Before new plant hybrids appear in garden centers, they pass through the field trials of technicians like Kristen Pullen ’10. She ensures that the plants will fulfill the expectations of bright colors and hardy growth promised by plant breeders.
Working in a 3-acre greenhouse surrounded by fields large enough to handle hundreds of plant varieties, Pullen, a new product development technician for the horticultural company Conard-Pyle, monitors plants every day to evaluate their performance.
“We get the first look at plants before a consumer does and really tinker with them and figure out how they work or don’t,” she says.
Plant trials not only require patience, but reward it. Woody plants can be studied over two to three years. Roses can be monitored for as long as a decade. Based in West Grove, Pa., Conard-Pyle is one of the few companies to conduct plant trials over such a long period of time, Pullen says. The company also tests plants in multiple parts of the country to judge how they will be affected by different climates. “We take a step back to know we have a good product, and it’s rewarding to take the time and see the efforts of your work,” Pullen says.
Before landing at Conard-Pyle, she worked as a research intern at Longwood Gardens for a year. A biology major, she had intended to study business forensics before being lured into the lab. A Cherry Hill, N.J., native, Pullen attributes her postcollege success to the lab work she conducted at Rider. If it weren’t for that, “I don’t think I would’ve had enough skills to get this job right after college,” Pullen says.
Since starting her job nearly two years ago, Pullen’s observed two trends. The popularity of native plants continues to grow, as scientists tout the environmental benefits of growing them compared to alien species. Pullen’s also noticed the growing appeal for plants that can be reused. An example of a reusable plant is one that can appear as a centerpiece on the table one day and then be planted in the garden the next. “Specifically with the younger generation, that’s the big and upcoming thing,” Pullen says.