Seeds of Doubt

The new gardens at Ball Horticultural Co. encompass 7.5 acres and contain tens of thousands of plants representing 1,918 varieties.
The new gardens at Ball Horticultural Co. encompass 7.5 acres and contain tens of thousands of plants representing 1,918 varieties. (Photos Courtesy Of Ball Horticultural Co.)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

WEST CHICAGO, Ill. From a distance -- say, from the balcony of Anna Ball's second-floor office -- a colorful 7.5-acre flower garden looks like an extremely well groomed and well-funded public park.

But if this were haute couture, not horticulture, the garden beds would be more than just pretty, they would be the runways of Milan and New York, full of next season's plants destined for back yards from Beijing to Baltimore. And Anna Ball? She's the Donna Karan or Calvin Klein of this world, giving final approval to the new plant creations offered by her enterprise. Opened in July, the Gardens at Ball contain tens of thousands of plants representing 1,918 varieties and reflecting what the taste makers are eyeing for your garden.

Behold Black Pearl, a striking chili pepper bred not for the palate but as an ornamental: Its leaves are deep purple-black, and its peppers resemble shiny black marbles. Planted in a mass, it is unlike any ground cover you have seen. Or a sweet william named Neon Purple, with rich magenta blooms. It looks like a garden phlox, without the mildew problems, and it perfumes the air with its sweet scent.

Or a helenium named Dakota Gold, compact and smothered in orange daisies. It will be in garden centers next spring.

But here, perhaps, the comparison to high fashion ends. Apparel designers may live or die by their names, but Anna Ball keeps a low profile in an invisible industry. Her company -- actually a complex web of privately held corporations under Ball Horticultural Co. -- may be the biggest flower producer you've never heard of.

Its products decorate the decks, balconies and garden beds of anyone who has picked up a petunia at Home Depot or at the neighborhood garden center, but getting the flower to the consumer may be one of the most convoluted journeys in commerce. And as Anna Ball grapples with ways of reaching consumers she is also preoccupied by more fundamental issues: Is America turning from a nation of gardeners to one of mere yard decorators? And will young homeowners, pressed for time and distracted by modern media, come to value this quieter pursuit?

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"You wouldn't think that something that on its surface is a farming business is nearly as complex as it is," said Jeff Gibson, Ball Horticultural's marketing manager.

Through three core companies -- Ball Seed Co., Ball FloraPlant and Pan American Seed Co. -- Ball grows, distributes or brokers almost 80 million seeds, seedling plugs and rooted cuttings each year to the nation's 8,000 wholesale greenhouse growers, and these plants show up in every one of the 17,000 independent garden centers in the nation, as well as the outdoor aisles of mass merchandisers such as Lowe's, Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

The company has operations in 21 countries around the world and supplies growers in the burgeoning consumer markets of China and India. In plantations in Costa Rica, one of its companies, Linda Vista, employs 1,500 people to hand-pollinate impatiens, petunias and other hybrids, from which the seed is harvested a few weeks later.

The parent company, based in a far suburb of Chicago, describes itself as the country's largest horticultural seed company but doesn't release sales figures. Syngenta AG, its Swiss-based global rival, estimates Ball's ornamental seed sales in North America at twice Syngenta's, though no dollar figures are available, a spokeswoman said.

Ultimately, Ball's seed ends up as potted plants for consumers or landscape contractors working for residential or commercial clients. And yet, because the family-owned company doesn't sell directly to consumers, divining the public's tastes becomes for Anna Ball and her lieutenants as arcane as the industry itself.

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