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Catching Up with Allan Armitage

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A familiar name to many gardeners, Dr. Allan Armitage is a prolific writer and popular speaker whose enthusiasm and expertise continue to inspire and build the horticulture community. Here’s his conversation with Horticulture columnist Scott Beuerlein:

Dr. Allan Armitage

Dr. Allan Armitage

Scott Beuerlein: You and your wife became US citizens in recent years.

Allan Armitage: Yes! You know, going through the process of becoming a citizen, it was long, and you have to do this, that and the other thing, but every person the whole way, whether they were taking your fingerprints or whatever, was so welcoming! One thing you have to do is an interview. It’s like crossing the border. “That guy” for that moment is in charge of your life. If he wants to make it dismal for you, he can pull you over and make you tear your car apart. Or, if he’s having a good day, everything goes fine. So I walk in there and there is my folder on his desk with my whole life in it, and “that guy” is a kid. When I say a kid, I mean 30-something. And away we go. Page one. Who are you? What’s your address? And so on. So we get to page seven. And he asks, “You taught at the University of Georgia?” “Yes.” “What did you teach?” “Horticulture.” And his eyes get wide open. “Like gardens and plants?” “Yeah, I do a lot with ornamental stuff.” He says, “I love gardening! My mother loves gardening!” And then he says, “Oh, you’re Allan Armitage! My mother loves you!” I was in there for an hour! My wife thought I’d been deported. But this guy wanted to know about Japanese maples and hosta and echinacea. By the time I walked out I’d sold two books and two apps!

SB: The fourth edition of your classic Herbaceous Perennial Plants hit the market in 2020. I cannot imagine the amount of effort that must have gone into it. 

AA: The last edition, the third, is twelve years old. On the first edition (1989) there certainly were cultivars, but with each subsequent edition, cultivars have risen exponentially. So the first thing was to get up to date on cultivars. And I’ve added a lot of species and genera, because so many new plants that weren’t even on the radar 10 years ago have emerged.

I also really updated the whole thing on invasive plants. That’s always been in the book, but I’ve added a whole section now on invasive plants and references from every state.

And, Scott, people are always asking, “What happened to the name Aster? You’re not telling me that Dicentra has really been changed?” Or whatever. So I made a concerted effort to modernize the nomenclature by saying, “Here’s the old name and here’s the new.” I’ve updated everything—not just genera, but species, and families even!

Publishers don’t think they can sell reference books anymore. We’re in the age of everything being instant and online, but this is a reference book that I hope my neighbor will enjoy. Because, you know, it’s me! I say things I shouldn’t, and I give occasionally wacky opinions and it certainly isn’t dry. I think I have more orders from regular gardeners than industry or academic types, and that really makes me happy.

SB: In addition to 16 books in print, you have an impressive website, an app and you’re all over social media. You must secretly be a techie.

AA: Oh God, no. First, I just like writing, so the books just happened. And because I’m getting around, I’m seeing things, and I enjoy sharing. I enjoy teaching. I’ve been a teacher forever. I put together a website because I had a book to sell or something, and then in the last 10 years the app just happened when someone asked if I’d like to do an app [Armitage’s Great Garden Plants]. I said sure! I have no idea how the software and guts of any of that stuff works, but I work on the content, and that’s how it started. Now it’s in the hands of thousands and thousands of gardeners. I call this back-pocket gardening. You have me, for better or for worse, on your phone, in your pocket. Anything I can share, anything on any plant known to man, I’m there with you. Kind of scary, eh? You can even buy plants online from The Perennial Farm or Brent and Becky’s Bulbs or Plant Delights or whomever and you can even find “garden centers near me.”

The other things—the YouTube, the Instagram, the other social media things I do—they really are the result of my team of Maria Zampini and Kelly Garcia, whom many Horticulture readers know. They said, “Look, we’re going to make Armitage a brand. This is what you do.” I seldom go on those things. Scott, if somebody sends me something on Facebook, I may not even see it. Maybe Kelly will send it to me. But they’ve been nice platforms and I’ve learned a ton.

SB: About all these new cultivars? So many. Good thing or bad thing?

Echinacea

Echinacea

AA: Well, it’s a mixed bag. If you release over 100 things, at least 2 or 3 are going to be good! Having said that, we’re certainly getting better material. If you look at Echinacea, and you look back to when the first new colors came in and everybody jumped on them—and it turned out, while they were wonderful introductions, they weren’t terribly great plants. But now you look at what we have available today and there really are some good ones. But one of the downsides of everybody introducing everything is that we rely so much more on marketing than we do on trialing. You know, it’s all about marketing. It’s about who can get the message out fastest, best and most colorful.

And many of these things just disappear. As an example, I want to replace a few roses in my garden. And there must be a thousand new different roses. Do you think I can find anything other than a Knockout? Not a chance. Knockout is a good example. It came at a good time and it was a grand product, but there are many other roses that are just as good, even some from the same breeder, but you can’t find them.

SB: You’ve been observing all this for over 30 years. Your thoughts on the current crop of breeders?

AA: Well, breeders by nature, by definition, are simply obsessive. And we’re going to get another 10 echinacea out there next year, whether we need them or not. They simply can’t help themselves. And I say that a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s true. But the breeders themselves, I think, are brilliant. They know their stuff and they know what they’re looking for. But the big companies have made it difficult for the independent breeders.

SB: Not as many loners obsessing over hibiscus or daylilies in their backyards?

AA: Look at how many of these extraordinary perennials, whether it’s Hibiscus or Carex—the Everillos and others—and how they came from an independent breeder. Hopefully, if it’s good enough, the cream rises to the top eventually. And there’s a bunch of companies, like Garden Concepts, that are rising from the ashes and saying, “We have a lot of fabulous independent breeders, and we’re just going to work for them.” And Ko Klaver and Rick Grizzini have started up a company, Garden Choice, that is going to be taking plants from independent breeders—whether they make it or not, who knows? But I love talking with creative people like these guys.

SB: Where is the industry in relation to meeting the needs of gardeners and pushing the direction of horticulture?

AA: Well, pushing the direction, I don’t know how well they’re doing, but they’re trying. When I think of the Allan Armitages of the world and people like you, I think we’re all doing our best to nudge the industry certain ways. If you think about most of the people who come into a garden center, they don’t know a whole lot. They don’t know the newest echinacea and really don’t care. What they’re really looking for is a solution. They’re looking for a plant that does well in the shade, or has fragrance, or the deer don’t eat, or has good color. I call this solution gardening. And I’ve been talking about this for some time, and why garden centers should put up signs offering solutions, not just plants, for homeowners. Scott, what this industry needs to do is let people know we are an industry that gives people something to look forward to. Always have been. We’ve just can’t seem to get a unified voice.

SB: You have 16 books in print. Half are about people…

AA: The book that really changed my thoughts about writing one more plant book was when I wrote with a colleague, Linda Copeland, Legends in the Garden: Who in the World Is Nellie Stevens?. That was a chance for me to go back to the history of who these people were in our garden. ‘Frances Williams’. ‘Betty Corning’. ‘Nellie Stevens’. All these plants we have are named for real people. And people really responded to that. And oh my, how they have loved the book of stories of how plants got their common names: Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots. People love to read, and more importantly love to share stories. That probably sold more copies than any other.

SB: People love the stories behind things.

AA: I was in Canada at a lovely garden and there were some high schoolers there. I said, “Hey, do you want to hear a story?” Once they realized I was not a serial killer, two or three kids actually came close. I bent down and did the whole pig squeaking thing with a Bergenia that was there, and I told them this is why it’s called pigsqueak. They listened, some of their eyes got wide, but then they simply smiled and left. Not five minutes later they had a crowd around them, and they were showing how to make the pig squeak! Now that was cool! Whether or not they became gardeners, who knows? But that’s one of the ways this industry can re-enliven itself. That’s how we get new people. Something as simple as telling a story can get people excited.

SB: It’s a bit sad and ironic that the covid-19 pandemic resulted in good years for horticulture.

AA: It’s become very obvious to me that covid-19 shifted peoples’ appreciation of a garden. I still can’t believe that hundreds have joined my Facebook live garden tour of my small garden. I can’t help but notice garden centers doing well. I’m talking with happy producers and even seeing millennials becoming gardeners. It became so apparent that even though we may not be hospital workers—like my daughters, who are nurses—we in horticulture are essential workers! What we do is provide hope, a future and, most importantly, therapy. Gardening gives us something to look forward to and feel good about. It’s always been like that, of course, but we’re just too busy fighting with each other or breeding another plant to realize how many people appreciate what we do. But in the big picture, we are essential. We don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, but we sure as hell don’t need to be embarrassed to say it.

This interview first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Horticulture.