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The Portrait Garden Story

Tue, 08/11/2020

While visiting Brookgreen Gardens, a local sculpture and botanical garden situated near Murrells Inlet, SC, with my wife and friends for the annual “Night of a Thousand Candles” Christmas show, I came across three wall planters that caught my eye in the entrance display pavilion. I loved the way they displayed living plants in a framed portrait. The plants displayed were different varieties of succulents and the unique way they were arranged was both clever and wonderful. One of our friends, Lydia, is an avid grower of succulents and familiar with how to plant wall gardens. She told me if I would build the planters, she would populate them with succulents.

In the weeks that followed, I began building boxes in my home workshop. They were easy to build and I followed the method used in countless online videos showing how to construct shallow wooden boxes with a fixed screen and a fitted frame. Lydia taught me how involved the planting was followed by an extended period (up to 3 months) where the boxes had to remain horizontal to allow the roots to establish beneath the screen before vertical presentation was possible.

Never big on patience, I had an epiphany late one evening while building planters in my shop – why not “assemble” the retaining screen after the plants were placed in the box? By doing so, it would eliminate the wait time and create a more attractive planter since I could now use fully established plants, rather than waiting for the cuttings to root in and grow into a mature plant.  After experimenting with different ways in which to hold the plants, another friend, Jimmy, a mechanical engineer, and I came up with more than a dozen ways to retain the plants. We decided the best and most efficient way to accomplish this was to use evenly spaced rigid pins inserted into the planting tray at right angles to create a root retaining grid over the plant’s root ball and just below the foliage of the plants. Using this method, the delicate succulent plants are unharmed. We then adjusted the boxes to create a watering cavity to allow watering in place with a detachable water reservoir to catch any overflow. (

Now, a successful wall garden has never been easier! I immediately filed for a utility patent and began looking at ways to efficiently manufacture the planters. Wood was good for prototyping but would not be suitable from a long term durability standpoint. We designed the planting trays out of a polycarbonate which could be injection molded, along with the pins. The frames would be extruded, cut to length and joined together with epoxy.

Now that I had the intellectual property secured and the design and manufacturing completed, now came the hardest part – marketing and distribution. Being a new product, I have sought to introduce our planters through social media and Amazon. In this process, I found Duane Childers, at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology (SiMT). Duane gave me a roadmap on channels to launch my social media campaign. He also stressed that I was going to have to fully explain how my proprietary planter system was an improvement on existing art. To do this quickly, where it could be readily viewed on social media, we created a variety of short stop motion videos. (

These were great to attract the attention of viewers, and we also created several instructional videos to show the features and benefits of our planting system ( During this time we launched on Amazon. Shortly after that, we got an invite by L&L Distribution to attend their fall show in Reno, Nevada. L&L provides home and garden products to all states west of the Mississippi river. We went to the trade show which was held in Reno, Nevada. Out of the 600 plus booths at the show, we were among the busiest. Based on our sales, we were invited to join the Gro Group. The Gro Group consists of 11 distributors with more than 400 professional salespeople which service more than 25,000 retail locations in all 50 states and Canada. Due to Covid-19, we are in the middle of doing virtual trade shows where we can both introduce and sell our planters throughout North America.

We started with 4 rectangular planters and they have had strong sales through both Amazon and through the retail locations. We have been asked to add new designs to our planter lineup. Based on these requests we designed a star shape and a heart shape planter. While we could design these, our 3D printers did not have a big enough bed to print prototypes. Back to SiMT where Duane put us in touch with Patrick who was able to print out both new planters quickly in order to allow us to present these at a virtual trade show the following week. We have the heart and star shapes being tooled for injection molding but the rapid prototyping by SiMT will allow us to generate sales while the tooling is completed and manufacturing catches up to demand.

I was told by Duane, this marketing effort was not a one-time sprint but a deliberate strategic marathon. This seems true in both social media and fostering long-term relationships with brick & mortar stores. The creative side of invention is always fun, but to monetize your invention  requires a lot of hard work with the help of gifted folks like those at SiMT, and the skills and relationships with the sales force of dedicated professionals to aide in distribution.

Bill Duncan

Portrait Gardens, Inc.