Gardening In Japan

I had written this article before the devastating earth quake in Japan. My heart goes out to everyone that has been affected by this tragic event. When I saw the video of the greenhouses being washed away by the tsunami, I had to sit down. I have heard back from our friends in Japan, and the places that we’ve visited haven’t been directly impacted, and they are safe. I urge everyone to make a $10 donation to the redcross. No links no credit cards just use your cell phone and txt “REDCROSS” to 90999 and you’ll have made a ten dollar donation. Just a few seconds and your done, and it does make a difference.

This October I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent the United States as President of Garden Centers of America at the International Garden Center Association Congress in Japan. In attendance were two hundred and twenty garden center owners from sixteen different countries. The Congress was more than just a business meeting. It was a concentrated business study tour of Garden Centers, Public Gardens, and historic sites through out the Tokyo and Kyoto regions of Japan.

For me, this trip came fairly last minute. Garden Centers of America (GCA) became a member of the International Garden Center Association (IGCA) only in August of this year. Which also means that every member of GCA is now an individual member of the IGCA. The IGCA was established to provide a forum for the mutual exchange of information to exchange best practices, ideas, methods and experiences.

Fox Face Solanum mammosum
The flight to Japan was fourteen hours direct from Newark. It was strange to leave at 11:30 AM on Thursday and arrive at 2:30 PM on Friday. We didn’t pass through night at all. We had our business meeting the next day. At the meeting we compared how the industry was faring, and spoke about new trends. The thing that amazed me the most, actually it scared me a bit, was that it seemed that everyone all over the world had weather issues this year. Weather does effect how people garden. Usually if weather it really bad in one part of the world, it will be great in another. It didn’t seem like this pattern was the case this year. I hope we didn’t mess the world environment too badly, and that this is just a blip.

It was an early start the next morning. There were five busses on the tour. We shared our bus with quite a few garden center owners from the UK. One of the first things we noticed is that most of the homes we passed had very small yards. There are almost thirteen million people in Tokyo (compared to eight and a half million in NY.) Space is at a premium. So the actual space that is available to garden is relatively small.

After visiting several of the garden centers, I noticed a few extremely interesting trends. The first must be related to the smaller yards. Most of the sizes of plants that were available were in smaller size pots than in the US. There was quite a bit more color, and a larger variety of plants than are available in US garden centers in the fall. I think part of this is that gardening is more a part of there culture than it is in the states. From what I could determine online, their hardiness zone is about a zone 8, which would be similar to Southern Georgia.

There were lots of small potted plants that were covered with berries. We’ve been selling large potted purple berried callicarpa (beauty berry) for years, but I’ve never seen them available in four inch pots before. I was amazed that these four inch plants were covered with berries. There were other plants in berry in these tiny pots too. Some I recognized, but some I am still trying to find the correct botanic name. I would love to get a grower in the US to grow small pots of berried plants for fall containers. What a great way to add excitement, and also some height to a pot of pansies. Speaking of fruiting plants, one of the coolest new plants that I saw was called “Fox Face”. I had to ask several people at several different garden centers before I got the botanic name. Fox Face, Solanum mammosum, is a relative of the tomato and potato. It is a native of South America. It has large orange fruits that last for about three months. The fruits get their name because they resemble fox heads. These were in pots standing about three to four feet tall. This would be fantastic in fall container arrangements. Since they are in the nightshade family, I would not recommend eating them, as they could possibly be poisonous.

In the 1980’s the United States used to be the number one importer of tulip bulbs from the Netherlands. That title has passed to the Japanese in the last decade with total purchases exceeding one hundred seventy nine million. People were swarming around the tulip display. Each tulip bulb is individually priced and bar-coded with a color-coded tape. The tape color matches the flower color. The skin on the tulip is very important to the Japanese and looked perfect. Every tulip bulb was in perfect shape. The price in US dollars was about $1 per tulip

Many of the garden centers that we visited in Japan also had pet departments. Pets play a very large roll in garden centers in the United Kingdom, and are also have started to make appearances at garden centers here in the US. The thing that I thought was very unusual about the Japanese Garden Centers is that pet department included a display dedicated to Rhinoceros Beetles. The Rhinoceros Beetle is one of the worlds strongest animals, as it can lift up to 850 times their own weight. To put this into human terms, a person would be able to lift a 65 ton object! The beetles are clean, easy to maintain and are safe to handle. The children think they make exciting pets. The male beetles are very territorial and in some parts of Asia, two males are made to fight as a form of gambling. I was tempted to bring one back to my son Dakota, but I figured I didn’t want to get into trouble with the department of Agriculture.

Since it was only mid-October when I was in Japan, I was surprised when I saw what looked like poinsettias. When I got closer to the display I was impressed with a new type of Euphorbia from Suntory called Princettias. They are similar to poinsettias, but the flower bracts are smaller. There were several colors. None of them were red. They were all in various shades of bright pinks. The plants were more compact than a poinsettia, and had dark green glossy leaves. I think these would be perfect on an end table or coffee table. When I returned home, I spoke to my friend, Lloyd Traven, who will be supplying Poinsettias to Martha Stewart this Christmas. Lloyd is a grower that is always up on the newest and coolest plants. He just happened to be trialing a few of the Princettias here in the states. He says that I’ll be able to have a few so we can sell some in December.

Phalaenopsis Orchids are the easiest orchids to grow indoors. They’ve become extremely popular all around the world. When I first saw the orchids in the Japanese garden centers I was stunned. The Japanese Orchid growers use wires when the phalaenopsis are growing to train the flowers to look like giant waterfalls of flowers. They would put several plants in a pot, and the effect was beautiful. It was more like a living sculpture than a flowering plant. If I could have brought them home with me, I would have.

I can’t wait to put some of ideas that I got while I was there to use.