At the 2019 California Spring Trials, Garden Center saw everything from a rainbow of petunias and calibrachoas at numerous stops to unique fall and winter crop alternatives to nearly 6-foot-tall salvias.
Breeders and distributors offered new and trendy ideas as well as their takes on existing trends. In begonias, large sizes for the landscape and trailing habits for pots and baskets are gaining steam. In perennials, silvery foliage appears to be currying favor with consumers.
Below, we have compiled a photo gallery of some of the standout plants in several categories.
Benary introduced four new colors in its Funky series of trailing, basket-type, heat-tolerant begonia hybrids that perform well in mixed containers and grow in partial to full sun. Funky has high germination rates and is easy to ship. The new colors for 2020 are Light Pink, Orange, Scarlet and White. The Tophat interspecific begonia series from Syngenta Flowers finishes one week earlier than others in its class and is bred to finish in 306 packs up to large patio containers. New for 2020 is Bicolor which, like others in the series, features large blooms that sit atop of the foliage. With a mix of foliage and flower colors, Sakata Seed America’s Viking and Viking XL series of hybrid begonia thrive in the landscape or containers. Viking is available in eight colors and Viking XL is available in four colors, including the All-America Selections-winning Red on Chocolate.
Wave Petunias from PanAmerican Seed will celebrate 25 years in 2020. Classic Wave Purple — an All-America Selections winner — was the first color to be introduced in the well-known series. To mark the anniversary, PanAmerican will be producing point-of-purchase materials for retailers. Easy Wave Lavender Sky Blue is new for 2020 and, just like Classic Wave Purple, it is low-growing and wide-spreading. Danziger showcased several petunias including a new color to its Amore series. Amore King of Hearts (pictured) is compact and early to flower. It works best in combos, quarts and baskets. Danziger also featured new pots for the Amore line and ideas for Mother’s Day marketing. New to the Capella petunia series are Baby Pink, Ruby Red and Neon Pink. Lisa Heredia, marketing and key account manager at Danziger, says Capella petunias require little to no PGRs and are great for pot-tight production. New Cascadias Purple Ice petunia features a semi-trailing habit with strong, long-lasting flowers.
American Pie ‘Cherry Pie’ dianthus from Pinks by Whetman will follow in the footsteps of the top-selling ‘Georgia Peach Pie’ for the 2020 season. Robert Bett of PlantHaven says he’s quite impressed with its foliage color and prolific bud set. As a bonus, the cherry-red flowers on strong stems work great as a cut flower for the consumer.Echibeckia Summerina Blazing Fire was one of the star plants at Pacific Plug & Liner, planted in containers near the entrance of their Spring Trials display with its own vignette. Echibeckia is fast-growing, good for shoulder season sales, can be grown in multiple pot sizes and is heat tolerant. One 72-cell liner can easily fill larger pots such as 1.5 gallons and deco pots.
Green Fuse Botanicals introduced a new Begonia Rex series for 2020 called Bewitched in three colors: White, Wintergreen and Red Black. Steve Jones, president, emphasized that the plants can be used indoors or out, noting the robust popularity of houseplants. As part of its First Look pre-introduction program, the company also provided a sneak peek for what 2021 will have in store — three more colors in the Bewitched series: Cherry, Pink and Rose. A greenhouse crew may ask, “Which way is up?” when planting caladiums. Classic Caladiums, which are now available through a new partnership with Proven Winners, helped solve this dilemma by painting the eyes of the tubers so there’s no question that the painted side faces up. New to the Proven Winners line is the Heart to Heart Series including ‘Caribbean Coral’, ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Lemon Blush’. J Berry Nursery’s Crown Jewel Begonias currently offer four selections in the series: Positively Peridot (pictured), Enduring Onyx, Tenacious Topaz and Joyful Jasper. Marketing and Brand Manager Tamara Risken says the nursery is working on oranges and reds to add to the collection. Thick leaves help the Crown Jewel Begonias withstand higher temperatures and the foliage color gets darker with cooler temperatures.
Heuchera LITTLE CUTIES ‘Shimmer’ from Terra Nova Nurseries is constantly blooming and has multiple crowns. This coral bells, hardy to USDA Zones 4-9, is able to fill pots quickly, but won’t overpower in a mix, says Sales Manager Larry Finley. The pink, fragrant flowers of ‘Pink Diamonds’ Dicentra from Walters Gardens will flower all season long. This bleeding heart attracts bees and hummingbirds, and is deer-resistant. Growing to 12 to 16 inches high with a 16- to 18-inch spread, it is easy to produce in a container and to get to flower.Skyscraper Senecio Senecio ficoides ‘Mount Everest’ from Sunset Western Garden Collection can add a dramatic, vertical element to mixed succulent containers. Skyscraper is an upright grower, reaching upwards of 5 feet tall. In colder climates, Skyscraper can be grown indoors as a houseplant. It will be available for retailers this year.
For 2020, Dümmen Orange is introducing Fleur de Rock, a new collection of alpine garden plants consisting of an iberis, two delosperma, an aubretia and a saxifraga. Consumers want crops that are easy to plant in the garden with low-water and low-maintenance requirements — and this collection fits the bill.Preciosa Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) from Takii Seed is a new series that is early flowering. It produces large, double, dahlia-like blooms and is being launched in eight colors, including a mix. Colors include Light Yellow, Pink, Rose, Scarlet and Tropical Blend (pictured here). Plants grow to 10-12 inches tall with a 4-inch bloom. Preciosa also has heavier branching, uniformity in production and doesn’t need a pinch. Benary has launched the Taka Tuka Bidens ferulifolia series with four new colors: Red Glow, Red Yellow Center, Orange Yellow Center and White Yellow Center. The breeder pulled the series name from the tales of Pippi Longstocking.
Insta-green: How to get 20,000 Instagram followers
Features - Marketing
Mulhall’s tips to create a sizzling social media account that draws in customers
Mulhall’s joined Instagram in 2014 because the social media platform presented opportunities to interact with customers online. The retail garden center had plenty of pretty plants to photograph, but cultivating followers wasn’t easy.
“We were posting about the plants and products that we were excited about,” says Sarah Vanek, education and outreach manager at Mulhall’s in Omaha, Nebraska. “But people weren’t really engaging with us.”
That’s when Mulhall’s team took a step back to strategize how they could leverage the photo-sharing platform to connect with customers. Since then, Mulhall’s has amassed more than 21,000 followers. Read Vanek’s tips below for increasing engagement on Instagram.
Find a focus.
Initially, Mulhall’s tried to represent all of its products on Instagram. But then they realized that the most popular plant-related accounts were focused on a few specific topics.
“We started to think harder about what conversation we were trying to be a part of,” Vanek says. “Instead of trying to share everything, we narrowed our focus to speak toward houseplants on Instagram because there was such a strong houseplant conversation happening there.”
Mulhall’s talks about other topics on other channels, but houseplants control the conversation on Instagram. Case in point: More than 1.7 million Instagram posts include the hashtag #houseplants, and accounts like @houseplantjournal boast 325,000 followers.
Two types of photos perform particularly well on Mulhall’s channel: pictures with a lot of white space, like a potted plant against a plain background, and “gritty” images that show the context of the garden center, like rows of packaged monsteras being unloaded in the greenhouse.
The common denominator is authenticity. “What we’re doing behind the scenes is really interesting,” Vanek says. “We might not think about it because we see it every day, but people enjoy seeing what we’re up to. It’s that grittiness and authenticity that we try to capture in our photos to show what’s really happening here.”
Learn the language.
When it comes to writing captions for your posts, pay attention to not only what people are posting about, but how they’re talking about those topics.
Instagram users “have their own dialect with hashtags, tons of emojis and unconventional punctuation,” Vanek says. So Mulhall’s posts consistently include leafy emojis and dozens of hashtags that link content to relevant categories.
Most of these are plant-related (see sidebar), but Mulhall’s also includes location tags (like #omaha) and even its own branded hashtags (like #mymulhalls).
This dialect can be difficult to learn, so Vanek recommends building a team of “native speakers” who are comfortable on Instagram. She’s part of a team of five employees that collaboratively manage Mulhall’s account – with a couple people focused on photos, a couple others who write captions and respond to questions, and another who plans the posting schedule.
Share the love.
The most obvious, but easily overlooked, key to creating an engaging Instagram channel is to actually engage with your audience by “commenting on other people’s posts, sharing other people’s content and answering questions by sharing helpful information,” Vanek says.
Muhall’s regularly reposts pictures from customers who tag the garden center. They even host a photo contest in January, where people can submit pictures by using the hashtag #mulhallsplantcontest.
The more Mulhall’s interacts with fans on Instagram, the more likely they are to return the love – both on social media and in the store.
“We see a lot of people coming into our store and taking photos and tagging us,” Vanek says. “As our engagement on social media has grown, we’re seeing more traffic and sales in the store as well.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.
Features - Cover Story
Retail technology developments are making it easier than ever to track inventory, store customer data and make sales.
Look around your IGC at the shoppers armed with smartphones. It’s a profound reminder of how technology is sweeping the garden center industry. It’s been just over a decade since these devices first appeared but once they hit the tipping point, everything changed. With smartphones in mind — and in hand — you can help your IGC succeed in the digital age by keeping up with these retail tech trends.
Radio Frequency Indentification (RFID)
What it is: RFID uses radio frequencies to take inventory tracking to new levels of ease and accuracy. RFID tags, applied with the same types of tags you use now, store product information electronically. With RFID readers, you can scan the tags without ever seeing them.
Why it matters: Imagine scanning packed spring shopping carts with a single pass or knowing up-to-date inventory without counting. With RFID tags and readers, you could accurately track product flow from receiving to storage to retail and out the door, in real time. We’re not there quite yet, but it’s getting closer.
Tom Fernandez, Michigan State University horticulture professor, oversees extensive RFID research, including a 2019 Horticultural Research Institute project. Fernandez has tested RFID in retail and nursery and greenhouse production with different tag types, product categories and shopping cart densities.
To date, slip-on keyhole tags have yielded the best RFID results, with accuracy in retail and production settings comparable to human crews. One significant limitation has been that moisture and metal impede RFID signals. However, tags smeared with dirt scan just fine.
For stake-style and adhesive tags nestled near moist media, Fernandez believes redesigning RFID placement on tags will improve results. In addition, a major mainstream label producer is collaborating on upcoming research to develop workable RFID tags for the horticulture industry.
“In retail, it could definitely replace bar codes,” Fernandez says. “There are a couple of large [European] retailers in green goods that have everything labeled with RFID. Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s are doing all their clothing items and I know that Lowe’s is very interested. It’s definitely something moving into the retail arena.”
Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Automation
What they are: Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of machines to simulate human intelligence and — through data — learn, understand, reason and adapt. Intelligent automation (IA) goes a step further as AI-powered machines automatically take appropriate action as a result of that reasoning process.
Why they matter: AI is everywhere, from your Weather Channel app to the product suggestions on your favorite shopping site to the virtual assistant on your phone or in your home. Ask Google Assistant if she’s AI and she’ll tell you that it’s true. AI-powered experiences have become the norm.
At January’s NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, the National Retail Federation and IBM shared findings from a joint study: “The coming AI revolution in retail and consumer products.” Among the retail participants, 29% currently use intelligent automation for in-store services and 85% plan to use IA for supply chain planning and demand forecasting within the next three years.
Envision automatic adjustments of orders or purchasing plans based on real-time customer buying behavior. Or what about AI-powered apps that allow your staff to respond to an in-store assistance request with your data about the customer from names to preferences for organic edibles at their fingertips?
Chris Wong, vice president of strategy, offerings and alliances for IBM’s Global Consumer Industry, says artificial intelligence isn’t reserved for large businesses with in-house IT departments. “For smaller retailers, these capabilities will surface in things they don’t own, but subscribe to,” he says.
Cloud-based e-commerce solutions — what you may call “online” services — can use AI to personalize your customers’ shopping experiences. Cloud-based labor scheduling tools can help improve your scheduling decisions with the help of AI.
“The cloud democratizes artificial intelligence without you having to build it,” Wong says. “If you’re a relatively small business but you’re a pretty leading-edge thinker, you can probably already consume those capabilities just by subscription.”
Augmented reality and virtual reality
What they are: Augmented reality (AR) superimposes images onto views of the real world.
Virtual reality (VR) uses headsets to simulate imaginary environments and allow the wearers to interact with those environments as if they were real.
Why they matter: Retail has embraced AR and VR. With AR technology, your customers can see how a houseplant might look in their home or how new patio furniture will complement the pool. With VR technology, homeowners can virtually walk through a landscape design before your crews ever even put a shovel in the ground.
David Leonard, senior project manager for Parsons Corporation’s Infrastructure and Planning Sector, is past chairperson for the American Society of Landscape Architects Digital Technologies Professional Practice Network. He encourages green industry members to use AR and VR technologies on projects of all sizes as rapid technological advances put these tools within reach of designers and consumers.
Leonard expects that tech-savvy DIY consumers using these tools will drive greater use by IGCs.
“As people want to design their own backyards, I think they’ll want to see what it will look like before they go to the garden center. They may download an app and place a tree or shrub in their yard to get a sense of what they want and then go to garden center,” Leonard says.
“Now that phone developers are specifically developing their software to support augmented reality, we’re going to see a huge explosion of this over the next five years,” Leonard says. “As people are exposed to it more, it will branch out to other aspects of life. Garden centers that have design centers will invest in it.”
Mobile Checkout and Self-Checkout
What they are: Mobile checkout staff scans products and checks customers out on mobile devices rather than busy registers. With mobile self-checkout, customers use their own phones to scan products and check themselves out.
Why they matter: Many retailers are using mobile solutions to speed up checkout time and appease patience-strapped customers. Consumers have grown accustomed to self-checkout stations and using smartphones for mobile payments, so why not streamline the process and check out on phones, too?
Last spring, Walmart piloted mobile checkout in 350 of its lawn and garden centers. Roving sales associates with sashes saying “Check Out With Me” used cellular devices and Bluetooth printers to ring up sales and provide receipts. Customers skipped hauling plants and potting mix through in-store checkout lines. Then, in November, the service rolled out nationwide.
Mobile self-checkout is also increasingly popular among shoppers who appreciate control and speed. New York-based supermarket chain Fairway Market began offering the option of mobile self-checkout at its 15 tri-state locations last fall. A cloud-based, AI-powered subscription software solution integrated with the existing POS provides in-store shoppers with personalized experiences.
Customers simply download the store-branded app on their phone and scan products using their phone cameras. For items purchased by weight, they scan digital scale readouts. With their shopping complete, customers scan the QR checkout code on their phones and skip the checkout line.
Mike Penner, Fairway Market director of retail applications and technology, says feedback has been extremely positive. Average checkout time is just 2.4 seconds. Random audits show a 99.8% accuracy rate for shopper-scanned products and 94% of Fairway’s self-checkout customers rate the experience at four stars or higher.
What it is: Blockchain is a data-sharing technology that stores time-stamped transactions in a digital ledger shared by all parties involved. Each new transaction forms a block of the chain, which can never be revised or deleted. The result is an immutable record of every transaction in the chain.
Why it matters: Blockchain is often linked with bitcoin transactions, but these ledgers record non-financial records too. As consumers demand greater transparency about product origins and handling, blockchain provides a way to track products and confirm their provenance.
Blockchain use is growing among retailers and agribusinesses. After last fall’s romaine-related E. coli outbreak, Walmart started requiring blockchain from leafy greens producers, lowering the retailer’s tracking time from seven days to 2.2 seconds.
Some commercial cannabis producers are piloting blockchain programs to document cultivar origins and pesticide-free production. Several European floriculturists are trialing blockchain as well.
In a recent article for Hort Journal Australia, horticulturist and marketing technologist David Thompson, web and memberships manager for the Australian Institute of Horticulture, overviewed blockchain’s potential for establishing transparent, fixed records of plant heritage, propagation and production practices, and plant breeders’ rights.
Thompson says that potential carries over to IGCs: “Garden center retailers have a responsibility as well as an opportunity to be able to ensure that what they are selling is true to type, adheres to Plant breeders’ rights and is safe and free from pests that may otherwise cause damage to their customers … Blockchain’s role in demonstrating the validity of every link in a supply chain could be another tool that clearly records and validates the claims being made by each member in the supply chain.”
He also suggests that there’s marketing potential when IGC customers can scan a plant’s product code, see its journey from seed to retail and confirm how it was sourced or produced.
Whether it’s blockchain or virtual reality for your IGC, follow the advice of Wong and his IBM associates: Think big, start small and rethink the way you do business in the digital age.
The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to GIE Media publications.
Departments - Retail Revival | Store improvement tips from the Garden Lady
Creating a photo library for your business will help you stand out from the crowd.
You’ve got two events to promote, an upcoming sale on six-pack annuals and a company blog or website that needs updating. The employee who does your Facebook posts wants to highlight the nursery stock and a request has come in from a regional magazine for photos that feature roses. Suddenly, you find yourself wondering if you work at a garden center or a stock photo service.
These days, the answer is both. To be in business in the 21st century requires an ever-growing steady stream of photographs. It’s a digital, visual world and whether you’re writing your newsletter, promoting your store through social media or supplying images for event listings, you need pictures.
Faced with this ever-growing need for images, many businesses turn to commercial stock photo sources. These can temporarily fill this need, but even with a free service, the use of such images comes at a cost. When you use stock photography, your promotions and communications are generic. Stock photography can make you look just like everyone else and the opportunity to market your store, your region and your brand is lost.
It’s far better to jump off the commercial photography bland wagon and start creating your own photo library. Pictures of your events, plants that thrive in your region and portraits of your company’s staff will tell the true story of your garden center in a way customers can relate to.
Charge specific employees with taking a few photos every week. The cameras on smart phones keep getting better and better, so many staff members might be able to contribute. Have them take pictures of your stock, attractive displays and happy employees. Be sure that they have the resolution settings on their phones set as high as possible so that the pictures can be used for print if needed.
Create images that promote your events by assembling plants or products that relate to the topic. For example, a talk on pruning can be illustrated with a pair of pruners and a branch from a plant that’s popular in your region.
A white foam core presentation board from an office supply store will provide an easy and inexpensive blank background for close-ups of products and projects. White poster board or another sheet of foam core can be used as a base to surround the entire object with a plain backdrop.
Take your time
A business photo library needs a variety of images, and it might be worthwhile to have the employees who will be building your bank of pictures take a short class on photography basics. Consider having a professional photographer come in for an hour before the store opens to give your staff a few tips.
In general, instruct people not to rush when taking pictures. A shot that’s out of focus, has an overly busy background or is poorly framed won’t be of much use.
Store and organize
The easiest way to keep photos is with online picture storage. Several people can upload images as they are taken. Be sure to find a storage service that will keep your pictures at their full resolution instead of compressing them. It should offer you enough storage so that you can keep images for 10 years or more, and they should be easy to find and organize. Popular sites such as Flickr, 500px, and SmugMug are free for a certain number of photos but require payment for larger libraries.
Photos can also be kept on a store computer, but these should be regularly backed up onto a hard drive. Many decide to use a combination of computer, hard drive and “in the cloud” storage. If your photos are placed into named folders when they are uploaded for storage it will make them easier to find later. For example, create separate folders for events, projects, popular plants, gardens, products and employees.
Finally, make sure that hard drive backups are clearly labeled and that any online storage passwords are kept where those who might need access images can easily find them.
C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com
Fast growing trees — are they out of bounds?
Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert
Consider the potential drawbacks before adding fast-growing species to your product mix.
Word on the street is that customers no longer have the patience for trees to grow in their urban landscapes. Many are hesitant to spend the money on large B&B tree specimens, but they also want privacy now. To feed their need for instant gratification, retail garden center shoppers are increasingly asking for fast-growing container grown trees. Where do these specimens fit into your selection — or should they?
The reasons for choosing fast-growing trees are obvious and understandable. Creating privacy quickly is often the primary reason for choosing fast-growing species. Creating shade is equally important, especially in hot climates. Sometimes, customers just want the aesthetics of a mature specimen. While these goals are rational, they aren’t always achievable — without consequences.
As professionals, we know there are often negative trade-offs when planting fast-growing trees. I can’t count the times that, as a horticultural consultant, I’ve warned against many popular fast-growers. Fast-growing trees are often invasive, have weak-wood that splits easily in high winds or storms, and are prone to disease and pest problems. Some are serious water guzzlers. In general, a fast growth rate usually translates to a relatively short life span.
Even so, urban living demands things of our trees that nature does not. Urban dwellers want fast solutions to immediate problems such as nosy neighbors, noise and urban heat. Many consumers I talk to these days don’t seem concerned with how long the tree is going to live. “I’ll be dead by then” is a common, and morbid, response when I warn about shorter tree life spans.
Consumers are also trained to think of certain tree species as the “right” shade tree or privacy screen, regardless of the space they have available. Sometimes, growing smaller might be a wiser and equally effective choice. Urban yards don’t typically have the space required to adequately accommodate large shade trees, such as live oaks. A smaller growing species might be a better choice for the space, surrounding structures and utilities.
An 80-by-100-foot live oak in an urban neighborhood usually ends up crowding your neighbor’s roof line or getting butchered for power line clearance. A Chinese pistache that grows more quickly than a live oak (but to a more manageable size of 30 to 50 feet tall and 15 to 30 feet wide) might provide exactly the amount of shade a customer needs, where they need it. Why plant 100 feet of tree if you only need 40 feet to get the job done?
Another benefit of many mid-size or small trees (or dwarf varieties or cultivars) is that they’re going to reach their mature size faster than their full-sized counterparts. Teaching customers that they can get a mature tree (that fits in their available spaces and provides the benefits they seek) in less time by choosing a smaller species can be a win-win. Smaller species are easier for garden centers to stock in container sizes manageable by most homeowners. Plus, many mid- to small-sized trees — including fruit trees — offer bonus blooms.
Narrow-growing, or columnar, tree species that retain a compact shape may also provide space-appropriate solutions. Columnar trees are perfect for creating privacy in tight urban spaces, if there is enough light exposure for the selected species. We’ve seen some new varieties of columnar trees coming on the market the last few years, such as Slender Silhouette Sweetgum, Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress, or Dragon Lady Holly. There’s a big opportunity to expand sales of “skinny” trees to urban dwelling customers with tight spaces.
As independent garden centers, we want to encourage our customers to choose the right plant for the right place. Hopefully, we can also recommend a plant that is also an environmentally sound choice. That may mean redirecting consumer focus to “space appropriate” tree species instead of “fast growing” ones. Trees that are smaller, or narrower, but reach the mature size necessary to accomplish the homeowner’s goals.
Now is a great time to reevaluate your tree selection and marketing with a focus on space appropriate plantings. Depending on your region, many cities are pushing reforestation efforts in urban communities and many homeowners are replacing trees destroyed by drought or storms. Be sure to offer your customers new tree options — and education — that help them solve common urban problems, without growing out of bounds.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com