepare for the worst.”

For more: www.sunnyborder.com

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland and a frequent contributor to Nursery Management.