What’s in Store for 2012? By Dan Heims

I have an unusual job description: "Travel the world and seek out the newest plants." This role takes me to the mega shows in Germany and Holland, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) shows in England, American trade shows from IGC to OFA, and even local plant shows and sales — all a bellwether for what's hot and what's not.

One cannot simply find one source for trends. My journalistic training has always pointed to having wide-open eyes, open ears, and the ability to ask many questions. As a member of the Garden Writer's Association, I have access to the surveys that tell us tidbits like: 50 percent of gardeners find their info online, fertilizer and mulch sales are up, sustainability is here to stay, soil improvement products are up, and so on.

It's not long before the pie charts and graphs make your eyes glaze over. In my mind all surveys are flawed. It's because every region has its own quirks and sample population drawbacks. If I did a gardener survey in Colorado, California and Oregon, I'd say that hydroponics and HID lights are through the roof due to the interest in semi-legal herbs. However, in Northeast markets more urban trends are supported. You as a grower need to know your market and the local trends.

Advances in Information Technology

During my company's rise in the industry, I've had the opportunity to meet some very big players in horticulture and marketing. These players are essentially paid to predict the future. Proven Winners, for example, surveys tens of thousands of gardeners. And as much feedback as this survey garners, its key and simple task is to listen to your customers. Are we helping them? Not always, and that's because we're not making information as readily available as it should be.

Easy access to information is a trend. Generations X and Y want information, and they want it now. Growers must be privy to the advances in information technology.

Label companies are on the edge of technology and could help you make the transition into QR (Quick Response) codes on labels. QR codes provide more data (including where a plant was bought) for the grower and provide websites and even videos from any location the code is "snapped" (tags, magazine ads, posters). Look to snap tags in the future that will actually feature the image of your plant with the code.

Taking it Slow

Felder Rushing coined the term, "Slow Gardening," as a way to slow down; smell the roses; feel the warm, moist, crumbly soil; remember an heirloom flower from your grandmother's garden; or simply taste a tomato that you grew.

How can slow gardening work for a grower? Consider selection of plant material that makes gardening less of a task for the end consumer. Grow plants that bloom longer, branch better, and perform. Create some change in the product mix that is offered. Those who haven't jumped on the edibles bandwagon have already lost revenue. There needs to be discourse between the consumer, the grower, the retailer and the breeder. Shows like OFA do work to bring the lot together, but the consumer information is still weak. This can be achieved by simply visiting a garden center or a regional flower show and seeing what's in your consumers' carts.

Trends in Action

I interviewed Jerry Fritz, a landscape craftsman and nursery owner of Linden Hill Gardens in Ottsville, Pa. Jerry's nursery is doing very well despite a struggling economy. If you were to visit his nursery, you would see how he has covered a variety of current trends:

• Easy access to information Ð Themed display gardens (i.e. Deer Proof) that are well labeled, and bolstered by handouts and helpful signage provide the right amount of information. Seminars with tours of the display gardens are also available.

• Slow gardening Ð A weekly farmers market on site has improved sales 42 percent in three years and has become quite a social event, which also appeals to the slow gardening movement.

• Hot colors, new plants Ð Benches filled with bright, cheery perennials and signage showing off what's new at the nursery (and in the neighborhood).

• Make it simple Ð Grab and go gift items, including plants. Simple yet elegant items in the $20-$30 price range. Terrariums fit into this category and are a growing trend. Also, an on-site landscape service provides convenient installation and delivery, which encourages customers to shop for more and save time struggling with less.

What's Hot in Plant Material

The observations of Niles Riese from Walter's Gardens, Marshall Dirks of Proven Winners, Jerry and myself reflect a new trend of hot colors in plant materials. Yellows, reds and especially oranges seem to stimulate the recession-weary public. Pink and purple are still draws for women. Marshall also sees browns (which complement the bright colors) as a trend. John Friel of Emerald Coast Growers talked about the popularity of the PanAmerican Seed "Color Grasses" that have this color range. He and others also saw echinacea as one of the hottest crops, with coreopsis close behind. Native plants were also mentioned as filling in for the trends of water-wise gardening and attracting wildlife. Foliage sales are still hot. They provide a lot of value to the stressed consumer, offering color for multiple seasons. Anytime value can be added in the form of flowers, fragrance or seasonal color change, more sales will ensue.

The largest flower show on earth is the RHS Show at Hampton Court. This show is a regular smorgasbord of upcoming trends. Heuchera were everywhere and Wooly Pockets are catching a lot of attention. Green walls and green roofs continue to rise as a sustainable alternative. Read this, dear growers, as a need for vast amounts of plant material, albeit utilitarian, for the big projects. Smaller wall plantings for both exterior and interior greenscapes are the opposite; they want enticing colorful plantings.

At home, stores like Terrain in Pennsylvania are the ones to watch, applying the creative detail/design algorithm from the fashion sector to the green good and home retailer. Succulents have been a monster seller in the urban/design-conscious marketplace. Veggies have suffered but hold strong. All respondents noted that "NEW!" is always in. Be it a black petunia from Ball or a ColorChoice buddleia, novelty has been an eternal trend. How can a grower find the time to chase these new novelties? Go to the shows. Catalogs are a good enticement, but lack the hands-on opportunity that trade shows and the California and European pack trials offer. You should ask if PGRs are applied to the show plants. Some breeders pride themselves on plant material that does not require PGRs, saving money and labor.

Fear of Failure

Marshall Dirks says retailers have got to answer the challenges of the fear of failure and the fear of knowing what plant to chose. This is especially evident in Gen X and Y and falls back to providing information and training staff to somehow ease the concerns of this customer demographic in the insane spring/early summer shopping season.

In Worcester, England at 50 acres, Webb's of Wychbold offers perennials, shrubs and trees guaranteed for five years! Talk about alleviating a fear of failure. Perhaps the largest complaint heard from customers by our interviewees was, "This plant only bloomed for two weeks É that's not enough!"

Breeders such as Terra Nova, Darrell Probst and the Saul Brothers have introduced coreopsis and kniphofia that don't stop blooming until frost. This is big, and provides consumers more for their shrinking dollars. This also helps retailers and growers who have a much longer "looking good" window for sales.

Brits also know how to keep people at the nursery location — an important feature to help them buy more. I have seen attended child care facilities on site in Sweden, toy stores and nice restaurants in England — all tailored to keep customers on site. John Massey, one of my favorite horticulturists from Ashwood Nursery in Kingswinford, U.K., bemoaned the fact that his restaurant made more than the nursery! South African nurseries had small, specialized grocery stores, craft shops and galleries as well. I really don't know how long the average American spends in a garden center, but in the U.K. it's an all-day event. One other item I see "over there" is benches. How many readers can say they have a place for tired shoppers to sit?

In the movie, "Field of Dreams", the protagonist is told, "Build it and they will come." Gen X and Gen Y will be buying homes. They will be needing plants. From hand-holding to allay their fears, to researching what plants perform best, and giving them information to help them choose, it's your job to see to their needs. It is tough out there, but those that are savvy, creative and keen observers will stay the tide. Now all we need is a sunny weekend!

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Dan Heims

Dan Heims has been deeply involved in all facets of horticulture for 35 years. He is currently the president of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc., and can be reached at [email protected]

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