Venerable company send out new sprouts; Seeds: Burpee will expand from catalog sales to retail stores, a bed and breakfast and nearby show garden

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WARMINSTER, Pa. -- The drawback to being a household name is that people tend to take you for granted.

Even when you're W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the company that was first to sell seed through the mail to gardeners coast to coast and introduced such legendary veggies as Iceberg lettuce and Big Boy tomatoes.

Every gardener knows Burpee. The company has been around for more than a century. You can rely on Burpee's seed and plant catalogs to plunk into the mailbox well before each planting season, and packets of Burpee seeds are always in the racks at the garden center.

But do today's gardeners give it much thought? Probably not. "Burpee is probably one of the best-known brands out there, but they've been so low-key about it," says entrepreneurial newcomer Bill Clark, who's assistant to Burpee president George Ball Jr.

Not anymore.

This spring, Burpee seems to be sprouting in all directions.

This month, it is opening a huge Burpee Gardens retail store in Medford, Pa., outside Philadelphia, and a smaller one in Horsham, another Philadelphia suburb. It recently launched another in Chicago.

These are lifestyle stores, selling not just seeds, plants and gardening products, but cut flowers, statuary, bird houses and feeders, outdoor furniture, pottery, and gardening-related clothing, jewelry, accessories, books and videos.

In Medford, the largest of the stores, gardeners will be able to sit in a glass conservatory imported from Belgium and sip coffee from ceramic mugs while they ponder which plants to buy, or maybe park themselves in one of the big lounge chairs near the four television sets suspended from the ceiling to watch HGTV or how-to videos on gardening.

They'll even be able to shop online at several Internet stations.

Come summer, Burpee's famous trial gardens will bloom once again at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa.

Last year, Ball -- a member of the Chicago-based Ball Seed family, who acquired Burpee in 1991 -- bought the farm's remaining 62 acres from the Burpee family and began a major restoration of the site where W. Atlee Burpee in 1888 created one of the country's first trial grounds to test new seed varieties before selling them to the public. It was here that W. Atlee and later his son David tested Iceberg, Big Boy, Fordhook lima beans, and dozens of other "Hall of Fame" vegetables and flowers that became stalwarts of America's gardens.

It will take a while to get the grounds looking anything like their former glory, says trials manager Sharon Kaszan. But this year, largely because of the company's push into plants as well as seeds, she will almost triple the varieties of flowers and vegetables she is testing, up to nearly 4,000 from about 1,500 last year. Her staff has grown from just part-timers to four horticulturists and a botanist. "A living Burpee catalog," Kaszan calls her soon-to-be-restored trial gardens, which are designed to see how potential additions to the Burpee lineup perform under home-gardening conditions.

The family home, which over the centuries has also been a farmhouse, a school for boys, and an inn, is taking on new life, too.

The Inn at Fordhook Farm -- parts of which date to 1766 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, which the Burpees most recently operated as an inn -- is being revamped as an elegant bed-and-breakfast retreat and conference center for the horticultural crowd. Ball is furnishing the inn with antiques and paintings that include pieces from his own collection.

Guests will be able to stroll through half an acre of perennials growing in trial beds at the front of the inn, check out the progress of 300 varieties of tomatoes in a field at the back and hold meetings in an old stone barn that once housed horses that toiled on the farm. Across the way, the original seedhouse stands intact, complete with the bell in its cupola that was rung to call the workers in from the fields.

In tune with all these changes, the company has spruced up its catalog, and this month overhauled and expanded its Web site at www.burpee.com to offer everything that's in the catalogs and the stores, as well as things that aren't available elsewhere -- a wide variety of potato seeds, for example, or prairie seeds from a specialty grower or native grasses.

And that's not all in this current crop of Burpiana.

The company is digging into its past for inspiration, tapping into records that are also a history of the Burpee family, which owned the company from its founding in 1876 until David Burpee sold it to General Foods in 1970. "We're getting much more interested in the areas of public relations and our archives," says Clark, a Wharton graduate who was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.

He recalls how Burpee's archives, which include historic seed catalogs, labels, and elaborate catalog artwork, came under his wing. "When I started a year and a half ago, I was upset to find out that there was an 1880 catalog sitting on somebody's desk with pencils stuck in the spine and a coffee cup on top. So I took the thing into the owner's office and said, 'This upsets me,' and he said, 'You're absolutely right. You're in charge of it.'"

The result?

A hookup with the Smithsonian Institution that lead to Burpee's sponsoring "The American Garden Legacy: Exploring Garden Transformations, 1900-2000," a traveling exhibit on the rebirth of five grand American gardens that will tour the United States over the next few years. Other joint projects are possible, including plantings around the Museum of Natural History and other parts of the capital's mall.

A coffee-table book is in the works on the history of Burpee, to celebrate the company's 125th anniversary next year.

There may be a book on W. Atlee Burpee, too, or a television documentary -- apparently no biography has ever been done on this colorful character who started the company at 18 with nothing but a passion for plants and $1,000 borrowed from his mother. "We're talking to public television stations," says Clark.

Also on the drawing board: a store-within-a-store approach that would establish Burpee garden centers within major home stores, selling not just Burpee seeds but hand tools and other Burpee products.

The company talks of the stores as laboratories, "an extension of our (research and development) department, where we can get immediate feedback on our products," Clark says, to help it determine which ones to keep. "This brings it down to a much more personal level. Customers can see the products they've viewed in the catalogs and online, and tell us more about their needs and expectations."

For more information:

Write W. Atlee Burpee Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18974

Call 800-888-1447 or check out www.burpee.com

Pub Date: 5/21/00

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