Interview by Michelle Simakis

Ornamental Breeder: Tell me about the history of the NGB and the “Year of the” program.

Diane Blazek: 1980 was the first year that NGB did the “Year of the” program, and we started only with the edible vegetable class. Then we added an annual class, and it stayed that way for 20, 30 years. Finally, in 2012, we added a perennial class. In 2016, we added a bulb class. So it’s kind of neat to think that in the past five years, we’ve basically doubled the program that had been status quo for about 30 years.

OB: mission of the program?

DB: The goal of the program is really just to bring attention to a certain class of plant. And it’s partly education and partly inspiration. We’re looking for plants that have a lot of genetic diversity, especially if there has been a lot of new breeding work. And you know how things are right now. Everybody is doing a lot of new and innovative breeding work, so in some cases it’s easy to find a class.

OB: On the website you say each “Year of the” plant is chosen because it’s popular, easy to grow, widely adaptable, genetically diverse and versatile. What process do you go through to select the plants?

DB: It’s actually really hard. Our board is made up of industry representatives from all different segments. So that means you may have a seed packet company, you may have a perennial breeding company, you may have a broker. What we do as a board is survey our members and our board of directors and say, “OK, what are some classes that we think about?” I’m actually looking at an Excel file here, and there’s about 40 different classes that are up for future discussion. We look at that, and ask, “Can this be sold through mail order? Can this be sold at a local garden center? Will this represent our industry? Can this really grow in lots of different parts of North America and not just on the California coast?” We have some interesting discussions among board members.

OB: How long does the process usually take? You already know 2016, when do you determine 2017 selections?

DB: Right now we’re doing two years at a time, so we have 2016 and 2017 [determined], and we meet again in January. And that’s when we’ll decide 2018 and 2019. We used to decide maybe three, four, five years out. But we have to be responsive and aware of current trends and challenges, and so even though we may plan out three years in advance, sometimes it’s required that we change [the plant].

OB: Has there ever been a year where people were really happy with the choice, where you seemed to get more feedback than normal?

DB: Herbs were very, very popular in 2012. I think that got more coverage than anything we’ve done before or since.

OB: On the flip side, has there ever been a controversial plant?

DB: Nothing really controversial, but in 2011, when it was the Year of the Tomato, we did have a garden writer complain, and say, “How could it be the year of the tomato? You did that 15 years ago?” And I had to gently explain that look at the new breeding that has come out. The resurgence in vegetable gardening was huge. There is so much to talk about, it really is OK if we repeat something every 10 or 15 years if it makes sense.

OB: What changes are you making in 2016?

DB: We are revamping our website by the end of 2016, so it’s going to be even easier to access our materials. These sites are five years old. We made a big improvement five years ago, but I think what you’ll see in another year is even easier-to-use and easier-to-find information.

OB: You updated your logos. Can you tell me about that decision and the process and how that all came together?

DB: We struggle with the word bureau. Bureau feels bureaucratic and governmental. It’s an old-fashioned name, but we thought if we could update the logo and make it hip and trendy, the word bureau is still going to be in there, but this is one way to update our image. The girl who did this logo for us, she’s actually going to school in Ohio. She’s 20 years old. [The look] is coming from someone in this Millennial generation who we really want to attract.

OB: What’s something about the organization that people may not know that you’d like them to?

DB: I like to envision the National Garden Bureau as this funnel where we have the industry’s breeders and everybody else on the commercial side and [information] funnels through NGB, and it’s a way to reach the consumer. I like to explain that we’re that link [from the industry to the consumer].