For the gardeners among us, you may never buy another seed packet from Burpee’s after you read this travesty of a story. Six years ago, Burpee’s bought Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood Nursery. If you’ve never read, heard about or seen Heronswood I feel sorry for you. It was an oasis of the beautiful, rare and exotic plants from around the world which Dan dug up on his trips around the world. Hinkley is one of the great botanical adventurers of our time. He sought out regions of the world whose climate mirrored the Pacific Northwest and hiked into the backcountry to harvest specimens which he grew back home and sold to the public. In this way, he introduced American gardeners to some of the most extraordinary plants they’d ever see. A visit to Heronswood’s site was a feast for the eyes–filled with sumptuous colors and luxuriant forms.
I always loved Hinkley’s catalogues which he published yearly. They were filled with his charming, idiosyncratic prose. They purposely didn’t have any pictures (at least until Burpee got hold of it), just plant names (Latin only) and descriptions. Dan made you work hard. He didn’t give it to you on a silver platter. If you visited Heronswood, which I was privileged to do once before he sold it to Burpee, you wouldn’t find a single plant name in English–only Latin. If you weren’t botanically trained it made for some difficult shopping. But you had to respect the purity of his vision and I did.
Then Dan sold his baby to Burpee’s with the promise that nothing would change. He’d continue to gallivant around the world looking for the most wonderful plants and his partner, Robert Jones would manage the business end. But it didn’t work out for Burpee’s. A nursery which Dan and Robert had managed successfully for years before they sold it to Burpee’s somehow didn’t churn enough cash for the corporate maw. Security guards came early on May 31st and took possession of Heronswood from Dan and Robert. The wonderful Heronswood that we knew and loved is no more (this from the Seattle Times):
For the founders of Heronswood as well as the thousands of gardeners who visited the lush nursery over the years, the news was devastating.
“This has been like dealing with a death in the family,” said Daniel J. Hinkley, who began Heronswood with his partner Robert Jones nearly 20 years ago. “We’re sad because we believed in Heronswood and believed it was more than just a nursery. We were trying to contribute to the horticultural community and the community as a whole.”
…”This is a disaster,” Richard Hartlage, a prominent landscape architect said. “Everyone is just shocked.”
George Ball is a cultural vandal just as surely as those who tore down the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City in 1966 and consigned the stone facade of the McKim Mead and White landmark to the New Jersey Meadowlands (where a preservationist found them years later neck deep in swamp). One could compare this to the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria, the largest then existing library in the world. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. But don’t believe me, let Dan tell it:
“One thing I want to tell the people at Burpees is that the garden is filled with some extraordinarily rare things, and I hope that whoever acquires it values it.”
Do you think George Ball is listening or gives a shit??
Burpee’s is slime as a company. Their Neanderthal president, George Ball, wrote a heinous Op-Ed column/advertisement (link to my blog post which links, in turn to the column) in the New York Times a few months ago in which he attacked the Native Plant movement as ‘plant elitists.’ If you love plants, gardens and natives as many of us do, reading that column makes your blood boil. And if this post doesn’t turn you off Burpee’s for good, then reading that column will surely do the job.
Ball’s comment in the Seattle PI are unintentionally damning:
“But we’re not closing it, we’re just moving it,” he said.
Right, just moving it to Pennsylvania; or else moving it online. What about the physical Heronswood we all know and love from its Whidbey Island paradise?
Oh and in case you didn’t know, Mr. Ball seems to be under the mistaken impression that gardeners only live on the east coast:
When we purchased this six years ago,” he said, “we were anxious to make it a profitable company that would be fulfilling our ambition to serve a national audience of gardeners, which is predominantly on the East Coast. For six years we worked away at it. But finally we decided the best thing would be that we relocate.”
Makes lots of sense to me. You buy one of the world’s most prominent nurseries located on the WEST COAST when you all along believe the “national audience” for gardening is on the east coast. Is he a lunkhead or just a Vandal or both?
And in this interview from the North Kitsap Herald, Ball appears geographically-challenged reminding me of the subject of a Stephen Colbert interview:
“This will be the best of both worlds,” Ball said. “We’re not moving away from the Pacific Northwest, we’re moving to Pennsylvania.”
And how about clueless:
Ball said he and Burpee worked hard to provide a good severance package for the employees and wishes nothing but the best for them. He also said they didn’t seem too upset by the news….
“I’m still angry,” [Heronswood employee Connie] Lammers said. “I was in shock when I first heard about it. Working there was more than business or a job. The employees were like extended family.”
“The plants we’ve collected from around the world will be tested under conditions more similar to those of our customers,” he said.
You see, there are no Burpee customers on the west coast; or if there are Ball sure doesn’t give a damn about ’em. To which I say let’s give ’em hell and make sure they have no customers not just on the west coast but in other places which don’t care for nursery vandalism (see last paragraph).
Though Dan has a five year non-compete clause with Burpee’s, I hope he’ll begin planning now for a new nursery venture. Dan, don’t let Burpee’s have the last word in this matter. Don’t let Burpee’s commit an act of nursery vandalism by dismantling the treasure that was Heronswood. We need you to act as a counter to the Burpee’s of the gardening world.
Another aspect of Burpee’s corporate philosophy which I detest is that they’re not content to just sell plants. They want to own the plants and their DNA.
I propose that gardeners and native plant lovers organize a national boycott of Burpee’s. What’s more, we should pressure our favorite nursery retailers to join the boycott by refusing to stock Burpee’s products. I know they’re the biggest seed sellers in the world, but who needs ’em. There aren’t other seeds for sale from other companies? Companies which don’t ride roughshod over the botanical heritage of the Pacific Northwest.
Interesting article. It’s such a devastating loss and we can only hope that the gardens remain intact. It’s Hinkley, btw…w/o a “C”.
Richard Silverstein says
Thanks for correcting my spelling mistake. Sorry Dan for misspelling your name.
Allen Lacy says
I’m a longtime admirer of Heronswood and Hinkley, and I’m shocked by the stupdity of last week’s ravaging of the best nursery in America, as judged by its present and future contribution to the diversity of our gardens, Burpee? Marigolds, marigolds, and more marigolds in the sun, impatiens ad infinitum in the shade. George Ball claims that Heronswood was taken over because it wanted to remain a regional nursery. Horse hockey! I must grow 50 plants here in New Jersey that came from Heronswood and are available nowhere else.. and now not available at all. Thank God I ordered 8 hardy fichsias this spring, now thriving here in NJ. Kuos to Robert Jones and Dan Hinkley… and there’s no doubt about it. Despite his self-promotiion, George Ball will go down in American horticultural history as one of its greatest villains.
Christopher Lindsey says
As the past Webmaster for Heronswood over a six year period, I’ve seen a lot of growth in Heronswood. I was appalled to see what George Ball has done to it.
However… I do have some minor nits. Dan and Robert certainly knew that this would happen, especially after Burpee offered to sell Heronswood back to them for only $2 million ($2.5 million LESS than he paid for it). That should’ve been a warning sign and Dan and Robert should have heeded it.
So from a business perspective, Burpee had no choice but to rape it to try and reclaim their losses.
That said, they had no business buying Heronswood in the first place. I suspect that the original plan was to wait and see if it grew, and if it didn’t they would gut it like we saw this year. In fact, I suspect George never really liked Heronswood and dealing with Dan. He used lack of revenue as an excuse for this change, but it came on the heels of a Web site move to India and a design that didn’t work. People looking for certain plants couldn’t find them because some weren’t listed in the right category, others didn’t come up on a search, etc. When you precipitate an action that causes sales to slump, you can’t use it as an excuse to shut the business down.
Burpee has never impressed me — it’s big business in the horticulture industry absorbing innovation from other companies. It will continue to grow and flourish until businesses learn not to work with Burpee, they offer something to customers that Burpee, Proven Winners, et al can’t, and people learn to recognize that they have a choice. I think the first one is done, but the last two will be extremely difficult.
As a nurseryman and communicator in the business, I will do my part to ensure that there is always an alternative for gardeners out there.
P.S. I find it ironic that the Google ads for this page are for Burpee. 🙂
Richard Silverstein says
Christopher: Thanks for pointing out the irony of those Burpee ads. I’ve filtered them fr. my Adsense results so you won’t see any such ads on this site in future.
I think all of your “nits” (which of course weren’t nits) are precisely right. There were warning signs that weren’t heeded. I just hope that Dan & his partner are wiser for their experience and when they enter their next gardening venture (which I hope they do as soon as their non-compete clause expires) they won’t make the same ‘mistakes’ (if they were that) again.
As for Burpee, a pox on their house. People should buy fr. Territorial Seeds, Seeds for Change & all those other great seed sources. I wish our local nurseries would cancel their business w. Burpee in solidarity w. Hersonswood.
You ran a beautiful site in its day & I wish you continued success in yr web management & nursery work. Thanks for leaving yr comment here.
S. Parsons says
I, as a lover of Heronswood, will never buy any Burpee product and will encourage everyone I know to do the same. On my last visit to Heronswood in May of this year, my friend and I were privileged to have a garden tour by Hinkley himself! What a remarkable man and I certainly hope he will establish himself in the nursery business as soon as he can.
virginia brown says
EVERYONE IS FAILING TO MENTION that DAN HINKLEY SOLD US ALL OUT THE DAY HE GOT GREEDY AND SOLD HERONSWOOD – CALL A SPADE A SPADE – BURBPEES MAY HAVE THE LAST say in this – but we would have expected that from a large corporation NOT from someone who professes to be a man of the people and plants of the world – WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE EMPLOYEES WHO ARE OUT IN THE COLD – he states they are great employees and would be happy to share their names with other nurseries – WEREN’T THEY SO GREAT WHEN HE SOLD THEM ALL OUT!
YOU, DAN HINKLEY ARE THE GUILTY PARTY – YOU GOT TOO BIG AND TOO GREEDY –
Richard Silverstein says
Virginia Brown: You’re certainly entitled to yr opinion but I think you’re being far too harsh on Dan. You don’t know what use he made of what he earned. Perhaps he plowed it back into furthering his botanical travels and research. I’m not saying he is blameless as I’m sure he feels terrible about what happened. But I just think you’re going to far in yr criticism.
Remember White Flower Farms acquisition? Same thing was pulled on the owners so it’s not new in the world of big business. Once a large corp. owns our company they can promise you anything and deliver nothing.
I just had a speech from George ball in one of my horticultural classes. Heronswood is now located in my town and I have been there to visit once, from what I can tell it is a pretty beautiful place. As for the original Heronswood I never heard of it nor new of its existence. I can tell you about George ball from what I know from his speech. He’s a very intelligent man from a business as well as plant breeding side of things. I’m sorry to hear of the “rape” and “pillage” of the original Heronswood but as another mentioned it wasn’t like burpee was holding a gun to the original owners head. They were doing what EVERY other business does and that’s expansion and if expansion does go well you bail out and take what u can…. Sorry for everyone who lost jobs… Hope none of you will be sour towards me if I work for burpee this summer….:( I am a student and need a variety of experiences before I can graduate….
I always thought gardeners were some of the nicest people, but they seem so selfish on the west coast. I just read an article in Horticulture magazine on Dan Hinkley and his partner’s beautiful new home and garden overlooking Puget Sound. I can see where the profits from Heronswood went, which is their right. THEY decided to sell. Why is everyone condemming Burpee? They tried for 6 years. It’s a business decision. I’m mad a HGTV for taking off so many gardening shows. But I guess it’s business decision. I garden in Z 6 in the midwest and feel the Pacific NW is a very limited climate for a US gardening company. Why don’t you all encourage Dan to start a new business.
Richard Silverstein says
Gardeners selfish on the west coast? Since when? And what do you know about the west coast, the gardeners here or the gardening climate here? Unfortunately very little it seems. Gardeners here are some of the most generous I’ve encountered & I’ve gardened in several regions of this country.
We’re condemning Burpee because they destroyed a thriving NW gardening enterprise & then dismantled it & took it to the east coast. Hinkley had one of the most distinctive gardening companies & plant choices available anywhere in the country or the world for that matter–& Burpee came along & drove it into the ground.
There are thousands of successful gardening enterprises in the Pacific NW. The fact that Burpee crashed & burned is a reflection on them & not on this region or gardening in general here.
Pls. spend some time out here or at least learn something about our region before you speak. You’d come across much more persuasively.
As an East Coast person, I’m happy that Heronswood moved out this way. It’s allowed for me to go to the East Coast opens now. The last one was very good. Nice article here talks about the last one. Picked up some nice hellebores.
The above comment by user ‘Paul’ was mass-spammed to dozens of gardening-related blogs by a Burpee employee with the IP 188.8.131.52 in Pennsylvania. It is a rather shoddy example of astroturfing in an attempt to simulate support for Burpee’s actions. You can verify this with the following google search:
Thanks for your opinion, ‘Paul’.
Wish To Remain Anony says
I worked at burpee for a time and witnessed George ball. Ever get that feeling around someone that they just are no good? Well thats the feeling I got around him and judging by the fears / tension of my former co workers they felt it too. George ball should donate burpee seed company to a non profit group. Spread the seeds and use the money to create wonderful public gardens. Thats what a TRUE gardener would do… I believe he would get the forgiveness and regain the trust of many.