Earlier this week, I shared a few photos and highlights from my trip to the East Coast and the creative collaboration between designers Nicolette Owen and Sarah Rhyanen and their Little Flower School workshop.
Today’s post picks up where the last one left off. After finishing up the workshop and saying farewell to our flower friends , Chris and I set out on a road trip towards Maine and the famed Johnny’s Selected Seeds farm and world headquarters.
Every year, the Johnny’s catalog finds its way to the top of my massive pile of catalogs. Among serious home gardeners and market farmers, Johnny’s is considered one of the most respected sources of seeds, tools and growing information. Plus they offer a great selection of vegetables, culinary herbs and cover crops.
I’ve been a big fan and loyal customer of Johnny’s since the very beginning of my flower farming journey and was excited to finally see their operation–and particularly their famed trial gardens and plant breeding programs–firsthand.
Last year Hillary Alger, Johnny’s Flower Seed Manager, attended one of our Floret workshops. It was during our time together that the dream of visiting Johnny’s started to take form. Once we made the decision to head East, Hillary graciously arranged for a deluxe, in-depth tour of Johnny’s operations and fields. It was a dream tour. We got to go behind the scenes to see where and how they hand pack each and every seed order they receive, plus see some of the fields where they trial new varieties.
Johnny’s vegetable fields were incredible, but it was the flower trials that had my eye. And HOLY. SMOKES. the lisianthus trial was absolutely amazing. I had to virtually pick my jaw up off the ground after seeing all the amazing colors and varieties growing in one place.
Chris and I learned so much from their gracious, expert staff about the slow, painstaking process of developing new plant varieties. The investment of time and resources to develop new varieties is serious business. Johnny’s use of traditional breeding methods means it might require eight or more years before they can sell the first seeds.
I also enjoyed learning more about of the company’s history. Founded in a farmhouse attic, Rob Johnston, Jr. started the company in 1973 at the ripe old age of 22. Since those humble beginnings, Johnny’s now sells seed to more than 50 countries around the world has grown to be one of our nation’s best loved suppliers of seeds and products used for organic production. An early signatory to the Safe Seed Initiative, Johnny’s has had a longterm commitment selling only seeds and plants that have not been genetically modified.
After more than 30+ years at the helm of the sole proprietorship company, Johnston had the opportunity to sell to outside investors or sell to another company but instead launched the Employee Stock Ownership Trust, which put it on the path towards becoming an employee-owned company. Since 2012, 100% of Johnny’s shares are owned by employees.
But the staff’s investment in Johnny’s went far, far beyond a financial commitment. They were all clearly passionate about plants, incredibly knowledgeable about plant biology, gardening, market farming and small businesses; but what struck me most of all was how happy they all seemed. It was clear that the staff really, truly loved their jobs. Every single person we came in contact with had a level of dedication and enthusiasm that was truly refreshing. There’s a lot to be said for living what you love.
By the end of the tour, I had so many new ideas for Floret and long lists of new varieties to add to our own gardens that my head was spinning. Chris and I both remarked that as our little flower company grows, we want to guide it towards becoming a company as special as Johnny’s.
To say our visit was inspiring would be the understatement of a lifetime. I’m still going over my notebook full of notes and trying to remember all of the special things that we saw, heard and experienced. To know this company is to love it. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know them yet, then I highly encourage you to reach out. They are truly one of a kind.