Talking perennials with Walters Gardens

Talking perennials with Walters Gardens

Breeding and trialing experts with the company discuss perennial trends in the market and ways they’re staying relevant.

April 13, 2017

As North America's leading wholesale perennial grower for more than 70 years, Walters Gardens holds a unique place in the industry. With an undercurrent of excitement building around perennials, keeping a finger on the pulse of this trend may help further your business. Walters Trial Manager Jeremy Windemuller and Hans Hansen, Director of New Plant Development at Walters, are integral to the company’s hybridizing program and new introductions. We checked in for their take on the perennial market and Walters’ programs.

Optimism about the industry

Windemuller is enthusiastic about what he sees in his role at Walters and on the retail side as owner of Windridge Perennials and Landscaping. “I think, overall, the perennial industry is really strong. I see more and more excitement each year for perennials,” he says. “There’s a lot more attention given to perennials than there was in the past. Even annual growers are looking at growing perennials. I’m excited about the market and where it’s going.”

Hansen points to the ever-present interest in new plants, but also to new uses for perennials in consumer landscapes. “We’re seeing them used more in containers and more in combinations with annuals and shrubs,” he reports. “In the landscape, people are planning ahead and like the fact that perennials come back year after year.” He also notes that a trend toward more user-friendly plants bodes well for the industry.

New developments at Walters Gardens

Walters’ hybridizing program helps fuel industry optimism. Hansen oversees the hybridizing program, directs the crosses, and does much of the preliminary work before new varieties go to Windermuller for in-house container trials. With more than 50 different ongoing projects, the program represents significant depth and commitment on the part of Walters employees and owners.

Hansen is most excited about two genera: hibiscus and phlox. “With the hibiscus, we’re increasing diversity in flower color and working towards a more polished and finished habit – shorter internodes, really great basal branching, high bud count, long season of bloom and very dark foliage,” he shares. “Each year, the generation of seedlings that come on have darker and darker foliage. They really make the flowers pop.”

Work with inter-specific phlox has also yielded impressive results, including the Opening Act and Fashionably Early series. “They have really dark green, glossy foliage and mildew resistance. They come into flower two to three weeks earlier than paniculatas. They’re remontant if they’re cut back, and they have good height in the landscape. We’re really excited about both of them,” Hansen says.

Tips for IGCs and grower-retailers

As a retail grower himself, Windemuller looks for plants that perform for him as a grower as well as for consumers. “Something that’s really helped my own nursery take off is looking for things I can plant in late summer and bulk before vernalization through the winter,” he shares. “If the garden center wants something in flower early, they really need to look at what they can grow the season prior to have nice, full plants for the following spring,” he says. Walters has compiled information to help growers understand which plants respond best.

Windemuller is also big on bare root. “Bareroot is probably the nicest direction to go if you’re looking for a quick-turn spring crop, and especially if you have limited space. Walters is the premier bare root grower out there. We’ve got a lot of great plants that aren’t available in bare root from anybody else,” he says. Bare root also allows growers to start perennials at cooler temperatures than actively growing plugs, which results in fuel savings as well.

Tapping into new varieties

While there’s much talk about “compact” plants, Hansen sees it differently. “I think the word “refined” is better,” he says. “If you look at hibiscus, classic varieties are 5 to 6 feet tall. The work we’re doing with our newer selections is to make better branching and more compact internodes. By definition, they’re still fairly tall at 3 to 4 feet, but they maintain their habit due to the branching and the structure. Plus, we have top-to-bottom flower coverage. They’re just more useful in the garden.”

Another example is Hansen’s extensive work with baptisia, reflected in the Decadence series. “Again, they’re more compact – 3 feet versus 4 to 5 feet – but there’s still height in the garden. It’s just a more polished, more attractive plant in the landscape,” he explains.

Windemuller advises being open to new varieties, especially those backed by Walters’ extensive trialing and virus testing programs. “We try and find all the faults on anything before it’s introduced. We make sure we’re introducing the best product out there,” he says. He also stresses to not be timid in asking for sample product. “Try it on a small scale and see how it works side-by-side with old bread-and-butter varieties,” he says.

For an up-close look at Walters’ work, Hansen invites growers and retailers to tap into Walters’ experienced sales team and visit the facilities during Michigan nursery days in August. “We’ve got open houses then for customers to come and see our facilities. If you get the opportunity, that’s a great time to come see the facilities, the product and meet the staff,” he says.

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