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?
"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.
The market generally has become saturated with new varieties of annuals and tender plants grown as annuals, many of which are patented and then branded to stand out from the crowd. Brands such as Surfinia Petunias and Million Bells, from Japan's Suntory, or Ball's Wave petunias have brought sparkle to an Aladdin's cave of garden flower choices, but, Anna Ball conceded in a rare interview, they have also added to the confusion about how to grow and care for them.
More alarmingly, there are signs that the public's appetite for gardening may be waning after decades of growth, though it remains one of the most popular leisure activities in the country, according to polls. The steady market growth has transformed the industry in the past decade, injecting fierce competition and new trends, including the successful gamble that consumers would happily pay a premium for semi-mature plants in four- and six-inch pots rather than buy flats of 36 cells of seedlings for about the same price.
Ball has responded with an energetic breeding program that has brought better-performing versions of tried and true impatiens, petunias, phlox, pansies and dozens of other stalwarts, along with new lines of novelty annuals such as angelonias, scaevolas, nemesias and calibrachoas -- names that consumers barely know but are buying like hotcakes nevertheless.
At the Gardens at Ball, paths take the visitor through areas shaped to show off plants individually and in combinations. The patio garden contains more than 600 planted pots for sun and shade, including such novel tropicals as alocasia Black Velvet, with dramatic black, arrow-shaped leaves with white veining. Nearby, a threadleaf purple alternanthera named Burgundy Thread may be one of those tongue-twisters, but with deft marketing might become a universally loved plant to stick in a dark, bare corner. "This is probably going to be a hit," Gibson said. "You'll see it out in a couple of years."
A few feet on, the garden displays Ball's branded lines of Dazzler and Super Elfin impatiens, the former in 23 colors, the latter in another 20. "Still a pretty popular consumer plant," Gibson said.
"It's not scary," said Jessie Atchison, company spokeswoman. "People are willing to try new things if they have their reliable ones to fall back on."
Designed by landscape architect Douglas Hoerr (credited with much of the recent beautification of Chicago's Michigan Avenue as part of the city's civic greening), the garden replaces a disjointed trial garden around the corporate headquarters, itself enlarged and upgraded recently.
The 7.5 acres include display beds, an elevated viewing garden, an entire avenue of hanging baskets, a water garden, and an area called the Creative Corner where container-grown annuals are arranged in attractive combinations.
In its first season, the garden has drawn about 7,000 visitors, mostly Ball growers and retailers, including mass-merchandiser buyers who visit with their growers and exert an enormous influence over what consumers will see next year. The garden "is the way we demonstrate our products," Gibson said. "It's part inspiration, part sales and 100 percent good business for us."
The company won't reveal how much it paid for the garden, but it was clearly a major investment in design and construction and continuing maintenance, and it suggests a company that is flourishing, but one too that needs to stay ahead in a tough game.
As much of the business is in creating demand as in filling it. "Think of the way the car industry works," Gibson said. "They roll out new models and don't know what will fly. You have the Dodge Magnum -- who would have thought a souped-up station wagon would be on everybody's Christmas list?"
But Detroit has its woes, and the floriculture industry is vexed too, even in the midst of its festive carnival.
Anna Ball worries about overwhelming the consumer in choices, but she also laments the shift away from the process of gardening to the idea that plants are merely another product. Little annuals were a pain to extract from those 36-cell flats, but you could nurture them and see them grow through the summer, and that was therapy for the gardener as well as the plant. "It's moving from gardening to decorating," she said. "I suppose some people think it's a good idea, but we don't."
Gibson, asked later what was so wrong with decorating, said the consumer "may say, 'I want to stop decorating with plants,' but try outdoor curtains."
Another problem: Old soldiers may never die, but old gardeners do, and the fresh ranks are depleted. "We have a strong supposition that the number of new gardeners coming in is at a much-reduced rate than any time in history," Gibson said.
Anna Ball ponders these omens. "My mother [Vivian Ball] loved following fashion, and I remember one night she was flipping through Vogue, and she put it down and said, 'Anna, fashion has got nowhere to go.' I'm wondering if gardening has nowhere to go."
Ball Horticultural's secret weapon? Anna Ball.
"To have a woman with her power and personality at the helm is just fantastic in a male-driven industry," said David Konsoer, who works for a competing plant breeder named Proven Winners. "She treats her employees very well; it's a family-like feeling," said Konsoer, who worked for Ball for two years. "I think a lot of people view her as a visionary, for sure."
She is the granddaughter of the company's founder, George J. Ball, who started the business in 1905 as a wholesale cut-flower supplier and, later, as a seed development and distribution enterprise, which remains its core business.
It is the specter of George Ball and his sons, including Anna Ball's father, Carl, that continues to fundamentally shape the business, though Anna Ball has taken aggressive steps to reorganize and refocus at the most dynamic period in the firm's 100-year history. She seeks counsel from an outside board and receives other perspectives in the cloth- and leather-bound journals written by her grandfather between the 1890s and the 1940s. She notes that he died in 1949 en route to Japan with seeds in his pocket.
After World War II, the company also rode the wave of interest in vegetable gardening, first buying a wholesale vegetable seed company in the 1960s and, toward the end of Carl Ball's tenure, the venerated retail catalogue W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in 1991.
In a 1995 reorganization, Ball split from Burpee (the latter is headed by Anna's brother, George Ball). Anna Ball took over as president of a newly renamed Ball Horticultural Co., steered it on a course away from vegetables and consumers and began to concentrate on ornamental plants in the behind-the-scenes world of breeding, growing, distribution and sales.
"From a business standpoint we weren't focused enough," she said. "I think you have to throw everything into one area."
She also brings a passion for gardening and environmental stewardship. And perhaps most important, she appears intent on keeping Ball a private corporation, which, she believes, will preserve a deep-rooted passion for plants in the enterprise and allow her to hire and nurture similarly passionate people, and give them the time and resources to do their best work. "Management and ownership should be the same," she said. A public company that must please shareholders with short-term earnings, "we feel, doesn't fit this industry."
Her strategies for keeping it in the family? "Keep your powder dry, don't get into a lot of debt, stay close to the market and hire the right people, people who think long term."
This philosophy may be embodied in Brian Corr, director of new crops for Pan American Seed. Corr said he left a tenured professorship to work for Anna Ball, and now merrily treks through countries like Paraguay and Armenia in search of new plants and offerings from small-time hybridizers.
Sometimes a newly discovered plant is ready for prime time, but more likely it may offer fresh genes for his team of breeders to convert into a whole line of better-performing plants. "Look at Wave petunias -- all the trailing types are developed from one new species. If you find that one [species], you can revolutionize what a product looks like."
Other Ball scientists in a biotech company formed in 1998, BallHelix, work with Ball's breeders to create new varieties unobtainable through traditional hybridizing techniques.
In one project, a quest for new and striking colors in impatiens, the lab studied the genetic pigmentation of various candidates and identified one species that might yield a yellow impatiens. They crossed it with the common impatiens species. The resulting seed, obtained only through laboratory techniques, produced a whole line of uniquely colored impatiens called Fusion impatiens, now reaching the market.
Corr sees innovations like this as key to securing and expanding Ball's presence in what may be a shrinking market. "I'm not worried about competition from other breeding companies," he said. "What worries me is competing with video phones" and other electronic amusements. "There are so many ways a person can spend his or her free time. And so we have to keep the eye candy coming. We have to keep producing plants that are unavoidably attractive."